How the Dust Bowl hurt Native Americans

“Global Environmental Ethics” Honors Term Paper

From the earliest days of American expansion, the decisions of the United States government have been ruinous to the land and the Native Americans who lived there first. Plains Indians were found along the Arkansas River as long ago as the early 1500s, thriving on bison that lived on the endless prairie grasses. Originally populated by the Apache, the Panhandle became dominated by the “Lords of the Plains,” or Comanche, from eastern Wyoming (Egan 15). They comprised a highly developed civilization, complete with stellar horseback and breeding skills, sign language to communicate through the roaring wind, and effective warrior tactics. More remarkably, perhaps, is the fact that they sustainably lived on these seemingly barren “Staked Plains” (16-17). Yet as Texas and later other parts of the United States recognized the worth of “the prairie where the wind blew free” in the mid-1800s (17), they bypassed treaties guaranteeing their rights and encouraged settlers to move West with the Homestead Act of 1862. The Curtis Act of 1898 confirmed the movement had been occurring for decades, as Native Americans, already outnumbered two-fold, saw their republics dissolve and “communal holdings [turn] into individual allotments” (Dunbar-Ortiz 15). The United States ousted the Native Americans from the land and exposed these once-hearty ecosystems to the destructive agricultural practices of the Dust Bowl (Egan 18-19).

As studies of the “Indian race” (Hoxie 971) in the academic world gained a following and Manifest Destiny continued to flourish, the federal government and the settlers it encouraged felt justified in confining these estranged peoples to structured reservations in present-day Oklahoma and the Dakotas (Nichols 152). Although offered some rights by the Dawes General Allotment Act of 1887 (Olson 73, Hoxie 974), the tribes felt only more disempowered when treated as historical curiosities and puppets to the will of American society, robbed of their traditional power, economic means, and culture (50-51).

The next half century was filled with Native American resistance to the Americanization and denial of their rights imposed by the westward-expanding United States. Resistance to Christianity, Western schooling, and shrinking land ensued in the following decades, as the U.S. assumed what it believed was its duty to “civilize” these people. The Natives resisted in many forms, such as the Wounded Knee Massacre, while others felt it necessary to assimilate with “Pan-Indian” (Dickey 136) practices like peyotism (Deloria).

By the 1920s and 1930s, however, most of America saw this subjugation as being quite successful, despite Native dependence on government assistance. Native American advocate John Collier of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) worked to address some of the fundamental flaws in government-tribe relations in the early to mid-1930s, and, under the trusting and preoccupied Roosevelt administration, made a fair amount of headway in the form of the Indian Reorganization and Oklahoma Indian Welfare Acts (Olson 108-113, 120).

The Indian Reorganization Act, also known as the Wheeler-Howard Act of 1934, sought to guarantee rights that were quickly slipping out of the Native American grasp. Principally it functioned, or at least was intended to function, for purposes of land and resource conservation, extension of rights with regards to organizations and home rule, establishing credit, and providing education in vocational skills. As has proved common in the past, this sort of distanced intervention had many faults, notably that the jobs offered through the New Deal’s Civilian Conservation Corps helped younger Native Americans more than the others in systemic unemployment. Regardless of its evident flaws, Roosevelt, Collier, and the Secretary of the Interior Ickes endorsed the proposal, as did 70% of Native American tribes who saw few other chances as this sort of promise, and even less so of any promise with follow-through (The Effects of the Great Depression).

Although approaching the problem with the best of intentions, Collier’s institutions were sometimes not just ineffective but, in fact, counterproductive. With his spotty understanding of Native American culture, Collier was able to reverse some of the artistic and religious degradation incurred in earlier years through increased cultural rights and BIA assistance (Nichols 180-181).

But his seemingly helpful initiatives hampered Native revival in a few instances, notably through fence-building as assigned to the Indian Division of the Civilian Conversation Corps. The object – to separate Native American herds from overgrazed lands – was, in fact, useful in providing temporary relief to Native American workers such as the Sioux (Lawson 37), and even did some to revive the plains. However, this intertwining Dust Bowl-Native American restoration effort became problematic, for the government partially blamed Native American agricultural practices for the loose topsoil (Nichols 181-182). The BIA forced them to get rid of many of their animals, creatures the Natives treated as demonstrations of wealth and not as propagators of the environmental problem. Nonetheless, about 400,000 sheep and goats were sold or killed in the early 1930s, and the Natives blamed their forceful removal on Collier, ironically the member of government most invested in Native American wellbeing (182).

