Native Americans, Impact of the Great Depression on

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Before the Great Depression and the Indian New Deal, ethnocidal policies devastated Native-American individuals and nations. Between 1887 and 1933, over half of the tribal land base was lost to land thieves, tax sales, and governmental sales of "surplus lands." These policies launched a cycle of poverty that continues at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Thus, lack of education and ill health became hallmarks of tribal societies in the United States. But these racist missionary and civilizing policies did not bring the benefits of American civilization to Native-American people. Instead, many native peoples strengthened their resolve to nurture and cleave to their old traditional ways.

This period of ethnocide or "forced assimilation" was the worst period of Native-American civil rights. In spite of constitutional affirmations, Native-American property rights, free speech, and free exercise of religion were denied. On a more fundamental level, the right of Native-American tribes to continue their distinct tribal status was violated systematically. To this day, the damage to native individuals and communities and the economic rights of Native Americans has not been mended.


After World War I, some enlightened Native Americans and white individuals decided to reform these oppressive "assimilation" policies with new legislation. Although many Native Americans had become U. S. citizens through "competency commissions" and treaties, Congress unilaterally granted citizenship to all Native Americans in 1924. However, many natives were wary of being declared citizens through "competency" since it often meant that their federal land allotments and treaty rights were no longer protected and thus subject to confiscation or sale. A significant amount of the tribal estate was taken from Native Americans through fraud and state tax sales. In fact, thousands of newly created Native-American citizens saw their lands removed from federal protection and sold out from under them during the 1920 and 1930s.

Many Native-American leaders asserted that the American Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 was a mischief-maker in Native-American policy. They did not like the way it was imposed without consultation and consent from native communities. The Tuscarora chief, Clinton Rickard, summarized the views of many Native Americans by stating:

The Citizenship Act did pass in 1924 despite our strong opposition. By its provisions all Indians were automatically made United States citizens whether they wanted to do so or not. This was a violation of our sovereignty. Our citizenship was in our own nations. We had a great attachment to our style of government. We wished to remain treaty Indians and reserve our ancient rights. There was no great rush among my people to go out and vote in the white man's elections. Anyone who did so was denied the privilege of becoming a chief or clan mother in our nations.

Although the 1924 American Indian Citizenship Act granted citizenship unilaterally, it did not end federal protection of native lands and governmental entities. Hence, Native Americans acquired a new status as American citizens while maintaining their privileges and rights as members of distinct Native-American political units. However, native policymakers in 1924 assumed that tribal governments would wither away when Native Americans became U. S. citizens. But most tribal governments did not disappear as anticipated and native peoples continue to enjoy a special dual citizenship.

Poverty, poor education, and ill health characterized the existence of most Native Americans in the 1920s. When native lands were allotted, the federal government assured communities that they would be supported during the transition from communal ways to the individualistic mores of Euro-American society. But government promises were not kept, and many Native Americans continued to reject American individualism and cling to traditional group-oriented values. In some cases, native communities were devoured by their more greedy and competitive white neighbors. By the end of the 1920s, many reformers and Native-American leaders understood that instilling private property through allotment and Christianity through missionization had wreaked havoc in Native-American country.


In 1928, the federal government commissioned a study of Native-American policy. The resulting Meriam Report catalogued the woeful conditions of native peoples. In health care, Native Americans were found to be without even rudimentary services. Infant mortality rates were twice the national average. Native Americans were also seven times more likely than the general population to die of tuberculosis. Sanitary conditions were bad, and many native peoples were disease-ridden. The Meriam report also criticized Native-American boarding schools as "grossly inadequate." From 1800 to 1926, the Bureau of Indian Affairs separated Native-American children from their parents in a cruel attempt to Christianize and civilize them. The Meriam Report pointed out the harsh discipline heaped on Indian children. Basically, the boarding schools forbade Native-American children to speak their own languages, practice their religions, or wear traditional clothes. Violators of these rules were subject to physical abuse. Male American-Indian survivors of this period, such as Rupert Costo (Cahuilla), joked that upon arriving at boarding schools a missionary teacher would point to a picture of Jesus Christ with long flowing hair and state that they were to become like this man and then order that the boys' long hair be cut. In addition, most Christian boarding schools ruthlessly exploited Native-American child labor throughout much of the first half of the twentieth century. The Meriam Report characterized boarding schools as overcrowded and staffed with unqualified personnel who provided poor medical care, an unhealthy diet, and substandard education. Under these harsh conditions, Native-American literacy rates remained low. Boarding schools were also a direct attack on native families since they separated Native-American youths as early as the age of five from their families and often forbade children from even visiting their reservations and families during the summer.

