Archive for the ‘Native Americans’ Category

Columbus’ first impressions of Native Americans

At the time of the first discoveries, Europeans tended to view the New World from one of two contrasting perspectives. Many saw America as an earthly paradise, where the native peoples led lives of simplicity and freedom similar to those enjoyed by Adam and Eve in the Biblical Garden of Eden. Other Europeans described America in a much more negative light: as a dangerous and forbidding wilderness, a place of cannibalism and human misery, where the population lacked Christian religion and the trappings of civilization. But it was the positive view of America as a land of liberty, liberation, and material wealth that would remain dominant. In a letter reporting his discoveries to Luis de Sant Angel, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and to the King and Queen of Spain, Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) paints a portrait of the indigenous Taino Indians as living lives of freedom and innocence.

As you read the following excerpt, consider the following questions:
1. Analyze why Columbus would want to describe the natives as he does in a communication to the Spanish court.
2. In what descriptions does Columbus betray a patronizing attitude? How does this judgment influence Spanish behavior on Hispaniola?
3. How would you characterize the Natives’ attitudes toward possessions?

Two excerpts from the journal of Cristofero Colon, dated 1492 and 1493:

As I saw that they were very friendly to us, and perceived that they could be much more easily converted to our holy faith by gentle means than by force, I presented them with some red caps, and strings of beads to wear upon the neck, and many other trifles of small value, wherewith they were much delighted, and became wonderfully attached to us. Afterwards they came swimming to the boats, bringing parrots, balls of cotton thread, javelins, and many other things which they exchanged for articles we gave them, such as glass beads, and hawk’s bells; which trade was carried on with the utmost good will. But they seemed on the whole to me, to be a very poor people. They all go completely naked, even the women, though I saw but one girl. All whom I saw were young, not above thirty years of age, well made, with fine shapes and faces; their hair short, and coarse like that of a horse’s tail, combed toward the forehead, except a small portion which they suffer to hang down behind, and never cut. Some paint themselves with black, which makes them appear like those of the Canaries, neither black nor white; others with white, others with red, and others with such colors as they can find. Some paint the face, and some the whole body; others only the eyes, and others the nose. Weapons they have none, nor are acquainted with them, for I showed them swords which they grasped by the blades, and cut themselves through ignorance. They have no iron, their javelins being without it, and nothing more than sticks, though some have fish-bones or other things at the ends. They are all of a good size and stature, and handsomely formed. I saw some with scars of wounds upon their bodies, and demanded by signs the of them; they answered me in the same way, that there came people from the other islands in the neighborhood who endeavored to make prisoners of them, and they defended themselves. I thought then, and still believe, that these were from the continent.

Painting of a Taino
It appears to me, that the people are ingenious, and would be good servants and I am of opinion that they would very readily become Christians, as they appear to have no religion. They very quickly learn such words as are spoken to them. If it please our Lord, I intend at my return to carry home six of them to your Highnesses, that they may learn our language. I saw no beasts in the island, nor any sort of animals except parrots.

…The people of this island [Hispaniola] and of all the other islands which I have found and seen, or have not seen, all go naked, men and women, as their mothers bore them, except that some women cover one place with the leaf of a plant or with a net of cotton which they make for that purpose. They have no iron or steel or weapons, nor are they capable of using them, although they are well-built people of handsome stature, because they are wondrous timid. They have no other arms than the arms of canes, [cut] when they are in seed time, to the end of which they fix a sharp little stick; and they dare not make use of these, for oftentimes it has happened that I have sent ashore two or three men to some town to have speech, and people without number have come out to them, as soon as they saw them coming, they fled; even a father would not stay for his son; and this was not because wrong had been done to anyone; on the contrary, at every point where I have been and have been able to have speech, I have given them of all that I had, such as cloth and many other things, without receiving anything for it; but they are like that, timid beyond cure. It is true that after they have been reassured and have lost this fear, they are so artless and so free with all they possess, that no one would believe it without having seen it. Of anything they have, if you ask them for it, they never say no; rather they invite the person to share it, and show as much love as if they were giving their hearts; and whether the thing be of value or of small price, at once they are content with whatever little thing of whatever kind may be given to them. I forbade that they should be given things so worthless as pieces of broken crockery and broken glass, and lace points, although when they were able to get them, they thought they had the best jewel in the world. Even bits of the broken hoops of wine casks they accepted, and gave in return what they had, like fools, and it seemed wrong to me. I forbade it, and gave a thousand good and pretty things that I had to win their love, and to induce them to become Christians, and to love and serve their Highnesses and the whole Castilian nation… And they know neither sect nor idolatry, with the exception that all believe that the source of all power and goodness is in heaven, and in this belief they everywhere received me, after they had overcome their fear. And this does not result from their being ignorant (for they are of a very keen intelligence and men who navigate all those seas, so that it is wondrous the good account they give of everything), but because they have never seen people clothed or ships like ours. Directly I reached the Indies in the first isle I discovered, I took by force some of the natives, that from them we might gain some information of what there was in these parts; and so it was that we immediately understood each other, either by words or signs. They are still with me and still believe that I come from heaven. They were the first to declare this wherever I went, and the others ran from house to house, and to the towns around, crying out, “Come! Come! And see the men from heaven!”

Link for further information:
First Voyage of Columbus: Meeting the Islanders (1492)

The Proclamation of 1763

The Proclamation of 1763
George III

WHEREAS WE have taken into Our Royal Consideration the extensive and valuable Acquisitions in America, secured to Our Crown by the late Definitive Treaty of Peace, concluded at Paris…and being desirous that all Our loving Subjects…may avail themselves with all convenient Speed, of the great Benefits and Advantages which must accrue therefrom to their Commerce, Manufactures, and Navigation, We have thought fit…to issue this Our Royal Proclamation…. And whereas it is just and reasonable and essential to Our Interest and the Security of Our Colonies, that the several Nations or Tribes of Indians with whom We are connected, and who live under Our Protection should not be molested or disturbed…no Governor…in any of Our other Colonies or Plantations in America, do presume for the present…to grant Warrants of Survey, or pass Patents for any Lands beyond the Heads or Sources of any of the Rivers which fall into the Atlantic Ocean….