This initiative is best viewed in light of their three failed attempts to fully appreciate just how ignorant the United States was to the conditions under which they forced Native Americans to live, and to the culture and mindset of the Native Americans themselves. Originally, in 1933, the federal government merely bought thousands of sheep at insultingly low prices, so the Natives only had enough incentive to sell off their worst stock. Next the government switched to goats, for goats were “perceived … as far more destructive and less economically valuable than sheep.” However, because it was required that the same number of goats be taken from all herds, the poorest Natives incurred harsh losses due to the heightened reliance of their comparatively small herds on those animals. Again in 1935, the government tried to convince them to sell their livestock of their own will but, neglecting the importance of these herds on Native American lives, they managed to collect a mere ten percent of what they had expected to bring in (Flanders 436).

It was also around the time of the Great Depression and Dust Bowl that the federal government realized that permitting uninhibited use of federal land for livestock grazing allowed for “a classic instance of the Tragedy of the Commons,” where, in fact, that sort of communal landholding was far more natural to their way of life. To counter the seeming problem, Congress passed the Taylor Grazing Act in 1934 whereby they further restricted land usage with permits, fees, and governing bodies. (Flanders 429). Quite contrary to the migratory habits necessary for Native American survival, these additional limitations only served to weaken any sort of resources they had for autonomous sustainability.

While the impact of direct government programs on the Native Americans is fairly well-documented, few are aware of the tangential effects American environmental actions – specifically the Dust Bowl and following Missouri River projects – had on those populations. Like many of the Okies at the time, a significant number of Plains Indians fled westward in the 1930s to California as part of the greater Dust Bowl migration, constituting a significant portion of the California’s native population today (Fixico).

Yet quite a few others felt the main ramifications of the environmental destruction when the United States built main-stem reservoirs along the Missouri River in the decade after the Dust Bowl (Lawson 29), spurred by their new interest in using agricultural practices that would not be ruinous in the ways that over-farming with disc plows had been (The Dust Bowl).

The idea of sustainable practices really took hold due to Roosevelt’s dedication to saving the plains rather than “just pull[ing] out.” He put Howard Finnell to the task of teaching farmers better soil practices and new techniques for erosion control in a project called Operation Dust Bowl. Soil conservation districts were established and farm land was turned once again into grassland, each with their respective impacts on restoring the land to how it once was (The Dust Bowl).

The projects that had some of the most lasting impacts on the environment and native tribes, however, were those related to waterworks, particularly irrigation and dams. Located on top of the massive Ogallala Aquifer, farmers on No Man’s Land and the Texas Panhandle tapped into this natural sponge to water their crops, a dwindling reservoir that was converted for mass-production of cotton (Egan 310-311). Although many states took up measures to slow the dropping of the water table, farmers were grateful to have wells as a new irrigation source for agriculture after having suffered a decade with nothing but desolate prairie lands (Cunfer 186).

Besides the depletion of this natural store of water, there appeared another limit on the irrigation abilities of upper Missouri Basin farmers, namely proposals made by the Army Corps of Engineers for dam installation. They were motivated by complaints of lower-basin residents of damaging flooding and difficult navigation, as well as the appealing application to the New Deal push for job creation (Olson 14). The resulting Pick Plan would provide benefits downriver while limiting the irrigation ability of those up North in Wyoming, Montana, and North Dakota.

Consequentially, upstream residents called upon the Bureau of Reclamation to counter the project with the Sloan Plan, emphasizing the need for irrigation and development of power instead (Lawson 15). The heated argument between the Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation was resolved with the Missouri Valley Authority’s “Missouri Compromise” of late 1944, the far more comprehensive Pick-Sloan Plan that at least placated, although failed to completely satisfy, each side of the argument (17-19).

Many people held doubts about the effectiveness of this “loose joining of two already imperfect plans” in achieving the contradictory irrigation and navigation goals for the citizens located along the river (21). But amongst these uncertainties, only a few raised questions about the other major group it would impact: the Native American tribes located in already-diminished reservations along the river, particularly in North and South Dakota (28). Although it is difficult to determine in retrospect, historians suggest that the plans may have been arranged so as to favor destruction of Native American land – totaling twenty-three reservations with emphasis on five held by the Sioux – over that of American farmers (27).