Furthermore, no economic or legal structure appeared to be in place to protect the rights of Native Americans. The Meriam Report found that only 2 percent of all Native Americans earned in excess of $500 per year and that 96 percent of all Native Americans made less that $200 per year. Almost half of all Native Americans had lost their land to unscrupulous people who were manipulating the law to take advantage of allotted Native American lands. Legal authorities were unsure where cases involving natives and non-natives as defendants and plaintiffs should be heard—on reservations or off reservations. Often, when such cases were adjudicated, justice was not the result.

Having diagnosed this staggering array of problems, the Meriam Report recommended an infusion of funds to correct the ills of the system. It called for a new office in the Bureau of Indian Affairs to institute new programs and monitor existing ones. The report also stated that the government and especially the Bureau of Indian Affairs had exhibited an extremely hostile attitude towards native families and native culture. The allotment system, a cornerstone of Native-American policy since 1887, was found to be the major cause of chronic Native-American poverty.


The Meriam Report documented a national scandal, showing that the deplorable conditions on reservations were a byproduct of governmental policies and neglect. Thus, the Meriam Report became a major blueprint for the Indian New Deal. In the 1930s, Native-American policy was taken out of the hands of missionaries and transferred to white social scientists. Most Native-American leaders of the time pointed out that Native-American affairs were still not in the hands of native peoples. Native leaders also knew that the persistence of Native-American ways depended on maintaining the land base and traditional tribal identity, and they looked to the Bill of Rights for the legal machinery to facilitate this survival process. The white religious reform community was largely responsible for these excesses since they had backed the discredited allotment policies and the Indian Citizenship Act.

The reforms that emerged in the 1930s were built on the idea that native culture and nations had a place in twentieth-century America. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's new commissioner of Indian affairs, John Collier, instituted a policy to restore the vitality of Native-American governments through the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) of 1934. The IRA renounced the old allotment policies and encouraged tribes to promulgate their own constitutions. In addition, Native-American governments were recognized as the basic way to foster federal Native-American policies. New Deal reforms also sought to create nondenominational day schools on reservations, rather than continue to fund religious boarding schools that destroyed Native-American traditional family values. In these ways, the right of Native Americans to maintain distinct tribal communities was sustained. The idea that tribes and tribal values would eventually disappear was no longer the underlying assumption behind United States Native-American policy during the 1930s.

Paradoxically, federal officials during the 1930s often pursued goals of Native-American autonomy with an enthusiasm that limited the Native Americans' right of choice. In his zeal for social change, Collier pushed for the adoption of Native-American constitutions that reflected bureaucratic opinions as to how older tribal structures could be converted into contemporary constitutional structures. As a result, IRA constitutions were forced upon many tribes that clearly opposed such measures. During the 1930s, most Native Americans continued to be suspicious of governmental programs to aid them. Many large tribes, such as the Navajos, rejected the Indian New Deal because it did not address the very real economic and resource management issues on large reservations. Unemployment on most Native-American reservations continued to be well over 50 percent throughout the 1930s.

Despite these concerns, the reforms of the 1930s continued. Tribal governments were revitalized and their political authority over reservation life was reinvigorated. Gradually, native peoples started to recover from the devastations of the allotment policy, and health and education programs improved. But these reforms were short-lived.

As the Great Depression ended and World War II began, the United States turned away from Native-American issues. The budget for the Bureau of Indians Affairs was cut, and conservative politicians attacked Collier's policies of empowering Native-American societies. Racism played an important role in this backlash, as did non-native businessmen who had lost their ability to plunder Native-American resources and lands during the 1930s. The cost of reforming the administration of Indian affairs was also a source of friction. An ideological attack against Native Americans emerged out of the anticommunist hysteria of the day. The attack painted Native-American ways as un-American and communistic. These ideological critiques aided another attack on native societies in the late 1940s and early 1950s, reversing many of the gains secured during the Indian New Deal. These conservative political attacks on native peoples would pave the way for radical civil rights and self-determination movements like the American Indian Movement in the 1960s.



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Native Americans, Impact of the Great Depression on

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