While Barnett’s story appears significant, it is profoundly convoluted and laden with ambiguity, paradox and the selfish hidden agendas of the people who left stories about him and his wealth (Thorne P. 6). There is a cartoonish character to his rags to wealth story that reveals the serious and intractable nature of issues of the American Indian policies that underlay it. Through his story, a window is presented through which one can see the crisis and transition of the Indian policy. Barnett appeared to lack any idea on how he could spend his fortune and in fact had limited access to it. Before 1920, he could only receive a few dollars annually as his direct payments. The rest of his wealth was managed by the Okmulgee County court and the Department of the Interior. He was forced the world richest Indian to be locked in a state of genteel poverty, until early 1920 when he met a woman named Anna whom he elopes with on the very first day he meets her (Thorne p. 7).
On many occasions, Creeks were torn apart by civil wars and found themselves in staggering hardships and eccentricities of the America’s rich Indians. The non-Indians seemed amused and envious of Barnett’s wealth as the native Indian population was undeserving to them. Purchasing and misusing of modern luxury properties by the “primitive” Indian sparked racist humor and condemnation. The American society was fascinated by the stories of the rich Oklahoma Indians and was appalled by the nature of trespass on the protestant belief of industrial work ethics, frugality and simplicity (Thorne p. 8).
2) In what way is it about the successful defense of some kinds of Indian rights?
Initially, the responsibility of the Bureau of Indian Affairs was to assist Indians in the progress towards cultural, social and economic adjustment. The decision that was made by the U.S Supreme Court’s Cherokee v. Georgia in 1831 defined the relationship of the federal government with the Native American Indians as resembling the relationship between a guardian and a ward (Thorne p. 9). Thus, the federal government showed a commitment to a paternalistic role in defending of Indians from abuse, protection of treaty held land properties from intruders and even guided them. It was referred to as the “U.S federal trust” relationship. Another decision made by the U.S Supreme Court in United States v. Kagama saw the codification of the Indian ward-ship principle into law. With passing of the Dawes Act, the relationship between the federal and the native Indians was redefined. The 1886 act inaugurated an assimilation policy with a target of all Indians acquiring U.S citizenship the moment their cultures and tribal institutions were eradicated. The Indians were expected to be self-sufficient farmers on their 160-acre allotments. It was viewed that once the bureau accomplished the task of educating Indians of their responsibilities as U.S citizens and farming, the bureau would have achieved its mission and could work itself out (Thorne p. 10). Progressive congressmen pushed for legislation that protected the defenseless and initiated processes that saw the liberation of the Indians. This corrective made the peculiar legal status and liberation of the otherwise“restricted Indian” who was viewed as incompetent, racially weak, uneducated and lacking business training (Thorne p. 17).
3) In sum, what does the story tell us about the legal status of American Indians in the early 20th century?
Barnett’s story is one of the many major agents in the early 20th-century of Native American history involving Indian culture, economy, administration and policies (Thorne p. 12). It resembles a case study of a struggle for power among many interested parties to control the wealth of the Native Indians. It is an illumination of the wide principles of laws that awarded authority to government agencies and certain individuals the authority to manage Indian wealth. Thus, it elucidates the legal vehicles and political structures to transfer Indian property to other non-Indians after undermining of tribal institutions and treaty rights. In the early 20th century, the unpopular Indian bureau struggled to find a path between polarities of the Indian liberation and protection (Thorne p. 14). The Dawes act that shortly followed in 1887 saw the deliverance of Indian estate properties to non-Indians, and about two-thirds of treaty lands owned by Indians was transferred to non-Indians by 1930s. Teddy Roosevelt described the 1887 Dawes acts as; “a mighty pulverizing engine to break up the tribal mass” that had serious implications to the native American-Indian (Thorne P. 20).
Thorne, Tanis C. The World's Richest Indian: The scandal over Jackson Barnettes Oil FortuneNew York: Oxford University, 2003.West, Indian Resilience and Rebuilding: Indigenous Nations in the Modern American. Pp. 3-215