One of the first issues arose as the Corps of Engineers set off to build Garrison Dam at the Fort Berthold Reservation (Billington 238). In May of 1945, at the end of the Second World War, General Pick spoke to the Three Affiliated Tribes – Mandan, Arikara, and Hidatsa (Lawson 27) – carrying both the message that they must leave and a weak promise of equitable land in return (Billington 239). The Native Americans living on the territory, wary of past promises from the U.S. government, fought the unjust seizure of their land and the inevitable lack of recompense, but with little avail. The Three Affiliated Tribes council reasoned that “the white people already owning that [comparable] land [would] have to be evicted” in order for them to move there. Knowing the United States had little intention of removing its own citizens in this manner, the council was “100 percent against the dam.” Eli Perkins, a member of the affiliated Arikara tribe, clearly expressed her “dislike for the Garrison dam project,” with its clear lack of representation and compensation for the hefty sacrifices they were being forced to make (Tweton).

Although Pick was fairly insistent that construction not start unless and until the Natives agreed to leave, the Corps of Engineers, confident that they would in one way or another be able to gain access to the Natives’ land, began construction prior to the legal finalization of any settlement. They staved off the project at first, giving Pick time to negotiate with the tribes, but felt they could do so no longer when a massive flood took place in 1947. Building took off full-fledged in response to cries from Missouri Valley citizens (Billington 240), as permitted by the United States under President Truman. The permission-granting legislation, forcefully rammed through Congress, allowed the immediate construction of a flood-control program. To mitigate the future plight of its citizens, the Truman administration shifted the burden of homeland destruction to the under-compensated 325 tribal families forced to abandon their homelands (241).

Similar ruinous dam construction occurred at Fort Randall, Oahe, and Big Bend in the following years (250). Fort Randall construction began in May 1946 on the Yankton reservation, flooding over a hundred Native families, and with them, the few governmental institutions located there to address their needs (Lawson 47-49). Soon after, in August 1948, the Oahe Dam began to take shape, severely impacting the Sioux’s relatively large Standing Rock and Cheyenne River reservations, destroying over 160,000 acres of valuable land and dismantling about 350 families and their local agencies (50-51). Construction on the Big Bend Dam was similarly harmful, starting in September 1959 despite the evident damages wrought by the former two projects (52).

Due to a movement initiated by frustrated Americans and a few assimilated Native Americans, the government sought a plan to compensate for tribal losses, to terminate their land claims, and to relocate them from their traditional regions into mainstream urban society, with the intention of simultaneously placating the American populace – who view them as a drain of tax dollars – and facilitating easier access to reservations needed for expansion (Olson 131-134). Although spanning from the 1940s to the 1960s, the movement really picked up steam with the Missouri River Basin Initiative (MRBI) Projects, starting in 1947 and presenting the BIA’s initial findings by 1949, at which point millions of dollars more had already poured into the damming projects (Lawson 46-47).

Losses were determined not just by assessing what had been done as a result of the Pick-Sloan Act, but also by considering the rights Native Americans had been given – and flagrantly denied – throughout the process. They were owed, amongst other things, virtually unencumbered rights to waterway usage thanks to the Winters Doctrine of 1907 and amending court rulings from the next half century (45-46), access clearly denied by the construction of artificial damming structures and access regulations. Another caustic denial was to the rights outlined in the Yankton Treaty of 1858, requiring “prior consent of the tribe and Congress” for land confiscation and, coupled with a 1920’s court decision, “prior congressional authorization.” These laws, however, did little to deter the passage of the self-serving Flood Control Act of 1944. The Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation, the two departments actualizing the Pick-Sloan Plan, persisted unabated (63), even in the face of ramifications like hundreds of displaced families, “entire communities inundated by water,” and the resulting economic desperation. Native American activists continued to bring these grievances to court for decades to come, grievances which the courts have heard and with which they have unsatisfactorily dealt within the last decade (United States).

What progress that was made was generally due to the Indian Claims Commission in the 1950s (Dickey 142). Groups such as the National Congress of American Indians (1944), the Association on American Indian Affairs (1947), and the attendees of the Southwestern Indian Conference (1949) strongly opposed the idea of termination, at least until a steady foundation could be established from which Native Americans could grow. Former avenues for making claims against the government were often barred to Natives or, if available, difficult to navigate and utilize (Olson 135), so the Claims Commission was established to facilitate the “review [of] all grievances against the federal government arising before 1946.” Once again, good intentions were far from adequate, as the Westerners made assumptions about what was necessary to appease and empower these people, people of an incredibly different way of life. Amongst other failures of understanding, one failing was that the government offered money rather than land as payment (137), and tried to impost per capita payments to tribal members rather than a single, larger sum that could be used communally (Danforth 365).

