Ethnic Cleansing in the United States, Historic & Contemporary


I tried to keep up with posting while in Nebraska last week, but then the pace of the workshop – the NEH Legacies and Landmarks of the Plains Native Americans, conceived and hosted by Central Community College – was fourteen-hours-a-day relentless, with lots of travel and a couple of times, by night, I confess, extended forays at the foot rail to depressurize. I will continue to post over the next week on just a few of the more outstanding aspects of the Plains Indians experience covered by the workshop.

On Thursday, we received a series of lectures in the basement conference room of the Crook House at the old Fort Omaha. (General George Crook, Commanding General throughout most of the period and the major engagements of the Indian Wars, was a fascinating figure, embodying many of the conflicts of the American policy of conquest. He will play a prominent role in a later post this week.) The first lecture was by Beth Ritter, Associate Professor of Anthropology and Native American Studies at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Ritter began her lecture with an “inside baseball” joke – that every modern American Indian family (insert the name of the applicable tribe) consists of a mother and a father, grandparents and grandchildren, an auntie, and an anthropologist. Ritter is the anthropologist whose work focuses on the Ponca Indians.

On a more serious note, as Ritter recounted the typically tortured, but always unique – and more than once ground breaking – history of the Ponca, she focused in the end on the tribe’s efforts to regain federally recognized status in Nebraska, and all of the benefits that come with that status. Understand that federal recognition has only a little to do with establishing that a tribe is in any sense culturally and historically legitimate in its Native character. Federal policy toward Native America has never been that clear and fair. For instance, one of the oldest known – to European Americans – and historic Indian tribes, the Pamunkey Indians, of Pocahontas fame, is not federally recognized. In the case of the Ponca, first their land and then their much reduced reservation in Nebraska was taken from them in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, as they were “removed” – ethnically cleansed – from the central plains states of Nebraska and Kansas in order to clear the way for white settlement in those states and the trails to settlement farther west. Later, in the twentieth century, in the course of the multiple direct reversals of Indian policy in which the U.S. government engaged, the Ponca of Nebraska were returned a small reservation, then subsequently poorly led during the policy period of “tribal termination” to relinquish that reservation and their federal status. That last decision was one of many disastrous events for the Ponca.

Even though the U.S. government itself came to recognize in only a couple of decades that tribal termination was a colossal error and the cause of great harm to Native America, the very poor Ponca tribe was forced to spend years and substantial funds in its effort to regain federal recognition. Senator at the time, in 1990, Bob Kerry supported the application. The tribe was on the verge of congressional approval when a last minute roadblock was erected – by the congressman of the very district that encompassed the traditional lands of the Ponca, Bob Bereuter. Bereuter threatened to block federal recognition unless the Ponca agreed to one further stipulation. What was the stipulation?

That the Ponca agree not to purse – which in their application for federal recognition they were not pursuing – a tribal land base, a reservation, in Nebraska, and that they make this agreement in perpetuity, forever sacrificing any future claims to tribal ownership of lands that were, we should recall, theirs to begin.

As American Indian tribes have always felt compelled to do in the face of such overwhelming government coercion, the very small Ponca tribe, desperate for the benefits of federal recognition, reluctantly accepted the added stipulation.

Ritter subsequently published, in August 1994, on “The Politics Of Retribalization: the Northern Ponca Case” in Great Plains Research: A Journal of Natural and Social Sciences. By April the following year, Bereuter had caught up on his scholarly reading and written a letter of protest to the journal.

After having read the article by [Ms.] Beth R. Ritter, “The Politics of Retribalization: The Northern Ponca Case” in the August 1994 issue of Great Plains Research, I must take sharp exception to the subjective and erroneous conclusion regarding why I worked successfully against the establishment of a traditional residential reservation for the Northern Ponca Tribe. After having accurately cited my motives for opposing the creation of residential reservations on page 248, [Ms.] Ritter subjectively and erroneously concludes that my “political priority was to curry favor with his [my] non-Indian constituency” by avoiding a “loss of property tax revenue that would result from taking Indian land into trust status.” That is simply not true and there is no evidence for such a conclusion. In fact as a member of the House Interior Committee early in my tenure in the U.S. House of Representatives and on subsequent occasions, I consistently voted against establishing additional traditional “residential” Indian reservations—even though none of those instances involved Indians from my district or state and thus had no effect upon taxable real estate in Nebraska.

Ritter responded in turn.

Congressman Bereuter has clarified his motivations for my benefit and that of your readers. His position has consistently been to deny a residential reservation to all Indians, whether from his congressional district or not. Fortunately, for the tribes who have received reservations during Bereuter’s tenure, his “principle has not been the prevailing attitude in federal Indian policy formulation since the Termination era.

Congressman Bereuter has expressed concern over the “deprivation which will undoubtedly continue to exist on our nation’s Indian reservations in the future” (p. 248). The negative aspects of reservation life Congressman Bereuter perceives are the direct result of over two hundred years of paternalistic federal Indian policy which has sought to systematically dispossess and assimilate Native Americans. Native Americans retain roughly 4% of their aboriginal land base in the continental United States; the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska currently owns approximately .007% (160 acres of 2.3 million acres) of their legally recognized aboriginal territory. Under Congressman Bereuter’s leadership, the federal government could address many of the structural causes and consequences of poverty in Indian Country by honoring the treaty obligations incurred by the federal government, including the restoration of the tribal land base, the promotion of the viable economic development strategies and the empowerment of tribal governments.

Bereuter replied one more time, accusing Ritter again of delivering “erroneous” information for which he believed she should apologize, but the only attempt at identifying mistaken information was this.

Neither I nor the Congress have done anything that denies the Ponca a “tribal land base” or assures that they “would never have a reservation.” We created a reservation; fortunately it simply is not a residential reservation.

Bereuter was not only supremely arrogant, in the manner of any individual who would take it upon himself alone to determine the fate of whole peoples, but disingenuous. His defense was to cavil, producing thereby the grossest misrepresentation, over the meaning of a “reservation,” which any and everywhere means precisely a “residential” reservation. Reside is what one is free to do on land that is actually one’s own, that is recognized in law as belonging to a party. What Bereuter refers to is typically called a “service area’ and is held in no tribal title. It was known, too, that many Ponca, scattered to the winds in the U.S. since the days of their catastrophe, had expressed an interest in returning to Nebraska if it could be to live in community with other Ponca on traditional lands of their own.

The point in all this, only, really, twenty years after the fact is the nature of Bereuter’s actions. In the paternalistic assurance that Bereuter knows better than Native Americans what is best for them, and that the nature of that greater knowledge is enforced assimilation for Natives into the greater American culture – a policy that has spelled disaster for American Indians now for centuries – Bereuter did nothing other than an extended the old attitudes and policies of conquest into the twentieth century and beyond. By ensuring in law that the Ponca would never again make claim to the land originally belonging to them, and previously recognized by the U.S. government in treaty as legally theirs, and which they were nonetheless compelled physically to abandon in 1877,  in removal to “Indian Territory” in Oklahoma – so that non-Native Americans could take the land for themselves – what Bereuter did was nothing less than help legislate a final act of ethnic cleansing.

In 1990.


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