And whereas great Frauds and abuses have been committed in the purchasing Lands of the Indians, to the great Prejudice of Our Interests, and to the great Dissatisfaction of the said Indians; in order to prevent such Irregularities for the future, and to the End that the Indians may be convinced of Our Justice and determined Resolution to remove all reasonable cause of Discontent, We do…enjoy and require that no private Person do presume to make any Purchase from the said Indians of any Lands reserved to the said Indians….

The Depopulation of the Indies

As you read, consider the following questions:
1. Summarize how the author describes the character of the Indian natives.
2. By describing why he believes the Taino are not greedy, what implicit indictment does de las Casas make against the conquistadores?
3. Quantify what effect de las Casas claims the Spanish had upon the Taino population.

Excerpt from A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies, 1542
Bartolomeo de las Casas

And of all the infinite universe of humanity, these people are the most guileless, the most devoid of wickedness and duplicity, the most obedient and faithful to their native masters and to the Spanish Christians whom they serve. They are by nature the most humble, patient, and peaceable, holding no grudges, free from embroilments, neither excitable nor quarrelsome. These people are the most devoid of rancors, hatreds, or desire for vengeance of any people in the world. And because they are so weak and complaisant, they are less able to endure heavy labor and soon die of no matter what malady. The sons of nobles among us, brought up in the enjoyments of life’s refinements, are no more delicate than are these Indians, even those among them who are of the lowest rank of laborers. They are also poor people, for they not only possess little but have no desire to possess worldly goods. For this reason they are not arrogant, embittered, or greedy. Their repasts are such that the food of the holy fathers in the desert can scarcely be more parsimonious, scanty, and poor. As to their dress, they are generally naked, with only their pudenda covered somewhat. And when they cover their shoulders it is with a square cloth no more than two varas in size. They have no beds, but sleep on a kind of matting or else in a kind of suspended net called bamacas. They are very clean in their persons, with alert, intelligent minds, docile and open to doctrine, very apt to receive our holy Catholic faith, to be endowed with virtuous customs, and to behave in a godly fashion. And once they begin to hear the tidings of the Faith, they are so insistent on knowing more and on taking the sacraments of the Church and on observing the divine cult that, truly, the missionaries who are here need to be endowed by God with great patience in order to cope with such eagerness. Some of the secular Spaniards who have been here for many years say that the goodness of the Indians is undeniable and that if this gifted people could be brought to know the one true God they would be the most fortunate people in the world.

Illustration for De las Casas book
Yet into this sheepfold, into this land of meek outcasts there came some Spaniards who immediately behaved like ravening wild beasts, wolves, tigers, or lions that had been starved for many days. And Spaniards have behaved in no other way during the past forty years, down to the present time, for they are still acting like ravening beasts, killing, terrorizing, afflicting, torturing, and destroying the native peoples, doing all this with the strangest and most varied new methods of cruelty, never seen or heard of before, and to such a degree that this Island of Hispaniola once so populous (having a population that I estimated to be more than three million), has now a population of barely two hundred persons.

The island of Cuba is nearly as long as the distance between Valladolid and Rome; it is now almost completely depopulated. San Juan [Puerto Rico] and Jamaica are two of the largest, most productive and attractive islands; both are now deserted and devastated. On the northern side of Cuba and Hispaniola he the neighboring Lucayos comprising more than sixty islands including those called Gigantes, beside numerous other islands, some small some large. The least felicitous of them were more fertile and beautiful than the gardens of the King of Seville. They have the healthiest lands in the world, where lived more than five hundred thousand souls; they are now deserted, inhabited by not a single living creature. All the people were slain or died after being taken into captivity and brought to the Island of Hispaniola to be sold as slaves. When the Spaniards saw that some of these had escaped, they sent a ship to find them, and it voyaged for three years among the islands searching for those who had escaped being slaughtered , for a good Christian had helped them escape, taking pity on them and had won them over to Christ; of these there were eleven persons and these I saw.

More than thirty other islands in the vicinity of San Juan are for the most part and for the same reason depopulated, and the land laid waste. On these islands I estimate there are 2,100 leagues of land that have been ruined and depopulated, empty of people.
As for the vast mainland, which is ten times larger than all Spain, even including Aragon and Portugal, containing more land than the distance between Seville and Jerusalem, or more than two thousand leagues, we are sure that our Spaniards, with their cruel and abominable acts, have devastated the land and exterminated the rational people who fully inhabited it. We can estimate very surely and truthfully that in the forty years that have passed, with the infernal actions of the Christians, there have been unjustly slain more than twelve million men, women, and children. In truth, I believe without trying to deceive myself that the number of the slain is more like fifteen million.

Links for more information:
The Indigenous Legacy of the Caribbean
Surviving Columbus in Puerto Rico

Vocabulary for this post:

Aztec Impression of the Conquistadores: The Messengers’ Report

The Encounter between Native and European was certainly not one-sided. The Aztecs have also left behind a record of their impressions of the Spanish. Montezuma sent messengers to meet with Cortés, to present him gifts and greetings. Cortés responded with as de las Casas described: by discharging his weapons in an attempt to awe the natives. The messengers reported back to Montezuma their impressions, which had a strong effect upon the great warrior.

As you read, consider the following questions:
1. Compare the impression the Aztecs had with that of the Europeans. What characteristics did each find remarkable about the other? What does this indicate about the cultures of each group?
2. How might Montezuma’s reaction have contributed to the Spanish conquest of the Americas?
3. What do you think was the purpose of the dogs? Why would the Spanish bring dogs with them?

