A New Chahta Homeland: A History by the Decade, 1930-1940
April 1, 2022
Iti Fabvssa is currently running a series that covers the span of Oklahoma Choctaw history. By examining each decade since the Choctaw government arrived in our new homelands using Choctaw-created documents, we gain a better understanding of Choctaw ancestors’ experiences and how they made decisions that have led us into the present. This month covers the 1930-1940 period when Choctaws responded to the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act and formally organized an Advisory Council to help make decisions regarding Choctaw issues – serving as a de facto legislative branch.
The 1928 ‘Meriam Report,’ which we discussed in last month’s article, was an important step in changing poor living conditions for many Choctaw and other Native peoples across the United States. It critically highlighted allotment’s negative impact on Native people and how it created poverty on reservations. After the report’s publication, Native communities in the U.S. faced even more difficult times with the onset of the Great Depression. In response, President Franklin D. Roosevelt pushed for ‘New Deal’ policies to stimulate the U.S. economy and end the economic downturn. This included numerous legislative bills that supported Native American communities and their ability to improve their own economic conditions. These pieces of Native-oriented legislation were collectively known as the Indian New Deal. One of the most significant bills was the Indian Reorganization Act, also known as the Wheeler-Howard Act.
Passed in June 1934, the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) significantly refocused attention to the nation-to-nation relationship between the U.S. and Indigenous nations by promoting tribal self-governance. It ended the federal allotment policy, which the Meriam Report found to be a disaster. Instead, the IRA would focus on bringing tribal lands allotted back together and consolidating them, reorganizing tribal governments to govern over those lands, and pushing them to develop economic development programs that fit the cultures of those nations. This legislation was a significant turning point in federal-Indian relations because it was the first time the U.S. government incorporated Native people’s feedback to shape federal policy significantly. While this was a landmark piece of legislation for many Native nations across the United States, six out of nineteen provisions of the act did not apply to the nations in Oklahoma, including Choctaw Nation.
During the proposal stage before the passage of the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act, several Native nations and Native individuals in Oklahoma had opposed the bill. Commissioner of Indian Affairs John Collier himself went to Oklahoma to hold meetings with communities to get feedback on the act. The Oklahoma congressional delegation also expressed concern that Oklahoma had the highest population of Native peoples in the United States at that time. The way the land runs and allotment had divided up the lands in Oklahoma made it distinct from other states with large Native populations. The Indian Reorganization Act, which sought to help tribes gain greater control over their reservation lands to improve their economic conditions, would have an important impact on the rest of the state, particularly non-Native landowners whose plots of land were in Native nations’ treaty territories. Individuals and companies with connections to the oil, timber, mining, farming and ranching industries of Eastern Oklahoma, in particular, opposed moving back to tribal control over their lands. The opposition by Natives who didn’t want a return to tribal governments and non-Natives alike led the Oklahoma congressional delegation to advocate for Oklahoma tribes’ exclusion from the act. Instead, different legislation catered to the unique situation in Oklahoma would be drawn up.
In 1936, U.S. Congress passed the Thomas-Rogers Bill or Oklahoma Indian Welfare Act, which applied the principles of the Indian Reorganization Act to Oklahoma with some essential modifications. Given the issues that Choctaws had with probates and restrictions, as mentioned in the previous two articles, the act moved those matters from the jurisdiction of Oklahoma state courts to the federal government. It also created a credit fund where Native people could get loans – something which had been very difficult before the passage of this act. The Oklahoma Indian Welfare Act paid careful attention to the legal differences and histories of the nations in Oklahoma and their needs. With the Oklahoma Indian Welfare Act, Oklahoma tribes gained more control in bettering their economic conditions since they now had greater authority and power over their own affairs. One of the major organizations that worked on the legislation from the Choctaw perspective was the Choctaw Advisory Council.
Although the Choctaw national government was downsized to a few officials in 1906, Choctaw community members continuously convened to discuss issues that Choctaw people were facing and collectively decide on future actions. At a meeting held on June 5, 1934, Choctaws voted to establish a Choctaw Advisory Council at Old Goodland. Chief Ben Dwight nominated eleven Choctaw citizens to represent the different counties that make up the Choctaw reservation to serve on the council and tribal members living outside of the treaty boundaries. Those individuals included: William A. Durant (At-large), Victor M. Locke (Pushmataha County), Elam Johnson (McCurtain County), Thomas W. Hunter (Choctaw County), E.A. Moore (LeFlore County), George Scott (Haskell County), Ben C. Palmer (Latimer County), Silas Cole (Atoka County), Muriel H. Wright (Coal County), James Culberson (Bryan County), and CB Bascomb (Pittsburg County).
The Choctaw Advisory Council’s first meeting was held on October 11, 1934, and lasted three days. The next day, they continued their meeting and met at the federal building in Muskogee. At this meeting, the council established and elected its officers. Other attendees to the meeting included Chief Ben Dwight, Bureau of Indian Affairs Superintendent of the Five Tribes, A.M. Landman, and William G. Stigler, a former member of the Oklahoma State Senate and later became the Oklahoma Congressional Representative for District 2 from 1944-1952. The council had two main goals: plan a welfare program for the betterment of Choctaw economic and social livelihood and craft legislation that would create this welfare program. Since Choctaws made up a sizeable portion of southeastern Oklahoma, they had the attention and aid of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and local government officials. The council would get Choctaws’ opinions on the matter to figure out a plan that benefited Choctaws. Their meetings and decisions based on Choctaw community members’ feedback eventually resulted in the terms found in the Oklahoma Indian Welfare Act.
In addition to their work regarding federal legislation, the Choctaw Advisory Council worked hard to support the Choctaw people. They approved and allocated funds to establish a general hospital in Talihina using Choctaws’ federal funds and made decisions regarding the sale of the Choctaw coal lands and Choctaw cases before U.S. courts. To preserve Choctaw history and culture, the council approved funds for the maintenance of Wheelock Academy, the re-purchase of the old Choctaw Council House and 100 acres around it, and the reconstruction of the Council building to make it modern and fireproof. Their attention to these important Choctaw historical buildings is why they still stand today and have become important spaces for sharing Choctaw history and culture.
Next month, we will cover the 1940-1950 era, which covers World War II and the events leading up to the sale of the Choctaw coal lands.
About Iti Fabvssa
Iti Fabvssa seeks to increase knowledge about the past, strengthen the Choctaw people and develop a more informed and culturally grounded understanding of where the Choctaw people are headed in the future.
If you have questions or would like more information on the sources, please contact Megan Baker at [email protected]