Indian New Deal

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The Indian New Deal was preceded by over a decade of reform agitation, an important investigation of field administration from 1926 to 1927, and several moderate changes during the Herbert Hoover administration. Before Franklin D. Roosevelt was inaugurated in 1933, Harold L. Ickes, a Chicago attorney, sought to become Indian commissioner, but the president-elect named Ickes secretary of the interior instead. This left John Collier, an Indian reformer, Nathan Margold, a New York attorney, and Lewis Meriam, an Institute for Government Research employee, as leading candidates for commissioner. Margold became a solicitor in the Department of the Interior and Meriam withdrew. In a showdown meeting in April 1933, Roosevelt chose Collier over Edgar Meritt, former assistant Indian commissioner.

The appointment was unorthodox, but promising. Twelve years of Indian reform work gave Collier a deep understanding of Indian affairs, a strong belief in cultural pluralism, and a commitment to improve the Office of Indian Affairs (OIA). In addition, he hoped to achieve Indian self-support and self-government.

The first months of the Collier commissionership mostly dealt with organizing Indian Emergency Conservation Work. This flexible program operated as a special branch of the national emergency agency popularly known as the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). The Indian CCC started field operations in July 1933, and for the next nine years it provided jobs for many enrollees and greatly improved reservation forests, grazing lands, and farms. One of the key factors in Collier's commissionership was his ability to supplement his regular OIA budget with money from the Indian CCC, the Public Works Administration (PWA), the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, the Soil Conservation Service, the Works Progress Administration, and other New Deal programs.

In late 1933, Collier turned to drafting legislation for a complete overhaul of Indian administration. The Indian Reorganization Bill, introduced in mid-February 1934, centered on restoring tribal governments, ending land allotment, consolidating checkerboard lands, protecting Indian cultural heritages, and creating a special Indian court. The Indian Reorganization Act of June 1934 did not contain an effective land program or a special Indian court, but it banned allotment, endorsed tribal governments, and authorized revolving loan money and several other benefits. Laurence M. Hauptman considers the measure, "the most important and farreaching . . . legislation affecting Native Americans in the twentieth century."

With the passage of the Indian Reorganization Act, the OIA initiated a two-year campaign to persuade Indian groups to approve it, a first step in creating tribal governments and corporations. The canvassing tactics appeared more like "guided democracy." Collier and his spokesmen often reminded Indians that without an Indian Reorganization Act government, they would never enjoy the economic benefits promised by the legislation. He also tried to create a bandwagon effect by scheduling early elections on those reservations believed to favor the Act. This partially worked, but in June 1935 Collier experienced a crushing defeat when the large Navajo Nation rejected the Indian Reorganization Act despite an all-out effort to win approval. J. C. Morgan, a bilingual mission worker and dedicated advocate of assimilation, took advantage of the Navajos' hostility to recent livestock reductions to narrowly defeat the proposal. According to historian Lawrence C. Kelly, 263 tribes and bands voted on the Indian Reorganization Act; 174 approved it and 73 opposed it.

For tribes that approved the Act, the OIA moved to form tribal governments by drafting constitutions, bylaws, and chartering corporations. In 1935 Collier established the Indian Organization Division (IOD) to assist the process. The new agency dispatched field workers to help superintendents and tribal leaders in forming the new governments. The IOD workers relied on a "model constitution" to serve as a guide. Although this could be modified to suit local needs and preferences, some observers have complained that the constitutions ignored Indian traditions and imposed white forms of government, that the new governments too closely resembled the model constitution, and that the focus was always on creating tribal governments even if Indians were accustomed to local units such as bands or communities. Once the tribes completed a constitution and it received the secretary of interior's endorsement, another referendum had to approve it. Out of the 174 tribes and bands that voted for the Indian Reorganization Act, 92 drafted constitutions, and 71 then formed business corporations that qualified them for revolving loans. Although a minority of Indians came under the Indian Reorganization Act, Collier tended to treat all as if they had come under it.

The natives of Alaska and the Indians of Oklahoma had largely been excluded from the Indian Reorganization Act, but both areas later received their own legislation. The Alaskan Reorganization Act of May 1, 1936, and the Oklahoma Indian Welfare Act of June 26, 1936, resembled the Indian Reorganization Act, but each was designed to fit the situation in its area.