The Messengers’ Report, 1519

[Montezuma] was also terrified to learn how the cannon roared, how its noise resounded, how it caused one to faint and grow deaf. The messengers told him: “A thing like a ball of stone comes out of its entrails: it comes out shooting sparks and raining fire. The smoke that comes out of it has a pestilential odor, like that of rotten mud. This odor penetrates even to the brain and causes the greatest discomfort. If the cannon is aimed against a mountain, the mountain splits and cracks open. If it is aimed against a tree, it shatters the tree into splinters. This is a most unnatural sight, as if the tree had exploded from within.”

The messengers also said: “Their trappings and arms are all made of iron. They dress in iron and wear iron casques [helmets] on their heads. Their swords are iron; their bows are iron; their shields are iron; their spears are iron. Their deer carry them on their backs wherever they wish to go. These deer, our lord, are as tall as the roof of a house.

“The strangers’ bodies are completely covered, so that only their faces can be seen. Their skin is white, as if it were made of lime. They have yellow hair, though some of them have black. Their beards are long and yellow, and their moustaches are also yellow. Their hair is curly, with very fine strands.

“Their dogs are enormous, with flat ears and long, dangling tongues. The color of their eyes is a burning yellow; their eyes flash fire and shoot off sparks. Their bellies are hollow, their flanks long and narrow. They are tireless and very powerful. They bound here and there, panting, with their tongues hanging out. And they are spotted like an ocelot.”

When [Montezuma] heard this report, he was filled with terror. It was as if his heart had fainted, as if it had shriveled. It was as if he were conquered by despair.

Links for further information:
Belize and Ambergri Caye: The Aztec Acount of the Spanish Conquest of Mexico

Federal Indian policy from the end of World War II through Johnson

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: .

Termination and Relocation

After the resignation of Commissioner Collier in January of 1945, federal Indian policy returned to its previous course of seeking to completely integrate American Indians into standard American society.  Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes ignored the requests of Indians to have a commissioner of Indian heritage, and appointed William Brophy to the post.  Brophy had previously been an attorney for the Pueblo tribe.  While Brophy shared a genuine interest in helping the Indians, he approached Indians affairs from a different perspective than Collier.  He believed that Indian participation in the military during World War II indicated a readiness for assimilation for many Indians.  Brophy was hampered by poor health during his tenure as commissioner; during 1946 and 1947 he requested leave at various times to recover from tuberculosis.  During his lengthy leaves assistant commissioner William Zimmerman served as acting commissioner.[1]

Congress had approved Brophy under the assurances that he would implement the will of Congress and not the ideas of John Collier.  One of the first congressional actions that Brophy implemented was a reorganization of the Bureau of Indian Affairs that was signed into law by President Truman on August 8, 1946.  The stated purpose of this act was to “simplify administration of Indian affairs.”  Brophy was authorized to establish five district headquarters at Oklahoma City, Portland, Phoenix, Billings, and Minneapolis.  Forty offices were eliminated. The area directors in charge of each district headquarters would then wield some of the powers previously reserved for the commissioner.  This innovation was immediately criticized by Indian leaders as merely another stratum of bureaucracy to impede Indian affairs.[2]  Congressional attention to Indian affairs was lessened when the House and Senate committees on Indian affairs were merged with those on public lands in 1946.[3]

More heartening for the Indians was the establishment of an Indian Claims Commission five days later on August 13, 1946.  At last, the Indians were to be offered a chance to settle longstanding claims against the government.  A three-judge panel was created through this legislation to resolve existing claims within five years.  Within ten years, it was predicted that these pending claims would be adjudicated, and the Claims Commission would expire.  This estimate would prove to be grossly inadequate; the lifespan of the Indian Claims Commission had to be extended by Congress several times to deal with the flood of cases which were placed before it.  More than 800 cases were filed during the first five years of the Commission’s existence.[4]

Many of the congressional supporters of the Indian Claims Commission did not have altruism in mind when they passed their bill.  Indians had long requested a speedy means of settling grievances against the federal government.  Those who acceded to the Indians’ request did so with an eye of reaching a final settlement with the Indians, of discharging federal responsibilities completely.  Although the national debt was alarming, supporters believed that money would be saved in the long run by settling with the Indians now.  Tribes whose claims were settled received money– often millions of dollars.  These funds were then used to justify termination of these tribes.  Claims awards would give Indians money of their own.  From this money tribes were to begin to deal with their own needs without further government assistance.  Claim amounts were awarded based on the value of the land at the time it was alienated from Indian control—not based on current value. Many tribes, especially because they were paid based on past value, demanded the land back rather than monetary compensation.  This option was of course denied.  Further, amounts spent by the government on other programs for the tribe were subtracted from any award amount.   In the end, although more than $800 million was awarded, the money made little impact on tribal economies, since many elected to disburse the money in per capita payments rather than to use it to fund programs to benefit the entire tribe.[5]

Another lasting impact that Brophy’s tenure had on Indian affairs derived from the testimony of Acting Commissioner Zimmerman before the Senate Committee on the Post Office and Civil Service in February 1947 during another of Brophy’s health leaves.  The purpose of the testimony was to reduce the expenditures and personnel in the Bureau of Indian Affairs.  Zimmerman was required to produce a list of Indian tribes according to their readiness to be released from federal supervision, with a goal of cutting personnel costs.  This list divided tribes into three groups: those who could be terminated immediately, those who would be ready in ten years, and those who would require assistance indefinitely.  Although Zimmerman provided the list most reluctantly and with numerous caveats, it would soon be seized upon to justify the implementation of the termination policy.[6]

During World War II thousands of Indians had left the reservations to serve in the armed forces or to work in war industries.  Their success in living among white society provided the impetus to the movement to “emancipate” Indians from their status as wards of the federal government.[7]  However, the fact of the matter was that the “emancipation” of Indians really meant the emancipation of the government from responsibilities related to trust lands, treaty obligations, and social services.

