American Indians 1933-1941

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American Indians 1933-1941

Issue Summary
Contributing Forces
Notable People
Primary Sources
Suggested Research Topics
See Also


Since the colonial period in U.S. history, American Indians had continually lost lands to the expanding European settlements. By the 1830s major dislocations of Indian populations were occurring as much of the Indian population of the Southeast United States was forced to the "Indian Territory" of Oklahoma. A federal program to establish reservations for Indian peoples in their ancestral territories in the West grew through the mid-nineteenth century. This policy resulted in a dramatic decrease in the amount of land used by the American Indians. As the Indian land base eroded, so did their economic capabilities. Increasingly, federal policies sought to destroy tribes and promote the transformation of American Indians into English-speaking, Christian farmers.

Through another federal program, a land allotment program established in 1887, the federal government tried to break apart communal tribal land holdings and allot (assign a portion) the resulting small parcels of land to each native in an effort to make them landowning farmers. With on and off-reservation day schools and boarding schools, it tried to force this transition with each succeeding generation of native children. But many, both children and adults, did not have the training or interest in farming. Even if they did, much of the land set aside was too dry for agricultural use.

By the 1920s evidence abounded that American Indians were rapidly losing what lands they had left, were trapped in poverty, had substandard education, suffered from poor health, had limited life expectancy, and existed in overall desperate circumstances. With most Indians living on remote parcels of land, their conditions were depressed before the stock market crash in 1929 and subsequent impact of the Great Depression. Fact-finding reports such as the Brookings Institution's The Problem of Indian Administration (1928) had documented in detail their needs.

The prospects for change were strong when President Franklin D. Roosevelt (served 1933–1945) named Harold Ickes to serve as secretary of the interior. Ickes was a crusty, no-nonsense administrator who wanted the various bureaus in his department to operate efficiently and honestly. Ickes was a champion of civil liberties and comfortable with the perpetuation of tribes and traditional native cultures. He turned to John Collier, one of the sharpest critics of past federal policies, and named him to serve as U.S. commissioner of Indian affairs.

The 1930s marked a turning point in American Indian history. The New Deal brought to Washington, DC, new leaders and new ideas more sensitive to the multiculturalism of the United States. The New Deal consisted of a range of federal social and economic relief and recovery programs addressing a broad span of issues including work relief for the unemployed. Supporters of these programs, called New Dealers, were willing to advance programs and ideas that earlier administrations would not have considered. New Deal reform sought to improve the staffing and efficiency of federal government Indian programs. These new efforts became known as the Indian New Deal.

Collier's tenure as Indian commissioner from 1933 to 1945 was the longest of any in U.S. history. It was a period of major shifts in programs and actions toward tribes and individual American Indians. Although little immediate change in the Indian economic condition would occur, a foundation was built for later changes in the last three decades of the twentieth century.

Issue Summary

The Indian New Deal

During the Great Depression, the federal government sought to address a number of the accumulated problems in the administration of American Indian affairs. The New Dealers faced complex issues related to American Indians. Some of the new directions were crafted in Congress. A number were initiated in the U.S. Office of Indian Affairs (that would later be known as the Bureau of Indian Affairs—BIA), given congressional approval, and then were implemented by the Indian agency. The BIA is an agency in the Department of Interior responsible for ensuring the general welfare of American Indians. In general, the course of federal policy during the years of the Great Depression was to support the political and cultural existence of tribes (tribalism), slow down the efforts to force American Indians to adopt the dominant American culture's beliefs and ways of life (assimilation), improve delivery of social services, and support a multicultural nation.


The proposed Bursum Bill in Congress causes pro-American Indian advocates to rally and fight this legislation which would have given ownership of Pueblo Indian lands to white ranchers.
June 2, 1924:
The Indian Citizenship Act granting citizenship to all American Indians passes.
An influential report requested by the U.S. Office of Indian Affairs titled The Problem of Indian Administration, also known as the Meriam Report, is published providing a blueprint for reform of government policies.
April 20, 1933:
John Collier is named Commissioner of Indian Affairs.
April 16, 1934:
Congress passes the Johnson-O'Malley Act providing federal funding for schools that have American Indian children enrolled.
June 18, 1934:
Congress passes the Indian Reorganization Act (Wheeler-Howard Act) establishing the cornerstone of New Deal Indian policy.
Congress creates the Indian Arts and Crafts Board to promote Indian cultural traditions.
Senate Indian Affairs Committee recommends repeal of the Indian Reorganization Act but fails in its effort.

These efforts essentially began on April 20, 1933, during the second month of the New Deal. On that date Secretary of Interior Harold Ickes appointed John Collier commissioner of Indian affairs. Collier, making a commitment that New Deal reforms would include American Indians too, aggressively sought to rejuvenate Indian cultures and traditions. A key goal was to give tribes both legal and organizational capabilities to pursue economic development while maintaining their individual cultures.

Collier found a more receptive general public in 1933 for Indian policy reform than earlier existed. The widespread unemployment following the October 1929 stock market crash brought more sympathy in general for the poor. The seeming failure of individualism (to succeed on one's own initiative and skills) and capitalism (private ownership of a nation's means of production, distribution, and trade) made some more sympathetic toward the communal tradition of Indian culture.

Supporting Tribalism

For decades the federal government had sought the destruction of tribes. It had taken their lands, confined American Indians on reservations, mounted "civilization" programs to force cultural change, and divided up the lands of reservations into allotments. By the 1930s, however, it was clear that in spite of these many actions, tribes had not disappeared. Several of those serving in the New Deal wanted to support the existence of tribes but move them into the modern world.

Biography: John Collier

1884, May 4–1968, May 8 Collier was the dynamic Commissioner of Indian Affairs from 1933 to 1945, the longest tenure of a head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in its history. Born in Georgia, Collier attended school mostly in Atlanta and endured the death of both parents while still a young man. Collier attended Columbia University in New York City and in 1907 studied psychology in Paris. In 1908 he became a social worker in New York City, edited the Civic Journal, and was a member of the bohemian community in Greenwich Village. In 1919 Collier moved to California and, while visiting Taos, New Mexico, in 1920, became fascinated with American Indians.

