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Senator Arthur V. Watkins and the Termination of Utah's Southern Paiute Indians

Utah Historical Quarterly

Vol. 63, 1995, No. 3

Senator Arthur V. Watkins and the Termination of Utah's Southern Paiute Indians

HOW IS IT THAT MEN OF UNQUESTIONED PERSONAL PROBITY Can be pressing this new onset against the Indians and the national honor? I answer that through the ages—social ruin has been pursued and achieved not only by men of evil intent but by men of personal probity."  Writing of Indian termination in 1954, former Bureau of Indian Affairs commissioner and lifelong Indian advocate John Collier questioned the recent government effort to end federal supervision of America's native population. Republican Senator Arthur V. Watkins, along with Commissioner of Indian Affairs Dillon S. Myer and Congressmen E. Y. Berry, Karl E. Mundt, and William Langer, masterminded and spearheaded the termination movement.  The first of twelve termination bills affected four small bands of Southern Paiutes in Watkins's home state of LItah. A model of the legislation to follow, the Paiutes' experiences also illuminated the larger issues of termination as well as the imposition of raw political force over a powerless group. Termination of Native Americans as a whole fulfilled white needs; termination of the Southern Paiutes particularly fulfilled Arthur Watkins's needs. No doubt genuinely concerned about the welfare of Native Americans, Watkins held a world view colored by paternalism and a driving religiosity that overshadowed more moderating options. 

Virtually all federal government policy toward the American Indians can be reduced to the two concepts of separation or assimilation. Indian groups have generally favored separation and the protection of their unique status, while assimilationist movements have had varied motivations. Through the: termination policy of the early 1950s Congress sought the ultimate solution to the Indian "problem" that had been debated throughout the country for generations. The termination policy, the most extreme of assimilation policies, would turn Indian affairs over to individual states. Reservations would be eliminated, special assistance programs would end, and Indian land would be taxed. 

The 1953 termination policy began with congressional discontent during the 1940s over the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Reorganization Act policies of the New Deal.  A 1947 report by William Zimmerman, assistant commissioner of Indian Affairs under Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman, gave criteria upon which termination of special status could be accomplished. Several proposals for "emancipation" of the Indian were presented that culminated in the concrete actions of congressional termination bills of 1953 and 1954. Behind the proposals for repeal and emancipation was the idea to release Indian lands from federal trust.

Termination policy has been described as not a change in direction of Indian policy but rather an acceleration of the long process of assimilation so rapid that "it can best be characterized as radical innovation." So many policies in addition to the specific acts terminating tribes were part and parcel of termination that it made for fundamental social restructuring.  House Concurrent Resolution 108, the statement of termination policy that was implemented by individual acts, first affected the Utah Southern Paiutes. Total numbers of affected U.S. tribes reached approximately 109, including 11,466 individuals. This totals not more than 3 percent of all federally recognized Native Americans. As a result of termination legislation, Indian land was diminished by 3.2 percent. 

Advocates of termination presented it as a program to "free" Indians and to end the discriminatory relationship with the government that was blamed for the Indians' lack of "progress." The Paiute bill presented the broad outline of termination followed for other tribes. Basic elements common to all termination bills included fundamental changes in land ownership patterns by allowing the sale of Indian lands. Additionally, state governments assumed broad authority over such matters as education, adoptions, alcoholism, and land use. This imposition of state jurisdiction alienated the federal and tribal law that had previously acted as a buffer between the white and Indian worlds in criminal and civil cases. Native Americans lost all exemptions from state tax as well as special federal programs such as training, housing, and recreation. The end of special federal programs to individuals and the termination of tribal sovereignty were especially damaging, but in return terminated individual Indians received a check for the value of their land. 

Behind termination, one of the most significant of all federal Indian policies, was the general feeling of conservative American post-World War II nationalism as well as the formidable problems associated with New Deal reform. Reservations and the cultural diversity they harbored were somehow un-American. Although few congressmen considered the Indian "question" to be important, the feeling grew among them that programs under the Indian Reorganization Act had "proven unsuccessful,"  A handful of congressmen almost singlehandedly shaped the termination policy for the nation. Congress willingly passed any Indian legislation that was favorably reported by the Indian Affairs subcommittee. 