The drive for termination was not driven solely by white policymakers.  Some Indians requested their own “liberation.”  They believed that federal wardship imposed undue interference in their lives.  Indians under wardship had to get permission to sell or lease property.  They were usually restricted to reservations and reservation schools and hospitals in order to attain services, for some states, regardless of the Johnson-O’Malley Act, refused to provide government services to Indians, citing their exemption from state laws and taxes.  Reservations were often morasses of poverty, remote from employment opportunities.  Until 1948, Arizona and New Mexico denied Indians the right to vote based on their exemption from taxation—although the failure to pay taxes was not used as a means to deny the franchise to any other group.  Indians who were acculturated or who wished to live in urban areas often resented the restrictions that were analogous to tribal membership and reservation life.[8]

The years after World War II were a time when reducing the size of the federal bureaucracy became a priority, largely as a response to the rapid growth of programs during the New Deal.  Public Law 162 created the Commission on Organization of the Executive Branch of Government, also known as the Hoover Commission.  Former President Herbert Hoover was the chair of this group.  The goal was to downsize the federal executive.  The Bureau of Indian Affairs received early scrutiny.  Yet Indian needs still remained, and the government looked to the states to fill the void which would be left upon government withdrawal.  Where previously the federal government had protected Indian tribes from state interference, those who advocated termination and emancipation fought the states to take responsibility for the needs of the Indians who lived within their borders.

Commissioner Brophy resigned in June 1948.  John Nichols, who served for only 11 months, succeeded him.  During that time he expended most of his time inspecting various reservations.  Nichols was also involved in the Hoover Commission.  Nichols declared that assimilation and Federal withdrawal from guardianship over Indians must be the goals of the Indian bureau, but that the true costs of assimilation must be addressed.  Current federal appropriations of 6.5 million dollars averaged only twenty-five dollars per Indian.  Nichols estimated that it would cost at least a million dollars just to provide enough classrooms for all Indian children.  Nichols estimated the total cost at 150 million dollars for the United States to honorably discharge its debt to the Indians.[9]

The last vestiges of the Indian New Deal came to a decisive end with the appointment of Dillon S. Myer as Indian commissioner in May 1950.  Myer was best known as the administrator of the detention programs enforced upon Japanese-Americans during World War II.  As Indian commissioner, he viewed the Indians as being the same as inmates in relocation camps, and sought to “liberate” Indians from their reservations.  He did not consider the view that the reservations were the Indians’ homes, hard fought for and protected by treaty.  As Philleo Nash stated, “So Myer approached Indian affairs as though relocation centers and reservations were the same.  He viewed Indians on reservations as temporary detainees.  He sought to end this detention as quickly as possible.  His policy was a form of expulsion.”[10]  Myer sought to terminate federal wardship regardless of Indian consent or cooperation.  His autocratic style provoked outrage from many Indians and reformers.  Former Interior Secretary Harold Ickes judged Myer “a Hitler and a Mussolini rolled into one” in a 1951 article in the New Republic.  John Collier sent an open letter to President-elect Truman urging Myer’s ouster, and Felix Cohen attacked Myer’s policy in the Yale Law Review.[11]

Myer sought to place many of the responsibilities for law enforcement and human services with the states.  Although many states initially welcomed the opportunity to have jurisdiction over Indian country, some cooled to this idea when they realized how expensive extending services would be.  Since Indian land was immune to state taxation, and the federal government did not offer adequate funding to alleviate the increased fiscal burdens associated with this expansion, many states did not avail themselves of this opportunity.[12]  The Johnson-O’Malley Act which allowed for contracting between states and the federal government for services to Indians was primarily being used to finance the placement of Indian children in public schools.  Contracts for this purpose had been signed with California in 1934, Washington in 1935, Minnesota in 1937, and Arizona in 1938.[13]

Myer responded to Indian criticism of the Bureau of Indian Affairs by offering to terminate federal oversight of tribes.  In his annual report for 1952, he outlined a three-part proposal for those tribes critical of Bureau policies.  The first section is a direct challenge to the tribes:

1.  If any Indian tribe is convinced that the Bureau of Indian Affairs is a handicap to its advancement, I am willing to recommend to the Secretary of the Interior that we cooperate in securing legislative authority to terminate the Department’s trusteeship responsibility with respect to that tribe.[14]

Another idea generated during Myer’s tenure that was designed to reduce the number of Indians for which the Bureau was responsible was relocation.  Myer developed “Operation Relocation” in 1952 and claimed that through it the Bureau was providing a “basic program of training and placement assistance for those Indians who want to leave the reservation areas and establish new homes in ordinary American communities.”[15]  This program would be responsible for transplanting Indians from their reservations to selected urban areas where they were to blend into the urban environment.  The goal was not to send Indians into urban areas to learn skills that could be brought back to the reservations.  The goal was to depopulate reservations and thus make it possible to liquidate them.

The genesis of the relocation policy probably dates to two events: Indian success in working in war-related industries during World War II, and the crisis that resulted on the Navajo reservation after a severe blizzard during the winter of 1947-1948.  The Navajo reservation carried a population far above what the land could support, and even after federal emergency aid was distributed, it was obvious that a one-time injection of federal assistance would not permanently resolve the crisis.[16]  Removing at least some of the Navajos could help the Navajo economy by reducing the strain, and by placing relocatees in areas where they could find employment, possibly sending some of their wages back to those who remained behind.  Further, Indians off the reservation further reduced expenditures since they would not demand reservation-based social services.  Some Indians had become interested in relocation after the experiences of World War II.  The steady incomes the Indians earned as either soldiers or as industrial workers greatly raised expectations.  Many of these Indians were obviously reluctant to go back to the reservations, with their lack of amenities and employment opportunities.[17]  A higher standard of living was waiting to be had in the cities.  No one, not even Myer’s critics, could deny that employment opportunities were nonexistent on the reservations. There was no incentive for American business to reverse that trend, since the reservations were removed from population centers and transportation hubs, not to mention the low levels of education and occupational training of the general Indian population. As envisioned by Myer and many supporters of termination in Congress, relocation would lead to the destruction of Indian community—a complete disavowal of Collier’s ideas and the Indian New Deal.