In terms of improving the OIA's regular services, the Indian New Deal made some progress but fell short of a major breakthrough. Health care offers one key example. Because of the Depression, Collier was able to hire younger and better trained doctors and nurses, and the emergency programs built eleven new and well-equipped hospitals. One major victory was the use of sulfanilamide against trachoma in 1939. The incidence of this dreaded eye disease dropped from 30 percent in 1939 to 5 percent by 1943. The OIA, however, never received the funds needed for a successful campaign against tuberculosis, the Indians' most serious health problem.

Indian education also improved, but fell short of Collier's hopes. His basic goals included improving existing schools, closing some boarding schools, developing day schools, and, above all, teaching Indian children to appreciate their own tribal heritages. Unfortunately, virtually all the Indian Service teachers were white and had little understanding of such goals or a desire to learn. Indian students, however, benefited from nearly a hundred new day schools, mostly built with PWA funds, and these often doubled as community centers.

White and Indian opposition to the Indian New Deal arose early and became serious by 1937. Several witnesses at the Indian Reorganization Bill hearings in 1934 charged that Collier's cultural pluralism was retrogressive and would isolate Indians from society. Others testified that his ideas were un-American and communistic. The Indian critics formed the American Indian Federation (AIF) in Gallup, New Mexico, in August 1934. Joseph Bruner, a Creek, headed the group, but Alice Lee Jemison, a Seneca, acted as the AIF's Washington lobbyist and most effective opponent of the Indian New Deal. The AIF membership was diverse, but all demanded Collier's resignation and the repeal of the Indian Reorganization Act. The AIF cooperated closely with the Indian Rights Association, an old-line and conservative reform organization in Philadelphia. More importantly, members of the House and Senate Indian Affairs Committees welcomed Jemison and other AIF spokesmen to testify against the Collier administration after 1934. Bills were introduced in 1937 and 1939 to repeal the Indian Reorganization Act, the centerpiece of the Indian New Deal. Although these attempts failed, Collier's critics forced him into a defensive posture. Only Secretary Ickes's support allowed Collier to continue.

The economic revival around 1940 tended to offset the growing problems that the Indian New Deal faced. Initially, the economic upturn mainly benefited Indian CCC enrollees who found good jobs in the private sector. Special arrangements in 1941 between the OIA, the states, and the U.S. Department of Education established national defense training programs for CCC workers. These included welding, sheet metal work, carpentry, radio operation and repair, and other skills. Hundreds of enrollees completed the training and found outside jobs.

World War II brought major changes for Indians and further weakened the Indian New Deal. The exodus of Indians from reservations greatly intensified. An OIA survey, for example, reported that 46,000 Indians found off-reservation employment in 1943 and earned a total of over $40 million. The agency later estimated that 24,521 Indian men and women served in the military. The migration of Indians during the war unquestionably played a major role in the postwar movement to cities.

The war, however, had devastating effects on the New Deal programs. Although Collier desperately tried and failed to make his agency relevant to the war, the OIA was moved to Chicago. Serious budget cuts, the disbanding of emergency programs, and shortages of doctors, nurses, teachers, and other personnel hampered operations. Collier's problems with congressional opponents continued, and in June 1943 the Senate Indian Affairs Committee released Partial Report 310, which contained a scathing attack on the Collier administration. Worn down and frustrated, Collier resigned on January 19, 1945.

Scholars have studied the Indian New Deal extensively but thus far no real consensus has emerged. Clearly Collier's ability to secure emergency funds not only helped Indians survive the Depression, but government jobs provided many Indians with work skills that they used in outside employment during World War II. Accomplishments relating to gains in self-government, the preservation of Indian cultural heritages, and the achieving of self-support are less clear cut. Some Indians actively hated Collier. The Navajos, for example, never forgave him for livestock reductions aimed at checking overgrazing. Perhaps evaluation of the Indian New Deal requires looking at each reservation and evaluating such factors as the availability of resources, the competence of tribal leaders, and the role played by the superintendent and his staff.



Collier, John. From Every Zenith: A Memoir and Some Essays on Life and Thought. 1963.

Kelly, Lawrence C. "The Indian Reorganization Act: The Dream and the Reality." Pacific Historical Review 44 (1975): 291–312.

Parman, Donald L. The Navajos and the New Deal. 1976.

Prucha, Francis Paul. The Great Father: The United States Government and the American Indians, Vol. 2. 1984.

Rusco, Elmer R. A Fateful Time: The Background and Legislative History of the Indian Reorganization Act. 2000.

Donald L. Parman