Among those who shaped this policy was Arthur Vivian Watkins. In 1947 he accepted the important chairmanship of the Indian Affairs subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Public Lands. Through this position he dominated the hearings on Indian termination for the next twelve years.  Recalling that he had reluctantly accepted the post, which was considered a political liability, he remarked: "No other Republican would have it." 

A Utah lawyer and farmer, Arthur Watkins was swept into Congress with the Republican takeover of 1946, serving in the Senate from 1947 to 1959. A devout Latter-day Saint, he grew up in northeastern Utah adjacent to the Ute reservation. The senator was characterized as a "man of integrity" while serving as chairman of the Indian Claims Commission from 1959 to 1967. 13 By 1960 Watkins was praised by his fellow Utah senator upon appointment to the Claims Commission as "one of the nation's leading experts in the field of Indian Affairs." 

"Even if they don't like it, I think it is better for them [Native Americans] to have more and more control of their properties," Senator Watkins believed.  To implement this philosophy he met with Rep. William Harrison of Wyoming and Orme Lewis, assistant secretary of the Department of the Interior, on February 27, 1953, to map out termination policy and strategy. Without consulting any Native Americans, the three men decided on a termination policy with several constituent parts that would guarantee rapid termination of federal administrative responsibility for tribes. To accomplish this, services would be transferred to "proper bodies of political subdivision," tribal assets would be distributed to tribes as groups or to individual members, and land trust responsibility would be transferred to individual Indians or groups. The men wanted quick disbursement of tribal income with "a fair share of the cost of services" reimbursed. They also called for rehabilitation legislation and prompt Interior Department action on termination bills under consideration. 

When the termination philosophy came up against the realities of a Congress unwilling to pass legislation against tribes protesting termination, strong tactics were needed to get the bills passed. Wealthier tribes were able to put off termination through legal maneuvering, but poorer tribes were victims.  Criticized for acting as if he believed the ends justified the means, Watkins was blamed for giving "witnesses misleading assurances and erroneous information concerning the intent of Congress" by asking "leading questions of accommodating BIA witnesses to create an optimistic picture of Indian competency for termination. 

In Arthur Watkins's only published statement on termination he wrote that he acted from the conviction that the Indians should be "free" and recalled the rhetoric of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation.  Historian Kenneth Philp argued that Watkins listened to Adam Castillo's advice in the magazine The Indian to formulate the policy of termination that would "free" the Indian from the bondage of the federal government.  The convoluted logic of termination never answered the question of whether termination needed to be forced on Indians so that they could develop to the level of whites or forced on Indians who had already reached that level.  Watkins espoused both positions.

In 1951 and 1952 Congress rejected Watkins's first termination bills. Avoiding a charge of regional politics, Watkins turned to his home state for a likely group. In retrospect, Indian writer Vine Deloria, Jr., asserted that "Watkins was determined to demonstrate fairness, as if once he had irrationally harmed Indians from his home state he would be free to do whatever he wanted with all those elsewhere."  Only a year after Paiute termination a Utah legislator remarked, "We've always thought they were sort of political pawns in the game, because they did not know anything about it."  In reality, members of the Utah tribes affected by termination suffered great individual pain and economic decimation from that action, taking years to recover. 

The policy directed towarel several small groups of Native Americans in Utah included the Shivwits (97 members), Kanosh (27 members), Koosharem (27 members), and Indian Peaks (26 members) Southern Paiute bands. Originally the bill included the Washakie and Skull Valley Shoshone whose consistent and well-written letters of protest recorded at the termination hearing finally prompted their exclusion. The poverty, small numbers, and relative isolation of the Southern Paiute groups made them an easy target, although they never met the established federal termination criteria.

In February 1947 assistant commissioner of Indian Affairs William Zimmerman established the criteria for termination as the degree of acculturation, economic resources, and condition of the tribe, as well as the willingness of the tribe to be relieved of federal control and the willingness of the state to assume responsibility. Additionally, lists of three groups of Indians prepared for termination either immediately, within two years, or within ten years were proffered with the criteria. None of the four Paiute bands or either of the two Shoshone bands appeared on any list. 