The Indian Bureau was accused of providing no assistance to the relocatees once they arrived in the cities.  Myer interpreted most Bureau responsibilities for Indians as stopping at the boundaries of the reservations, and he claimed that no Indians were forced to leave for the city.  Relocation was a matter of choice, he emphasized.  Bureau official simply tried to encourage that choice through the use of duplicitous advertising campaigns that depicted relocated families enjoying the benefits of good jobs, such as televisions, refrigerators, and nice clothing.  The process of applying for relocation was also deceptively simple.  Relocatees would choose a city from the list of those in the relocation program.  Usually the Indians would travel by bus, and upon arrival would be met by a relocation worker.  Money was given to the relocatee and he was accompanied by the federal worker to buy necessities.  They were shown how and where to shop and where the church of their preference was.  Housing was secured, and the government would pay the first month’s rent and other bills.  After the first month, however, Indians were expected to take care of their own needs, although they were checked on periodically by the relocation worker.  It was this “sink or swim” mentality that produced the most criticism, for Indians who wished to return to the reservation were not provided with the funds to do so.  Those Indians who were not successful were thrown back into the same inexorable cycle of poverty they had sought to escape.   However, now they were without the support of their extended family, their culture, or Bureau of Indian Affairs programs that they would have had if they had remained on the reservation.[18]

As Indian populations continued to grow, the idea of relocation was expanded to include all Indian tribes.  Beginning in 1951-1952, Indians were relocated to large urban areas such as Los Angeles, Denver, and Chicago.  Funding for the program in 1952 was $500,000.[19]   Expenditures were increased, and the applications for relocations surged as Indians were swayed by the pamphlets showered upon them by Bureau employees and as the situation on reservations worsened.  This led Myer to request $8.5 million to fund the expansion of the program in the next year, including some vocational training.  Congress did increase funding, although not to the extent that Myer envisioned.

The elections of 1952 led to conservative Republican control of both the federal executive and the legislative branches. Fiscally, austerity was the watchword, and the notion of limited federal government led logically to the support of termination of services to American Indians.  America was on the precipice of McCarthyism, the Cold War, and nationalism, and tolerance for variant cultures or viewpoints was incompatible with nationalist sentiment.  Further, powerful conservative westerners—Sen. Arthur Watkins of Utah and Rep. E. Y. Berry of South Dakota– controlled the committees which oversaw matters relating to the department of the interior and to Indian affairs.  These representatives and senators were usually hostile to the ideas of tribal sovereignty.[20]

Myer did not get the chance to take advantage of these developments.  He had become too hated by the Indians, and during the presidential campaigns, Indians had bartered their support of Dwight Eisenhower in return for the removal of Myer.  The 47,000 Navajos in New Mexico had recently gained the right to vote, and their tribal population was one of the largest in the United States. Eisen-hower requested Myer’s resignation in 1953.[21]  Myer’s successor was a white businessman from the center of the Navajo Reservation: Gallup, N.M., banker Glenn Emmons, who served from 1953 to 1961.  Emmons continued and expanded the policy of termination.  Emmons realized one essential fact that Myer had overlooked: it was vital to give the appearance of Indian cooperation if termination was to be fully implemented.  Emmons tried to fully utilize public relations techniques and was a master of the selective interpretation of data.

In the summer of 1953, four days after Emmons assumed the office of commissioner, Wyoming Rep. William Henry Harrison sponsored House Concurrent Resolution 83-108, which listed certain tribes presumed to be ready for termination.  The resolution stated, “It is the policy of Congress, as rapidly as possible, to make the Indians within the territorial limits of the United States subject to the same laws and entitled to the same privileges and responsibilities as are applicable to other citizens of the United States.”  It specified ending the federal trusteeship over Indians and dismantling the Bureau of Indian Affairs.  The measure passed both houses with little interest or debate.[22]  The basic idea for termination as an official policy was specified and approved by Congress.  Two weeks later Public Law 83-280 allowed states to unilaterally impose their jurisdiction over Indian reservations.[23]

The anticipated results of termination were to completely break up reservations, to cease the recognition of tribal government, tribal membership, and treaty rights, and to ultimately shut down the Bureau of Indian Affairs.  The prevailing mood in Congress and throughout the government was that the services and protections provided to the tribes was a form of welfare to which Indians were not entitled in perpetuity.  Conservatives’ strong faith in economic Darwinism contradicted the idea that Indians had to be protected and that their land and resources should be withheld from exploitation in the free market.  The beginning of the Eisenhower administration brought a renewed interest in sound business practices, and a recession necessitated severe budgetary constraints.  Twelve million dollars was trimmed from the budget of the Bureau immediately after Interior Secretary Douglas McKay took office.  These cuts were justified since services to the Indians would be ending soon anyway.[24]

The first groups of Indians to be specifically targeted in Congress for termination were those in California, Texas, Florida and New York, as well as the Menominee, Klamath, Flathead, and Potawatomi tribes.  The Bureau correspondingly drew up termination bills for several of these tribes, including the Menominees, Klamaths, Alabama-Coushattas, Utes, Ottawas, Wyandottes, Ottawas, and Paiutes.  These bills required the compilation of a final tribal roll, removing trust restrictions from individual tribal members, and requiring tribes to manage tribal property themselves or to hire a trustee to administer such property.  Within two to four years after Congress approved termination legislation, the process was to be complete.  During the first half of 1954, hearings were held on the termination of several tribes.[25]

The next area to feel the pinch was in programs that offered economic help to Indians, especially the Revolving Loan Fund.  Interest rates were raised from the current 2 percent to 4-5 percent in an effort to recover operating costs.  Fewer loans were made as credit was tightened in response to delinquency rates that government officials deemed high.  Since most Indians had few tangible assets not held in trust by the government, there was little hope of foreclosure to satisfy outstanding debts if an Indian defaulted.  Eligibility was therefore constricted, and loans dropped 60 percent in 1953 alone.  Although Emmons and other Bureau officials encouraged banks in the private sector to step into the void, the lack of collateral described above made obtaining credit in the free market impossible —which was why the Revolving Fund had been initiated during the New Deal in the first place.

