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Indians in the 20th Century

In the United States, the federal government recognizes Indian tribes as independent and sovereign powers. Sovereignty is the right of a nation or group of people to be self-governing. Indians are United States citizens and also citizens of their tribes. Like other Americans, Indians are subject to federal laws, but they are not always subject to state laws because Indian reservations are held in trust by the federal government. A government-to-government relationship exists between each sovereign tribe and the U.S. government. Today, eleven federally recognized Indian tribes call Wisconsin home (the Brothertown tribe filed a petition for recognition in 1996 but has yet to receive federal recognition of its tribal rights and sovereignty).

The U.S. Constitution guaranteed the tribes' sovereignty, yet throughout history the actual status of Indian tribes has been contested. In the early nineteenth century, as waves of white settlers moved west, Indians found it increasingly more difficult to maintain their status as independent nations because the U.S. did little to protect their rights. In 1832, Chief Justice John Marshall defined the limits of Indian sovereignty in the case of Worcester v. Georgia. Marshall maintained that Indian tribes had been treated as independent and sovereign nations since the arrival of Europeans, but that the various treaties that put tribes under the protection of the United States terminated their status as independent nations. Instead, Marshall termed them "domestic dependent nations" which meant that the tribes retained the right to regulate internal tribal affairs but they could not make agreements with any nation other than the United States. The United States continued to make treaties with Indian tribes until 1871, when the federal government began negotiating formal agreements that required congressional approval.

One of the reasons for discontinuing the use of treaties was that they were seen as impediments to the assimilation of Indians into white society. To encourage assimilation, Congress passed the General Allotment Act of 1887 (also known as the Dawes Act) which changed the communal ownership of tribal lands to individual ownership of eighty-acre parcels. Instead of tribal land belonging to the whole tribe, it was broken up and given to individuals. After the allotment process was completed, the federal government sold the "excess" land to whites to help expose Indians to the civilizing effects of mainstream American society. Allotment proved a dismal failure, and by the time it ended in 1934, tribes like the Ojibwe had lost more than forty percent of their homelands.

Federal courts did not always agree with John Marshall"s delineation of Indian sovereignty, and by the twentieth century the legal status of Indians was in a state of disarray. All Indians were given U.S. citizenship in 1924 when they received a form of dual citizenship with their tribal citizenship. Before, only Indians who had met certain guidelines could become citizens. In 1934, Congress passed the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA). This reversed the federal government's 50-year-old policy of Indian assimilation that had tried to force Indians to give up their languages, cultures, and identity in favor of white culture. The IRA encouraged tribes to form tribal governments and to conduct their own internal affairs. These new tribal governments drafted constitutions and provided tribes with political bodies that could assert their sovereign rights.

In the 1950s, critics of Indian self-determination led to an ill-conceived federal effort to dismantle the reservation system and free the U.S. government from the costs of protecting Indians and their property. Passed in 1953, House Concurrent Resolution 108 laid out the goals of "termination and relocation," a policy intended to encourage the movement of Indians from rural reservations to urban areas through job training programs and housing assistance. Unfortunately, most Wisconsin Indians who opted for relocation received only one-way bus tickets to Chicago, Milwaukee, or St. Paul. This termination policy ended federal recognition of more than fifty tribal governments, including the Menominee, who were one of the first tribes to undergo termination.

The Menominee were singled out for termination because the federal government felt that they possessed the economic resources to succeed without government support and supervision. On April 30, 1961, the reservation therefore ceased to exist, becoming instead Menominee County. A new corporate body, Menominee Enterprises Inc. began to oversee the tribe's financial assets and property. Termination brought tremendous social costs to the tribe which, without federal funds, was forced to close its hospital and lay-off mill workers to increase profits. In 1970, a grassroots activist group, Determination of Rights and Unity for Menominee Shareholders (DRUMS), was formed to end termination and restore Menominee status as a federally recognized tribe. In April of 1975, Menominee County reverted back to reservation status. In the 1970s, off-reservation treaty rights became a particularly controversial issue when two brothers from the Lac Courte Orielles band of Ojibwe were arrested for off-reservation spear-fishing. When they appealed their conviction, the Voight decision in 1983 reaffirmed nineteenth century treaty provisions that allowed Indians to continue to hunt, fish, and gather on ceded territory. In 1984, the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission was formed to educate the public and to assist tribes in implementing and protecting these treaty rights.

Apart from treaty rights, the most significant modern issue related to tribal sovereignty came with the expansion of gambling in 1987. When a statewide referendum approved the creation of a state lottery, it also inadvertently gave Wisconsin tribes the right to establish casino-type gambling (permissible only in states already allowing Class III gaming). Many tribes, including the Ho-Chunk, Ojibwe, Mohican, and Potawatomi, have opened casinos that provide substantial economic benefits to reservation communities.

For more than a century, Wisconsin tribes have fought to maintain their sovereignty and self-determination in the face of federal policies of assimilation, allotment, and termination. In the last generation the tribes' legal status has been clearly defined, their traditional treaty rights guaranteed, and their economic base boosted by gaming and tourism.