In August 1952 Commissioner Dillon S. Myer conducted a survey of Indian groups considered for termination. The Utah Paiute bands provided information designed to assist in the program of withdrawal. The result of the survey, which marks the beginning of the BIA plan to terminate the Paiutes, showed they were anything but ready. On September 20, 1954, a statement of the findings and recommendations presented to the House reported the Shivwits, Koosharem, and Kanosh as unprepared while the Indian Peaks group was "conditionally" ready.  But long before this report was presented, House Concurrent Resolution 108 received congressional approval, as had Paiute termination, which became law on September 1, 1954.  Termination of the Southern Paiute bands was a political decision. It was not based upon a rational comparison of the conditions of the Paiutes with established criteria.

The whirlwind speed with which the Paiutes were terminated signifies Watkins's determination for acceptance of this policy. On December 30, 1953, he met with the affected bands at Fillmore to gain their acquiescence. Presenting the group with the proposed bill to release the tribes from governmental control, Watkins stated, "It was about time to see if the Government has done a good job for the Indians and to see how many of them can take care of their own affairs."  He lauded the benefits of termination, ignored specific Indians' observations of unequal or racist treatment by whites, and at no time asked the Paiutes if they wanted this policy implemented.  Recalling this meeting during the termination hearing, the Skull Valley Shoshone tribe's protest condemned Watkins's steamrolling tactics: "But Mr. Watkins don't give a chance to each individual person ... to say something. ... he didn't give us no chance to talk." 

The proposed termination bill sent to the Paiute band leaders on January 19, 1954, would be heard in Washington, D. C, on February 15. Short notice and lack of funds prohibited the Indians from appearing in Washington, although telegrams of both protest and acceptance were sent. Their forces scattered by the incredible speed of the whole process, the Paiutes lacked any true understanding at that time of what termination actually was to mean to them. In reality, termination was granted without their informed consent. 

Although it has been argued that Paiute termination was based on greed for subsurface oil and mineral rights, that conjecture cannot be fully supported.  Popular opinion at the time forced preservation of the Paiutes' subsurface rights. On February 10, 1954, Watkins and oilman Charles Harrington met with the Kanosh Indians to encourage them to support termination so that an oil lease could be granted to Harrington, who also served as counselor of the Kanosh band.  Harrington had previously attempted to negotiate a lease for oil without going through the Bureau of Indian Affairs' usual channels. A letter from him presented by Watkins at the termination hearings praised the "enthusiasm" the Kanosh felt for termination. But public outcry at the time of the announcement of Paiute termination manifested itself in several articles in popular magazines.  Only four days after an article in the New York Times appeared asserting the likelihood of the Paiutes being cheated of their oil reserves, Watkins proposed amendments to the Paiute termination bill. Public Law 762, which enacted the termination of the Southern Paiute bands, reserved the subsurface mineral rights for the Indians for ten years, as Watkins had requested. 

Always couching the termination legislation in terms of Indian rights, the Salt Lake Tribune reported Watkins as pressing "for passage of bills to give Indians full citizenship rights as rapidly as possible."  The underlying issues of loss of land and loss of needed governmental services were largely ignored. As a result of termination the Paiutes lost approximately 15,000 acres of land, most of which was sold for taxes or in anticipation of taxes. 

Although Watkins may have been ignorant of the amount of aid the Paiutes received from the federal government, he chose to ignore testimony confirming their true condition. At the termination hearing BIA Superintendent Harry Gilmore spoke of the numerous welfare programs, a children's hot lunch program, and payment of hospital bills provided by the government—small subsidies which provided limited security.

Many years after the Fillmore meeting the leader of the Indian Peaks band recalled testifying to Watkins that his people "made homes from white people's junk; they find a few boards, a good bed, might have a little chair, an old stool, that's where it comes from . . . they made a house out of it. . . what the white people throw away."  The destitute condition of the Paiutes certainly did not fit the criteria established for termination, as even the BIA report to the House of Representatives in September 1954 attested. Watkins forced Paiute termination based on his need to set a precedent for future actions.

To persuade the Paiutes to acquiesce in termination, Watkins promised concessions that were never made. The recognition of tribal marriages was an important consideration for the Kanosh, as was the right to grow any amount of wheat they desired. Although promised by the senator, neither was included in the final law. The result of the termination policy for the Paiutes was less autonomy and lowered economic status.  After termination the groups became more dependent upon welfare and their real income dropped. The policy that was supposed to assimilate actually fostered the loss of their only farming enterprise. 