During the 1920s Collier served as the research agent for the Indian Welfare Committee of the General Federation of Women's Clubs. He then became executive secretary of the American Indian Defense Association. He mounted national opposition to the Bursum Bill, a bill that would have forced the Pueblo peoples of New Mexico to prove title to their lands. He also helped organize the All Pueblo Council, fought for tribal self-rule, and wrote a book titled American Indian Life. Collier defended American Indian rights and resources in a variety of publications. As a sharp critic of federal policy toward native peoples, he set the stage for the Brookings Institution's funding of a major study of the condition of American Indians. The study resulted in the publication of The Problem of Indian Administration (1928).

President Roosevelt named Collier head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1933. Collier pressed for a number of major changes: an end to land allotment, extension of federal trust over individual and tribal lands, increasing the native land base, federal loans to tribes, encouragement of native arts and crafts, and preferential hiring of native people into the Office of Indian Affairs. Collier dreamed of an increasingly self-sufficient future for tribes through the Indian Reorganization Act. However, the law was significantly amended in Congress and lost many of the features Collier envisioned. He helped organize the Civilian Conservation Corps-Indian Division (CCC-ID) and promoted its work on reservation lands.

Collier's long run as head of the Office of Indian Affairs brought mixed results. Even though the IRA was not as Collier envisioned, he supported it and tried to implement it. However many tribes rejected the IRA. He was often at odds with the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, especially when it was chaired by Burton K. Wheeler. Collier resigned as commissioner in 1945 and for the next six years taught at City College of New York. He died in Taos in 1968.

The issues facing government planners, politicians, and tribes were numerous and complex, but several basic goals were adopted. For tribes to survive it was believed that tribes should adopt governing practices based on democratic principles. These would include majority rule constitutions, bylaws, elections, resolutions, and minutes of meetings. Tribes also needed to become economically self-sufficient by being permitted to charter corporations, borrow money, and develop their remaining lands and resources. Within this new strategy, traditional economies and cultural practices should also be supported. To accomplish this, they believed the federal government should encourage traditional arts, crafts, music, and language. The government should also refrain from further interference with American Indian religion. Several paths were followed in pursuing the goals of supporting tribalism.

Indian Reorganization

A sense of new direction swept through the Office of Indian Affairs with the appointment in 1933 of John Collier as commissioner. Collier saw tribes as playing a role in modern America. To achieve that dream, Collier began work immediately to change both the agency and the federal policy toward tribes. The highest priority was to open an avenue for the tribes to begin economic recovery in a way that formally recognized their unique legal status as somewhat independent nations existing within a nation—the United States.

Knowing that passage of legislation would be slow, Collier took a number of administrative actions to begin making progress towards his goals. First, to the consternation of missionaries, he established the principle of religious freedom throughout the agency school system and ended compulsory attendance at Christian services. Next, turning to the continuing loss of lands by Indians, in August 1933 he secured an order from Secretary of Interior Harold Ickes to stop further allotment of lands under the 1887 General Allotment Act until he could get Congress to pass a law negating the 1887 law. And lastly, regarding the economic problems of many Indian farmers, to help tribes financially he cancelled many debts that were charged against tribal funds. This was a major relief to Indian farmers who had used the loans to construct much needed irrigation systems for their fields.

To achieve long term reform Collier assembled a team in 1933 to draft reform legislation. What resulted was a fifty-page proposed bill titled the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA). The draft bill proposed several changes to increase economic benefits to American Indians.

The proposed legislation was composed of four basic parts, or titles. Title I would recognize the tribal right of self-government and seek economic development to foster tribal independence. Self-government included the rights to establish their own governments, tax tribal members and businesses, and have their own court system. Title II would establish Congressional support for Indian culture including arts, crafts, skills, and traditions. It would authorize Congress to fund Indian arts and crafts and provide funding for Indian education. Title III would end allotment of Indian lands, transfer allotments still in Indian ownership back to tribal communal control, restore lands depleted by erosion, and purchase lands for tribes that lacked a sufficient land base for economic self-sufficiency. Title IV would create a national Indian court system, a Court of Indian Affairs, to hear the cases involving the self-governing Indian communities formed under the IRA.

To gain support for his bill, Collier traveled throughout the West in March and April 1934, holding a series of meetings with tribes. A recently released report served to support Collier's push for reform. In 1934 the National Resources Board, established by the New Deal's 1933 National Industrial Recovery Act, found in one of its many resource planning studies that for 16 reservations 70 percent of the lands allotted to Indians and still owned by them were leased to non-Indians. Also 23 percent of the lands lay idle, unused for any particular economic purpose. Natives themselves used only 7 percent of the allotted lands.

Not all Indians, however, were supportive of the proposed reforms. Tribes who had successfully worked the allotments they had received in previous years were fearful of Collier's proposals to combine scattered allotments back into communal tribal lands. The Five Tribes of Oklahoma, consisting of the Cherokee, Chocktaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole, had such concerns. The Navajo opposed the proposed soil erosion control measures that would lead to reductions in livestock. Their herds of sheep and goats were important for prestige within the tribe and critical for actual physical survival at times. The sheep provided meat for food and wool for blankets. Other tribes opposed the representative form of governments proposed by Collier. The government form modeled after the United States was foreign to Indian traditions of hereditary tribal leaders and making decisions by consensus. In contrast, many in U.S. society considered this traditional Indian form of political authority communistic.

Even more of a challenge to Collier was convincing non-Indians of the reforms, particularly Congress. Eventually Congress found the proposed bill too radical. As a result they dropped most of Title II and all of Title IV. In addition the self-governing powers granted in Title I would be much more limited. The secretary of interior would retain close oversight over all tribal activities. Importantly the ending of the land allotment policy remained and was included in the final bill. However the Indians in Oklahoma who wanted to retain their individual ownership of allotments and lobbied against the bill were successful. As a result they were excluded from the final bill. Alaskan natives who, because of their remoteness, had a different history of relations with the U.S. government that did not include treaties and reservations were also excluded from the act. Congress had reduced the resulting act to only six pages from the original fifty pages.