In late 1953, the Interior Department began preparing for the demise of the Bureau of Indian Affairs by commissioning a study to suggest ways to implement termination plans and to cut the Bureau’s budget immediately.  The committee that drew up the resulting analysis, known as the Bimson report, was made up of businessmen and officials from the Bureau.  Suggestions included transferring the responsibility for services to other federal agencies, states, or tribes, expanding the relocation program as a cost-cutting measure, delaying the construction of boarding schools, and reducing the number of district offices and personnel.  Realizing that such actions would be criticized, the Bimson report also recommended a propaganda campaign to smooth the way for these cutbacks.[26]

A simple means of reducing Bureau expenditures was to divest it of responsibilities, turning over programs to other departments.  Two areas which were transferred early in the Eisenhower administration were education and health.  The troubled Indian Health Service was transferred to the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare and made part of the Public Health Service in August of 1954.  While boarding schools had fallen out of favor during the New Deal, they were given new life under termination.  One reason was responsible for both decisions: boarding schools stripped youngsters from their communities and promoted assimilation.  During termination, then, boarding schools received the emphasis for full-blood Indians.  However, by 1956, nearly 59 percent of Indians were enrolled in public schools operated by the states and local communities.[27]  Indians of mixed heritage did the best there, as they were usually more familiar with white ways.

The first group to come under termination legislation was the Menominee of Wisconsin.  Their high rate of literacy in English and timber operations made them ideal test subjects for termination, and doubtless backers of termination presumed that they would have enough assets and cultural literacy to make the transition with a minimum of difficulty.  Their termination legislation was passed in June 1954, with a termination date of December 31, 1958.  Wisconsin state officials even provided the Menominee with a committee to assist in preparing their termination plans to the secretary of the interior.  However, the tribe was unable to meet their deadlines, and did not even submit their plan until October 31, 1959.  They set up a corporation, Menominee Enterprises, Inc., to administer the tribal property, such as the sawmill and logging lands.  Their reservation lands were established as a separate county, which immediately garnered the distinction of being the poorest and least populated county in the state, with only 3,270 inhabitants.

Finally, on April 30, 1961, the Menominees were officially terminated.  The Menominees became subject to all state laws, including taxation.  Immediately it became obvious that termination for this group was a dismal failure.  The federal government had buttressed the Menominee economy in unseen ways and the economy began to collapse under the weight of taxation.  Further, although the Menominees dressed and spoke as their white neighbors, they were still culturally distinct.  Many Menominee began immediately agitating for a return to recognized tribal status.  The Klamath of Oregon, also rich in timberlands, disintegrated under termination when a majority elected to divide the tribal property and take per capita payments.  The tribe was destroyed, and the land was over-harvested or used by the federal government for national forest and a wildlife refuge.  These well-publicized failures started a groundswell of Indian protests and public opposition to termination.  Although termination was to remain on the books as official Indian policy for many more years, active enforcement of the policy went on hiatus.[28]

In addition to terminating tribes, individual Indians were terminated from receiving government services.  This was accomplished through the relocation program, which had gained momentum since Myer’s tenure.  By 1954, over 2,600 had been relocated and employed, although the quality of the jobs (and their paychecks) was often poor.  The Bureau’s report for 1954 shows that Indians had been placed in urban areas in twenty states, and relocation offices had been opened in Oakland, San Francisco, Cleveland, Oklahoma City, Tulsa, and Dallas, to name a few locations.

By this time the Bureau had begun systematically providing vocational training to increase relocatees’ success in finding permanent employment.  Application rates mushroomed, and congressional financial support increased accordingly. Over $1 million was allocated in 1955, and this amount ballooned to nearly $3.5 million the following year.  In August 1956 Public Law 959 authorized a system of adult vocational education to both augment the relocation efforts and to increase opportunities near the reservations.  Although the first two sections of the law were aimed at preparing Indians for urban opportunities, the third section encouraged businesses to locate near reservations.  This allowed Indians to increase their standard of living without leaving a familiar environment, and did not result in as much culture shock as those Indians who relocated faced.  Further, the incentives provided by the government to encourage industry location near reservations led to only short term development.  The factories were usually developed with tribal funds, provided on average only a few hundred jobs, and remained only a few years, especially in the face of a recession that developed during 1957 and 1958.[29]  However, the primary goal of this program was to help Indians gain experience that they could use to transition to a better lifestyle off the reservation.

Until 1957, the main focus continued to be relocation.  Due to the increased demand by Indians for acceptance into the program, funding was stretched thin, even with the increases approved by Congress.  This resulted in a lower level of support for Indians in the program.  For instance, housing was usually located in low-income areas; ironically, even this low-income housing in slums was rationalized as being not noticeably inferior to that which the Indians were accustomed to on the reservations.  As noted previously, Indians were not provided with funds to return to reservations if they found urban life too harsh or lost employment.  Some Indians made it home anyway, but most could not afford the trip home, or were too proud to admit failure.  This also reduced the chance that those still on the reservations would discover the truth about the obstacles faced by relocatees.

