Roberta Ulrich retired from a decades-long career in journalism years ago, but she wasn’t done yet. During the last three years of her official working life she reported extensively on American Indian communities and became outraged by their treatment at the hands of the U.S. government. Now 82 and an avid hiker, Ulrich has just published her second book: American Indian Nations From Termination to Restoration, 1953–2006 (University of Nebraska Press, 2010) grew out of her ire about the era during which the federal government told tribes they were on their own. Read a review here.
What was it about the story you were covering for The Oregonian in the 1970s that pulled you into Indian country?
When Bonneville Dam was built in the 1930s the Army Corps of Engineers promised the Indians who fished along the Columbia River, which was their treaty right, to replace the fishing sites flooded by the dam. By the 1960s they had only replaced a very few. Some Indians were living on those sites and the BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs] said, no, they couldn’t live there, they were just fishing sites, and the government started moving them out. I just got outraged that the government had promised to replace the sites in 1939 and weren’t anywhere near fulfilling the promise 40 years later. I was working on a master’s degree at Portland State University later and I thought I’d do it as a subject of my master’s thesis, and my advisor suggested I turn it into a book, which I did [Empty Nets: Indians, Dams and The Columbia River, Oregon State University Press, 1999]. It’s one of the most outrageous stories of all the mismanagement of Indian affairs I’ve run across. It still makes me mad.
In your new book you speculate that Congress’s rationale for termination was to save money or get rid of the Indians “once and for all,” or that it just wasn’t thinking. But do you think there were villains and heroes in the Termination Era? Was Senator Arthur V. Watkins (Republican, 1953–1959), the architect of the Termination Era, a villain?
[In 1953 Watkins amended a House bill giving $1,500 per capita to members of the Menominee Tribe by substituting termination of federal supervision for the requested payment. The amended bill was approved without scrutiny, kicking off the termination process.]
Oh, absolutely! You bet he was! He was the moving force behind termination; he was driven by ideology and did not listen to anything on the other side.
What about Richard Nixon? Did he turn out to be a good guy as far as his policies toward American Indians are concerned?
When I was working on Empty Nets I called a friend who had retired up to the Yakama Reservation, and he said, “Could you call me back? Right now I’m watching the funeral of our great president.” He was talking about Richard Nixon. Nixon did some good things for the Indians, and he’s much respected in Indian country, and he may account for the fairly substantial number of Indians who are Republicans. It was under Nixon’s guidance that a portion of Mount Adams was opened and given back to the Yakamas and that Blue Lake in New Mexico was given to the [Taos] Pueblo. He didn’t totally reverse termination, but he did not foster it. I think a historical reevaluation of Nixon will take away some of the real onus on him in spite of his criminality and his paranoia, which are undeniable. He did do some good things environmentally and for the Indians.
What was the most surprising or shocking thing you discovered in your research for Termination?
That it was not the money loss that was so awful, but the loss of identity—the individual loss. People felt they were no longer Indians, so what were they? And that was true whether it was a reservation tribe like the Klamaths or whether it was virtually landless tribes like the Coos and Coquille where they had in many ways been absorbed into white society. They all felt that same devastating loss of personal identity. And now there’s another effort being made. Rand Paul [Republican Senator from Kentucky] has introduced something to abolish the BIA, which would in effect be another termination.
You talk about “the wilderness of termination.” How long do you think it will take for people to overcome the collective trauma termination caused?
Some tribes are very successful, especially those with casinos that provide the money to rebuild really viable societies and also give them the clout to deal with state and local governments on an equal basis and with the respect that money brings in our society. Probably the children in those tribes will not suffer that trauma so much. For other tribes that are struggling, like the Klamath, the trauma will probably still exist for another couple of generations. It’s terribly sad.”