A key provision of the IRA required approval by individual tribes of the act before they came under its general provisions. As it turned out, dozens of tribes elected not to participate. They either distrusted the provisions of the law or the intent of Congress. Some 250 tribes, bands, rancherias (small reservations in California), and pueblos held elections to decide whether to adopt IRA constitutional governments. Of those 174 tribes voted to accept IRA conditions while 78 voted against it. However, of the 174 who accepted it, only 92 actually adopted IRA constitutions. Those who voted against IRA provisions or failed to adopt IRA constitutions could not receive federal funds to purchase land for economic development. To address Indians in Oklahoma and Alaskan natives in 1936, Congress passed the Alaska Reorganization Act and the Oklahoma Indian Welfare Act. These two acts provided some IRA benefits to tribes located in those areas. Some tribes rejecting the IRA, including one of the nation's largest tribes, the Navajo, still adopted bylaws similar to IRA constitutions to qualify for some benefits.

IRA constitutions adopted in compliance with the act recognized the authority of the secretary of interior to override any tribal actions if he so chose. To many tribes the IRA governments and constitutions would be an alien concept not integrating well with reservation life. Given close federal control and conflicts with traditional tribal leaders, they could exercise little power through them. In a sense the existence of IRA governments actually served in some cases to restrain development of independent tribal governments that may have been more effective in governing their communities.

As a result, the IRA accomplished some things and failed to do others. The IRA did stop any further allotment and extended federal trust (legal) responsibilities over both individual and tribal lands indefinitely. The IRA thus checked the continuing loss of American Indian lands through the allotment process. The IRA provided a major avenue for tribes to seek economic recovery, just as other New Deal programs financially helped the U.S. population in general. The IRA provided loan funds for tribal projects, assisted modestly in the efforts of some tribes to acquire new lands, and set the stage for a number of tribes to charter corporations and attempt business ventures. In California numerous landless tribes acquired mini-reservations (rancherias) by federal purchase of property. The rancherias attracted hundreds of native families who desperately needed a place to live. The IRA also encouraged dozens of previously disorganized tribes to adopt written constitutions, bylaws, election procedures, and forms of modern government.

The IRA contained disappointments as well. As amended by a Congress still interested in assimilation goals, the law did not provide for the court system envisioned by John Collier. By excluding the American Indians of Oklahoma and Alaska, the law missed dozens of tribal communities. Congress never adequately funded the IRA. Tribes could not really gain sufficient monies to effectively attain tribal economic recovery. Some tribes that developed constitutions under the IRA found that lawyers in the Department of the Interior had changed their constitutions, often weakening their self-governing authority.

In spite of these problems, as well as efforts in 1939 and 1943 to abolish the IRA by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, the law remained in effect for those tribes that chose to organize and operate under it. Collier and his staff, in general, used the act to pursue their dream of increased tribal economic and political independence.

Despite its shortcomings the IRA brought the greatest change to U.S. Indian policy since the 1887 General Allotment Act. However the act contained far less change than Collier had sought. Collier had faced a hesitant Congress and opposition by a number of tribes. Still the IRA gave its name, "reorganization," to this era of U.S. Indian policy that lasted from 1933 to 1950. The law, in spite of the controversies surrounding it, pushed policy and programs in new directions driven by New Deal idealism of social and economic reform. The IRA became the centerpiece in what was labeled the Indian New Deal.

Johnson-O'Malley Act of 1934

Education problems were confronting the United States in general during the Great Depression. Just as school funding was severely dropping due to the economic crisis, the demand for better education was rising with the growth of major industries and the U.S. assuming a stronger role in global leadership. Indian education had always been a problem on reservations given their remoteness and lack of adequate funding. Indians who enrolled in public schools often faced racial discrimination and were discouraged from attending. By 1930 53 percent of Indian children were enrolled in public schools. The New Dealers decided to tackle the Indian education issue.

Given the financial conditions of the Great Depression, Congress concluded that for some parts of the country it was no longer feasible to operate separate health and educational facilities for American Indians living outside reservations. To do so was inefficient and uneconomical. In response Congress passed the Johnson-O'Malley Act (JOM) in 1934. The law was named for Hiram W. Johnson, chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, and Thomas P. O'Malley, chairman of the House Committee on Indian Affairs. The goal of the act was to improve education, medical attention, agricultural assistance, relief of distress, and the social welfare of American Indians. Despite the range of social welfare issues addressed by JOM, most of its funding and programs were concerned with education. Though the legislation was largely designed to help Indians not living on reservations, Collier's Office of Indian Affairs applied it to reservation communities as well.

In hundreds of communities where American Indian children were enrolled in public schools, the federal government would pay public schools for expenses needed to educate Indian children in their districts. The law was amended in 1936 to make it easier for the states and federal government to cooperate to meet the act's objectives of educating Indian children. The amendment allowed federal contracts to go to parties other than the state. JOM proved successful in making it possible for many Indian children to switch from federal schools to better equipped and staffed public schools. With the availability of increased funds, public school districts welcomed Indian children to their schools.

Indian Arts and Crafts

Prior to the 1930s, the federal government had offered little encouragement or support to the artistic talents, music, or dance of American Indians. In fact most government educational programs were founded on the intent to destroy or alter native ways of life and assimilate American Indians into the surrounding majority culture. However the New Dealers of the Roosevelt administration were bringing to the nation a multiculturalism perspective built into the economic recovery programs. Having failed to get support for Indian arts and crafts through the IRA, John Collier pressed Congress further. Finally on August 27, 1935, Congress passed a law creating the Indian Arts and Crafts Board. This change was yet another program inspired largely by John Collier.

More About…Luther Standing Bear—A Native Spokesman

Luther Standing Bear (1868–1939) was born Ota K'te, a member of the Lakota people of the Sioux Nation. He grew up on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and was one of the tribe's hereditary chiefs. As an outstanding student, he was taken from his family and tribe by the federal government and sent to Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. He later wrote vividly in his autobiography, Land of the Spotted Eagle (1933) about this experience and his difficulties adjusting to existence in a government Indian school. He hated red flannel, shoes, and other things forced upon him.

Following completion of his education, Standing Bear found employment as a teacher, minister, and clerk. In 1898 Buffalo Bill Cody hired him to work in his Wild West Show. This employment led Standing Bear to California where he became an American Indian actor in numerous early Hollywood films. He became a member of the Actor's Guild of Hollywood and the Indian Actor's Association. In the 1920s and 1930s, Standing Bear fought to improve conditions for Indians on the reservations. He wrote several books about Indian life and government policy. He also was a member of the Oglala Council and the National League of Justice to the American Indian.

Standing Bear's other books included My People, the Sioux (1928), Stories of the Sioux (1934), and My Indian Boyhood (1988). He was a powerful, vivid writer.

