US Indian Policy during the New Deal

This is the second part of a paper I wrote in graduate school, the previous section of which is located here:

The Indian New Deal

The election of Franklin Roosevelt in 1933 brought about a sea change in Indian policy. The two most influential officials for Indian policy in the federal bureaucracy were the secretary of the interior and his subordinate, the commissioner of Indian affairs. Roosevelt’s nominees for these posts were both active veterans of the Indian reform movement. Harold Ickes, who was chosen as secretary of the interior, was a former director of the American Indian Defense Association with strong credentials as a Progressive. Roosevelt chose an outspoken critic of the Indian Bureau as his commissioner of Bureau of Indian Affairs. John Collier had organized the Pueblo Indians against many federal policies, and had been a founder of the American Indian Defense Association, which had fought steadfastly against Eurocentric proposals put forth by the Indian Bureau under Coolidge and Hoover. Collier and Ickes had worked together and shared many ideas about Indian reform.

Before his nomination as Indian commissioner, Collier had been a vocal opponent of allotment policies. Collier had begun his career as a settlement worker in the community center movement to help impoverished urban dwellers improve their lives through pooling their resources. The idea of community drove Collier’s public career. His attention to Indian policy began in 1920 when he visited a pueblo in Taos, New Mexico. Here Collier believed he had found the ingredients for a perfect community, a “Red Atlantis” which, if protected from the European-American concepts of excessive individualism and materialism, could develop into a model for reform of American society at large. With the backing of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, Collier was engaged in the fight to preserve the traditional organization of the Pueblos against assimilationist schemes of Congress and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. With two million members in the GFWC, Collier gained the attention of several Indian reform groups and government officials to lobby for the protection of the Indians.

In 1923, Collier founded the American Indian Defense Association so that he could fully focus on policy reform. He was a frequent witness on behalf of the AAIA at congressional hearings and was sharply critical of the Indian Bureau’s policies and its stewardship of Indian reservations. He opposed the leasing of Indian lands by Bureau officials without Indian consultation, especially for the exploitation of mineral resources. He battled compulsory attendance of Christian services at boarding schools, prohibitions on customary marriages, and charging tribes for reservation construction projects that primarily benefited non-Indians. He also helped draft legislation such as the Tribal Councils Bill which would have authorized the creation of tribal councils. This bill would have allowed tribes to elect a committee to create a tribal constitution and bylaws. Among the provisions was the election of a tribal council under this tribal constitution that would have the power to represent the tribe before federal authorities and to employ attorneys to help them preserve their rights. Although this bill failed to pass, many of its ideals would live on in the Indian Reorganization Act.
After some political maneuvering, Collier was unanimously confirmed by the Senate on April 20, 1933. As commissioner, it was obvious Collier was not going to promote policies that contradicted his Edenic view of Indian society. Collier immediately declared that freedom of religion would be extended to all Indians. He cancelled debts that had been charged Indian tribes without tribal authorization and managed to achieve the dissolution of the Board of Indian Commissioners. This group, which had its genesis as administrators of the Dawes Act provisions in the late nineteenth century, was a visible proponent of the old ways of Indian policy.

Collier faced immediate crises upon taking office. Severe weather during the winter of 1932-33 on many western reservations created a real danger of starvation, and relief efforts were immediately set in motion. Collier initiated action on employment and environmental problems by using funds from the Civilian Conservation Corps to establish an Indian adjunct, the Emergency Conservation Work program, whose mission was to promote soil conservation and prevent overgrazing on tribal lands. From 1934 to 1942, when the CCC was abolished, Indians were greatly aided by this program which provided training and experience as well as conservation work. Other New Deal programs which were active on reservations included the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, the Works Progress Administration, and the Civil and Public Works Administrations.
Another action taken in the early days of the Roosevelt administration dealt with the lack of social services on Indian reservations. For decades the funding the BIA allocated to build schools and hospitals and to hire the staff to operate such facilities was sorely deficient. Therefore, in April 1934 the Johnson-O’Malley Act was passed into law. This new law authorized the federal government to contract with states to provide social services for their Indian inhabitants. The Act specifically listed education, medical, agricultural, and social welfare or relief services as eligible for such contracting. The Act allowed states to take over any existing buildings constructed for such purposes to facilitate the delivery of services. Oklahoma Indians were excluded from this Act.

