Native Americans in Post War Utah

Thomas G. Alexander
Utah, The Right Place

One of the most thorny issues in postwar Utah arose from the abuse of Utah’s Native Americans. The 1950 census shows a population of 4,200 Indians in Utah, up from 2,000 in 1900. Nevertheless, the Utes, who had occupied the largest portion of Utah’s lands, had lost large blocks of preservation land. On the Uintah and Ouray Reservation in northeastern Utah, withdrawals for national forests and the Strawberry Valley Reclamation project and the opening of some of the lands to Euro-American settlement in 1905 had reduced the land from two million acres to about 360,000 acres.

By contrast, executive orders, congressional acts, and private donations had set aside new or expanded reservations for some of the tribes, generally from lands they had owned before Euro-American settlement. Bands of Southern Paiutes in southwestern Utah, Gosiute in Tooele County, and the Washakie band of Northwestern Shoshoni in Box Elder County benefited in various ways. By the 1940s, reservations for the Southern Paiutes included the Shivwitz near Santa Clara in Washington County, the Kanosh near I-15 in Millard County, the Indian Peaks in western Beaver County, and the Koosharem in Piute and Sevier Counties. The Cedar City band of Paiutes owned land donated by the Cedar City LDS Relief Society. The Gosiute Reservation straddled the state borders of Utah’s Juab County and Nevada’s White Pine County. The Skull Valley Reservation served the Gosiute in central Tooele County. In northern Box Elder County at Washakie, the federal government had confirmed homesteads to six family heads of the Washakie band of Shoshoni. The Indians leased part of the land to Euro-American farmers, and the LDS church helped the Indians to operate the remainder as a cooperative. Additions to the Utah portion of the Navajo Reservation in 1905, 1933, and 1958 added lands in the oil-rich Aneth field of San Juan County.

The Utes, the Navajos, and two Paiute bands—the Kanosh and Shivwitz—formed tribal governments under the Wheeler-Howard Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. By the 1950s, American attitudes drifted to the right and in the anti-Communist climate, some Americans began to believe that the federal government had failed the Native Americans by extending additional services through the Bureau of Indian Affairs and by encouraging them to organize their own governments to administer reservation lands. Terminate the government’s special relationship with the Indians; stop providing schooling, medical care, and roads; and let them manage their own affairs, these people said, and—like Mao’s Chinese—the Indians would make a great leap forward.

Accepting this point of view, Reva Beck Bosone began to agitate for what supporters came to call “Termination.” After the election of Arthur Watkins to the Senate in 1946, he worked even more vigorously for the policy. As chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Indian Affairs, Watkins proposed legislation in 1954 to terminate the federal relationship with the Skull Valley Gosiute, the Washakie Shoshoni, those Utes having less than 50 percent Ute ancestry, and all of the Paiutes except the Cedar City band.

In retrospect, the rationale for Paiute terminations seems uncompromisingly ideological.  Without question, it embodied an unrealistic assessment of Paiute financial resources, educational preparation, and management training. Though enthusiastic and intelligent, the Paiutes had little understanding of the skills needed to manage reservation lands. Reports on the condition for the Paiute reservations slated for termination showed that in most cases the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) had leased the lands to Euro-American ranchers or farmers. Minimally educated, most Paiutes worked for wages on farms and in nearby  towns, often in seasonal jobs. They earned incomes substantially below these of the whites who lived nearby. The reports showed that most Paiute children attended school in nearby white communities under grants from the Johnson-O’Malley Act, but they failed to mention the relatively high drop-out rate and the comparative lack of secondary and higher education.

While drafting legislation for termination, Watkins consulted with each of the Indian bands and their attorneys. He found that in administering Paiute affairs, the BIA provided virtually no services while it maintained tightfisted control over their business affairs. He seems to have interpreted the general desire for assimilation and the pervasive dissatisfaction with the BIA as conclusive evidence of a craving for termination. Watkins concluded that the Paiutes could manage their “assets in a businesslike way” if left on their own initiative. Watkins also expected to guarantee children an education by sending them to the Intermountain Indian School. He anticipated virtually total assimilation of the Indians into the surrounding Euro-American culture, and he believed that those Indians who could not find jobs near their homes would relocate to cities with employment opportunities.

Hearings on the termination bills revealed that most federal executive and legislative officials agreed with Watkins and that most Paiutes who publicly expressed an opinion favored termination as well. The committee received negative letters from Wess and Johnson Levi, chairman and vice-chairman of the Kanosh band; but Joe Pikyavit, the tribal business manager, contradicted them, pointing out that the tribe had voted to support termination. Other Paiutes remained silent.

The Skull Valley Gosiute and the Washakie Shoshoni, however, vigorously objected to termination. Gosiute representatives opposed because of federal treaty obligations; and the Northwestern Shoshoni feared that termination might jeopardize their claims against the federal government under the Indian Claim Commission Act of 1946.

Convinced that the Paiutes wanted termination, and anxious to erase any taint of communistic collectivism, Congress passed the acts that ended the special federal relationship with the Shivwits, Kanosh, Kooshaarem and Indian Peaks bands of Paiutes and the Mixed Blood Uintah and Opruay Utes. Though unmentioned in the termination act, the Cedar City Paiute were ignored until 1972, when the federal officials finally acknowledged that the act had not terminated them. Even then they received few federal services.

