Sol Tax and Tribal Sovereignty

Article excerpt

Nancy Oestreich Lurie is curator emerita of anthropology, Milwaukee Public Museum (MPM). This article draws upon her first-hand knowledge of the American Indian scene including ongoing research with the Ho-Chunk Nation (formerly Winnebago) that began in 1944; lasting friendships made with Indian people across the country while serving as assistant coordinator to Sol Tax during the American Indian Chicago Conference; and association as an action anthropologist in the founding of the Wisconsin Winnebago government under the Indian Reorganization Act, the Menominee's drive to repeal their termination, and the establishment of the Milwaukee Indian Community School and the Potawatomi Bingo-Casino enterprise in Milwaukee. Her work as an expert witness in cases before the U.S. Indian Claims Commission and federal and state courts familiarized her with the history and effects of federal Indian policy. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 1998 meeting of the Society for Applied Anthropology; where the results of discussion enriched and helped to clarify the present version. In addition to published sources cited, this account rests in large part on personal recollections, particularly of the American Indian Chicago Conference, and on the Indian affairs file of newspaper clippings and tribal and intertribal newspapers maintained since 1972 in the Anthropology Department at the Milwaukee Public Museum.

Key words: American Indian Chicago Conference, termination/relocation, treaties, tribal sovereignty, Indian gaming

The American Indian Chicago Conference

When Sol Tax proposed what would become the American Indian Chicago Conference of 1961 (AICC), it was in direct response to the all-out federal threat during the 1950s to what is now commonly referred to as tribal sovereignty. The term itself, however, had little currency in Indian discourse at the time, except among a scattering of people identified with small pan-Indian organizations such as the League of Indian Nations who called for abolishing the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and renunciation of American citizenship. They contended that the tribes' sovereign status placed them outside the jurisdiction of the United States in the conduct of their internal affairs and that this status was recognized by the United States in having made treaties with the tribes defining both parties' external relations to each other. They based their position on the American constitution (Article 1, 8-B): "The Congress shall have the power.. .to regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes." The same Constitutional citation figures in the current emphasis on tribal sovereignty that began in the 1970s, but where the earlier interpretation suggested greater similarity of tribes to foreign nations, the present use suggests greater similarity to states within the nation.

It is my opinion that AICC was responsible for helping to introduce "tribal sovereignty" into the general Indian-English lexicon far beyond the little coterie that embraced it in 1961 and, paradoxically, because of its association with these "extremists," contributed to avoidance of the term for a decade after the conference. By that time, increasing recourse to the courts (rather than just Congress through the BIA and other federal agencies) to forward tribal interests led to a renewed appreciation of the historical importance of tribal sovereignty within the federal system in statutes, court decisions, and executive orders.

Ironically, while AICC was the largest and most representative gathering of Indian people to that date and had far reaching and lasting effects, some younger activists have not even heard of it. In a way, this is a gauge of its success. Ideas taken for granted today in Indian country' were discussed and debated in 1961 in an atmosphere of distrust, the result of the divisive effects of the Indian policy of the 1950s. …