Subjected to ever-diminishing plots of land and generally inadequately assimilated to Western schooling and culture, the Sioux lacked both the natural and intellectual resources necessary to be economically self-sustaining in the 1950s and 1960s (Lawson 41). What few pieces of the environment they did have were often inaccessible in one form or another, from inadequate ability to harvest them to legislation limiting their rights to use land that was technically theirs (41-42). Even cattle-raising had its limitations, due to land constraints in proportion to the number of available native workers (43). They saw their only real hope in payments from the government to make up for their tremendous losses in land and resources, with compensation in the form of societal and even water-access improvement programs. Their optimism about this government, the creator of the Indian Claims Commission, were proven to be ill-placed, as they were once again denied much of what they knew they deserved and were cyclically unable to become self-sufficient (43-44).

Despite changing legal doctrines, a stark pattern of American relocation of the Natives is clear, as government and settlers alike time and time again neglected to recognize the tribes as people, but instead viewed them as backwards nuisances in the way of development. The “anti-Indian bias” (Nichols 188) persisted from the first mass excursions out West to the present day. Research by the Environmental Protection Agency suggests that due to the placement and decreased size of Native American landholdings, the 65 tribes that remain in the Great Plains are still feeling the ramifications of the discrimination of decades ago, as they grow only more dependent on outside resources as their own reliable soil, quality rangelands, and water sources become scarcer. This, in turn, encourages the younger generations to leave their living ancestors for the comforts and opportunities of the society that has oppressed them all of these years in a bitterly ironic vicious cycle (“Great Plains Impacts & Adaptation,” 2013).

Like so many other disadvantaged American populations, the Native Americans were criticized as being leeches on the system and culturally subpar, where research shows that much of this perception is due simply to our own jingoistic biases and resulting rights discrimination. After centuries of expulsion from their lands, subjugation to foreign practices, belittlement in the public and legal eye, and denial of basic human rights, this once-resilient category of peoples has been stripped of its culture and dignity and resigned to the self-actualizing stereotype Westerners have imposed on them far before the relative helplessness was true. The Dust Bowl, often seen merely through the eyes of the reckless farmers who made it happen, inflicted a perhaps greater and less deserved hardships on the Native Americans whose ancestral land the farmers occupied and ruined.

Works Cited

Billington, David P., and Donald C. Jackson. Big Dams of the New Deal Era: A Confluence of Engineering and Politics. Norman: University of Oklahoma, 2006. Print.

Cunfer, Geoff. On the Great Plains: Agriculture and Environment. College Station: Texas A & M UP, 2005. Print.

Danforth, Sandra C. “Repaying Historical Debts: The Indian Claims Commission.”HeinOnline. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Nov. 2013. <;.

Deloria, Philip J., and Christopher K. Riggs. “Native Americans.” Encyclopedia of the Great Plains. N.p., 2011. Web. 16 Nov. 2013.

Dickey, Michael E. The People of the River’s Mouth: In Search of the Missouria Indians. Columbia: University of Missouri, 2011. Print.

Dunbar-Ortiz, Roxanne. Red Dirt: Growing up Okie. London: Verso, 1997. Print.

The Dust Bowl. Dir. Ken Burns. PBS, 2012. DVD.

The Effects of the Great Depression on American Society with Concentration on Minorities and the NIRA. El Paso: University of Texas at El Paso, n.d. PPT.

Egan, Timothy. The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. Print.

Fixico, Donald. “American Indians.” Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History & Culture. Oklahoma Historical Society, 2007. Web. 17 Nov. 2013.

Flanders, Nicholas E. “Native American Sovereignty and Natural Resource Management.” Human Ecology 26.3 (1998): Springer. Web. 27 Nov. 2013.

“Great Plains Impacts & Adaptation.” EPA. Environmental Protection Agency, 9 Sept. 2013. Web. 27 Nov. 2013.

Hoxie, Frederick E. “Exploring a Cultural Borderland: Native American Journeys of Discovery in the Early Twentieth Century.” The Journal of American History 79.3 (1992): 969-95. Print.

Lawson, Michael L. Dammed Indians: The Pick-Sloan Plan and the Missouri River Sioux, 1944-1980. Norman: University of Oklahoma, 1982. Print.

Nichols, Roger L. American Indians in U.S. History. Norman: University of Oklahoma, 2003. Print.

Olson, James S., and Raymond Wilson. Native Americans in the Twentieth Century. Provo: Brigham Young UP, 1984. Print.

Tweton, D. J. “The Debate on Garrison Dam: Differing Viewpoints.” North Dakota Studies. North Dakota Humanities Council, n.d. Web. 17 Nov. 2013.

United States. Senate. Committee on Indian Affairs. Impact of the Flood Control Act of 1944 on Indian Tribes Along the Missouri River. N.p.: n.p., 2007. U.S. Government Printing Office, 2008. Web. 18 Nov. 2013.


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