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Jimmy Belvin and the Rise of Tribal Sovereignty, 1944-48

By Richard Green

February 2009 Times

Introduction: To end tribal affairs of the Chickasaw and Choctaw nations, the United States government and the nations signed an agreement in 1897 specifying that the U.S. would purchase all of the tribes’ land not allotted to individual tribal members. Most of the land was jointly owned by the two nations; by virtue of the Treaty of 1855, the Choctaws had a three-fourths share and the Chickasaws one-fourth. More than 400,000 acres had not been allotted because they contained huge deposits of coal and more modest deposits asphalt. In 1902, the three parties signed another agreement in which the U.S. pledged to purchase the coal and asphalt parcels of lands within three years. But despite U.S. participation in two world wars, during which energy needs were very high, the tribes still owned about 378,000 acres of coal land in 1945.

One

Ironically, by the end of World War II when the superpower United States was finally prepared to conduct negotiations with the tribes to buy the mineral land and close out the two tribes, a grass-roots movement promoting tribal sovereignty was emerging in the Choctaw Nation.

It was grassroots because the tribal administrators, Choctaw Chief William Durant and Governor Floyd Maytubby, were not sympathetic to the movement. They had been appointed by the U.S. to preside over the liquidation of the tribal domains and they were intent on carrying out that mandate.

This was reinforced in 1944 when Congress passed a bill authorizing negotiations for the sale of the coal and asphalt land.

There was more action among the Choctaws than the Chickasaws in the movement then for two reasons. The Choctaws had had several chiefs serve in the 20th century, while only two Chickasaws had served as governor since Oklahoma statehood in 1907. Moreover, Maytubby was entrenched politically in the job because as a loyal Democrat and party functionary he had the support of the state’s Democratic congressional delegation.

The second reason was probably more important. The leader of the Choctaw grass-roots movement was Harry J.W. “Jimmy” Belvin, who had the qualities needed to galvanize action and support. He was experienced, educated, articulate, dynamic, ambitious and tenacious. And, he was vocationally and geographically well-placed, as the Bryant County Superintendent of Public Instruction, living in Durant, the former Choctaw capital. Furthermore, Belvin wanted to revitalize tribal government, not shut it down.

While most Choctaws and Chickasaws were primarily interested in receiving a share of the proceeds from the sale of the mineral land, Belvin’s request in 1945 for a tribal election to select a chief struck a responsive cord among small pockets of tribal members across southeast Oklahoma.

Actually, some members of the Choctaw-Chickasaw Confederation had written in 1944 to members of Oklahoma’s congressional delegation requesting that Chief Durant not be reappointed to another term. Most wrote to Congressman William Stigler, himself a Choctaw, representing the Second District, which contained most Choctaws and many Chickasaws. Stigler didn’t make the appointment, the secretary of Interior did. But the secretary was influenced greatly by Oklahoma’s congressmen. “Chief W.A. Durant has lost his influence and popularity with his constituents,” wrote A.W. Hancock, who identified himself as a general missionary to the Five Civilized Tribes in his 1944 letter. He appended a list of 29 Choctaws living in Stigler, OK who opposed Durant’s reappointment.

The problem with Hancock and other petitioners is that most of them didn’t nominate a candidate, except for the occasional critic who immodestly offered himself as an applicant.

What they probably didn’t know was that Stigler was firmly in Durant’s camp, to the point of advising the chief to mobilize supporters to counter the unfavorable petitions with petitions of their own. Durant followed the advice, and in March 1946 Interior officials and members of the state congressional delegation received a resolution supporting Durant from his friends and associates, styling themselves the Choctaw Advisory Council. This group included Muriel Wright and Czarina Conlan of the Oklahoma Historical Society. Aside from leading the move to get Durant reappointed, Stigler also tried unsuccessfully to secure Durant a four-year term, not just the normal two years.

Two

In 1946, groups of Choctaws were again organizing to protest the chief’s reappointment. But this time, their petition included two new items. First, they claimed that Chief Durant and Gov. Maytubby had made no progress on the sale of the mineral lands, during a time when numerous destitute Choctaws and Chickasaws desperately needed the financial assistance that the sale would have provided through per capita payments. Maytubby’s friend and supporter, Oklahoma Supreme Court Judge Earl Welch estimated that 500 to 600 Chickasaws qualified as “destitute.”

Second, Choctaws were sending resolutions endorsing Jimmy Belvin. Two, from tribal members individually assembled at Hugo and Oklahoma City, were forwarded to Interior and the delegation by Myrtle Creason, chair of the Choctaws of Oklahoma County and an indefatigable and articulate supporter of Belvin. Ben Dwight, Choctaw tribal attorney and an aid to Oklahoma Governor Robert S. Kerr, claimed that Creason was engineering Belvin’s entire campaign for the appointment and was greatly exaggerating the claims that Choctaws overwhelmingly supported Belvin.