This law sought to encourage the production of traditional and contemporary arts and crafts by American Indians by expanding markets for their sale. To improve their marketability, standards for Indian crafts were adopted. The law provided for the trademarking of designs, opening of a sales art gallery in the Department of the Interior in Washington, DC, and the operation of American Indian art museums at Browning, Montana, Rapid City, South Dakota, and Anadarko, Oklahoma. The construction and operation of these museums and collections of artifacts helped to preserve and encourage native arts. Other projects included the operation of the Covelo Indian Market at the Golden Gate International Exposition (world's fair) in San Francisco in 1939 and 1940.

Part of the New Deal public works programs also focused on preserving Indian cultures. States, particularly New Mexico, designed such projects as part of their Works Progress Administration (WPA) program. Artists and musicians were hired to teach crafts and traditions almost lost. In addition as part of the fieldwork with tribes, Office of Indian Affairs employees worked to inventory, photograph, and document traditional arts and crafts in the 1930s. Special projects included an extensive photography project in 1941 and 1942 and Alfred W. Whiting's "Report on the Survey of Hopi Crafts" (1941–1942). These assessments of native arts permitted the Indian Arts and Crafts Board to address the misrepresentation of native arts, since often art and objects supposedly produced by American Indians were actually counterfeit.

Though some economic benefits for Indians were seen from these programs, it was almost negligible when compared to the desperate economic conditions of many tribal communities at this time. However, from this support a small group of Indian artisans was able to grow and influence students in future years.

Establishing Indian Law

Though the tribal court system did not survive in the congressionally-passed version of the IRA, Collier believed other avenues were open to increasing the protection of Indian rights. A part of the New Deal public works program (government funded jobs) compiled historical government records and placed them safely, at long last, into national archives, a place where official records and documents are kept. In a similar move, Secretary Ickes had the Department of Interior collect information on past Indian policies, relevant executive orders, acts of Congress, and court decisions.

Part of the New Deal for American Indians, therefore, was trying to sort out which laws and policies applied to them and if the laws or policies should be changed for the benefit of the tribes. Felix Cohen, a solicitor (lawyer) in the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and Nathan Margold, a solicitor for the secretary of interior, carried out much of this work. The materials ultimately filled volumes of three-ring binders. Cohen created a useful digest published as the Handbook of Federal Indian Law in 1941.

The Civilian Conservation Corps' Indian Division

On April 5, 1933, President Roosevelt signed an executive order creating the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), one of his personal favorites among the New Deal programs. The CCC employed young males between 18 and 24 years of age to perform conservation tasks. These included planting trees, fighting wildfires, building National Park facilities, constructing wildlife shelters, digging irrigation ditches for farmers, constructing trails, and numerous other activities. One of the most successful New Deal programs, the CCC lasted until 1943 and employed 2.5 million workers who lived in camps across the country.

Through the efforts of John Collier, the Office of Indian Affairs established the Civilian Conservation Corps-Indian Division (CCC-ID). This special branch of the CCC sponsored programs on reservations. Collier obtained $100 million from Congress for irrigation, soil erosion control, and road construction projects. Between 1933 and 1942, fifteen thousand American Indian young men served in CCC-ID.

CCC-ID served three major purposes. It provided training in useful skills, created a payroll for unemployed young men, and restored land affected by excessive soil erosion due to overgrazing. As required throughout the CCC program, those enlisted in this service personally kept about $5 per month for spending money and sent the other $20 in income home to their families.

Federally funded projects by CCC-ID designed to combat erosion included new systems for livestock grazing. Other projects on reservations included reforestation, spring and reservoir improvements, road and trail systems, fences, water systems, laying telephone lines, and construction of tribal facilities. In addition to restoration of lands still in tribal ownership, Collier also obtained one million acres of marginal farmlands through the New Deal's Resettlement Administration and Farm Security Administration to add to tribal base. Erosion control projects by the CCC-ID also were applied to these new lands as well. For new tribal facilities, the Office of Indian Affairs adopted a standard plan for tribal community buildings and clinics. CCC-ID constructed a number of these buildings to meet tribal needs on Indian lands across the country.

The CCC-ID program provided much needed employment on reservations. However little progress was actually made in making Indian farmers more economically competitive on the open market. Farmers still lacked capital to buy the necessary equipment.

End of the Indian New Deal

The various reform programs collectively known as the Indian New Deal were almost solely the result of efforts by Commissioner of Indian Affairs John Collier and Secretary of Interior Harold Ickes. President Roosevelt was largely uninformed about American Indian issues. The biggest successes came in stopping the loss of tribal lands through the 1934 IRA, which Collier had spent much of 1933 drafting, and passage of the Johnson-O'Malley Act providing funds to support Indian educational, social welfare, and medical needs. Also during his first year, Collier saw passage of the Pueblo Relief Act. This act increased monetary awards to the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico who had lost land and water through the Pueblo Land Act of 1924.

Collier, in his zeal for reform, pressed on with reforms dropped by Congress from the IRA bill before it was passed. This led to repeated battles between Collier and Congress over budgets. Opposition over Indian New Deal programs also came from some Indians. Tribes in Oklahoma favored assimilation into white society and did not want to adopt the multiculturalism policies of Collier. Also, the Navajos of Arizona and New Mexico fought efforts by Collier to cut back the size of their sheep herds as part of the program to stop soil erosion. The sheep were vital to the Navajo way of life. After several years of battle between Collier and Congress to fund Indian New Deal programs, the budget demands of World War II (1939–1945) finally brought monetary support of the programs to an end.

Contributing Forces

U.S. Indian Policy

By 1870 military defeats and treaties had forced most surviving American Indians onto reservations set aside in remote areas of the West. U.S. society considered the American Indian a vanishing race. Almost every aspect of Indian life on a reservation was controlled or directly influenced by the U.S. Office of Indian Affairs. It had long been legally established that formal relationships with American Indian tribes were the responsibility of the federal government, not state or local governments. The agency regulated how tribal land and individual allotments owned by Indians could be used, and it provided healthcare and education for Indians. Indian agents had great power over Indians with little if any participation by Indians in their lives and property. Indians did not have the status of U.S. citizens but rather were members of "domestic dependent nations."