In Collier’s first annual report, he called for ending allotment and emphasized “group organiz-ation and tribal incorporation” to enable Indians to begin managing their own resources and economic destinies. Collier set out to reverse the decades old push for the destruction of Indian communities through his design of the Indian Reorganization Act. Through this legislation Collier attempted to end the forced absorption of individual Indians into the general culture and economy. Instead, he sought to give new powers to tribal government and to have Indians achieve new power through tribal identity.
Three events gave added impetus to the policy shift toward cultural pluralism. In 1928 the secretary of the interior had asked the Brookings Institution to analyze the conditions on reservations. The results of this study were published under the title The Problem of Indian Administration (also known as the Meriam Report) in 1928. The report criticized the government for inadequately funding Indian programs, for being less concerned about Indians than about exploiting their natural resources, and for refusing to give Indians a voice in their own affairs. The report recommended, among other things, that a loan program be made available to Indians, that boarding schools be abolished, and that allotments be curtailed to enable better land use policies. The report also suggested a reorientation of the Indian service, although with the goal of assimilation still in the forefront:

… [The survey staff] would not recommend the disastrous attempt to force individual Indians to be what they do not want to be, to break up their pride in themselves and their Indian race, or to deprive them of their Indian culture…. The fact remains, however, that the hands of the clock cannot be turned backward. The Indians are face to face with the predominating civilization of the whites …[which has] largely destroyed the economic foundation upon which the Indian culture rested. This economic foundation cannot be restored as it was. The Indians cannot be set apart away from the whites.”

The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs also sent a subcommittee to tour most of the reservations in the US as part of an investigation of the Indian Bureau, and their discoveries led to the resignation of the current Indian commissioner in 1929. Further, a meeting of all Indian reform groups at the Cosmos Club in Washington D.C. in January 1934 agreed on several suggestions to improve the conditions of Indian life. Among these proposals was a call for the end of allotment, tribal consolidation and ownership of fractionated heirship lands with remaining trust lands, and the organization of tribal councils vested with limited powers of government. The reformers advocated the reimposition of federal guardianship over Oklahoma Indians, who had been universally accorded citizenship and had “final disposition of the affairs” of tribal governments through an amendment to the Dawes Act in 1901, much to their detriment. Tribal governments in Oklahoma had been dissolved in 1914.

Both Collier and Ickes had participated in the Cosmos Club meeting, and Collier took the recommendations to heart. The legislation to implement this change was the work of many people who shared Collier’s views on tribal sovereignty. Collier set to work with William Zimmerman, who served as the assistant Indian commissioner, and two attorneys on the legal staff of the interior department, Nathan Margold and Felix Cohen. Zimmerman, Margold, and Cohen had all worked as lawyers with the AAIA. A month after the Cosmos Club meeting, these men had crafted a detailed, forty-eight page bill to address the complete reorganization of federal Indian policy. The finished product was sent to the chairs of the House and Senate Indian Affairs Committees, who presented it to Congress under their sponsorship. The legislation therefore bore their names as the Wheeler-Howard Bill.

