Whatever Happened to the Native Americans?



The destruction of the Native American population of North America may be traced in statistics, on maps, in land records, but the account of what actually happened when a specific tribe was liquidated is a real human story. Many excellent histories have been written of Indian tribes, but only two studies to date have ever been made of the liquidation of a tribe and the fate of the separated individuals who once formed it. Both are of Indian Territory tribes, the Kickapoos and the 'Five Civilised Tribes' (Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole).

To answer this question we shall follow the disintegration of the Kickapoos. Their small reservation was one of the richest tracts of land in Oklahoma: "simply a magnificent park" said the local paper. The Jerome Commission (whose purpose was to 'legally' acquire land occupied by the Native Peoples and other tribes in the Oklahoma Territory for non-indigenous homestead acreage) employed two of the floating white population of the Indian country to work on the Kickapoos: John T Hill, who had grazed cattle there, and Joe Whipple, who spoke their language and was trusted by them. With Whipple interpreting, Hill told the Indians that there was money belonging to them in Washington (this, of course, was false); he believed he could get it for them. They held a council and chose two chiefs to accompany the two white men to the capital. Strangely enough, the government paid their expenses.

When they boarded the train at Oklahoma City, they found the members of the commission in the same car. When they were taken to the office of Secretary of the Interior John W. Noble they found these same commissioners there. They were suspicious, but being threatened with bodily harm, they finally signed something -on September 9 1891. It turned out to be an 'agreement' to accept an 80-acre allotment of their land and sell the approximately 200.000-acre 'surplus' to the United States at thirty cents an acre.

Kickapoo Family 1898
The Kickapoos were worried when their chiefs came back from Washington with vague accounts of what had happened there, but it was not until an allotting agent appeared that they realised its importance. They refused to be enrolled, to accept allotments, or to receive the per capita payments from the 'sale' of their 'surplus'. But the survey went on, a list of 283 names was compiled, and the allotments were made, the agent conscientiously giving them the richest land in the valley. Some of the more progressive settled on their allotment but the majority remained in their communal villages.
They refused to vacate the un-allotted land, insisting that they had never sold it and the administration hesitated to use the military to drive them away, while home seekers gathering around the border complained at the delay. Finally the reservation was opened at high noon on May 18, 1895, in a stampede that surpassed anything previously seen in Oklahoma land rushes. The Kansas City Star, exulting over every addition to its trade territory, predicted that even the name Kickapoo would be "dropped from history".

Soon there arrived a Kansas attorney named Martin J. Bentley, who won the confidence of the conservative Kickapoo band so completely that they petitioned Washington for his appointment as their agent. The harassed commissioner of Indian affairs accepted this solution to a problem that he found insoluble. The subsequent results Bentley reported were too good to believe -except that they were believed. The protesting Kickapoos had apparently settled on their allotments, fenced the land and put it under cultivation, sent their children to school, and were rapidly acquiring the use of English. The first suspicion that this was untrue came in 1900 when the Indian Office was appraised by the State Department that Bentley and Kickapoo delegations had made trips to Mexico to negotiate with President Diaz for the colonization of the tribe there. The commissioner ordered Bentley to discontinue these activities; he ignored the warning and was dismissed, and replaced by Frank A. Thackery, a career man in the Indian service. He reported that all Bentley's claims of progress were fictitious and that his influence with the Kickapoos rested on his plan to restore them to their old way of life in Mexico. The Indian Office then sent Inspector Charles H. Dickson out to investigate further. He found only about one hundred of the more progressive Kickapoos remaining in Oklahoma, while more than two hundred had migrated with Bentley's assistance to Mexico.
Congress ignored the inspectors report and passed an act at the next session -in early June, 1906 -removing the restrictions on all allotments held by the non-resident adult Kickapoos. About fifteen men in Shawnee and other Oklahoma towns also had their eyes on the allotments and the acts of Congress. To their Kickapoo victims they were known collectively as the 'Shawnee Wolves'. The Indians were beaten, pistol whipped or jailed to force them to sign deeds relinquishing ownership of their allotments. If an Indian could not be forced even by physical abuse to 'touch the pen', they used outright forgery. They also gathered up six Kickapoo minors, took them to Eagle Pass, Texas, and had them married, thus conferring majority upon them by Oklahoma law and enabling them to sell their allotments.

Kickapoo medicine show, Fryeburg Fair, ca. 1900

It was not until the 1920s that an appreciable number of Kickapoos settled peacefully in Oklahoma. Many returned over subsequent years from the abortive attempt of Bentley's to settle them in Mexico. They gathered in villages in the area of their former reservation, following their own customs, understandably distrustful of the white man. Today they now number 2,719 enrolled tribal members. They still own a few allotments; none of them ever adopted the white man's farming techniques, but they value their land and refuse to part with it. As property owners they are ineligible for old age assistance and other relief, preferring to live in relative destitution.