Public interest over Indian issues began growing late in the nineteenth century. Following the Civil War (1861–1865), frustrations grew over forcing social change to help the freed slaves in the South. Northern social reformers were meeting ongoing Southern resistance. As a result, by the late 1870s the attention of some social reformers shifted to the plight of American Indians. By the 1880s reformers decided it would be in the best interest of Indians if they were forced into mainstream American society. Their goal was to create an educated and economically self-sufficient Indian population. They believed the best way to do that would be to make them property-owning farmers. The desires of the reforms were much the same as land speculators and settlers who increasingly wanted access to lands and resources located within reservations. Through their combined efforts, Congress passed the General Allotment Act of 1887, also known as the Dawes Act. Through this legislation the United States adopted a policy of eliminating native traditions, Christianizing Indians, and making them into farmers and landowners to help with the assimilation process. The act launched a national program to divide up tribal lands into individual farms. Under this new policy the Office of Indian Affairs was charged with this division of the lands, education, and the training of farming skills as its main activities.

The General Allotment Act divided reservation lands into small parcels that would be assigned to individual tribal members. The federal government would hold the parcels for a period of 25 years, and then the ownership title would be transferred to the Indian allottee. The new individual owner would then begin paying taxes on it. Allotments at Makah Reservation, a heavily timbered property on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington, were ten acres. That was about all a man could clear in a lifetime of work with axe and saw. Many allotments in more open farming country were eighty acres. Grazing allotments in the dry, open rangelands were 160 acres or sometimes larger. However these parcels were often unsuitable for farming and Indians lacked agricultural tools.

With the increased need for agricultural products during World War I (1914–1918), the Office of Indian Affairs decided to speed up the process of giving full ownership of allotted lands to Indians so they could sell or lease the land for farming. To do this the agency introduced competency tests. Competency commissions would travel from reservation to reservation, supposedly to determine if individual Indians were capable of being productive landowners. The definition of competence was left somewhat vague at times. When an American Indian was deemed "competent," he or she (1) gained citizenship in the United States, (2) received a deed for the land, and (3) had to begin paying taxes on their new land. However, in the zeal to wrest lands away from Indians, the commission would often not even take the time to meet with the particular individual they were to assess but declared them competent nonetheless. The Indian would have little knowledge of this assessment. However, soon a non-Indian, often a land speculator, would approach the new Indian landowner to purchase their property for some amount usually well below market value. The Indian, having no means to pay taxes, had little choice but to get what money he could out of it. The General Allotment Act thus became an effective device for reducing the native land base and increasing local tax revenues.

A nightmare of mixed ownership of lands on reservations resulted from the allotment process. It created an even bigger nightmare of bookkeeping for

More About…Bureau of Indian Affairs

In 1786 the secretary of war was placed in charge of Indian affairs in the newly formed United States. Since contact with tribes was predominately through private and government trading houses, in 1806 a superintendent of trade was created to regulate trade with Indians. In 1834 Congress expanded the federal government's role in Indian matters with the creation of the Office of Indian Affairs in the war department. In 1849 oversight of Indian affairs passed from military to civilian control as the Office of Indian Affairs was transferred from the Department of War to the newly created Department of Interior. A commissioner of Indian Affairs headed the Indian agency and reported to the secretary of interior. Under the commissioner several superintendents administered over Indian agents who were assigned to particular tribes. The agents were responsible for distributing annual payments to tribes promised through treaties, regulating trade between Indians and non-Indians, supervising educational programs, and supporting missionary work. The agents operated fairly independently. Inefficiency and corruption came with the lack of oversight. From the 1850s into the 1870s a major focus of the agency was establishing a system of reservations to move Indians out of the way of westward-expanding U.S. settlement.

Following passage of the General Allotment Act in 1887, agents became increasingly responsible for making Indians into self-supporting farmers and abolishing Indian society. The agents had control over food distribution, farming tools, and military troops, thus holding a strong hand over Indian communities. Because education was such a strong part of the agency mission, by 1900 over half of the 4,260 employees of the Office of Indian Affairs were teachers or school employees. The agency grew from less than three thousand employees in 1890 to six thousand in 1918. By 1909 the agency was reorganized and superintendents and Indian agents were eliminated. In their place were schoolteachers to carry out U.S. policies of assimilation. Through the early 1920s, a major role of teachers was to discourage the speaking of native languages and following traditional customs such as dress and dancing. This repression of native culture lessened with release of the Meriam Report in 1928 which strongly criticized the agency's cultural assimilation policies. The report was filled with recommendations on improving the agency's education and healthcare programs. Under President Herbert Hoover (served 1929–1933) the agency began adopting some of the recommendations.

During the Great Depression, under the leadership of John Collier, the Office of Indian Affairs grew in size to twelve thousand employees in 1934. The budget also expanded briefly to $52 million from $23 million in 1933 at the worst of the Depression. However, the budget was trimmed back to around $12 million a year from 1935 to 1942 before being slashed to less than $1 million during the war years.

From 1909 to 1949 the agency's organization remained much the same with a Washington, DC, office and some eighty offices primarily located on reservations. By 1950 the Office of Indian Affairs became known as the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), and the modern structure of the BIA came into being with a system of 12 regional offices administering ninety field offices. The responsibility of the agency included programs in health, education, welfare, law enforcement, forestry, job training, and irrigation. In 1955 healthcare was transferred out of BIA to the newly created Indian Health Service (IHS).

During the 1960s era, the Great Society programs of President Lyndon Johnson (served 1963–1969) provided assistance to Indians outside of the BIA programs. Assistance provided directly to tribes included housing and anti-poverty programs. It was during this period that the first Indian was appointed head of the BIA. President Johnson appointed Robert Bennett in 1966. Also the percentage of BIA Indian employees grew from 34 percent in 1934 to 78 percent by 1980. In 1977 under President Jimmy Carter (served 1977–1981), the position of the head of the BIA was elevated to assistant secretary of the Interior Department and the annual budget was $1 billion. Promoting tribal self-determination along with programs in education, economic development, and natural resource management remained the primary missions of the agency at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

tracing the heirs to allotments. The end result was that the allotment program dramatically increased the loss of lands held by tribes and individual American Indians. Also, fragmenting the reservation lands would strongly hinder wise and economic land use. The loss of lands occurred in two ways. First, unallotted reservation lands were sometimes identified as "excess" or unneeded and were sold to Euro-Americans. Secondly, lands transferred out of federal control to Indian ownership were usually lost, often within four years, because the new owners could not afford to pay taxes to the counties where they were located. This loss further reduced the native land base. When the act began in 1887, the tribes owned approximately 138 million acres. When the law was suspended in 1934, the total native land base had dropped to less than 48 million acres.

