Only the sound of wind rustling through the eucalyptus broke the stillness as Jonathan Tibbet rose to speak that May evening in 1923. The “beaming” Tibbet fixed his eyes on the earnest faces before him. “Then came the shrill whoop of an Indian-and another and another. The grove was full of them. . . . Tibbet, his head bare, his face slightly flushed, and his eyes flashing, said it was a great day, a day of triumph.”
The loud cries of jubilation came from several of the estimated 700 Native Americans who had assembled at Tibbet’s Riverside, California home for the spring gathering of the Mission Indian Federation. Their elation sprang from the news that charges brought by a federal grand jury against Tibbet and several other Federation members had been dropped. The two-year old charges accused Tibbet of “‘alienating the confidence’ of the Mission Indians of Southern California in the federal government.”
Now, federal officials had, in the words of one Riverside newspaper “practically admitted the Red Men were guiltless.”
Dismissal of the charges was a vindication for Tibbet and the Federation. The pioneer turned Indian activist had formed the Federation to give structure and voice to the various tribes of Mission Band Indians in California. The Federation attracted tribes from throughout the West who rallied to the cries of sovereignty and justice which the organization came to represent.
An estimated 75 Indian leaders representing 2,000 Indians from every tribe in Southern California came together for the first time at Tibbet’s East Prospect Avenue home in the fall of 1919.
Julio Norte a well-known leader on the Morongo Reservation presided as chairman (or grand president) of the first conference. Two vice-presidents, a secretary-treasurer and a chief of police were also appointed. From the beginning it was a association that looked for inclusion of Whites such as Tibbet who could help bring the message of the Federation to federal officials.
Tibbet’s commitment and dedication to the Federation and its members had earned him the title Chief Buffalo Heart. Also attending the convention were concerned Riversiders Dr. B. S. Haywood, Miss Eugenie Fuller, Stella Atwood, Mrs. O. P. Burdg and State Senator Samuel Carey Evans along with John Brown of San Bernardino.
Not surprisingly, the Federation was surrounded by controversy, even among Native Americans. The chief issues among those elders at the first meeting of the Federation were “water supply and various encroachments upon their treaty rights,” reported a local paper. Federation leaders also disputed the surveys of reservation boundaries. They sought self-determination and better education for their children but argued that small children must be educated near their reservation homes and not sent to schools such as Sherman Institute until they are sufficiently advanced. For younger tribal members, however, the issue was citizenship. They formed a counter organization to the Federation called the Progressive League of Mission Indians under the leadership of Ignacio Costa.
Costa told a reporter that they had organized after being ordered to leave the Federation conference because they objected to the resolutions as presented and did not approve of the movement under Tibbet’s direction.. The Progressive League supported gaining full title to reservation lands and recognition as citizens of the United States. They claimed these rights were guaranteed under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo which ended the Mexican-American War. As citizens, members of the Progressive League said they would be able to take care of themselves.
On one point the elders and younger progressives agreed. They both supported a bill that would permit tribes in California to submit claims to a court of claims. New Federation President, Adam Castillo, asserted that of their first purposes was to secure the rights promised under the rejected Treaties of 1851-1852.
Government agents signed eighteen treaties with tribes across the state of California. In return for signing the treaties, Southern California tribes has been promised 7.5 million acres of reservation lands. Political interests in the states fought to ensure that the U. S. Congress would never ratify these treaties. Author Richard Carrico wrote that the Senate rejected the treaties “because of citizen protest, California legislature pressure and the white fear that treaty lands might contain gold.” Despite encouragement from future Indian agents for a reservation system, the federal government not only ignored the promises of the treaties but failed to intervene when whites steadily encroached on Indian lands.
Several other bills introduced into Congress during the 1880s which sought relief for Mission Indians proved unsuccessful. The Dawes Act of 1887 which provided for the allotment of reservation lands further imperiled their homes. Finally under legislation passed in January of 1891 a commission chaired by Albert K. Smiley was empanelled to study the problems of Mission Indians. Their final recommendation resulted in the approximately 30 reservations which are in place now in Southern California. As was evident, however, with the formation of the Mission Indian Federation, conditions had improved little with the formation of the reservations.
In 1920 Jonathan Tibbet traveled to St. Louis to address the Society of American Indians where he argued for “Home Rule” for Native Americans. Another speaker noted that Indians had fought for the Union during the Civil War to free the black man but were “still held in the fetters of slavery by government control.” Activism by Indians, whether physical or political frightened officials in the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and they sought ways to bring it under control. They attempted to paint Tibbet and the Federation as radicals. In April 1923 Tibbet was indicted by a federal Grand Jury in Los Angeles for ironically “‘alienating the confidence’ of the Mission Indians of Southern California in the federal government.” U.S. officials, according to a Riverside newspaper charged Tibbet “with preaching ‘Bolshevistic’ doctrines among the Indians and with arousing them to rebellion.” The paper made a distinction, however, between elders of local tribes and “younger Indians,” which it said “have failed to rally to Mr. Tibbet’s alleged efforts, and have been openly hostile to the asserted movement.” Tibbet turned himself into authorities and was released on $3,000 bond. Fifty-seven Federation leaders were also arrested and charged with “conspiracy against the government” over the next few months..
One of those was Manuel Tortes who claimed the age of 125 at the time. On September 28, 1921, a U.S. marshal and two Indian policemen entered his home and dragged him from his bed where he lay with an injury. He was thrown into an automobile and driven to Riverside and then to Los Angeles where he was jailed for five days.
Word of the charges spread through the Southwest “like wildfire” according to a local paper. Hundreds of Indians came to Riverside to show their support of Tibbet: “Supi and Walpi from the grand canyon of the Colorado country, Mojave from Needles, Cahuillas from the foothill districts and chieftain[s] from the desert regions of Yuma” Deliberations that session in the backyard of Tibbet’s Riverside home were not public with guards posted to prevent entry by those other than Federation members. Trial dates were set and postponed until finally the government dropped all charges in 1923 leading to the May night of triumph “around the fireplace, circled with its tall eucalyptus trees” in Tibbet’s backyard. “It was a proud day for Tibbet . . . Everywhere there were flags-the Stars and Stripes, for in spite of the efforts of certain Indian officials to prove the Red Men seditionists, that is the only banner they ever have known and a spirit of intense loyalty was marked.”
Tibbet remained a force in the Mission Indian Federation, holding semiannual conventions in April and October at his Riverside home until his death in 1930 at the age of 74. He supported MIF work by traveling and talking to government officials, white associations and Federation members around the Southwest although he never voted as a member of the organization. During his lifetime he amassed a large and valuable collection of artifacts and documents of Western Americana including an impressive Native American collection. Just months before his death, he donated the collections to Pomona College. Eight Indian Chiefs acted as pallbearers at Tibbet’s funeral accompanying the body to Riverside’s Evergreen Cemetery.
Tibbet’s widow Emma Tibbet continued to offer her Riverside property for Federation conventions but the loss of Jonathan Tibbet and the worsening economic conditions of the era steadily eroded participation. However, while they continued the empty chair of Chief Buffalo Heart was kept at the head of the MIF council table as a reminder of their devoted white counselor.