Morris Thompson, In Memoriam

My great-uncle Morris Thompson died with his wife Thelma Mayo and their daughter Sheryl on Alaska Airlines Flight 261 on January 31, 2000.
Morris was younger brother to my late grandmother Maudry John Sommer. Their mother was Alice (Grant) John-Thompson of Tanana, Alaska. Morris Thompson’s father was John Thompson, who had settled in Tanana.
My mother has always looked up to her uncle Morris as a role model, and I have taken after her in that respect. Below is a full excerpt of a biography I have recently come across published in the 1970s, titled The Commissioners of Indian Affairs, 1824-1977.

Morris Thompson
On December 3, 1973, Morris Thompson, an Athabascan Indian, became commissioner of Indian affairs. Born in Tanana, Alaska, on September 11, 1939, Thompson was one of the youngest men to serve in the position and was the third consecutive Indian to be so appointed. He was a graduate of the secondary school system of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, having received his high school education at the bureau’s Mount Edgecumbe Boarding School in Alaska. Thereafter, he attended the University of Alaska, where he majored in civil engineering. Prior to becoming commissioner, he spent considerable time working for the Alaska state government, serving as deputy director of the Alaska Rural Development Agency and then as executive director of the North Commission. In the latter capacity, he was responsible for establishing policies for a comprehensive program to implement and promote the human and economic development of northern Alaska.
From 1969 through 1971, Thompson served Secretary of the Interior Walter J. Hickel as an assistant on Indian affairs. In this position he helped formulate President Richard M. Nixon’s Indian message of 1970. This statement, which strongly emphasized Indian self-determination, has come to be viewed as a milestone in federal Indian policy. In addition, Thompson’s Alaska background was helpful in the preparation of the administration’s position on the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act passed in 1971. He also was involved in the negotiations for the return of the Blue Lake area to Taos pueblo and of Mount Adams to the Yakima nation.
Thompson returned to Alaska in 1971 to become Juneau area director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He was the first Alaska native to be appointed to the position of top bureau administrator in Alaska. His initial and major responsibility concerned the implementation of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which included a massive drive to locate, indentify, and enroll the Alaskan natives (Indians, Eskimos, and others) in Alaska and the other forty-nine states. He also had a major responsibility for overseeing the establishment of the regional corporations called for in the settlement act.
When Thompson became commissioner, the office had been vacant since shortly after the “takeover” of the Washington office of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in November 1972. In the interim, the activities of the bureau were directed by Marvin L. Franklin, special assistant to the secretary of the interior for Indian affairs. Franklin, a part Iowa Indian and former oil company executive, had a close working relationship with Secretary of the Interior Rogers C.B. Morton and consulted directly with him on Indian policy. Consequently, Indian affairs were handled through the office of the secretary rather than by the assistant secretary for land management, who had previously served as an intermediary between the commissioner and the secretary. This change in procedure eliminated the possibility that the secretary either would not be informed of the commissioner’s views or would receive a distorted or contrary version of the bureau’s position. Much of the impetus for the change in the relationship between the commissioner and the secretary came from tribal leaders who were concerned about the second-class status of Indian affairs within the Department of the Interior. Beginning with Thompson’s administration, the position of the commissioner was moved one step closer to the secretary, and the prestige of the bureau was thought to have increased accordingly.
The period immediately preceding Thompson’s appointment was extremely upsetting for the personnel of the bureau. The bureau’s new Indian preference policy extended preference to Indians in filling all vacancies, “whether by original appointment, reinstatement, or promotion.” This change from the previous practice, which had applied to initial appointments only, tended to divide bureau personnel into two groups, those eligible for preference and those who were not. The fears of the non-Indian staff were increased by the application of Indian preference to a reorganization plan which was reputedly to include a reduction in force. In addition, such external events as the takeover of the Bureau’s central office and the occupation of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in the spring of 1973, further divided the bureau employees between supporters and opponents of the American Indian Movement (AIM), the presumed perpetrator of those events. All of these factors exposed the Bureau of Indian Affairs to an increasing amount of hostile criticism from the generally uninformed media and public as well as from its Indian constituency.
Thompson’s first priority was to counteract this situation while sustaining the working efficiency of the bureau. The reorganization opened six directorships which he had to staff as quickly as possible. Because of his commitment to Indian preference and Indian self-determination, however, an extensive search was undertaken to find qualified Indians to fill the posts and candidates for the positions were cleared with tribal leaders before appointments were made. Unfortunately, the delays inherent in this process did little to alleviate the immediate problems facing the bureau. It took almost a year to fill all the offices, but the final result reflected Thompson’s commitment to Indian preference. Five of the six directors were of Indian descent; the one non-Indian had a long and varied service record with the bureau.
Concurrently, the reorganization of the bureau was completed. It involved job shifts and some reduction in force, but attrition accounted for most of the reduction in personnel. This attrition was fostered by a series of incentives which encouraged retirements. Unfortunately, many of the employees eligible to take advantage of the retirement benefits were the technicians who occupied the positions below, and provided support for, the policy makers. When these employees left, the bureau lost the benefit of their long and valuable experience.
A strong commitment to the principle of self-determination quickly became the hallmark of Thompson’s tenure as commissioner, and he resolutely encouraged it to the fullest extent possible under existing legal restraints. He was well aware of the limitation placed on self-determination by federal statutes and court decisions, but he felt they could in time be changed or adapted to accommodate the new policy. He also was aware that the tribes would never be financially self-sufficient, a situation that could hamper their attempts at self-determination unless the federal government continued to bear the major financial burden of tribal governments and to provide funds for the development of economic resources.