To gain acceptance for termination among the members of the Senate, Watkins misrepresented the: degree of assimilation of the Utah Indians. Referring to the full groups of Indians under the original bill, Paiutes and Shoshones, he told the committee, "these people, numbering some 400, have been under the jurisdiction of the Indian Bureau for over half a century and due primarily to neglect by the Government guardian they have been obliged to enter the communities surrounding them. Fortunately these people recognized their problem and have successfully attacked it and have fully integrated themselves into the communities around them." He continued to argue that "they live near white communities and are a part of the white communities in the areas of the State where their lands are situated."  Here Watkins was clearly dissembling. He contradicted his own statements made to the LDS church First Presidency a month earlier when he had indicated the Indians "don't understand the English language and have had no training in caring for themselves." 

The Southern Paiutes had barely begun the assimilation process. A 1955 survey pictured little assimilation of the Southern Paiutes, pointing out their absence of social contact with the surrounding community, including the lack of intermarriages and the dearth of high school graduates among them.  The Paiutes followed a traditional cultural pattern of gathering during the winter months for funerals and other social events and scattering in the spring throughout Utah and Nevada in search of seasonal farm labor. In some cases the LDS church established homes on the outskirts of Utah towns that were used by the Paiutes during the winter months. During the summer the seasonal cycle of wage work prevailed. Ironically, the tradition of harvesting the fall pinyon pine nuts continued during the twentieth century; the nuts became a cash crop sold to whites. The 1955 study concluded this feudal laborer system mitigated against the Paiutes gaining an independent position in society and had been operating long enough in Utah to have established itself as "natural and right" among non-Indians. The Paiutes occupied a class, itinerant farm laborers, reinforced by visible racial differences.

In addition to ignoring the lack of Paiute assimilation, Watkins also ignored testimony of racist treatment of Native Americans by whites. A Goshute speaking against termination complained about not being allowed to eat in restaurants in Utah. Watkins reminded the Indian that he had "to conduct himself in a respectable manner if he expected society to accept him." 

Generally, the committee hearing the termination cases relied on the subjective reports of the tribes' BIA agents about their readiness for termination. The testimony of the Paiutes' BIA superintendent, Harry Gilmore, was heard but discounted. Twice he reported to the committee on the negative response of one Indian leader when asked his disposition on termination.  "In no case have these Indians shown themselves competent to manage their own affairs," he noted of the Shivwits, "without positive direct supervision."  The final termination law provided for instruction in English and special vocational education, offering further evidence of the Paiutes' overall lack of integration into the white community. 

An examination of the two Shoshone groups included in the original termination bill provides further insight into the Paiutes' experiences. Although initially included, the Washakie Shoshone of northwestern Utah and the Skull Valley Shoshone were able to escape termination. That the Shoshone were not included in the final termination bill is a testament to their concerted effort against it and, additionally, points to another factor in the termination debate: the role of the LDS church. 

Although the Washakie Shoshones were subjects of an LDS mission, they looked to Watkins personally for help in dealing with the white world. The Washakie chief Thomas Pabawena implored Watkins in December 1948 to intercede on the Shoshones' behalf with their Washington lawyer, Ernest Wilkinson.  Again on March 9, 1949, Chief Pabawena wrote Watkins with the information: "We are the northwestern band of the Shoshone pretty poor conditions and their childrens starving there fathers no work everything pretty hard up for us no money."  Watkins responded with information on the Shoshones' Indian Claims Commission case and, additionally, forwarded Pabawena's letter to the Department of Agriculture, requesting the distribution of surplus potatoes to the tribe.  In subsequent letters the Department of Agriculture reported supplying the northwestern Shoshone with surplus food for some time. Chief Pabawena denied ever getting the food, telling Watkins: "We are have received no anything from the Government since the treaty was made in Box Elder treaty on July 30, 1863." 

Subsequent letters from Watkins to governmental agencies produced food for the northwestern Shoshone but also prompted some criticism of the LDS mission to the Washakie. The director of Indian education, for example, charged that the Mormons had induced the Washakie to sever their relationship with the Indian Service. Watkins's request for information on the church's Washakie project engendered a two-page letter from the church's First Presidency. Since early missionary days in the 1860s, they explained, the Washakie had received substantial support through this agricultural project by working for wages on the 1,800-acre LDS mission farm. A housing project for the Shoshone was started in 1940 by the Mormon missionaries who noted that "during the winter months when these Indians, in some cases, have been out of food, clothing, bedding, or any of the necessities of life, they have been fully supplied from the Church general welfare program."  The LDS church paternalistically replaced the government in providing services to the Shoshone.