Much of traditional Indian life was based on community: the support of family, clan, band, or tribe.  Urban Indians for the first time experienced true loneliness and isolation.  Discrimination was a fact of life.  Many relocated Indians were unfamiliar with conveniences such as telephones, bank accounts, or elevators.  They were unused to following schedules.  Their eligibility for government services had ended soon after they left the reservations.  They were thrown together with other impoverished minorities who nonetheless knew more about navigating the urban environment.[30]  Too often they descended into despair, alcoholism, and drug abuse.  These problems did not go unnoticed, and relocation programs received much criticism.  By 1957, the very word “relocation” had earned a negative connotation which could not be dismissed.  Since PL 959 emphasized education as a way of achieving the goals of relocation, Bureau officials soon dropped the name “relocation” in favor of the more benign “employment assistance.”[31]

The election of John F. Kennedy brought about the opportunity for a reassessment of current federal Indian policy.  The policies advocated under Commissioners Myer and Emmons had led to a complete distrust of the federal government by Indians.  A sense of hopelessness competed with a dawning awareness of the power of activism.  During the election of 1960 Kennedy was questioned about his stance on Indian policy– specifically, termination—by the Association of American Indian Affairs.  Kennedy’s Republican opponent, Richard M. Nixon, was asked the same questions.  Kennedy naturally used the opportunity to criticize the previous administration’s policy, specifically termination.  Nixon, as vice president, instead tried to defend termination as a positive program.  “Since 1953 we have had more progress toward a better way of life for the American Indian than in any comparable period in our national history.”  He hinted that more progress would have been made had Democrats in Congress not hindered the intentions of the Eisenhower administration.[32]

Kennedy’s interior secretary was Stewart Udall, former Arizona congressman.  Udall had actually served on the Subcommittee on Indian Affairs, and so had taken some interest in policy.  Although Udall attempted to place an Indian in the commissioner’s office, this proved impossible.  During the search, Udall created a Task Force on Indian Affairs to review critique current policy.  The Task Force made a noticeable effort to consult with Indian leaders, traveling to many reservations to gather data and suggestions. The report delivered to Udall in July 1961 recommended “workability” and more Indian input but did not recommend any radical policy shifts or restructuring of bureaucracy.  Instead, it recommended “maximum development” of resources on the reservations.  It emphasized the further development of services and the protection of Indians’ rights even if they lived off reservations.  It did not specifically renounce termination, but instead criticized the emphasis on the word, which by this time caused immediate hostility on the part of many Indians.  Better to assist the Indians in social, political, and economic assimilation, then to gradually terminate.[33]

Finally, after some delay, Philleo Nash, an anthropologist by training, was chosen as commissioner.  Nash had served on the Task Force. He opposed termination, and when it became clear that he could not do away with the policy due to congressional pressure, he initiated a slowdown of its implementation.  Regardless of his personal stance, termination did continue during the Kennedy administration, with the Menominee and Klamath terminations finalized in 1961 and the Catawba termination finalized in 1962.  Both Udall and Nash avoided the use of the word “termination” in his many consultations with Indian leaders, preferring instead the term “development.” Nonetheless, Nash was stymied throughout his term of office by congressional adherence to termination, and Kennedy’s indifference to Indian matters left Nash with no leverage.  The most Nash and Udall could do was ensure that Indians were included in Kennedy’s rudimentary programs on poverty, which did not have much time to develop before Kennedy’s assassination. [34]

However, Indians themselves were beginning to grow tired of being involved in policies affecting them only at the invitation of bureaucrats.  Two significant events occurred during Kennedy’s admin-istration which indicated that many Indians were ready to take responsibility for self-determination.  One was the Declaration of Indian Purpose that was issued after a pan-Indian congress held at the University of Chicago in the summer of 1961.  This convocation of nearly 500 Indians from dozens of Native American tribes as well as native observers from throughout North America represented a breakthrough in cooperation among tribes.  Many of the young people who were involved in attending the Chicago conference went on to found the National Indian Youth Council.  This group’s members became activists in presenting Indian problems as civil rights problems, and many of its young leaders adopted the forceful attitudes of other minority groups in the civil rights movement, using the phrase “Red Power” to describe their dedication to political activism.[35]  Many of the leaders of the NIYC would go on to participate in the more militant American Indian Movement, known as AIM, which would gain so much attention during the later 1960s and early 1970s.

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:

US Indian Policy from the Dawes Act to the New Deal

This is the introduction to a paper I wrote in graduate school. It sums up the effects of the Dawes Act rather succinctly.

At the turn of the 20th century, the United States government had decided upon the policy of allotment as a solution to the “Indian problem.” Allotment had become the law of the land with the passage of the Dawes General Allotment Act in 1887 and the Curtis Act, which covered Indian Territory, in 1898. These Acts allowed the President to have reservations surveyed and apportioned into individual allotments suitable for a small farmer. Individual Indians received parcels of roughly one quarter section (160 acres) each or less, depending upon the size of the reservation and the age and marital status of the Indian. Most Indians received much less than 80 acres. Two outcomes were desired. First, it was held that humanitarian impulses (as well as notions of cultural superiority) dictated assistance to our “backward brethren.” But far more importantly, Indians who were converted to farming and ranching would not need as much land to support their families as did hunters; thus, these Indians could be persuaded to sell their “excess” holdings to the government for white settlement. Allotted Indians would be subject to taxes and all the other burdens of citizenship.

The allotment policy also included programs to extinguish original Indian cultures, including languages and religion. Schools enforced the use of English only and emphasized vocational skills needed by a farmer or housewife. The policy of allotment and its educational programs ignored one insuperable flaw: many Indians did not want to farm. The cultivation of plants was not considered an honorable occupation for men in many Indian societies, especially in the northern and central Great Plains. Other native religions forbade cutting into the Earth with a sharp instrument such as a plow. Policymakers either ignored or were unaware of these obstacles. It was believed that so long as Indians held the land in common, there would be no individual incentive to bring it fully into production.

Much of the appeal of assimilation was also financial in nature. Some congressmen, particularly from Western areas, were critical of the amount of money spent on Indian affairs. They believed that by force of arms whites had taken over the continent and that therefore, nothing was owed the Indians. They decried the endless financial obligations that were required so long as Indians maintained their tribal status. They sought to abolish the Indian Bureau and terminate the federal recognition of tribes. Once tribes passed away, Indians would have no special privileges granted to them. These westerners were also frustrated that Indian land was protected from white economic exploitation. Assimilated Indians would have no federal protections to keep their lands forever beyond the reach of development. All lands would be in the public domain or be private property, and use would be unrestricted. The result would be economic growth for the nation.