The original bill was divided into four titles. Title I echoed the Tribal Council bill of 1932. One fourth of the adult residents on a reservation could petition the secretary of the interior to grant a charter that would allow tribal self-government under a constitution, which would allow the tribal government to contract with the federal government for services as well as determine tribal policies. An important provision required the secretary of the interior to submit annual budgets to each tribe to provide input upon before being submitted to Congress. Title II dealt with increasing educational opportunities so that Indians with at least one-fourth Indian ancestry could meet civil service requirements for Bureau positions. The bill also required that each Indian civilization be studied, preserved and taught in Indian schools. Title III specifically repealed the Dawes Allotment Act. Further allotments were forbidden and trust periods on current allotments would be extended indefinitely. Unsold surplus land was to be returned to the reservation. To solve fractionation, tribal members would transfer their interests in productive land to the tribe to consolidate holdings into usable parcels. In return, the Indians would be granted a proportionate interest in tribal property. The secretary of the interior could impose usage regulations for soil conservation and to prevent overgrazing. Title IV reformed the Courts of Indian Affairs into two tiers: a local level run under the tribal charter, and a national Court of Indian Affairs. This national Court was akin to the United States Supreme Court and would reclaim jurisdiction over major criminal cases from federal courts. These judges would go to the reservations to hear cases rather than force litigants to travel long distances.
When hearings were held on the bill, those who opposed Indian self-government questioned Collier about what they viewed as its anti-assimilationist bias. Several congressmen who came from states with sizeable reservations already chafed at the idea of mineral wealth locked away from exploitation and saw self-government as a further stumbling block to economic development for their states. These mostly western representatives further opposed the loss of tax revenue which resulted from the federal trust umbrella placed over Indian lands, and adjudged self-government as merely perpetuating Indian evasion of their civic responsibilities as citizens. As Rep. Theodore Werner of South Dakota remarked, under the proposed bill Indians would enjoy “all of the rights of citizenship, but would not participate in any of [its] burdens.”

As groundbreaking as the Wheeler-Howard bill was, it nonetheless demonstrated the limited faith that even champions such as Collier had in the ability of Indians to completely govern themselves. Economic decisions still had to be approved by the secretary of the interior. Matters regarding land acquisition and transfer of title to the tribe were still at the discretion of the secretary. Contracts to lease land or mineral rights were also subject to interior department approval. Even the assignment of tribal lands to individual members of the tribe had to be vetted by Bureau officials. Tribes could review appropriations requests submitted to Congress by the Indian Bureau, but could not initiate them independently. Many reformers were afraid that tribes who had little experience with budgetary considerations would rashly distribute any funds under their control as per capita payments. The economic crisis that affected all of America during the Depression was particularly acute on reservations, and large amounts of money could be squandered on a quick fix to desperate situations.

The greatest flaw of the Wheeler-Howard bill was that it included too many radical changes. Each title would have been more than adequate as a separate bill, and each change had unforeseen consequences. The level of detail was also a problem, because there was not room for differences among Indians and tribes. Collier’s ideas about tribal control of property impinged upon the freedom of those individuals who had adjusted to the concept of private property. Further, a bill whose intention was to increase Indian participation and self-government had been crafted with surprisingly little input from Indians.

Although Collier professed to be a champion of Indian self-government, the Wheeler-Howard bill was yet another piece of legislation created for Indians without consultation with them. To rectify this situation, Collier called a series of Indian congresses to explain the bill’s proposals and seek Indian input and support. Support for Collier’s ideas was far from unanimous among Indians. The Navajo tribe strongly protested efforts to reduce the amount of stock that they could own. The rangeland of the Navajo reservation could support only 35,000 people, yet 61,000 were trying to wrest a living from the arid soil. As wealth had been traditionally measured by the size of one’s herd, any attempt to limit livestock struck at the heart of Navajo society as the most glaring paternalism. Another complaint was that there were no provisions in the bill for the resolution of Indian claims against the government and that it did not guarantee current treaty rights. Further, highly acculturated Indians resented the imputation that their Indian heritage made them incapable of handling their own affairs. These individuals had no use for tribal affiliation—they considered themselves simply to be American citizens. They viewed the bill as a blanket attempt to turn them back into “blanket Indians.”