The case of the Cedar City Paiute band, the only Utah Southern Paiute band not included in termination, also supports the role of the LDS church as a factor in termination. This group lived on church land outside of Cedar City and were "ignored and left to the Mormons."  From communication with William Palmer, a Cedar City amateur anthropologist, Watkins learned of the Cedar City group's lack of land and comparatively close ties to the LDS church. He did not choose termination for them.  Arguably, the Utah tribes with little land and strong ties to the Mormon church were either not earmarked for termination or were, as in the case of the Washakie, not pushed for termination after they objected to the policy.

The strength of the senator's personal motivations for termination surfaced in correspondence to the church's general authorities. On April 13, 1954, he responded to a letter from the First Presidency with some degree of detail about his convictions. He blamed the Indian Reorganization Act for making Indians "museum pieces" on reservations based on the "communal communities somewhat on the Russian pattern." The $80,000,000 a year spent on the American Indian was "wasted," and the Bureau of Indian Affairs' objective of "preparing Indians for full citizenship" remained unfulfilled. In his opinion one of the strongest forces holding the Indian back "has been the Catholic Church influence," which he blamed for having "recently stirred up the Indians on the Menominee reservation" and for attempting to "influence the Navajos against our (LDS) missionaries." Watkins opined:

The more I go into this Indian problem the more I am convinced that we have made some terrible mistakes in the past. It seems to me that the time has come for us to correct some of these mistakes and help the Indians stand on their own two feet and become a white and delightsome people as the Book of Mormon prophesied they would become. Of course, I realize that the Gospel of Jesus Christ will be the motivating factor, but it is difficult to teach the Gospel when they don't understand the English language and have had no training in caring for themselves. The: Gospel should be a great stimulus and I am longing and praying for the time when the Indians will accept it in overwhelming numbers. 

Likening his program to one that would bring "about a higher civilization among the Indians," Arthur Watkins continued to dominate the termination activities of the 1950s.

In 1969, ten years before Watkins's death, Vine Deloria, Jr., attacked termination in a series of New York Times articles that were reprinted in the Salt Lake Tribune. Watkins defended himself to the Tribune, vowing to write a book about his Indian experiences.  By that time he knew that termination was a "dirty word" to the Indians, and in his later years frequently pointed to the good things he had done for the Indians, which included support of the Intermountain Indian School at Brigham City, Utah. 

Determining Watkins's motivation for Paiute termination as conspiracy or evil intent is unsatisfactory. Likewise it is difficult to argue his ignorance of the true Paiute condition. Rather, his motivations lay in personal cultural bias grounded in the paternalistic conservatism of the time and in his personal religious view. Watkins wrote that it was his "feeling that these Indians have a God given right to manage their own affairs as soon as they are able to do so, but they will never develop to the stage which God intended them to do unless they can stand on their own feet and make all the advancement they can, and this includes the right to make some of their own mistakes." 

Religion shapes our understanding of ourselves. When Watkins wrote that "I am a Mormon with years of service as an official in that church and have the same deep interest in Indians and their welfare which is characteristic of most Mormons," he was expressing a view that had guided his political as well as personal life.  His indefatigable zeal for termination was bolstered by his interpretations of religious tenets including those that called for the American Indians to become white to be "delightsome" to God.

Senator Watkins's inability to look beyond his own ethnocentric and paternalistic world view fueled his quest for termination. He devalued the force of traditional culture in the Indians' lives and refused to see the restrictions placed on the Utah Indians that precluded assimilation. Not able or allowed to assimilate, they were a group identified by class and race. Even in 1982 one Utah Paiute's feeling was, "in order to be equal, you have to be white." 

Watkins acted out of honor, as he saw it, and a determination to "fix the Indian problem" once and for all. To him it was a problem so pressing that his questionable means justified the hoped-for end. The Southern Paiutes were political pawns in a much larger game. The personal suffering of the Paiutes at the hands of a man of probity is a critical commentary on the use of political power to forward a personal agenda. As one Utah Paiute has eloquently stated, "There is nothing that is going to acculturate a Native American. If you're an Indian, you're always labeled an Indian. No matter how educated or intelligent you may be, you're still going to be segregated. We've been segregated all along." 

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