Like that of the Menominee in Wisconsin, the experience of Utah’s terminated Paiutes proved a disastrous victory of illusion over reality. With the exception of the Shivwitz, who leased their lands to local ranchers, most Paiutes sold their reservation land because it earned them very little income, and they had to pay property taxes on the assessed valuation, income or not. Denied federal health service, educational support, and employment assistance after termination, the Paiutes adopted various tactics to survive. Many continued to work for wages in Cedar City, St. George, and other southern Utah towns; others found employment in Wasatch Front cities; and some received help from county governments and from the LDS church.

Even under these trying circumstances, many of the Paiutes climbed higher on the economic ladder. Many Paiute children participated in the LDS church’s Indian Placement program, which took Native American students into urban Euro-American foster homes and sent them to school with the family’s children. Though the Indian Placement program aroused considerable antagonism because it submerged Native American culture and launched the children into the Euro-American mainstream, by the late 1970s a large percentage of the leaders in the various Paiute bands had found an avenue to economic advancement, political savvy, and cultural sophistication in the placement program. Through immersion in the Euro-American world, they had learned its workings at a high cost, the lost of their identity as a tribe of Native Americans.

With a better understanding of their rights, the Paiutes took their claims for stolen lands to the Indian Claims Commission (ICC), which Arthur Watkins presided over following his election defeat in 1958. Although the ICC could not return stolen lands, it could award the Indians money equivalent to their value at the time of taking.

Ernest Wilkinson’s Washington, D.C. law firm—Wilkinson, Cragun, and Barker—represented the Paiutes just as it did the largest number of tribes in the United States. In 1950, for instance, Wilkinson negotiated a $31.7 million settlement for the Utes of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation. The Utes distributed part of the award to members of the tribe while using the remainder to promote economic growth by investing in capital development. Wilkinson’s firm negotiated a compromise settlement for Utah’s Southern Paiutes in 1965. They received $7.25 million for the 26 million acres they claimed—twenty seven cents per acre. They paid $697,000 in attorney fees and expenses.

The Paiutes might have held out for a higher settlement, and they might have received more money. On the other hand, they would have had to await the outcome of possibly lengthy court proceedings to get the money, they might have received less, and they might have received nothing. The Western Shoshoni, for instance, declined to settle and got nothing. In retrospect, it seems clear that Wilkinson’s firm, as attorneys responsible to their clients, handled the case in the way they thought most beneficial to the Paiutes.

By the early 1970s, the Paiutes began to rebuild their community and to lobby for a restoration of tribal recognition with income from the ICC settlement, improved education, and political moxie. They organized the Paiute Tribal Corporation in 1971 to work with various agencies to improve such things as housing, educational opportunities, and standard of living. After the restoration of the Wisconsin Menominee tribe in 1973, Paiute leaders, including Clifford Jake and Mackay Pickyavit, began to work with attorneys such as Mary Ellen Sloan of Salt Lake City and Larry Echo Hawk of Idaho, a Pawnee and later a state attorney general; Bruce Parry, director of Utah State Indian Affairs; Senator Frank Moss; and Congressman Gunn McKay to draft legislation to restore tribal recognition.

The defeat of Moss by Orrin Hatch in 1976 and of McKay by Republican James Hansen in 1980 sidetracked the legislation until the Paiutes could drum up new political backing. They managed to gain the support of Senator Hatch; of Congressman Dan Marriott, who defeated Democrat Allan T. Howe in the Second Congressional District in 1976; and of eastern legislators. Working with Sloan and Parry, the Paiutes organized a Restoration Committee in July 1979, and they drafted legislation that Marriott introduced. Principal opposition to Paiute restoration arose from county commissioners of Duchesne and Uinta Counties near the Uintah and Ouray Reservation and from the ranchers who leased grazing land from the Shivwits.

Through careful and effective lobbying, the Paiute leaders succeeded in getting Congress to pass a restoration act in 1980 in spite of this opposition. As an added bonus, the act included an appropriation of $2.5 million for economic development and a provision allowing them to select up to 15,000 acres of “available” public and private land to create a base for new economic opportunities.

Paiute leaders such as tribal chairman Travis Benoih proved excellent administrators after the passage of the Paiute Restoration Act, but the Paiutes ran into unforeseen roadblocks in selecting the best lands for beneficial economic activities, largely because of political opposition to their choice of some potentially valuable public land. The restoration act had not appropriated money to buy lands; suitable public land could not be found to exchange for private land; rulings by the Reagan administration excluded national forest land; and powerful southern Utah political leaders opposed transferring valuable coal lands to the Paiutes as well as public lands suitable for a ski resort near Brian Head. Since Benoih and his advisors recognized that Congress would have to approve any selections and Utah’s political leaders greeted their most controversial proposals with little enthusiasm, they settled realistically for only 4,720 acres, most of it in small tracts suitable for tourist convenience stores and a sewing operation. The act passed Congress in 1984.