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The Teens to 1940

The 1910s began with the above mentioned financial & political pressures mounting, but our people still found time to celebrate. There were annual Siletz Indian Fairs, at hop picking time – there were always fiddle dances, if not feather dances. The people were not rolling in cash, but most were getting by, by sticking together. When WWI broke out, our Siletz people showed their patriotism. Even with all the mistreatment suffered over the decades, U.S. citizenship meant a great deal to our people. In 1913, our people had hosted the Wanamaker Expedition on Government Hill, in an early attempt to gain U.S. citizenship for all the Indian people. Many of our Siletz men and boys signed up for the armed forces, and our women and girls did their part for the war effort too. We lost some of our people in that war, losses that were devastating in such a small, close community as ours.

With the end of the war, the goals of federal Indian policy were pursued with renewed vigor. In 1919, Agent Chalcraft and two other Indian Department employees were appointed to facilitate the issuing of patents (titles) to Siletz allotments. The hearings of individual cases were often referred to as “Competency Hearings” the idea being that if the tribal member could speak English well enough, knew the value of money, could handle business affairs, etc., then they were considered “competent”. Being competent generally meant that you were issued title to your allotment, even if you wished it to remain in trust. Soon, there were also movements afoot to have the Agency sell the allotments of aged and infirm Indians and then give them a living allowance from the proceeds. These accounts for individuals were often in some sort of dispute. The “aged and infirm” whose property had been sold to set up these accounts, often had to make repeated requests for any doling out of this living expense or pension and had to prove the good use that would come of access to their funds. Federal policy towards Indians was still one of parent and child, the parent being, alternately, either strict or neglectful and often outright abusive.

In 1924, the Indian Citizenship Act was passed by Congress. It did not have a huge direct effect on Siletz people, our people already having gained the right to vote, etc., through the allotment policy. What it did start though, was a slow change in public perception of Indian people generally. This would eventually lead to changes in Indian policy, but our people had many hardships to endure before we would know any positive changes.

Loss of Siletz Reservation lands & resources meant there was less businessfor the Siletz Agency to conduct. It also meant that the BIA would find fewer reasons to provide the services that were generally available on Indian reservations. In 1925, this state of affairs was used by the BIA, as reason to close the Siletz Agency offices. From then on, Siletz & Grand Ronde Agency business would be conducted out of an office on the Chemawa School grounds near Salem.

Although some of our relatives who had mostly stayed off reservation near the mouth of the Columbia had been successful in getting land claims heard and meagerly settled in 1912, the land claims process for our coastal tribes really began with the Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw people getting Congress to pass an act in 1929. This jurisdictional act gave those tribes the specific right to sue the federal government for taking aboriginal lands without paying for them. This suit was brought by families who had left the reservation and were concentrated in the Coos Bay area, though many of them were recognized as Siletz on our census rolls over the years. These families worked hard to establish their proof, and did it well, but the court showed extreme bias, and ignored the weight of the claim. The elders testimony was discounted as hearsay. This case was eventually appealed to the Supreme Court, but with no better result. Sad as the outcome was, it didn’t deter our other tribes from bringing suit in the future and taught some valuable lessons in presenting to the courts.

Perhaps the Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw claims case was partly a victim of the Depression. It wouldn’t be the first time that economics influenced a decision about Indians. The Depression, as tough as it was, became an opportunity for our tribal community to regroup. Siletz people formed a tribal Civilian Conservation Corps (or CCC) crew, & were able to remodel & restore the remaining old Siletz Agency buildings, build our first structure that was specifically a tribal council meeting hall- with a room for canning produce, a gas station and shop buildings, and established picnic grounds on Government Hill known as Tyee Illahee (Chief’s Place), elders housing, and some other important projects.

The 1930’s also brought the first real, significant and positive changes in the U.S. Indian policy. John Collier’s ideas were the basis for these changes. He became Commissioner of Indian Affairs in 1933 and went immediately to work to change the way tribes were treated by the government. In 1934, he succeeded in getting Congress to pass the Wheeler-Howard Act, also known as the Indian Reorganization Act, which promised to bring reservations to more of a state of self rule. The act is largely recognized for repealing the Allotment Act. Collier was one man willing to – not only say – that the Allotment Act (with its amendments and associated policies) had devastated Indian reservations, but offer some solutions. Some of his proposed solutions though, were (perhaps) not very well thought out. One of the early drafts called for the mandatory transfer of allotment lands from individual Indian to tribal control. Although this was not part of the final version of the bill as passed into law, it caused enough fear to become a barrier to acceptance in some tribal communities like ours.

As devastating as allotment had been to our reservation, it was a reality that our people lived with. Any hint that tribal government might be given the right to confiscate family allotments & re-distribute those lands was one barrier to accepting the provisions of the act. Although the act was supposed to increase the recognized roll of tribal governments that incorporated under the guidelines of the act, this self rule was under the supervision of the Secretary of the Interior. Tribal people seeing conflicting intent within the act, and political & economic complications possibly springing out of acceptance of the act, were leery. Our people had often been told that (whatever policy it was that happened to be coming down the pike) was the best thing that had ever happened for Indian people. Our people had become, rightfully, untrusting of any proposed change. In 1935, a vote to incorporate under the Indian Reorganization Act at Siletz failed.

In 1935, we were successful in getting a special jurisdictional act passed to have our land claims heard for the Nestucca, Salmon River, Siletz, Yaquina, Alsea, Coquelle, Tututni (& affiliated bands) and the Chetco people. Although there were successes with these claims, the courts were not very Indian friendly, and the people eventually were forced to accept very modest settlements for their decades of suffering.

More details on the results of the claims cases and their possible relationship to the buildup toward the termination of our federal recognition as an Indian tribe, will be the topic of the next article.