This Day in History: Attacks on Native American Treaty Rights and Culture

Researching items for “This Day in History” blogs, March 3 stands out as a particularly bad day for legislation that undermines Indian treaty rights, autonomy, and culture. Here are five things that happened on this day in history.

The Civilization Fund Act of 1819 was the forerunner to boarding schools
The Civilization Fund Act of 1819 laid the groundwork for boarding schools.

March 3, 1819: Congress passes the Civilization Fund Act, the forerunner to the boarding school movement. The Act’s goal was to “stimulate the civilization process.” The website USDakotaWar.org provides the following summary:

In the late eighteenth century, the U.S. government desired to acculturate and assimilate American Indians (as opposed to instituting reservations), and promoted the practice of [educating] Indian children in the ways of white people. To aid this, the Civilization Fund Act of 1819 provided funding to societies (mostly religious) who worked on educating Indians, often at schools. Schools were founded by missionaries next to Indian settlements (and later reservations). As time went on schools were built with boarding facilities, to accommodate students who lived too far to attend on a daily basis.

March 3, 1863: In the wake of the Dakota-U.S. War, Congress passes the Sioux Removal Act, expelling all Dakota from the state. This mass dispossession was done regardless of whether individuals had participated in the fighting, and regardless of whether broken treaties and starvation had pushed others into fighting. The Act said the Sioux (Dakota) were to be moved to unoccupied lands beyond the limits of any state, and onto land “well adapted to agricultural purposes.” The move to Crow Creek in the Dakota Territory was a disaster; the land was not well adapted to agricultural purposes. Many died of disease or starvation. This Act exiling the Dakota from Minnesota has never been repealed.

March 3, 1871: The Indian Appropriations Act of 1871 passes Congress, ending the long-standing practice of treaty making with tribes as sovereign nations. It was a change that tribes protested. Prior to this 1871 bill, the federal government had negotiated and signed treaties with tribes for nearly 100 years. According to the Wikipedia:

These treaties, which took much time and effort to finalize, ceased with the passage of the 1871 Indian Appropriation Act, declaring that “no Indian nation or tribe” would be recognized “as an independent nation, tribe, or power with whom the United States may contract by treaty.”

The National Archives goes on to explain:

The dramatic shift in Federal Indian policy came from a power struggle between the House of Representatives and the Senate over control of Indian Affairs. The negative affects of the 1871 Indian Appropriations Act continued for nearly a century, until Federal Indian policy dramatically changed again, encouraging Native American tribes to exercise self governance over tribal affairs.

March 3, 1885: The Major Crimes Act undercut tribal authority to prosecute Native-on-Native crimes on Reservation lands. (It was included in the Indian Appropriations Bill.) The website EverythingExplainedToday put it this way:

The Major Crimes Act reduced the internal sovereignty of native tribes by removing their ability to try and to punish serious offenders in Indian country. The theory underlying it was that Indian tribes were not competent to deal with serious issues of crime and punishment.

Initially, the federal government took control of prosecuting murder, manslaughter, rape, assault with the intent to kill, assault, burglary and larceny, according to Wikipedia. The list of crimes in the Major Crimes Act has since grown. (Still, after the Act was passed, many tribes chose to exercise concurrent jurisdiction with the federal courts, and that has been upheld in Appeals Court.)

March 3, 1901: Right-of-Way Through Indian Lands. Federal law passes giving the Secretary of the Interior the authority to grant state and local authorities highway right of ways through reservation lands.

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