The anti-Durant claim, however, that no progress had been made on selling the mineral lands was not technically true. In 1946, Durant and Maytubby and their attorneys finally settled on a selling price of $33.1 million. This claim was based on appraised value and the equities arising from the long delay in complying with the government’s obligation to sell the properties by 1905. The government’s appraisal, however, came in at $2.2 million, which was by far the lowest of several estimates made by the government over the years.

Meanwhile, Stigler repeatedly contacted Interior officials on behalf of Chief Durant’s reappointment. In doing so, he noted the “impracticability” of holding a Choctaw election for chief. He brought up questions about who could vote and the method. He added the remarkably anti-democratic statement that an election would only “engender bitter feelings among the various factions and groups representing the applicants.”

There were only two main factions, one supporting Durant’s reappointment and one of apparently growing numbers lining up behind Belvin. While both factions wanted the coal and asphalt lands to be sold, the Belvin-led group wanted tribal elections and tribal government restored.

Nevertheless, Stigler’s letter may have carried the day for Durant, whom he addressed in a confidential letter dated July 17, 1946. He wrote that while “considerable sentiment has been built up within the Department [Interior] to hold an election, he was advised that day that no election will be held this time and “you will be appointed for another two-year term. I rejoice with you in being reappointed.”

Three

If Belvin was disappointed, his correspondence to federal officials didn’t slow down, but increased from January 1947, when Carl Albert was elected to Congress from Oklahoma’s Third District. Since Albert represented many Choctaws and Chickasaws, Belvin was pinning his hopes on Albert being sympathetic to the cause of tribal sovereignty.

On January 31, 1947, Belvin wrote long letters to Albert, Stigler, both senators and the Indian Affairs office. He criticized the stalling and again requested action by the government to create a nominating convention for the next Choctaw chief. In his letter to the superintendent of the Five Civilized Tribes, Belvin wrote that if the government will not act, the Choctaws will. He said this wasn’t a threat, but a “simple fact. We are tired to death of a bureaucratic system of government that robs the individual Indian of his identity.”

Belvin attempted to give assurance that his activism was not based on personal gain, and then put his request to Senator Elmer Thomas in capital letters: A NOMINATING CONVENTION TO GIVE CHOCTAWS A VOICE IN THE DEMOCRATIC SELECTION OF THE NEXT CHIEF. But in writing to the Five Tribes superintendent, W.O. Roberts, he took off the gloves: “It is very obvious you are not in sympathy with the move to give the Choctaws a little taste of democracy in the selection of their Chief. And we thank God that you are not the one who has all the say in setting Indian policies.”

When the superintendent replied, in effect, that it was the beneficence of the Indian office, rather than a mandatory obligation, that led to the effort to gage the Choctaw people’s choice for chief, Belvin’s response dripped with sarcasm. After noting that “your generosity is all but overwhelming,” he reminded Roberts that he had nothing to do with that initiative. “You were handed the results of the instructions obtained through my efforts last summer, and you know it.” Then, he challenged Roberts to come to Bryan County to discuss the matters with him before a Choctaw audience.

Roberts did not accept, so Belvin and other Choctaws and Chickasaws kept up the pressure by meeting and passing resolutions such as one from a Durant meeting in April 1947. The resolution first noted that ample time had passed since Congress enacted the 1944 enabling legislation, and that during this time, many Choctaws and Chickasaws who would have shared in the proceeds had died.

Second, the resolution asked President Harry Truman to remove the leaders of both tribes (Durant and Maytubby) “for negligence of duty and refusal to look after the interest of the tribes in this negotiation. Third, the petitioners requested the BIA and Pres. Truman to “grant us a democratic process in the selection of our tribal officials.”

In a March 1947 letter to Belvin, Carl Albert wrote that he realized that “there are people who do not want the land sold but I know that this does not represent the views of the majority of Indians.” Because there is nothing to this effect in Albert’s 1947 correspondence, there is no explanation of why this minority objected to the sale. But in numerous letters received in the mid-1940s, Choctaws and Chickasaws repeatedly state or imply that they don’t trust the government in the handling of tribal affairs.

Four

By late March, neither the Interior Department nor the tribes had budged on their offers for the mineral land, but word was that negotiations would resume in late April or early May. But, after speaking with Acting BIA Commissioner Zimmerman, Albert concluded that he was both ignorant and intransigent on the sale. Albert was so angry and exasperated with the BIA that he was considering a bill to abolish the BIA and transfer its functions to another agency.

While Albert was just a first-term congressman, perhaps Zimmerman recognized the diminutive (five feet four) man’s capabilities and the beginnings of a troublesome alliance with the highly vocal Jimmy Belvin, and the Choctaws and Chickasaws he represented. At any rate, negotiations began soon after Albert started talking, in effect, about firing the entire BIA.

When the negotiations began on April 28, 1947, Belvin and members of the Choctaw-Chickasaw Confederation were invited to observe, but not participate. Chickasaws included Hollis Hampton and the Reverend Jess Humes, a former adviser to the late Gov. Douglas Johnston and an unsuccessful applicant to succeed him after his death in 1939.