The allotment program promoted by the General Allotment Act was a major assault on tribalism. American Indian society is largely communal; in direct opposition to the concept of owning small individual farms.

A Further Decline in the Indian Condition

Under the policies of forced cultural assimilation prior to 1933, the physical and economic condition of American Indians further declined. Sanitation on remote reservations was very poor and employment was largely nonexistent. Infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and eye disease were much more common in Indian communities than in the general U.S. population. They also suffered high rates of infant mortality. Many Indians had to sell their land and live without any means of financial support. Despite the efforts of the federal government to make farmers out of Indians, the number of Indian farmers actually declined from 1900 to 1930 as did the amount of land farmed. Indian farmers were unable to compete in the growing agricultural industry which increasingly involved expensive mechanization. The demand for cash to buy machinery was more than they could raise.

When natural resources of value were discovered on Indian lands, usually the Indians would see little financial benefit. Private business and corrupt Indian agents would conspire to short change royalties owed to the Indian or tribal landowners. For example, oil discoveries on Indian lands, particularly in Oklahoma, in the early twentieth century commonly led to swindles. Much trickery occurred in taking lands away from Indian control.

In addition to economic and health issues, many Indian cultural traditions were lost during this period. During the 1910s the Office of Indian Affairs began an aggressive campaign to stop the practice of Indian ceremonies. The ceremonies such as the Hopi Snake Dance were labeled obscene, superstitious, and immoral by the federal agency. There was little appreciation of the ceremonies' religious value. Not only did the dances have religious worth, but they were becoming valuable from a tourism standpoint in the Southwest at Pueblos. However, termination of the Indian dances became a focal point of those promoting assimilation as they were considered unchristian traditions. The role of the Indian agent was to dissolve Indian culture as quickly as possible.

Other measures were also taken to assimilate Indians. During this time Indian children were taken from their families and sent to boarding schools away from their communities. There they were prohibited from speaking Indian language.

The legal status of Indians living in the United States was still largely unresolved as well. Several thousand American Indians served in World War I in the military forces of the United States, side by side with other Americans. However, almost one-third of Indians who entered military service were still not considered citizens of the United States. Native peoples remained in ambiguous legal status in the country where they were born and lived. Congress belatedly passed the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 to correct this situation. Though Indians could still not vote in state elections, passage of this law raised national attention about American Indians.

The Pueblo Lands Issue

Another issue would also serve to raise public awareness of the Indian condition. A U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1913 suddenly called into question the land ownership of whites living in areas claimed by the Pueblo Indians in New Mexico. This issue gained national attention in 1922 when Senator Holm Bursum of New Mexico introduced the Bursum Bill.

The proposed legislation would have forced the Pueblo Indians to document ownership of their lands to defend them against their loss. This requirement was virtually impossible for Indians to comply with. The records of Pueblo lands dated far back through the territorial, Mexican, and Spanish administrations in the Rio Grand Valley. Many of the records simply did not exist. Others were often written in Spanish and kept in archives and libraries in Europe. They were well out of reach of the Pueblo members. In essence the bill would guarantee lands owned by Pueblos in New Mexico would be given to the white settlers who were considered illegal squatters by the Indian communities.

The proposed bill received much criticism in the press, and John Collier did much to increase public awareness of what he considered an unjust loss of land by the Indians. The Bursum Bill caused hundreds of "friends of the American Indian" to rally and oppose its passage. Leaders in this effort included John Collier, author and activist for the preservation of Indian culture Mary Austin, and the American Federation of Women's Clubs. As a result of their efforts, Congress passed the Pueblo Lands Act in 1924 that was much more favorable to the concerns of the Pueblos than originally expressed in the Bursum Bill.

By the early 1920s the public began to recognize that the Office of Indian Affairs was doing a very poor job in managing tribally owned forests and mineral rights. John Collier, at the time a New York social worker, in particular began to speak out publicly against government policies of mismanagement and assimilation. He was hired by the American Federation of Women's Clubs to present his views. Collier contended American Indian traditions should be respected, not abolished.

Collier also founded the American Indian Defense Association, an activist Indian rights organization. Through the organization Collier pressed for Indian reform to better protect the interests of Indians. Collier's campaign worked, and increasing public criticism of federal Indian policies led to the end of the suppression of Indian ceremonies and other traditions by 1925. Investigations of U.S. Indian policy also began to mount.

Indian Education through the 1920s

Since the late nineteenth century, the federal government had assumed the lead role in Indian education. Earlier, Congress had provided funds to religious missionaries to help "civilize" the native population. However, following the Civil War, it became apparent the government needed to assume a more active role. More Indians had become isolated on reservations, and many were not being reached by religious organizations. Indian children needed more preparation for assimilating into white society than they were receiving from scattered and inconsistent religious programs.

By 1880 the number of federally operated day schools and reservation boarding schools began growing. In 1879 an Indian school for teaching vocational trades opened in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Girls were taught homemaking skills, while boys were taught blacksmithing, carpentry, and other industrial skills. Education consisted of four types of schools by 1900. These were on-reservation and off-reservation boarding schools, local day schools for Indians, and local public schools. In 1900 some 153 federal Indian schools of various types were in operation, including new boarding schools at Santa Fe and Phoenix.

Because of the lack of acceptance of Indian children in many public schools, the Office of Indian Affairs shifted in the 1920s to more exclusively Indian schools. The Office of Indian Affairs launched a campaign to organize the growing number of schools into an integrated system modeled after the public school system. A three-level system was established consisting of day schools for the beginning students, reservation boarding schools for intermediate instruction, and off-reservation vocational schools for the best students. Some schools also adopted an "outing" program in which pupils were hired out to local white families and businesses. This program gave students a chance to earn money and experience the non-Indian world. This system persisted into the 1930s.