Various pieces of legislation designed to provide a legal basis for the new policy were introduced in the Ninety-second Congress (1971-72). One of these, Senate Bill S. 1016, eventually was passed and signed into law on January 4, 1975. Known as the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act (88 Stat. 2203), it declared the federal government’s intention to transfer many federally directed programs and services to the control of the Indians. In most cases the term Indian was defined to mean a tribal governing body or its representative. The financing, a matter of primary concern to Thompson as well as to the Indian leaders, would continue to be underwritten by the federal government through the use of contracts and grants.
This act was the most significant piece of Indian legislation since the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, a fact not lost on the commissioner. He immediately formed a task force headed by the deputy commissioner to write the regulations for the implementation of the act. In addition, he spent much of the remainder of his time in office visiting the tribes in a vigorous campaign to convince the Indian people of the act’s virtues.
Very early in his travels Thompson realized that there were several obstacles to the tribes’ full acceptance of the opportunities available under the Self-Determination Act. Not the least of these was the belief of many tribal leaders that the act was a backdoor approach to the termination of the federal relationship and the government’s responsibility for Indian affairs. The commissioner stressed that the opposite was the case; the act reaffirmed the unique relationship between the federal government and the Indian people. If anything, it and its attendant regulations strengthened the legal basis of that relationship.
The fears of termination stemmed largely from the uncertainty on the part of the bureau staff and a number of prominent tribal leaders regarding the details of the act’s implementation. Of special concern were the possible consequences if a tribe failed to fulfill the terms of a contract. In an effort to ease this particular apprehension, Thompson repeatedly pointed out that the act made it mandatory for the bureau to provide the technical and other kinds of assistance necessary to enable the tribes to complete successfully their contractual obligations. Such aid would eliminate the possibility of tribal default. Furthermore, the act provided for retrocession, the right of tribes to return contracted programs to the bureau at any time and for any reason without penalty. Citing these provisions among others, the commissioner assured the tribal leaders that their fears for termination were groundless. Nevertheless, the continued reluctance of the tribes to embrace the opportunities provided by the Self-Determination Act underscored the limited success of Thompson’s efforts.
Self-determination brought with it the necessity to strengthen the ability of tribal governments to exercise the responsibilities they would assume if they chose to accept the options presented by the new policy. Meeting this need proved to be difficult because Thompson’s term as commissioner coincided with a period of considerable political upheaval on the reservations that placed the Bureau of Indian Affairs in an awkward position. Since the bureau’s point of contact with the Indian tribes generally was through their elected governments, it had to maintain strict neutrality regarding tribal politics. However, the financial and technical support it provided to the tribal governments frequently was the means by which tribal cliques maintained power. Consequently, the bureau often seemed to be supporting the government in power to the exclusion of the groups out of power, a situation which was skillfully exploited by the American Indian Movement.
AIM’s rise was due in part to its ability to coalesce the out-groups on the reservations and its attack on the incumbent tribal governments as stooges of the bureau. When dissident Indians on the Pine Ridge Sioux Reservation challenged the federal government in an armed confrontation at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, the bureau appeared to be supporting an allegedly corrupt tribal government against the aspirations of a group which purported to represent the true interests of the tribal membership. AIM leaders consistently claimed that their presence in the area was at the invitation of those Sioux who felt there was no other way to effect change.
Thompson believed that similar occurrences could be avoided in the future by renewing the efforts of previous administrators to develop among the tribal leaders an increased sense of responsibility to all factions of their electorates. Aware that they would have to acquire greater managerial expertise in they were successfully to lead their people into the new era, Thompson became a strong advocate of training in modern management techniques for elected tribal leaders. One means of accomplishing this was the initiation of consultations between the bureau and the tribal leaders concerning the preparation of the bureau’s annual budget. This policy enabled the tribes to have a say at the most important level of policy development, and it also introduced the Indian leaders to the complexities of the budget process.
Thompson resigned as commissioner on November 3, 1976, to return to Alaska. He had assumed control of the Bureau of Indian Affairs at one of the lowest points in its long history. Although he did not provide the dynamic leadership many would have wished, he conveyed to all concerned that the idea of Indian self-determination was a viable policy. His administration could not be accused of acting dictatorially or paternalistically toward the Indian people. During his term in office the bureau was in a painful transition. After approximately a century and a half of policy making and enforcement, it was shifting gears to assume the more passive role of a policy-supporting and monitoring agency. Thompson, with his commitment to self-determination, accurately reflected this change. After his resignation, Thompson returned to Alaska to work in the state’s burgeoning oil industry.

The major source for this article was a file of speeches, memoranda, and letters maintained in the Information Office of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. This information was supplemented by interviews with persons who were employed in various positions in the bureau during Morris Thompson’s administration and by personal observation. The biographical material is from a handout issued by the Information Office. Thompson presented the bureau’s budget proposals at the congressional appropriation hearings for fiscal years 1975 and 1976, and his testimony appears in the published hearings. The 1975 volume, Department of the Interior and Related Agencies Appropriations for 1975 (Hearings before a Subcommitee of the Committee on Appropriations, House of Representatives), 93rd Cong., 2d sess., pt. 1, also contains a brief biographical statement on page 155.
The Commissioners of Indian Affairs, 1824-1977. Eds. Kvasnicka, Robert M., Herman J. Viola. University of Nebraska Press: Lincoln and London. 1979. Pages 341-346.

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