When Collier attempted to amend the bill to answer many of these criticisms, the bill was unable to make it out of either the House or Senate Indian Affairs Committees. The bill was drastically revised and cut down to conform to Indian criticisms and congressional criticisms. Many of the most groundbreaking ideas were eliminated on the premise that they promoted segregation. A stalemate existed until pressure from President Roosevelt resulted in compromise legislation which could pass Congress. This legislation, called the Indian Reorganization Act, became law in the spring of 1934.
The Indian Reorganization Act was much shorter than Collier’s original bill. Gone was title IV reorganizing Indian courts. Some groundbreaking concepts still survived, however. The Dawes Act was repealed, future allotment was forbidden, and two million dollars was provided for the secretary of the interior to purchase new land for some reservations. Mandatory return of heirship lands to tribal control was also eliminated, and the inheritance practices that exacerbated fractionation were not reformed or addressed. To help address the problems of economic development, a $10 million revolving credit fund was implemented so that businesses could be developed on Indian lands. Oklahoma Senator Elmer Thompson attached an amendment that excluded Indians in his state from most of the Act’s provisions on the argument that Oklahoma Indians, especially the Five Civilized Tribes in the eastern half of the state, were already being assimilated, and revival of tribal institutions would simply delay that adaptation. Alaska natives were also not included. The Oklahoma Indian Welfare Act of June 1936 reversed this exclusion for all Indians in Oklahoma except those on the Osage reservation. This Act also included a provision which had been deleted from the IRA which allowed groups of 10 or more Indians to form economic cooperatives in recognition of the difficulty in reviving tribal institutions after a nearly 30 year absence.

According to a mandate within the IRA, each tribe was required to hold a referendum by June 1935 to determine whether or not to organize under the Act. Collier had initially opposed the deadline, but the worsening economic conditions on reservations after the passage of the Act caused Collier to reverse his opinion, since many reservations urgently needed the economic assistance promised by the IRA. Many factors impeded the smooth operation of elections. First, the Bureau had never organized elections on the reservations before, and therefore lacked the experience and procedures for such a massive undertaking. The challenges were especially daunting on reservations with small populations, which often also lacked membership rolls from which to draw a list of eligible voters. In some places Indians held allotments on a reservation but did not live there. The Bureau decided that all should vote, and in some cases this led to disagreement over tribal government to this day.

Thus the IRA provided Indians with the choice to avail themselves of its provisions– or not. Between 1936 and 1945, 65 tribes had established constitutions under the Act. In total, 181 tribes voted to accept the provisions of the Indian Reorganization Act, while 77 tribes rejected it. In terms of population, 130,000 Indians were in tribes which approved the IRA while 87,000 Indians were in tribes which rejected the Act. Many of the largest tribes, including the nearly 40,000 Navajos, had rejected organization under the Act.

Collier created a small army of Bureau personnel to aid the Indians in preparing for elections and constitutions. This army included lawyers, sociologists, and field agents who went to the Indians to help explain the specific next steps to take full advantage of the Act’s provisions. Since many tribes had no experience with constitutions or other abstract political ideas, attorneys for the Bureau often used boilerplate constitutions and modified them slightly to suit each group’s special circumstances. However, these IRA constitutions were often criticized by Indian traditionalists for imposing foreign concepts like democratic rule over the traditional use of consensus and the leadership of tribal headmen. Collier’s ideas still sought to change the Indians and their traditions, and once again these changes were in the name of the Indians’ best interest.

As early as the mid-1930s, those in Congress who were interested in Indian policy for good or ill had become aware of the sweeping changes that even the diluted IRA had set into motion. Some of Collier’s policy changes were in such sharp relief from the previous Federal policies that they antagonized even those interested in Indian reform. Those who had supported assimilation from the beginning also were unwilling to quietly suffer this policy revolution for long, and they compiled evidence against Collier on the charge of trying to strip Indians of what little “progress” they had made. Even Senator Burton Wheeler, who had co-sponsored the bill, became opposed to the reality unleashed by the IRA, and proposed another bill in 1937 to repeal the Indian Reorganization Act. Only pressure from groups such as the Indian Rights Association stayed the hand of Congress. However, Commissioner Collier spent countless hours before congressional committees arguing against deep reductions in the appropriations promised in the IRA. Appropriations to fulfill various requirements of the Act were often cut as a circuitous way to frustrate the intent of the law. Collier spent the last half of his time in office trying to protect what gains he had made from congressional and Christian reformist pressure.

