The Great Depression brought suffering and misery to people in the United States. However, even before that, much of rural America was already in a grim economic state. On top of it, there were challenges particular to Native people, who called on the government to take action and fought for their rights.
“Migrant Mother”: A Background
Florence Owens Thompson was the woman at the center of “Migrant Mother”, the iconic photograph taken by Dorothea Lange in Nipomo, California, during the Great Depression of the 1930s. The young farmworker had a thoughtful, worried, but determined face.
This image has become one of the quintessential representations of the Great Depression. Florence Owens Thompson’s name wasn’t widely known until she identified herself as the person in the photograph in the 1970s. She was born in 1903 in the Indian Territory, near what is today Tahlequah, Oklahoma, and her biological father was listed as Cherokee by blood on the 1907 Dawes Roll.
For the anthropologist Mindy Morgan, there’s an important question to be answered: “What is it that allows viewers to see her as a migrant farmworker but not as a Native woman?”
The answer to that lies in the fact that stories of the Great Depression and New Deal are typically told as if Native people aren’t a part of them.
Poor State of Reservation Communities
Reservation communities across the West were typically resource-poor and isolated, which contributed to depression-like conditions long before the Great Depression. Native communities in the East and South, most of which didn’t have tribal land bases and many of which weren’t federally recognized, also lived in remote enclaves on the economic margins.
On the Southern Plains, over-farming and over-plowing, exacerbated by drought, culminated in the infamous Dust Bowl, which were massive dust storms that brought economic ruin, environmental disaster, and dramatic population shifts during the early 1930s.
This, along with an already depressed rural economy, drove thousands of poor Native and non-Native families to California, where they typically settled in squatter camps and became known, disparagingly, as Okies.
And then there were contributing factors to hardship and reform that were particular to Native people, including the devastation brought by the federal government’s mismanagement of American Indian affairs, the assault on tribal self-government, the violence of cultural assimilation, and the destructive policy of allotment, which led to the loss of nearly 100 million acres of land by 1934.
This is a transcript from the video series Native Peoples of North America. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Action Taken by American Indians
American Indians didn’t just sit back and watch this happen. Well before the Stock Market Crash and New Deal, Native people called on the federal government to take action. In fact, there really wasn’t a time when Native people weren’t vocal critics of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Nor was there a time when tribes weren’t aggressively protecting their rights.
Through the early decades of the 20th century, Native political action took many forms, including establishing business committees to run tribal affairs and sending delegations to Washington, DC, to meet with federal administrators and testify before Congress. Native people also organized locally, regionally, and nationally to draft petitions and memorials, to press for legislation, or initiate court cases that addressed everything from fishing and water rights to racial discrimination, the illegal seizure of land, and religious freedom.
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Laura Cornelius Kellogg’s Activism
Laura Cornelius Kellogg, an Oneida woman from Wisconsin, had witnessed the devastation of allotment in her own community. Among the founders of the Society of American Indians, Kellogg devoted her life to increasing tribal self-sufficiency through communal land ownership and economic enterprises. She believed reservations shouldn’t be incorporated into the United States and that they were worth fighting for.
Kellogg’s activism carried her across the United States and Europe, where she even advocated for Native rights before the League of Nations in 1919.
And in 1920, she published Our Democracy and the American Indian, a spirited defense of reservations and a call for the preservation of a protectorate status for tribes vis-à-vis the federal government.
Through the early 1920s, Kellogg worked with the Oneida in Wisconsin and the Six Nations in New York State on land claims. Like many tribal leaders and some SAI (Society of American Indians) members, Kellogg believed in preserving the tribal land base and the federal government’s trust responsibilities to tribal communities.
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Reports by Various Committees and Organizations
Other former SAI members added their voices through organizations such as the American Indian Defense Association, which assisted the All Indian Pueblo Council, and through advisory committees, including the Committee of 100 and the Meriam Commission.
In 1923, in December, the Committee of 100 presented a report where they criticized the federal government’s administration of Indian affairs, called for more study of the effects of peyote to deflect attacks on it by the BIA, and advocated opening the Court of Claims to tribal nations.
The Committee of 100 paved the way for more exhaustive and influential studies. This included the Brookings Institution’s Meriam Commission, which began its work in 1926.
Published in 1928, the Meriam Report was based on seven months of fieldwork in 95 jurisdictions, including reservations, BIA agencies, hospitals, schools, and urban communities. The report attacked the Indian Bureau for its failures in education, health care, and economic development. It was also critical of incorporation through allotment, portraying it as a contributing factor to the dire circumstances found across Indian Country.
Although the Meriam Report stopped short of refuting the assimilationist objectives of Indian policy, it did advance a vision of corporate land ownership similar to Laura Cornelius Kellogg’s. The Meriam Report also served the important role of slowing the allotment juggernaut. And finally, it opened the door even wider for attacks on Indian policy.
Common Questions about Native Americans before the Great Depression
The Dust Bowl was a period of massive dust storms in the Southern Plains that brought economic ruin, environmental disaster, and dramatic population shifts during the early 1930s.
Some factors that led to the Natives facing hardship were the devastation brought by the federal government’s mismanagement of American Indian affairs, the assault on tribal self-government, the violence of cultural assimilation, and the destructive policy of allotment.
Laura Cornelius Kellogg, an Oneida woman from Wisconsin, had devoted her life to increasing tribal self-sufficiency through communal land ownership and economic enterprises.