Official tribal representatives included Maytubby, Chickasaw attorneys Lynn Adams and Earl Welch, Choctaw attorney Ben Dwight, and a battery of Interior officials and attorneys. In his account, Belvin pointedly noted Chief Durant’s absence from “the most momentous meeting affecting the tribe’s welfare since the Atoka Agreement of 1897.

After two and one-half hours of background information and statements, the session was adjourned for lunch. Then, it was announced that during subsequent sessions only official tribal representatives would be admitted.

Feeling double-crossed, Belvin and others returned to their hotel and started making calls to congressmen and Interior officials to get Confederation members admitted. Albert said unless they were admitted, he would embarrass the Department by making public details of the about-face policy change.

This seemed to work, as the next day they were told they could attend. But when they arrived, they were greeted with a big surprise.

Here is a small portion of Belvin’s typically flamboyant account of what happened next. After Confederation members “were admitted to the inner sanctum, the forbidden quarters, as it were, lo! And behold!” they heard a brief report “on what was probably the swiftest negotiations ever recorded in the annals of Indian history. Imagine our surprise to learn that after almost half a century of treating meeting, negotiating, the Choctaws and Chickasaws had at long last hurdled the greatest barrier between them and the ultimate sale of their joint holdings, all done in a matter of hours.” The negotiated settlement was for $8.5 million.

As to how the tribal officials got the government to raise its offer to $8.5 million, Belvin wrote sarcastically it was a feat “too great for our small minds to grasp.” It was also difficult for Belvin to believe the details of the contract when he read them later. Nearly 770 million tons of readily available coal was valued at 1 cent per ton while more than 1 billion tons of reserve coal was valued at .1 cent per ton. That totaled some $9 million. But Maytubby and Dwight said they would take $8.5 million.

Later, Belvin voiced his incredulity to Congressman Albert. “Did you ever in the history of the world hear of coal selling for one cent and one mill [.1 cent], respectively, per ton? I am sure we are not dealing with an insolvent and bankrupt government.” And he wondered what the rest of the world would think if it was known “how the U.S. government was dealing with its wards.”

Then, Belvin got to his main point: He asked Albert to intercede with the BIA to expedite the process of allowing the Choctaws to immediately elect their own chief…to rectify a “gross injustice.” He predicted that such a chief could mobilize members against ratifying such an “atrocious offer”.

Time was not on his side, however. Interior told the tribes the negotiating was over and the contract was signed; now the only option for Chickasaws and Choctaws was take it or leave it. If they ratified the agreement, each member would receive approximately $315—if Congress appropriated the $8.5 million (which was not a certainty).

In the summer of 1947, local chapters of the Choctaw-Chickasaw Confederation held meetings to discuss the agreement. At one, a Chickasaw named Joseph W. Hayes, presented information that the potential coal royalties “will be much greater than we realize.” As the former section head for oil and gas with the BIA in Anadarko, Hayes had credibility and data he had researched.

His comments and questions may have been unsettling to some while confirming the suspicions of others. But most rank and file members of both tribes needed the money, and in 1947, $300 would buy what $2,800 would buy in 2007. So in November, 1947 both tribes overwhelmingly ratified the agreement, about 6,100 for and some 400 against.

Five

The Confederation meetings from 1945 through 1947 under the leadership of Jimmy Belvin had proved to be pivotally important to both tribes.

Crystallizing in the minds of most tribal members was the conviction that the revitalization of tribal sovereignty was essential. And the first course of action was clear: the tribal leader must be elected by the people.

And when, under constant pressure from the rank and file and Carl Albert, the Interior Department finally permitted the election in 1948, Jimmy Belvin won easily. But what he and the tribe won was not a restoration of sovereignty. Winning the election only entitled Belvin to be appointed chief by the Interior department. As chief, he stopped criticizing the coal agreement and assumed a leadership position in obtaining the $8.5 million appropriation, which was enacted in 1949 and each tribal member soon received about $350.

Belvin served as a model for the Chickasaws who were dissatisfied with Gov. Floyd Maytubby, and collaborated with grass-roots Chickasaw leaders like the Reverend Jess Humes and Jonas Imotichey, to strengthen their own organization. The first letters from Chickasaws to Carl Albert in 1950-51, asking for the right to elect their own governor, are contained in his congressional papers. The movement caught on, but didn’t catch hold until these elders found their own leader in the late 1950s. He was Overton James, and when he was named governor in 1963 he credited two indispensable men, Congressman Carl Albert and Choctaw Chief Jimmy Belvin.

Note: Most of the source material for this article was obtained at the Carl Albert Center on the University of Oklahoma’s Norman campus. The majority of documents were found in two collections, William Stigler and Carl Albert. They are now in our tribal archives located at 509 ½ W. Arlington.

Richard Green can be contacted at rgreen26@cox.net.

Last Updated: 09/8/2014