Date of Award
Master of Arts (MA)
In late summer 1847, the United States signed a treaty that formed a new Indian reservation in northeast Kansas. The treaty was necessary because the Pottawatomie Indians living in Iowa were no longer wanted in that area; Iowa had recently become a state and white political leaders there wanted the Indians removed. The United States typically solved this type of problem by negotiating treaties which forced Indians farther west where they would not impede the progress of white settlement. Once placed on reservations in the west, Indians were supposed to be assimilated into the dominant culture by learning the white man's agricultural methods, as well as accepting the white man's language, religion, and culture. While some Indians assimilated rather easily, others proved more difficult, as was the case with a band of Pottawatomies who were put on the reservation in Kansas. This group, the Prairie band, resisted United States efforts to turn them into white farmers, preferring instead to maintain their traditional language and customs. By 1871, they were the only Pottawatomies left on the reservation who continued to resist assimilation; other bands of Pottawatomies had become assimilated and accepted their own individual allotments of land. Most of these assimilated Pottawatomies soon lost their land to greedy white speculators, and they ended up signing a treaty with the United States that sent them to Indian Territory (present day Oklahoma) As it turned out, allotments of land in severalty to Indians became official United States policy; beginning in the 1870s, many politicians favored a comprehensive allotment law that gave all Indians individual title to their land. Reformers who espoused Indian causes also favored such policies; a comprehensive allotment law seemed to be the quickest way to integrate Indians into white society. White reformers did not understand that Indians rarely saw land as something to be possessed; the concept of land ownership was completely alien to most tribes. Indians typically believed in land usage, where the land existed to benefit the entire tribe. Conflicting views such as this one were common when Indians and whites tried to deal with each other. In February, 1887 Congress passed a comprehensive piece of legislation, the General Allotment Act, which made land allotments in severalty a reality. Commonly called the Dawes Act, the new law gave specified amounts of land to Indians as individuals and provided United States citizenship for Indians once they were considered competent. Several Indian tribes delayed the application of the Dawes Act, one of which was the Prairie band of Pottawatomies in Kansas. The Prairie band had leaders who understood the effects of land allotment even before passage of the Dawes Act. The first of these was the Kickapoo prophet Kenekuk, whose teachings affected many Prairie band Pottawatomies as early as the 1830s. One of his closest disciples was Nozhakum, who assumed spiritual leadership of the Prairie band after Kenekuk passed away in 1852. By 1887, leadership had passed to the warrior Waquaboshkuk, who preached against the evils of land ownership as his predecessors had done. From 1887 to 1895, Waquaboshkuk fought implementation of the Dawes Act on the reservation, using varied methods including physical violence, speeches, trips to Washington D.C., and the United States legal system. United States Indian agents on the reservation, who were primarily responsible for getting the Prairie band to accept individual land allotments, found a worthy adversary in Waquaboshkuk. It was leadership such as that shown by Kenekuk, Nozhakum, and Waquaboshkuk that separated the Prairie band from other Pottawatomie Indians. Unfortunately for the Prairie band, the Dawes Act was forced on them without their acceptance by a presidential executive order in 1890; once this was done, all members of the Prairie band had received (though not accepted) allotments by the end of 1895. Waquaboshkuk and his followers pretended that allotments had never been made and tried to make sure that all the Prairie band believed the same way, at times resorting to violence against fellow tribesmen. Reservation Indian agents were empowered to use whatever means were necessary to counteract Waquaboshkuk, even confining him to the agency stockade. Allotments in severalty continued to be the policy in force on the reservation, thus Prairie band resistance proved futile. Most Prairie band members lost their allotments through provisions in the Dawes Act and related legislation that made it easy for the land to fall into white hands. This trend continued throughout the United States for the next thirty years or so; in the late 1920s, many reformers and politicians were forced to critically reexamine the allotment policy. In 1926, the Bureau of Indian Affairs hired the Brookings Institute, a non-partisan research organization, to study problems of Indian administration. The Brookings Institute published the results of their research in the 1928 Meriam Report. They concluded that assimilating Indians was a bad policy; their evidence also illustrated the disasters associated with land allotment policies. Reformers like John Collier had been demanding the abolition of land allotments throughout the 1920s and they used the results published in the Meriam Report to help change United States Indian policy in the early 1930s. Hastening these changes was the appointment of Collier as Commissioner of Indian Affairs in 1933. Collier was the administrative force behind the Indian Reorganization Act (Wheeler-Howard Act) of 1934; this new legislation attempted to reverse the assimilationist policies of the past not only by eliminating allotments but also by encouraging and funding the existence of tribal governments and corporations on the reservation. Collier hoped that all Indians would accept the provisions of the Indian Reorganization Act, but he made participation optional for each Indian tribe. In 1934 the Prairie band held a special election; they voted on whether or not to accept the Indian Reorganization Act on their reservation. They were a tribe in disarray; most had lost their allotments and had little to their name. The only leaders among the tribes were a new generation of mixed-bloods who wanted to seize all the decision-making power within the tribe for themselves. Because the Prairie band had little faith in the United States, the new leaders successfully campaigned among the tribesmen to vote down the Indian Reorganization Act. Ironically, the Prairie band rejected the anti-assimilationist legislation that was supposed to repair the injustices of the past. The quality of leadership among the Prairie band had declined to the point that the Prairie band no longer protested policies because they were unfair, but they protested merely for the sake of argument. When studying the history of relations between the Prairie band and the United States, it can be argued that in many ways the experience of these Indians was typical. Because Indians had no political voice, no one in Washington listened when the Prairie band protested their mistreatment in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. As a result, Indians of the Prairie band were forced to accept land allotments in severalty despite repeated efforts to resist by Waquaboshkuk. The Prairie band of Pottawatomies' resistance to federal Indian assimilation policy is a remarkable story of the endurance of a people to retain their cultural identity and to reject assimilation into mainstream society.
Copyright 1997 Bradley Schinstock
Schinstock, Bradley, "The Prairie Band of Pottawatomie Indians and Federal Indian Assimilation Policy, 1871-1934" (1997). Master's Theses. 2651.