[Sources: Kasparek, Jon, Bobbie Malone and Erica Schock. Wisconsin History Highlights: Delving into the Past (Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2004); Loew, Patty. Indian Nations of Wisconsin: Histories of Endurance and Renewal. (Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2001); "Indian Country Wisconsin" Milwaukee Public Museum (online at http://www.mpm.edu/wirp/)]


Original Documents and Other Primary Sources

Link to article: A Menominee superintendent discusses changes on the reservation, 1935  A Menominee superintendent discusses changes on the reservation, 1935
Link to article: Menominee Vocabulary, 1893  Menominee Vocabulary, 1893
Link to article: "Indian News" from the Voice of the Winnebago, 1931-1949  "Indian News" from the Voice of the Winnebago, 1931-1949
Link to article: The Oneidas claim land in New York  The Oneidas claim land in New York
Link to article: Menominee lands are threatened with allotment, 1925  Menominee lands are threatened with allotment, 1925
Link to article: An examination of treaty rights in Northern Wisconsin, 1989-1990  An examination of treaty rights in Northern Wisconsin, 1989-1990
Link to artifacts: Anti-spearfishing concrete walleye decoy
  Anti-spearfishing concrete walleye decoy
Link to artifacts: Athletic shoes embellished with a traditional artform  Athletic shoes embellished with a traditional artform
Link to book: Conditions in Wisconsin Indian communities in 1929  Conditions in Wisconsin Indian communities in 1929
Link to book: Excerpts from a tribal cookbook  Excerpts from a tribal cookbook
Link to book: The Human Rights Commission surveys Wisconsin Indians in 1966  The Human Rights Commission surveys Wisconsin Indians in 1966
Link to book: A Ho-Chunk grammar textbook, 1945  A Ho-Chunk grammar textbook, 1945
Link to book: Conditions on Wisconsin Indian reservations, 1909-1910  Conditions on Wisconsin Indian reservations, 1909-1910
Link to book: An Indian commission examines treaty rights and racism, ca. 1989  An Indian commission examines treaty rights and racism, ca. 1989
Link to book: A Tourist Brochure for Marinette Co., ca. 1923  A Tourist Brochure for Marinette Co., ca. 1923
Link to book: Stockbridge and Munsee Testimony, 1892  Stockbridge and Munsee Testimony, 1892
Link to book: A modern dictionary of the Menominee language  A modern dictionary of the Menominee language
Link to book: A survey of Milwaukee's Indian population, 1962  A survey of Milwaukee's Indian population, 1962
Link to book: A Tourist Brochure for Shawano and the Menominee Indian Reservation, ca. 1925  A Tourist Brochure for Shawano and the Menominee Indian Reservation, ca. 1925
Link to book: Report on the Menominee at Termination, 1958  Report on the Menominee at Termination, 1958
Link to collections: The Killing of Chief Joe White (Gishkitawag), 1894  The Killing of Chief Joe White (Gishkitawag), 1894
Link to images: Pictures of the Potawatomi from the 1820's to the 1920's  Pictures of the Potawatomi from the 1820's to the 1920's
Link to images: Pictures of the Ho-Chunk in the 19th and 20th centuries.  Pictures of the Ho-Chunk in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Link to images: Pictures of the Ojibwe in the 19th and 20th centuries.  Pictures of the Ojibwe in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Link to images: Pictures of the Menominee in the 19th and 20th centuries.  Pictures of the Menominee in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Link to manuscript: A Long Ho-Chunk Vocabulary, 1880  A Long Ho-Chunk Vocabulary, 1880
Link to manuscript: Brief Ho-Chunk Language Vocabularies, 1830-1930  Brief Ho-Chunk Language Vocabularies, 1830-1930
Link to manuscript: Suburban high school students try to interpret Menominee culture in 1936  Suburban high school students try to interpret Menominee culture in 1936
Link to manuscript: Alfred Bridgman's English-Menominee word list from the 1870s  Alfred Bridgman's English-Menominee word list from the 1870s
Link to manuscript: Frank Bridgman's Menominee vocabulary, 1878  Frank Bridgman's Menominee vocabulary, 1878
Link to manuscript: Testimony taken at Hayward, Wisconsin, April 23 & 24, 1934  Testimony taken at Hayward, Wisconsin, April 23 & 24, 1934
Link to manuscript: Brief Potawatomi Language Vocabularies, 1920-1932.  Brief Potawatomi Language Vocabularies, 1920-1932.

Primary Sources Available Elsewhere

Link to article: Stockbridge-Munsee Constitution and By-laws  Stockbridge-Munsee Constitution and By-laws
Link to article: The Ho-Chunk Constitution  The Ho-Chunk Constitution
Link to article: The Constitution of the Forest County Potawatomi  The Constitution of the Forest County Potawatomi
Link to book: Wisconsin Blue Books  Wisconsin Blue Books
Link to book: A Scholarly Overview of Ojibwe Treaty Rights  A Scholarly Overview of Ojibwe Treaty Rights
Link to book: The Meriam Report (1928) investigates failed U.S. Indian policy  The Meriam Report (1928) investigates failed U.S. Indian policy
Link to map: Map of Native American areas based on 2000 Census  Map of Native American areas based on 2000 Census

Related Links

Visit the Web site of the Menominee Indian Tribe
Visit the Web site of the Ho-chunk Nation
Visit the Web site of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin.
Visit the Web site of the Stockbridge-Munsee Community.
Visit the Web site of the Brothertown Indian Nation.
Discover the standard book about Wisconsin Indians, by Patty Loew
Discover classroom resources available from our Office of School Services
Search our catalogs for materials on this topic that aren't yet available online.
Borrow books about this topic through our interlibrary loan service
Borrow manuscripts about this topic through our Area Research Center network.
Learn about other topics from our new book, Wisconsin History Highlights
Read more about Wisconsin Indians from the Milwaukee Public Museum
Arrange a tour on this topic at our Museum
Learn more about Indian allotment from the Indian Land Tenure Foundation

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