Conservative white administrators and instructors dominated all schools through the early twentieth century. A key goal throughout the system was to destroy Indian culture in the pupils and prepare them for assimilation into white society. In the boarding schools, Indian youth were separated from family and friends, fed food strange to them, and forced to speak English. Punishment was often harsh. Through the 1910s a number of problems began adding up. Indian graduates were not finding many jobs in white society and returning to reservations with little job opportunity. School buildings were falling into disrepair. Overcrowding was causing major health problems. As always, parents did not like their children being removed from the home and the community, sometimes forcefully.

The Meriam Report

Charges of inefficiency and corruption within the Office of Indian Affairs led to various fact-finding studies in the 1920s. The leading critic was John Collier. In addition to corruption, he questioned whether education should stress manual labor skills, farming, and domestic labors set in an atmosphere of military discipline and English-only instruction.

The most substantial study came in 1926 and 1927, and was known as the Survey of Indian Affairs. The Commission of Indian Affairs requested the Institute for Government Research (IGR) to conduct the study. Lewis Meriam, who was on the IGR staff, led the study team. Another major figure of the team was Henry Roe Cloud, a Winnebago Indian educator who helped with tribal contacts. Funded by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and promoted by the Brookings Institution of Washington, DC, the team engaged in fact finding and crafting of recommendations. The study focused on how social services provided to Indians compared to how similar services by the federal government provided for the general public.

The resulting 872-page report titled The Problem of Indian Administration (1928) identified the sorry state of affairs for American Indians. The investigators found widespread poverty, shockingly high disease rates, poor diets, short life expectancy, low levels of educational achievement, despair, and loss of resources. At that time of the Meriam Report 55 percent of American Indians had an annual income of less than $200 per year. Only 2 percent had incomes greater than $500 per year and the remainder had incomes in between.

The report, often called the Meriam Report after its team leader, tied many of the deplorable problems to the loss of lands through federal policies since the 1880s. It made a strong case for major changes in the administration of affairs relating to American Indians. Importantly, the report recommended that the federal government permit American Indians who chose to live by Indian cultural traditions to do so. The report also concluded that Indian schools largely lacked the resources needed to properly educate Indian children. This study became a blueprint for the New Dealers who wanted to change federal policy and programs in the 1930s.


The Public

The 1930s was a period of changing public perceptions of Indian peoples. Indians began finding some opportunities to represent their own interests in defining and implementing New Deal programs rather than having white supporters speaking solely for them.

Several major images of American Indians in the 1930s had been carried over from earlier times. These images dominated thought and debate over what should be done about the plight of the Indians. A prevailing image of Indians held by the reformers in the 1930s, who had moved away from assimilation to multiculturalism goals, was that of the good Indian or "noble savage." An image held by those who still promoted assimilation was one of the bad or degraded Indian. A third image common throughout the spectrum was that of Indians as relics of the past, an exotic dimension of human life found in the United States.

The noble savage perspective was a romantic notion of American Indians. The extension of the rail-road into the American Southwest by the late nineteenth century opened up the world of the Indian Pueblo culture to white tourists and U.S. society in general. In addition more settlers poured into the Southwest, increasing interaction with the Pueblo communities. This increased exposure caused a romantic notion of native cultures to grow among many. John Collier, a social reformer from New York City, was one of those who visited the Pueblo area in 1920. He was immediately taken with this seemingly exotic culture. Collier became the leading promoter of reform in U.S. Indian policy.

This romantic viewpoint was also adapted by many Americans who had become disillusioned with the growing mass production and mass consumerism of American society and the increasingly crowded urban conditions. To them Indians seemed to have a superior spiritual life compared to whites. They lived a life of serenity in contrast to the increasing pace of the industrialized world. Puebloan artistic skills were similarly highly revered. Using this idealized perspective of Indian culture, reformers believed the native traditions should be preserved and honored for their values toward community and the land.

These same supporters who romanticized over Indian culture, however, still doubted Indian intellect. Just as promoters of assimilation spoke on behalf of Indian peoples that integration into mainstream society would be best for Indians, promoters of multiculturalism who opposed assimilation also believed they could best express what was best in preserving Indian culture. Neither side seemed interested in having Indians speak for themselves.

Another common public perspective was that of the "degraded" Indian. The degraded Indian, it was believed, was a result of his own natural laziness, dishonesty, and drunkenness. Stereotypes were portrayed in the local press with frequent mention of "fire water" and "wigwams"—making humor of the poverty that gripped Indian communities. The public used this portrayal to support the need to assimilate Indian peoples into white society so they would adopt more desirable social traits. Ironically, the racism rampant in America in the 1930s would frequently deny Indian peoples access to the economic opportunities in society.

Rampant among both reformers and those promoting assimilation was the perspective of Indian societies as relics of the past. To almost everyone Indians still seemed distant and unusual. References to Indian peoples and their communities in the media were usually in past tense. There was little public recognition that Indian peoples still existed and would continue to exist. Indian culture was considered a curiosity of the past, mostly surviving in books and museums. They were not considered a part of the present of the 1930s by many. Associated with this perspective was the lack of recognition of the significant differences between different tribal traditions.

The public began to experience a new, fourth image of American Indians during the Indian New Deal—the Indian citizen acting as an informed participant in New Deal developments. The New Deal gave Indians some opportunity to speak out in public on issues important to their tribes. Indians fluent in English were a surprise to many Americans. For some Indians the major provisions of the IRA proved controversial. Thousands of allottees viewed their land allotments as legally theirs. They did not want to turn over their lands to the tribes as the IRA directed. As a result, debate over the proposed IRA projected Indians as thoughtful political participants with differing points of view. This greatly differed from the single stereotypical images of Indians. Of course those Indians who expressed a viewpoint similar to local whites were considered thoughtful and responsible. If Indian views on proposed New Deal legislation were different from local white viewpoints, then the Indians were considered incompetent and to be representing communistic ideas of Indian tribal communal needs.

Clearly the Indians who represented their tribes in IRA governments and interactions with the New Dealers were living in two worlds. They were representing communities pushed aside and placed on remote reservations by U.S. expansionism of the nineteenth century. Yet they were striving to seek modern benefits offered by New Deal programs with a goal of future economic development. The conflict between the two worlds was evident to visitors at the 1933 Chicago World's Fair who viewed traditional Indian villages set in futuristic settings.

