The Indian Agent said: "Let them eat grass"

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Notes from Indian Country

The Indian agent said, “Let them eat grass”

By Tim Giago (Nanwica Kciji – Stands Up For Them)

Politics can at times amount to a funny business in Indian country. But I suppose the same can be said of city, county, state and federal politics in the rest of America.

The United States Department of the Interior had a lot to do with the state of affairs on the Indian reservations of America. In 1934 Congress passed the Indian Reorganization Act and the establishment of tribal governments began. Prior to that many tribes still functioned under their traditional way of life.

The United States had come up with a unique way of dealing with the Indians. It was known as “divide and rule.” The conquering days had already passed by the turn of the century. Now it was time to rule under a colonial system long practiced by the British.

The Dawes Act of 1887 destroyed the communal base of the Indian people by allotting 160 acres to tribal members and then selling off the rest of the land as surplus. The Indian Appropriations Act of 1902 nearly completed the job by allowing the sale of inherited land. This act was enhanced by the Burke Act of 1906, which allowed the Secretary of the Interior to issue patents to Indian landowners enabling the Indian to sell his land.

Within a few years nearly 90 percent of the reservation land was lost to aggressive white people who lived on the Indian lands they had secured through the Dawes Act of 1887 and the Burke Act of 1906. A book called Being Dakota by Amos Oneroad and Alanson B. Skinner published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press gives a good rendition of these times as seen through the eyes of members of the Sisseton/Wahpeton tribes of the Dakotas.

Taking advantage of the turmoil caused by the various pieces of legislation meant to reduce the land holding of the different tribes, the Interior Department often selected token Indian leaders who remained subservient to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The Indian leaders had the name but not the power. The power rested in the hands of the Indian agents sent out to the reservations. They controlled the money and hence the power.

Tribal leaders could not make political decisions without the approval and consent of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. A sort of love-hate relationship developed between the Indians and their agents. So much of the success of a tribe depended upon the honesty, integrity and intelligence of the Indian agents. Many of the agents sent out to Indian country were not well educated nor were they the most diplomatic. They came out with dollar signs in their eyes and looked upon this short-term appointment as a chance to line their pockets. They found many ways to accomplish this.

They could, for example, take large portions of the provisions guaranteed to the tribes by treaty and sell them to scheming profiteers who in turn could sell them back to the people from which they were stolen. They looked the other way while deceitful businessmen sold the Indians alcohol and guns. These agents with near total control over the people often made land deals totally outside of the treaties. They would sell Indian land to speculators, powerful ranchers and to the railroad and pocket all of the profits. Many agents became quite wealthy prior to retiring to a leisurely life back east.

And sadly, although the tribal leaders at the time knew they were being ripped off, they could do nothing to stop it or to reverse it. They tried. In what is called the 1862 Dakota War or the Minnesota Uprising, starving and angry Dakota warriors broke into a storehouse to get the annuities they always received but were being withheld. It is said that an Indian agent, when told of the hungry Indians, replied, “Let them eat grass.”

The war lasted six weeks and more than 500 whites and 500 Indians lost their lives. After the war the Army arrested thousands of Dakota and an army court sentenced 303 to death. President Abraham Lincoln pardoned all but 38. On December 26, one day after Christmas, all 38 Dakota warriors were hanged in what became the largest mass hanging in American history. They went to their deaths bravely singing their death songs.

Modern day Lakota and Dakota consider these 38 warriors as patriots who fought to defend the lives and property of their people. After all was said and done, the agent who made the heartless remark about grass was found dead with his mouth stuffed with grass. When do you think Hollywood will make a movie of this tragic event in American history?

After 1934 the politics on the different Indian reservations began to resemble that of the non-Indians. Tribal members took out petitions to run for office, submitted the petitions and were placed on a ballot. On most reservations elections take place every two years. The candidates run for seats on the tribal council, and for the offices of president and vice president. They are elected by popular vote. The tribal council is like the United States senate.

After a person is elected president of the tribe he is often called the chairman. He sets up a schedule of council meetings to be held throughout the year and then begins the process of lawmaking and governing. In the old days the headquarters of the tribal government was usually housed in some of the worst office buildings on the reservation. Down the street or even next door to the tribal government one could often find the new and luxurious offices of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. This indicated where the real seat of power was situated.

After the passage of the Indian Education and Self-determination Act of 1974 during the Richard Nixon administration, things began to change for the better. The power to govern was gradually shifting to the tribal governments. This is when tribal politics, as we know it today, became a near microcosm of the U. S. Government’s political structure.

Go back through all of the Congressional Acts at the beginning of this article and think about Donald J. Trump. His feelings about Native Americans are well-documented in Indian Country and with a majority Republican Congress to back him up, it is not inconceivable that he can introduce a bill to further diminish tribal sovereignty. All it takes is a stroke of a pen and Trump loves to show off his signature. Indian country beware: The worst may be just around the corner.

(Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, is the Editor Emeritus of the Native Sun News Today. He was the founder of the Native American Journalists Association and he can be reached at