Indian involvement in World War II led many to believe that Indians could succeed off the reservation, and that only by taking their place in American society as average Americans could economic independence come to the Indians. House Resolution 1113 was introduced to emancipate Indian veterans from all trust restrictions. Despite all of Collier’s New Deal programs, reservations remained sinkholes of poverty, with little or no access to education, healthcare, modern amenities, or jobs. Thousands of Indians had worked in war industries or served in the military. The exposure to war industries had brought some Indians the training and experience to begin to participate in manufacturing and technical trades.

World War II also had another effect on Indian affairs. The headquarters for the Bureau of Indian Affairs was moved from Washington to Chicago in 1941 to provide office space for wartime programs in the capital. This action made it difficult for personnel in the bureau to work or consult with other departments in the federal bureaucracy. Experienced bureau personnel were either transferred to war agencies or went into the service. The national attention was focused on the war effort, and concern for Indians was understandably shunted aside. There were 100 vacancies for doctors and nearly 200 for nurses by 1944, and Collier complained that the Bureau could not “provide Indians even the most essential medical care.” By Collier’s resignation in January 1945, the Bureau of Indian Affairs budget was smaller than in 1932.

Ultimately, Indian reaction to Collier’s policies was also mixed. Yet, during Collier’s tenure, Indians learned at least one lesson: Collier was right in urging Indians to unite in order to make their voices heard. Indians responded to the conflicts during this time by forming their own advocacy groups to promote their divergent views. The American Indian Federation was founded by Joseph Bruner to advocate policies that would lead to the acculturation of Indians and the dismantlement of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. This group was particularly strong among predominantly assimilated Indians in eastern Oklahoma. The AIF was controversial because its leader associated with the pro-Nazi German-American Bund. Nonetheless, its vociferous demands to liberate Indians from wardship and abolish the Bureau of Indian Affairs received much sympathy from assimilationist members of congress. Indians in California were also critical of the IRA and Collier’s inability to adjust his proposals to Indian realities when they clashed with his idealized vision of Indian culture. Other Indians, however, used the opportunities presented by the IRA to organize themselves at a level higher than the traditional band or village and wrest at least some power from the federal bureaucrats and reservation superintendents who had manipulated them for so long. The National Congress of American Indians was established in 1944 to fight for Indian rights and self-determination. This group was made up of tribal leaders who had gained experience in the political structures christened by the IRA. Historian Francis Prucha credits the Indian congresses Collier organized while promoting the Wheeler-Howard bill with providing the impetus for pan-Indian groups such as the NCAI and even the AIF.

Collier himself ultimately became an issue congressmen used to threaten funding for Indian programs. Collier resigned as commissioner of Indian Affairs in January 1945 when the chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior Department Appropriations hinted that Bureau funding would be drastically reduced in 1946 if a new commissioner were not in place. Despite his high ideals, Collier had been only partially successful during the nearly twelve years he held his post. Chief among his successes was the reversal of the Dawes Act. His encouragement of Indian attempts to organize themselves was fortuitous in preparing Indians for the challenges that would nearly destroy many tribes in the twenty years after World War II. It was organization that allowed a minority numbering just over 345,000 to gain the attention that Indians did. However, the problems that dominated reservation life could certainly not be addressed during the depths of the Great Depression. The advent of the Second World War provided Indians with an opportunity to leave the reservations, which ironically weakened Collier’s case that Indians could only succeed through strengthening their communities.

The next part of this will be published on March 11 and can be found here:


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  1. […] This is part three of a paper I wrote in graduate school which summarizes Indian policy from Eisenhower’s administration to Johnson’s. Part 1 can be found here: and part 2 can be found here: . […]

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