The Aftermath of Tribe Termination

Feb 17, 2021

The Wisconsin National Guard and an armored personnel carrier during the Menominee seizure of the building.
Credit Wisconsin Historical Society

The Indian Termination Act of the 1950s was a misguided attempt to alleviate economic hardship on Reservations by terminating tribal sovereignty and relocating Native peoples to urban areas where they could find work and be assimilated.  The act had a significant impact on Wisconsin’s Menominee Tribe.  It also led to the founding of the American Indian Movement.  

The Indian Termination Act of 1953 and the Indian Relocation Act of 1956 were conservative reactions to the liberal reforms of Franklin Roosevelt’s Indian New Deal of the 1930s.  The laws of the 1950s were designed to break up the Reservations and relocate Native peoples into urban areas.  In addition, they gave Congress plenary power, or absolute authority to force compliance on Native peoples without negotiation.

At the top of the list for termination was the Menominee Tribe of Wisconsin, largely because of its wealth in forest land.  In 1954, Congress passed an act officially terminating the Menominee as a federally recognized tribe.  Termination was initially set for 1958 but extensions pushed it forward to 1961.  Once it happened, Termination was an unmitigated disaster and only increased poverty and hardship among the Menominee.

The Indian Relocation Act was designed to remove Indigenous peoples from tribal settings and place them in major metropolitan areas where, it was believed, they would assimilate more easily into the general population.  While a massive migration of Native peoples to urban areas did happen, assimilation did not.  Instead, many Indigenous peoples in urban areas became transnationals; that is, identifying as American Indians connected by common cause to all tribes across the nation.

This is how the American Indian Movement, known as AIM, was born.  Inspired by the Civil Rights Movement, in 1968 Dennis Banks, Clyde Bellencourt, and others founded AIM in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  Initially the goal was to address issues of police brutality against Indigenous peoples in urban areas.  However, as the group gained a nationwide membership it became far more radical.  In 1969, AIM began occupying historic sites and government buildings as a means of drawing public attention to questions of Indigenous rights that for too long had been ignored.  Some of the more well-known occupations included Alcatraz Island, BIA headquarters in Washington, DC, and the Wounded Knee battle site.

AIM’s methods were controversial, but they helped achieve many desired goals as politicians began to listen and acknowledge Indigenous sovereignty.  But, while AIM took the aggressive approach, James White and Ada Deer worked within the legal system to lobby Congress and restore the Menominee Reservation and Tribal Sovereignty.  Through their efforts, Richard Nixon signed the law ending Termination in 1973.

But that was not the end.  In January 1975, the Menominee Warriors Society occupied the Alexian Brothers’ Novitiate, which was a Catholic-owned manor house located in Gresham, Shawano County.  The Menominee Warriors Society was not directly affiliated with AIM but were inspired by earlier occupations to do the same.  The building itself had ceased being a novitiate in 1968 and was unoccupied except by a caretaker and his family.

The Menominee Warriors demanded that the property be turned over to them under the principle that they had the right to retake church land that was no longer being used for religious purposes.  The armed standoff lasted a month, and AIM members came to help with negotiations.  In the end, the Warriors were arrested, but the property was sold to the Menominee for one dollar.

It was a pyrrhic victory which did little to ease the trauma of Termination.