Yes Virginia, there is a Bureau of Indian Affairs. No Virginia, there is no bureau of African/American, Hispanic American, or Asian/American affairs.
The United States government in its infinite, all seeing, all knowing and all caring wisdom decided that in order to better regulate and oversee the lives of the indigenous people, it had to create within the U. S. Department of the Interior, an agency to be the trustee and caretaker of the First Americans. After all, the Indian people were children, wards of the government, people unable to care for themselves. That they had survived for thousands of years without the benevolence of the BIA apparently was not taken into consideration.
I’m sure that if one dug deeply into the dusty archives of the federal government one would find programs dedicated to African/American slaves, Hispanic/American immigrants and field workers, or of the influx of Asian/American railroad workers and miners. It’s just that the government did not create a bureau to serve their needs.
Now why would they create a bureau just to serve the Native Americans? Mostly out of greed. The Indian tribes had what none of the other racial minorities had: millions of acres of land filled with natural resources. The government had already subjugated or obliterated the tribes of the eastern seaboard and driven the Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw and the other tribes of the Southeast on a Trail of Tears to the Territory of Oklahoma.
The tribes of the Northern Plains and of the Southwest would not go down without a fight. The troops of General Miles found this out at the battle on the Rosebud and General George Armstrong Custer and his Seventh Cavalry learned their lesson when they were annihilated on the Little Big Horn. It was only after the systematic destruction of the vast buffalo herds that clothed, housed and fed the Plains Indians that the government was able to bring the tribal leaders to the table of false treaties. In the meantime, Geronimo and his followers were teaching the American Army the art of guerilla warfare in the Southwest.
The treaties were nothing more than shams intended to quiet and appease the Indians while the more complicated schemes of divestiture and captivity without fences (called reservations) were initiated. While the tribal leaders touched the pen to the treaties with all honesty and integrity, the representatives of the United States government signed the same treaties with one hand behind their backs, fingers crossed, in the new, covert gesture of dishonesty known as “honest Injun.”
There were those warriors who knew that the treaties would become nothing more than worthless pieces of paper. You will not find the signatures of Crazy Horse or of any of his followers on the Treaties of 1851 or 1868. Crazy Horse ceded nothing or surrendered nothing to the United States. Crazy horse was feared by the USA because of his high stature with the people of the Great Sioux Nation. He was murdered when he brought his people into Fort Robinson to talk about peace and justice.
Soon the BIA had spread its tentacles to all of the Indian reservations out West. As they set up their agency headquarters they soon started to report to the U. S. Army the numbers of Indians that did not report to their agencies as ordered. As the Army went out to hunt them down the term “off the reservation” was born.
It is written that the Little Crow wars of 1862 that caused several hundred deaths happened because an agent of the BIA, when he was told that the Dakota people under his supervision were starving said, “Let them eat grass.” His body was found next to his agency office with grass stuffed in his mouth. The aftermath of this uprising was that 38 Dakota warriors were hanged in the largest mass hanging in American history at Mankato, Minnesota. President Abraham Lincoln gave this mass execution his approval.
The 12-year-old lawsuit initiated by Eloise Cobell, a lady of the Blackfeet Nation, seeking the recovery of billions of dollars mishandled or stolen outright by the Bureau of Indian Affairs from the Indian people, is still in litigation. Perhaps an honest and rightful settlement in this case will restore some of the integrity lost by the United States government in its treatment of its indigenous people.
Yes Virginia, there still is a Bureau of Indian Affairs and it has had a long history of good, bad and evil deeds. Perhaps under the leadership of the first African/American president, Barack Obama, the BIA will be reorganized to do the job it has never been able to do in its one hundred year history: to serve with justice, honesty and integrity, the needs and concerns of the indigenous people of America. Yes Virginia, it is worth a prayer.
Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, was born, raised and educated on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He was the founder and first president of the Native American Journalists Association and the founder and publisher of Indian Country Today, the Lakota Times, and the Dakota/Lakota Journal. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in the Class of 1991. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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