Changing Federal Policy & Reduction of the Coast Reservation by Act of Congress, 1875

As stated at the beginning of last month’s article, to really understand our history is to understand each event or situation survived by our people. But, we must be careful not to look at each event or era in isolation, but holistically as it relates to the whole continuum of events effecting our people. We must also try to understand each event or era as it relates to, or is a product of, national, state and local politics, the “court” of public opinion, and the pressures that interested individuals with political influence can have.

The 1865 Executive Order that opened the Yaquina Bay region to settlement had dramatic and lasting effects. It was a confirmation that our people were not going to be treated fairly or be able to put our faith in the U.S. Government to look after our interests.

During the 1850’s, our people were recognized as sovereign, self-governing groups by the fact that treaties were signed with us. The treaties were negotiated on an uneven playing field, and federal policy towards our people was subtly hinted at within the text of the treaties (agricultural implements, teachers & schools, etc. to be provided). Over time, the acceptance of these gifts and payments for our ceded lands became mandatory and federal policy was not only dictated, but strictly enforced towards our Indian people – both on and off the reservation. Eventually the United States led itself to believe that they were in an unlimited position of power, and could implement whatever policies it deemed to be “in the best interests of the Indians.” Eventually, the U.S. Supreme Court would back up that philosophy by ruling that Congress has “plenary power” over Indian affairs (can take any kind of unilateral action it wants but must compensate for taking of vested rights or property).

Remember, that during the time we are speaking of, the official version of our history was that our reservation was established by executive order as a temporary, emergency measure because the Senate failed to ratify the 1855 Coast Treaty. Today we know that the executive order should have been recognized as a required delegation of authority to the President under our ratified treaties. Even though that old “official” interpretation has been proven false, it was used repeatedly as justification for taking our lands, rights and resources (without compensation) because we supposedly didn’t have any real, titled interest in the things that were being taken.

In the years following the 1865 Executive Order, there were great changes in the way that the United States looked at tribes as governments. Federal policy was increasingly moving towards assimilation of the individual Indian and less towards recognizing tribal governments or traditional ways of political organization. Federal Policy treated our people as wards of the government, children to be trained, threatened & inspired into all that a parent thinks their children should do, & punished if necessary.

That attitude in politics and in public opinion grew (with the help of some other pressing problems and issues) to create a shift in policy. Resentment had been building in the U.S. House of Representatives for some time over the fact that Indian tribes, as groups with apparently (at least in the eyes of the U.S.) diminishing sovereignty, were still being treated as independent sovereigns. The opinion was evolving that Indians were definitely wards or at least dependent, domestic nations. The H.R.’s problem was with the fact that they had no say over the treaty system, they were bound by the Senate’s ratification of treaties. The House was expected to pass (in its mind – exorbitant) appropriations legislation to carry out treaty provisions that it did not always agree with.

The House of Representatives raised such a fuss that in the late 1860’s, there were several sessions that appropriations bills did not get passed for following through with treaty agreements already ratified and proclaimed by the President to be “the law of the land.” There were other issues too that drove these changes. Over the years, it became more and more common for treaties to state that individual Indian’s debts (to traders, merchants, etc.) would be covered off of the top of appropriated funds for treaties. This, of course, led to a debased system of graft and corruption that irked any white man with a conscience. It ripped off the tribes as a whole and made some unscrupulous traders fabulously wealthy.

Some politicians wanted to totally dismantle the treaty system by declaring all formerly ratified treaties null and void, only dealing with Indian affairs by legislation from that point on. Others, thankfully, saw the great national shame that would result from such an action, & plead the carrying out, in good faith, treaties already ratified and proclaimed. Debate on the treaty system finally ended with passage of legislation in 1871 that ended the treaty making system, but affirmed the recognition of those treaties previously entered into.

From that point on, treaties continued to get negotiated, but were not called treaties. Instead, they would be called “agreements” with tribes and would got through a standard legislative process, rather than ratification by the Senate and proclamation by the President.

Meanwhile, on the home front, affairs were not exactly tidy. The Oregon Legislature, encouraged by the response to their 1865 petition for access to Yaquina Bay, began passing a barrage of memorials to Congress in the early 1870’s, praying for Congress to relieve the wants of the citizens of Oregon in obtaining lands and resources then within our reservation. Rumors began to circulate around the reservation that the our people were soon to be rounded up & taken to another reservation.

In 1874, an Inspector of the Indian Department (Inspector Kemble) made a visit to Siletz Agency & held a meeting with our headmen. He heard all the complaints and grievances & the rumors of removal. He issued a report to the Acting Secretary of the Interior who forwarded the report to the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. The report was sent with everyone in the Indian Department chain of command recommending that any notion of removal be dispelled and if any action needed to be take to secure the title of the remaining reservation to our people, it should happen.

At about the same time, Captain Jack and his people caught national attention for their resistance to the mistreatment of reservation life. Also at about the same time, a spiritual movement came to Siletz from northern California. It was called the Warm House Dance. Its message was for all the Indian people to hold on to their traditions, and if they danced strong and practiced those ways, all their family members that had been taken before-their-time by the white man’s violence and disease would come back and walk the earth again. This, of course, scared the hell out of the agents and soldiers. The message was a strong backlash against assimilation and made anyone near a reservation nervous.

At about this time, an Oregon Senator (John Hipple Mitchell) began devising a scheme to open more of the Coast Reservation to settlement. Senator Mitchell started his attack in early 1874, with a letter to the Secretary of the Interior. He complained of the size of the Coast Reservation and asked that all of the lands north of Salmon River and most of those south of the Alsea River be made available for settlers. His scheme has devised at least partially in consultation with former Siletz Agent Benjamin Simpson (who had been promoted to Surveyor General of Oregon). Simpson had been Agent during the first reduction and appears time and again in schemes of various kinds against the Siletz Reservation.

Senator Mitchell eventually, after making several inquiries and attempts, introduced a bill that would enact his proposal. He couldn’t get enough support for it as an individual bill, so he ended up (ironically) making it a sort of a “rider” on the annual appropriations bill for fulfilling treaty stipulations. He still couldn’t get enough support for his bill (which by this time included the area north of Salmon River and the entire area south of the area described in the 1865 Executive Order). To allay any concerns about a forceful act, he added a proviso that the act would not take effect unless the Indians living within the areas to be opened to settlement, agreed to remove to what would be the remaining reservation lands.

The act was passed as part of the Annual Appropriations Bill for Fulfilling Treaty Stipulations on March 3, 1875. Once the Act was passed, came the failing intentions and neglect that was characteristic of the Government’s dealings with Siletz. Several meetings were held at Yachats with the tribal members who lived in that district, each time the headmen stated their desire to stay & hold on to the places they had been made to fence and farm. Former Agent Simpson falsely reported that they have given their consent to remove and the act took effect opening another approximately 700,000 acres of our reservation to use by non-Indians. At the close of the first twenty year period of this reservation, about three-quarters of its mass was taken from us without compensation. The area representing approximately 900,000 acres. With only about 225,000 acres remaining after the act of March 3, 1875. The next major issue of Siletz Reservation life would be allotment in 1892.