The Mission Indian Federation (MIF) was Southern Californiaís most popular and long-lived grass-roots political organization. Between 1919 and 1965, its membership wrestled with some of the most difficult political and legal questions of the 20th century. The MIF asserted rights to internal sovereignty, rejecting the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) paternalism. The MIF's clashes with the federal government's BIA employees in the Mission Indian Agency (MIA) continually had its members in court, but occasionally confrontations turned violent.
In 1934, Commissioner of Indian Affairs John Collier described the MIF's aspirations toward sovereignty saying the organization "resisted the work of the Indian service in the spirit of ousting a foreign power from the native soil or beating off an invasion of a foreign power." Drawing its membership from reservation and non-reservation California Indians of southern California, the MIF could best be described as a quasi-governmental, pan-Indian organization purporting to represent the collective will of Southern Californiaís reservation people.
Mission and Ideology
The MIF's purpose was to end Mission Indian Agency abuse and paternatlism and to bring equal rights, justice, and "home rule" for southern California's Indians as the Mission Indian Federation magazine, the Indian, proclaimed in 1922. The MIF constitution states that the objectives of the organization are:
- 1) to protect against unjust laws, rules, and regulations;
- 2) to secure legislation of rights and benfits; and
- 3) to guard the interests of the membership against unjust and illegal acts.
The MIF provided a vehicle by which the complaints and wishes of the Mission Indians could ve heard. Among other issues, the MIF reported many cases of excessive force by BIA-appointed MIA policemen. The MIF advocated giving Indian populations a voice in choosing these federal appointees. Ultimately, the MIF opted to choose its own policemen.
Membership and Organizational Structure
A Grand Council of MIF officers were elected at the Riverside meetings. Adam Castillo (pictured on MIF buttons), a Cahuilla of Soboba Reservation, served as President of the MIF for most of the Federationís history. (At least two of the Federation officers, Ben Watta and Samuel Rice, were Sherman graduats.). Additionally, MIF ìcaptainsî were elected for each reservation. The Federation did not give orders to these headmen, but rather recognized their rights, explained Castillo. Clarence Lobo of San Juan Capistrano, a brilliant man and tireless lobbiest, was in the top MIF leadership after World War II.
The elected MIF leaders appointed a MIF policemen for each participating Southern California reservation. These policemen were given six-pointed, nickel-plated badges inscribed with the words "Mission Indian Federation" as insignias of their authority.
The MIF's legal advisors were non-Indians. Jonathan Tibbet founded the organization in 1919 and hosted the biannual meetings of the organization at his home in Riverside until his death in 1930. Purl Willis of Escondito then took up the job as ìcounselorî: networking, publicizing, lobbying, and serving as a legal advisor and guide as Tibbet had done before him. The BIA held the view that Tibbet and Willis were troublemakers inspired by selfish motives, who misled and extorted money from the MIFís gullible membership. These two white ìadvocatesî of the MIF were charged with causing Indian factionalism.
Active recruitment of members was done in southern California. Dues were collected from the members, who proudly wore MIF buttons. This money financed the ongoing lobbying efforts in the California Indian Claims cases, but it also funded other legal work allegedly in the interests of the Mission Indians. Reservation populations became sharply divided into MIF and anti-MIF factions.
The Appeal of the MIF
The MIF attracted a large and politically-committed membership. As Collier observed in 1934, ìintense loyalties and energiesî were tied up in the MIF. Three general explanations are offered for the Federationí popularity with many Mission Indians across the Southland in the 1920s. First, at the outset Tibbetís rhetoric was extremely critical of the Bureau. He called for the Bureauís abolition, and was soon indicted for anti-government activities. Many Mission Indians were unhappy with the Mission Indian Agency for a spectrum of reasons, so his stand drew empathetic supporters.
Among the complaints, was the growing paternalism of the MIA as it expanded its influence after 1910 in the areas of law and order, infrastructural development, and conformity to Anglo-American standards of "civilization." The MIF membership clashes with the Bureau over land use (e.g. allotment), subsistence strategies, and politics. Secondly, Tibbet claimed credit for rediscovery of the unratified 1851-1852 treaties. One of the MIFís explicit objectives was gaining justice through financial compensation for the federal governmentís historic failure to recognize California Indianís occupancy rights.
California Indian across the state became politically organized and mobilized at the grass-roots level in the 1920s. Feeling acutely the injustice at the hands of federal and state governments, they were highly suspect of the Bureau as they struggled for legal clarification of their place in the national life as citizens and wards Thirdly, the MIF, which was almost wholly an Indian organization, contoured itself to the forms of the indigenous political culture of the region. The MIF represented itself as a return to indigenous self-government.
The meetings in the Tibbet home, for example, were reminiscent of the fiestas hosted by regional captains. These meetings featured ceremonials, social, educational, and political activity. Undoubtedly, wrote Collier ìthe Federation possesses, for many or most of its members, a strong psychological, emotional, even, it might be said, a quasi-religious value.î MIF policies of representative government was a rejection of the BIA's imposition of a policy of appointing reservation captains, and police.