To protect the Indians, the Dawes Act provided that the title to each allotment would be held in trust by the government for a period of 25 years. During this time of adjustment, the Federal government — specifically, the secretary of the interior and the bureaucrats in the Bureau of Indian Affairs –- would serve as trustee to each Indian and control all individual financial affairs. At the end of the twenty-five year period, an Indian could petition for a patent in fee simple, which would transfer title from trust status through the Federal government to the individual. At that time, the Indian had to prove competence to handle his or her property. If competent, the Indian would own the land outright, and would be subject to taxation by the state and local governments. Once an Indian received his land in fee simple, free from government control, he would be granted United States citizenship. The acceptance of an allotment implied a willingness to sever tribal ties. The concept of dual citizenship in both tribe and greater nation was not entertained. An assimilated Indian would no longer need the protection of the tribe when he or she had the protections of American culture, education, and citizenship. Once tribes no longer existed, treaty obligations would die as well. In 1905, the Supreme Court ruled that Indians who accepted citizenship could not receive federal Indian services, although this decision was overturned eleven years later.

Allotment perfected the drive to dispossess the Indians that had begun with the first treaties. The Burke Act of 1906 allowed the secretary of the interior to allow some Indians to petition for their patents before the twenty-five year period had elapsed. Some agents colluded with white neighbors to pressure Indians into receiving their patent and immediately selling their allotment, often for a fraction of its value. Further, the government operated a “competency commission” from 1915 to 1920 which forced twenty thousand Indians of less than half “Indian blood” to accept their patents without consent. When they could not pay the state taxes on the land, they were forced to sell. An estimate by the National Resources Board in 1935 revealed that about 50% of all allotments had been released from government oversight from 1900 to 1934. Most of these allotments had been alienated from Indian ownership due to the inability to pay the taxes assessed by the states and local communities. Therefore, the mixed blood Indians, who were often more acculturated than their full-blooded brethren, were more apt to lose their allotments. Full bloods actually were more likely to retain their land during the allotment period, since they were granted a longer period of government protection.

Those who managed to retain their lands were usually unable to successfully farm them. The climate of most reservations was too arid for such small plots of land to be profitable. Much of the land that remained in Indian hands by the 1930s was submarginal in quality. Population pressures further eroded the usefulness of allotments. In 1900, the Indian population of the US was numbered at 237,196. By 1930, the Indian population had increased to 343,352. This meant that there were far fewer allotments than there were Indians, a development that had not been anticipated by the framers of the Dawes Act. As the original allottees died, the laws of inheritance exacerbated this problem. Allotments became fractionated into useless parcels as their estates were divided among heirs. With the lower life expectancy of Indians, a single piece of land could pass through several estates within a few decades. Because most Indians had no wills, each successive inheritance was usually divided among several heirs. Some Indians had inherited plots only a few feet square. In areas in which Indian reservations were comprised of submarginal land, only large tracts could be utilized successfully; therefore, these allotments became even less valuable each time they changed hands. A 1934-35 survey of inherited lands that had originally been allotments found just 7 percent being used by Indians, with the remainder being sold to whites or left unused. Furthermore, allotted land benefited only one-half of reservation Indians through rent or ownership: 49 percent of Indians on allotted reservations in 1933 were landless.

Many Indians and non-Indians alike decried the conditions prevalent on reservations and boarding schools. Even before the Depression struck the United States unemployment and poverty were rules rather than exceptions. Reservations were isolated from business centers and employment opportunities. The Indian Bureau also failed to provide vocational training, expertise to help Indians create their own businesses, or plans to draw employers to the reservation. Fifty-five percent of reservation Indians in 1928 had a per capita income of less than two hundred dollars annually; the top two percent of reservation inhabitants had yearly incomes above five hundred dollars, and wages generally made up no more than two hundred dollars per annum. Schools operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs often did not have enough room for all the children living on a reservation, and many of the buildings were in poor repair. The lack of health care was evident in the astronomical rates of infection of tuberculosis and trachoma, an eye disease that could result in blindness. Benjamin Reifel, a Sioux who served as Commissioner of Indian Affairs under Gerald Ford, remembered, “While I was a boy growing up on the Rosebud Indian Reservation we had the most sickening poverty that one could imagine. Tuberculosis was a killer of Indians. The people on the Pine Ridge Reservation and at Oglala were eating their horses to survive. Impoverishment was everywhere.”

Children in boarding schools faced the same conditions due to chronic underfunding of educational programs by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Congress. As historian Floyd O’Neil has stated,

The word assimilation was not an abstract, remote concept. Rather, it was an active philosophy, with tremendous power to break up families and even to take the lives of children. For the death rate of Indian children was much higher than that of the general population.
Indian children were not welcomed in public schools, since their parents paid no taxes and lived on land outside state jurisdiction, not to mention the barrier of racism that discouraged enrollment.

How did assimilation last so long as official policy? Assimilation had been supported by many of the reformers of Indian affairs prior to the 1930s. The Indian Rights Association had been particularly influential during the 1920s and was the oldest Indian reform group then active. Founded in 1882, its stated mission was to promote Christianity and the private ownership of property for Indians. The IRA supported government policies which sup-pressed native religions. Ironically, other reformers argued that the IRA actively campaigned against Indian rights, since it sought to deny Indians their constitutional right to freedom of worship.

Because Indians had not begun to organize themselves until the 1940s, the debate on Indian policy took place with little Indian input. The reforming spirit that would overtake American social policy in the early decades of the twentieth century impacted Indian affairs as well. By the 1930s several organizations were active in the debate over federal Indian policy. Among these were the American Indian Defense Association, the Indian Rights Association, the National Council of American Indians, the National Association of Indian Affairs, and the General Federation of Women’s Clubs’ Indian Welfare Committee. Several members of these groups would receive federal appointments during the 1930s and 1940s and attempt to put their reform ideas into action. The result would be an attempt to reverse the course of federal Indian affairs.


The next part of this story can be found here and will be published in February: