If the Indian will go to work, will form habits of industry, we will have no need for the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, no need for the establishment of Indian agencies, no need for Indian agents. We will be our own agents and commissioners.
A number of years ago a Lakota elder, Wilma Crowe, opened her hand and showed me a citizenship medal that her family received at a ceremony on her reservation when she was a child. Prior to 1924, when Congress passed a universal citizenship act, American Indians had uneven access to US citizenship.2 One of the processes through which citizenship could be conferred was linked to allotment and required the assessment of Indian homes and families by a Competency Commission, a team of three white men appointed by the federal government. The commission would determine competency in the English language, degree of Indian blood, conversion to Christianity, stability of marriage and children, sobriety, and other personal characteristics. The commission would measure the size of Indian domiciles and outbuildings, count the livestock, plows, and harnesses, and make note of the presence of middle-class furnishings such as pianos and telephones. American Indians deemed “competent” under these measures were conferred citizenship, often in an elaborate staged ceremony. In the ceremony government officials and Indians would stand together on a platform. The Indian men were given arrows and instructed to break the arrows or shoot them a final time, promising that they would no longer fight the government. Then they were instructed to place their hands on a plow [End Page 45] and vow to become farmers. Women were given sewing kits. Following this set of performances, men and women deemed “competent” would step forward to receive their land title allotments and confirmation of their new citizenship status.3
Wilma Crowe was a child when she observed this kind of ceremony, and her father was one of the tribal leaders who participated. He broke the arrow, she said, but he refused to place his hand on the plow. When he did this, she and her siblings began to cry, thinking that his refusal would mean that they would not become citizens. But of course everything proceeded as planned, and after the ceremony, she said, they all got in their car and drove off the reservation to get ice cream in the neighboring town.
Then she said to me: “People today don’t know what that means, to drive off the reservation.”
Those words stayed with me: People today don’t know what that means, to drive off the reservation. What did it mean for that first generation after Wounded Knee to seek a form of political agency—citizenship—from within a material reality in which the reservation boundaries were heavily policed? One could not, or did not, simply drive off the reservation. What did political agency for Indians mean in a time when Indian Agents wielded a great deal of economic and carceral power? What thoughts of political agency were possible when the Indian Agency controlled the quotidian facts of Indian life: food rations, bank accounts, crossing the threshold of the reservation or the blockhouse?
When the Society of American Indians formed in 1911, it faced this question: what would be the future of Indian agency? Long weary of legal wardship and a reservation system that assigned Indian agency to Indian Agents, the sai advocated for birthright citizenship. With citizenship, advocates argued, Indians would no longer be impaired by wardship status or have their agency displaced into the bodies of Indian Agents.4 In other words, the sai would lend the phrases “Indian agent” and “Indian agency” new meanings that empowered, rather than subordinated, Indian bodies and autonomy. At the time, American Indians had qualified access to US citizenship—that is, political agency as understood within a liberal, individual rights political system—through meeting certain criteria aimed to diminish their identities as “Indians” (Prucha, Great 681–86).5 Yet citizen Indians were the exception rather than the rule, and the franchise came at a price. When the sai was [End Page 46] founded, it was generally the case...