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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Indian Affairs


On this date (March 11th) in 1824 the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs was created. One of its first actions was to call this council at Prairie du Chien in 1825 to determine boundaries between western tribes. The following year Indian Affairs commissioner Thomas McKenney attended another council held near modern Duluth-Superior and wrote these letters home. They reveal the romantic paternalism that guided the Bureau in its earliest years.

Over the next few decades the Bureau's policies were carried out at the local level by politically appointed Indian agents. Some, like Joseph Street (agent at Prairie du Chien in the 1820s and 1830s) advocated for Indian rights against squatters, traders, and the Washington bureaucracy. Others, like J.S. Watrous (agent for the Ojibwe at Lapointe in the 1850s) were malicious scoundrels; even Watrous's white neighbors wrote to Washington demanding his recall.

Over the next century the Bureau's policies wreaked havoc on Indian life in Wisconsin. Allotment (1887-1934) shifted huge amounts of Indian land to private white owners. Assimilation (ca. 1880-1930) attempted to mainstream Indians by suppressing traditional language and culture. Although the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act tried to redress some of the harm done in the previous half century, 1950s policies of termination and relocation sent many Wisconsin Indians out of their native communities into urban poverty. Not until the 1980s court cases on treaty rights and gaming would most Wisconsin tribes begin their economic recovery from 150 years of B.I.A. policies.

For more information on U.S. Indian policy, including memoirs, interviews, photographs, and other original documents by and about Wisconsin Indians, visit Turning Points in Wisconsin History and enter the phrase "Native American" into the search box.


:: Posted in Curiosities on March 11, 2005
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