Regaining identity through restoration

Charles Wilkinson’s new book describes how a tribe “terminated” by the federal government fought to regain its identity.

  • Nee Dash dancers in the dance house at Siletz.

    Siletz tribal collection, image courtesy University of Washington Press

The People Are Dancing Again: The History of the Siletz Tribe of Western Oregon
Charles Wilkinson
576 pages, hardcover: $35.
University of Washington Press, 2010.

When the U.S. Congress began terminating American Indian tribes during the 1950s — ending the special relationship between formerly sovereign tribes and the federal government — many Indians thought they would be better off without the Bureau of Indian Affairs meddling in their lives. They didn’t understand the consequences of “termination” until it was too late. “Tribal land was sold off,” writes Charles Wilkinson in The People Are Dancing Again: The History of the Siletz Tribe of Western Oregonand individual allotments ... passed from Indian hands. Communities broke up and dispersed. Economic and social conditions worsened. The Siletz people and the members of 108 other terminated tribes lost hunting, fishing, gathering and water rights. The search for employment scattered family groups, further decimating language, social and cultural traditions that had somehow survived the long Indian Wars of the 1800s as well as the government assimilation programs of the early 20th century.

Worst of all, as Wilkinson discovered, people from terminated tribes were no longer considered Indian — by either whites or Indians. I felt like I lost my identity, Agnes Pilgrim, a Siletz, told Wilkinson. Termination also affected tribal members far from Oregon. One woman lost her teaching job at Haskell Indian School in Kansas, Wilkinson writes, because she was no longer a member of a ‘recognized’ tribe.

Then, in 1966, Robert Bennett, an Oneida Indian from Wisconsin, became BIA commissioner. Things began to change. In the early 1970s, a small group of Siletz re-formed the tribal government and began the formidable legal process of seeking restoration. Although they were opposed by powerful commercial and sport-fishing organizations and legislators who worried that other terminated tribes might use (the Siletz) as precedent for their own restoration, the Siletz Tribe was eventually restored. Restoration proved to be only a beginning, however, as Wilkinson observes. The Siletz had to re-establish their identity and create a governing structure in a new time — all of which required cooperation and diligence.

The People Are Dancing Again presents a meticulously researched history of the Siletz people, who had asked Charles Wilkinson to write their story. It’s also the story of every terminated tribe that has had to fight to regain its culture, language, land and place in American society.

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