The Struggle for Self-Determination


The Struggle for Self-Determination

History of the Menominee Indians since 1854

David R. M. Beck

296 pages


September 2007


$24.95 Add to Cart

About the Book

Drawing on meticulous archival research and a close working relationship with the Menominee Historic Preservation Department, David R. M. Beck picks up where his earlier work, Siege and Survival: History of the Menominee Indians, 1634–1856, ended. The Struggle for Self-Determination begins with the establishment of a small reservation in the Menominee homeland in northeastern Wisconsin at a time when the Menominee economic, political, and social structure came under aggressive assault. For the next hundred years the tribe attempted to regain control of its destiny, enduring successive policy attacks by governmental, religious, and local business sources.
The Menominee’s rich forests became a battleground on which they refused to cede control to the U.S. government. The struggle climaxed in the mid-twentieth century when the federal government terminated its relationship with the tribe. Throughout this time the Menominee fought to maintain their connection to their past and to regain control of their future. The lessons they learned helped them through their greatest modern disaster—termination—and enabled them to reconstruct a government and a reservation as the twentieth century drew to a close. The Struggle for Self-Determination reinterprets that story and includes the viewpoint of the Menominee in the telling of it.

Author Bio

David R. M. Beck is a professor of Native American studies at the University of Montana. He is the author of Siege and Survival: History of the Menominee Indians, 1634–1856 (Nebraska 2002), which won the Wisconsin Historical Society Book Award of Merit.


Beck, David R.M. The struggle for self-determination: history of the Menominee Indians since 1854. Nebraska,
2006 (c2005). 290p bibl index afp ISBN 0803213476, $49.95
Beck (Univ. of Montana) continues where his previous volume Siege and Survival (CH, Jun'03, 40-5982) left off--the
inception of the reservation experience for the Menominee people of Wisconsin. Buffeted by the earlier forces of the
fur trade, intertribal rivalries, and unjust government policies, the Menominees adjusted to the changing realities. Their
response did not include martial resistance, nor did they passively yield to white demands. They realistically merged
old traditions with new frameworks and strategies, often creating novel institutions in the process. Rather than accept
the agricultural life that whites tried to dictate to them, the Menominees continued to rely on their beloved forests and
achieved a viable timber economy during the early 20th century. The tribe was harmed by government
mismanagement of their resources, especially the Termination legislation of the 1950s and early 1960s that ended their
treaty status, initiated taxes on their resources, and led them to economic devastation. Beck skillfully synthesizes the
downward spiral of the Menominee economy, but he also admirably documents their successful legal fight to restore
their tribal status and maintain their cultural values. Utilizing a vast array of sources, including numerous interviews
with Menominees and their tribal records, he has produced the best single book on the subject. Summing Up: Highly
recommended. For all adult levels/libraries.

THE STRUGGLE FOR SELF-DETERMINATION: HISTORY OF THE MENOMINEE INDIANS SINCE 1854, by David R.M. Beck (University of Nebraska Press; 290 pages; $49.95). Traces the group's history since the establishment of a small reservation in their homeland of northeastern Wisconsin; topics include the mid-20th century crisis of "termination," when the federal government ended its relationship with the tribe.

David R. M. Beck. The Struggle for Self-Determination: History of the Menominee Indians Since 1854. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005. xxviii + 296 pp. Illustrations, maps, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN 0-8032-1347-6.
Defining a Menominee Future
In The Struggle for Self-Determination, Beck presents the second part of a two-book history of the Menominee Indians. His first study, Siege and Survival: History of the Menominee Indians, 1634-1856, was published in 2002 and recounts the manner in which the Menominees of Wisconsin negotiated the intrusions of French, British, and American colonizers and managed to retain both a diminished reservation and their cultural autonomy. Siege and Survival places Menominees in the forefront of the historical narrative, and Beck ably reveals that while the pressures of outsiders gradually undermined the power of the nation and its leaders in the first centuries of contact, the Menominees' core cultural values grounded their ability to resist the intrusions. As he now illustrates with great success in the continuation of that history, the Menominee cultural foundation did not crumble as tribal leaders repeatedly faced off against the U.S. government after 1854.
The title of the preface, "Shaping a Tribally Defined Existence," aptly introduces both the intentions of the Menominees from 1854 to the present and Beck's presentation of that history. As he did in his first book, Beck delivers a comprehensive narrative that incorporates the voices of those Indians and non-Indians who played important roles in events. The thirteen chapters that follow the preface detail the Menominee struggle with the U.S. government that never strayed far from three areas--land, timber, and culture. From the battles over timber management and the development of the tribal economy to the promotion of agriculture and the concept of civilization, this contest rested on a fundamental philosophical difference between Menominees and U.S. officials. "The two cultures simply defined success in radically different ways," Beck writes. "So while both sides seemed to have the same goals--Menominee success in modern American culture--their definitions of success differed so drastically that they were constantly at loggerheads with each other" (p. 128).
In the early years on the reservation in northeastern Wisconsin the Menominees showed a willingness to work with American officials to ensure the economic stability of their people, even if it meant shifting their focus to agriculture. Problems arose, however, when poor soil and environmental troubles undermined the Menominees' efforts. When the Menominees sought a new approach to subsistence and survival, they came up against American officials who refused to abandon the vision of Indian farmers. In short, "federal officials seemed concerned with form while the tribe desired substance" (p. 8). This proved a sticking point for the remainder of the century and beyond, and even as the Menominees suffered and the population dropped severely in the late 1800s, government agents and other officials emphasized agricultural dependence as the only proper path for the future.
Though the Menominees viewed their circumstances from an alternate perspective and had different expectations, they could not escape federal oversight and intrusion. Beginning in 1871, first symbolically and then practically, the Menominees and the U.S. government struggled over control of the timber spread throughout the reservation. A mix of pine trees, aspens, hardwoods, and cedar grew on the reserve that encompassed nearly one quarter of a million acres. The Menominees knew the value of this natural resource but held fast to the principle that a timber-based economy served to benefit the community as a whole, and was not meant to support the success of a few, much less the interests of non-Menominees. Yet the weight of federal paternalism overwhelmed Menominee efforts from the late 1800s into the first several decades of the 1900s. Even legislation like the 1908 LaFollette Act, which theoretically provided for sustained-yield timber production and management according to tribal interests, became an avenue for federal control and micromanagement.
The first quarter of the twentieth century was the low point for Menominee self-governance. But under the leadership of men like Mitchell Oshkenaniew and organizations such as the Menominee League of Women Voters the Menominees began to fight back. In the 1920s and 1930s they resisted allotment, protested forest mismanagement, and proposed a Menominee corporation that would enable the tribe to control its economic future and preserve its cultural traditions. Yet while they voted overwhelmingly to accept the Indian Reorganization Act in 1934, they rejected incorporation as defined by John Collier and the Office of Indian Affairs. The sequence of events was a perfect example of the dangerous line walked by tribal leaders and members into the 1970s. Though constantly striving for tribal self-government and control of resources on the reservation, the Menominees were also justifiably wary of the consequences of ending the trust relationship with the federal government.
As those familiar with Menominee history are aware, the very success of Menominee resistance to federal control was both a catalyst and a justification for government-sponsored termination of that trust relationship in 1954. Beck details the specific effects of this government legislation as well as the fight led against it by Menominees on and off the reservation. Yet while the Menominee Restoration Act of 1973 marked a crucial victory that cannot be overstated, Beck places that moment at the beginning of another series of conflicts and struggles faced by the Menominees as they negotiated relations with the US government during the latter decades of the twentieth century. Despite expanded economic development, including the opening of a casino in the 1980s, Menominee County maintained its position as the poorest in the state in 2002. Beck does conclude on a positive note, observing that the continued existence of the forest on the reservation is "a visible symbol of the successful fight for survival and self-determination of the Menominee people" (p. 188). At the same time, however, he also includes words of caution, knowing that the Menominees will always have to defend their position against those who would use tribal self-governance and economic stability as a springboard for ending the federal trust relationship.
Though less than two hundred pages of text, this is a dense book that requires the reader's full attention. Even Beck admits that the historical events covered "are almost overwhelming when studied in detail" (p. xvi). But this history cannot be told properly without the detail he includes. And the narrative operates within a framework and from a perspective that Beck, in partnership with the Menominee Historic Preservation Department, constructed to represent the interests of both historical scholarship and the Menominee community. All told, he has written an impressive study that, together with Siege and Survival, presents an unbroken and valuable narrative that relates the consistent efforts made by Menominee men and women to preserve their cultural, political, and economic foundations even as they adapted to the changing world around them.

The Shoshone-Bannocks: Culture and Commerce at Fort Hall, 1870–1940. By John W. Heaton. (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2005. x, 340 pp. $39.95, ISBN 0-7006-1402-8.)
The Struggle for Self-Determination: History of the Menominee Indians since 1854. By David R. M. Beck. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005. xviii, 290 pp. $49.95, ISBN 0-8032-1347-6.)
     Nineteenth-century Indian reservations were meant to be machines for assimilation. They were to be transitory places where, under the direction of federal agents, tribes would dissolve, leaving behind individual Indians ready to disappear into modern America. Native peoples, however, turned these temporary institutions into permanent homelands, adapting tribal cultures to new conditions. Historians have lately begun to pay greater attention to reservation communities, and both books under review make substantial contributions to this important literature.
      John W. Heaton meticulously examined the Shoshone-Bannocks of Idaho's Fort Hall reservation, focusing on their interaction with the market economy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Before the reservation, they were hunters and gatherers with an economy dependent on the ability of small kin groups to respond efficiently to changing resources. That flexibility, Heaton suggested, served the Shoshone-Bannocks well at Fort Hall where they merged traditions of communal subsistence with market-oriented practices. Some families, for example, cut hay in Fort Hall's river bottoms, selling it to non-Indian ranchers. Echoing pre-reservation practices, kin groups maintained seasonal rights to cut in particular places. They would camp in these locations during the harvest and then move elsewhere to hunt, fish, and gather wild plants—an arrangement that was not terribly different from the seasonal migrations of earlier times. Heaton noted similar patterns among small-scale farmers who cultivated land but also traveled, sometimes beyond reservation borders, to make use of traditional resources. By integrating new economic practices into older ways of life, Heaton suggested, Shoshone-Bannocks were able to gain some of the benefits of the market economy while maintaining communities capable of fending off assimilation-minded agents. Fort Hall residents, in fact, developed a reputation in the Indian bureau for both economic success and resistance to assimilation.
      In addition to examining economic practices, Heaton discussed the impact of the market economy on Shoshone-Bannock politics. During the period he covered, disputes emerged over land use, the federal government's allotment policy, and, later, over the Indian Reorganization Act. Outsiders, Heaton noted, generally interpreted those as conflicts between "progressives" and "traditionalists" or between "mixed bloods" and "full bloods," but such readings seldom held true. Instead, Fort Hall residents divided politically according to competing economic models, all of which represented some kind of adaptation to the market. So when the hay cutters were at odds with cattlemen around the turn of the century, it was not a matter of "progressives" versus "traditionalists," but a dispute between competing ideas of how best to make use of new economic conditions. Struggles to integrate into the market economy created political conflict, but neither side was trying to assimilate. Heaton also included a valuable discussion of how cultural and religious practices, such as sun dance, helped Fort Hall residents bridge differences in their communities caused by diverging economic activities.
      David R. M. Beck wrote about a very different people, the Menominee of Wisconsin, but he has told a similar story of adaptation. The book is a sequel to Beck's excellent Siege and Survival (2002), which recounted Menominee history from European contact through the creation of the tribe's reservation in the 1850s. In this new book, Beck examined the Menominees' subsequent struggles to preserve their land and establish a viable economy. The Menominee reservation held rich timber resources, making it a target for Wisconsin's powerful logging interests. Federal agents pushed the tribe to sell timber land, but the Menominees refused. Instead, they asked that they, as a tribe, be allowed to manage their timber. Beck saw in this model a pursuit of traditional community values within the market economy. Menominees agreed with the agents that the timber industry represented an opportunity. As Beck put it, they wanted the American dream. But they wanted to prosper collectively rather than as individuals. The purpose of the forest was not simply to create wealth but to support and preserve the tribal community over the long term.
      The Menominees, Beck explained, stuck to that position in confronting one American policy after another, from allotment to the Indian Reorganization Act. They sought to wrest control of the timber from Indian agents while keeping the reservation under the protection of federal trust status. Federal officials, however, took the opposite tack. They insisted on managing Menominee resources (quite incompetently, as it happened) while trying to convince the tribe to give up the trust relationship and fend for themselves as individuals. The federal approach found its apogee in the termination campaign of the 1950s. A Menominee council accepted termination of the tribe in 1953, under what Beck described as false pretenses. The tribe reversed its position almost immediately, but termination became law a year later. Beck recounted the troubles that followed: poverty, political factionalism, and (in a terrible irony) even greater federal interference in Menominee affairs than before.
      Beck concluded the book with a short but valuable account of the Menominees' successful campaign to reverse termination in the 1970s and a description of contemporary tribal enterprises. Today, he suggested, the Menominees have come close to achieving the kind of self-determination their leaders have sought since the late nineteenth century. This raises a vital point. Reservation histories are important in their own right, but they are also essential if one is to understand the Native American political resurgence of the recent past. Both of these admirable studies are recommended to anyone interested in the persistence of Native American communities after conquest and their ongoing revitalization in contemporary America.

"Beck skillfully synthesizes the downward spiral of the Menonimee economy, but he also admirably documents their successful legal fight to restore their tribal status and maintain their cultural values. Utilizing a vast array of sources, including numerous interviews with Menominees and their tribal records, he has produced the best single book on the subject."—Choice

“Recommended to anyone interested in the persistence of Native American communities after conquest and their ongoing revitalization in contemporary America.”—Journal of American History

“This work is so much more than a study of survival; instead, it is a model of how the evolving theoretical use of agency can serve to explain native history, either on tribal, national, or regional levels. . . . Here is a case study in active agency—a work that successfully moves beyond the study of Indian history as one of victimization and violence.”—Anthony G. Gulig, Michigan Historical Review

“This is an impressive and fine piece of historical scholarship and no one will ever be able to write another history of the Menominee without studying Beck carefully. His comprehensive chronological narrative of the colonial administrative history of the Menominee reservation—and Indian efforts to shape the same—has set a standard for archival research”—Larry Nesper, American Indian Culture & Research Journal


Winner of the 2006 WHS Book Award, sponsored by the Wisconsin Historical Society

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