National Perspectives

For decades federal Indian policy was based on the destruction of tribes and the assimilation of American Indians. Thomas Jefferson (served 1801–1809), followed by other national leaders, had promoted these ideas since the birth of the nation. Even those who saw American Indians as equal in abilities and standing with Euro-Americans still advocated assimilation. They were unwilling to let the Indians retain their language, culture, religion, or tribal self-governance. The reservation system that grew during President Andrew Jackson's (served 1829–1837) administration in the early nineteenth century was driven by this agenda of destroying tribes and fostering assimilation.

By the first decades of the twentieth century it became clear that programs of assimilation did not end poverty or improve American Indian health. The native population continued to decline, just as it had since the arrival of Europeans in the Western Hemisphere four centuries earlier. In spite of the efforts of those enforcing assimilation policies to transform American Indians into English-speaking, Christian farmers, many Indians had not made the transition and clung to old ways of life.

The arrival of new leaders in Washington, DC, in the New Deal, including a number who had labored as social workers, raised the issue of supporting rather than destroying tribes and cultural identities of American Indians. The national perspective began changing.

Even as the New Dealers were introducing new national perspectives, the national press still projected the old perspectives. For example, the press covering news stories during the debate over the proposed IRA still used traditional terms to describe Indians—chiefs, braves, bucks, squaws, princesses, and papooses. All of these terms continued a national perspective of social inferiority of the Indian peoples. Similarly, during the drought of the Dust Bowl era of the 1930s, when winds were blowing massive clouds of dust from parched barren fields on the southern Great Plains, many stories covered the "rain dances" of the Plains Indians.

A great deal of misunderstanding of traditional Indian ceremonies, including the Snake Dance of the Hopis and the Sun Dance on the Plains, was relayed to the general public by these national news stories. As a result Indian religious activities were trivialized and placed in circus-like contexts. Other indications of the general perspective on Indian cultures also surfaced. Often in national news articles, whites were referred to by their last name whereas Indians were referred to by their first names. This portrayed Indians as childlike and undignified. This perspective supported proponents of assimilation who considered Indians naïve and vulnerable to the complexities of the modern world. They had to be taught the white man's ways for their own protection.

Adding to the national perspective of Indians was a biweekly magazine started by John Collier while promoting the Indian New Deal in the 1930s. Titled Indians at Work, the magazine presented favorable articles of Indians. The publication reflected Collier's own noble savage notions of American Indians. He portrayed Indians as wronged through actions by whites, such as having been robbed of their religions, traditions, and land through past government assimilation policies. Opponents of Collier countered that the social reform and experimentation was interrupting the progress of Indians in joining white society. Collier and the Indian New Deal, they claimed, were sending Indian peoples back to their primitive lifeways.

Perhaps the biggest aspect of Indian issues was that the debate was still largely between white reformers and white proponents of assimilation. Even John Collier operated largely in a paternalistic (acting as a parent to a child) manner, speaking for the Indian about what was best, in his opinion, for the Indian. Nonetheless Collier was promoting a multicultural viewpoint that Indian cultures and traditions should be respected and preserved. Though the lives of Indians were changing under the Indian New Deal, their public image, based on earlier stereotypes, was changing far less.

Some members of Congress still held to the view that multiculturalism was wrong for the United States. They believed assimilation, the key goal of the 1887 General Allotment Act, should continue to drive federal policy. They were not in favor of spending money to strengthen tribal authority or encourage the perpetuation of Indian arts, crafts, languages, religion, and culture. As a result, provisions of the IRA were never well funded.

Several other factors on the national level contributed to the shifts in federal Indian policy during the New Deal. Of significant importance among these events was the rise of an educated, able group of American Indian leaders. Sometimes called "Red Progressives," between 1900 and the mid-1920s these people pressed for reform of the Office of Indian Affairs, changes in Indian education, greater exercise of trust responsibility, and the extension of citizenship to all American Indians. Dr. Carlos Montezuma, a Yavapai physician and editor of Wassaja, was a sharp critic of the Office of Indian Affairs and called for its abolition. A traveling photographer had adopted Montezuma at a young age and moved him from the Southwest to Chicago. There he attended college and graduated from the Chicago Medical College of Northwestern University. Others, like Dr. Henry Roe Cloud, worked from within the Office of Indian Affairs to try to improve its delivery of services to native peoples. Cloud had attended government reservation schools as a youth. Through his own ambition, in 1910 he became the first American Indian to graduate from Yale University. He later received a doctorate in divinity from Emporia College in Kansas in 1932.


The Indian New Deal and Beyond

The New Deal dramatically changed the course of federal policy toward American Indians. Its impacts were many and highly significant. Perhaps most important economically was stopping the previous erosion of a land base. Except for some losses of land in the 1950s due to U.S. tribal termination policies, the land base preserved by the IRA remained intact through the remainder of the twentieth century and served as a foundation for future economic development projects.

Other important changes also occurred. Tribal governments regained a substantial footing for protecting tribal and individual rights and protecting natural resources owned by tribes. Indian New Deal legislation also extended federal benefits to tribal members for health and education services. The legislation encouraged tribes to adopt modern forms of government and set up a more formal process for tribal governments to interact with the federal government. It also provided loans to tribal governments for economic development.

The Indian New Deal had opened new opportunities in employment and job training to American Indians and established a foundation for future economic growth of tribal communities. For example, the Civilian Conservation Corps-Indian Division (CCC-ID) created jobs, started a flow of funds into reservations, and constructed important and needed infrastructure (roads, buildings, irrigation canals, etc.) on reservations.

For all these reasons, the Indian New Deal represented a major change in U.S. Indian policy. Tribes could now once again function as largely independent governments and gain a stronger hand in directing economic development. On the other hand, unemployment on reservations remained higher than national figures throughout the rest of the century, and most tribes were not able to fully achieve economic self-sufficiency.

The Indian New Deal reversed nationwide programs of forced cultural assimilation. Instead the federal government encouraged continued production of American Indian arts and crafts and stopped requiring attendance at Christian religious services in government schools. Under the Indian Arts and Crafts Board, tribal members could trademark their own art products and gain assistance in marketing their wares. Religious traditions were also saved and rejuvenated, and other aspects of cultural heritage were preserved.

The assembling of laws, court decisions, presidential executive orders, and other aspects of the legal history of tribes by Felix Cohen led to the publication of Handbook of Federal Indian Law (1941). Over the next sixty years, a major new branch of the U.S. legal system grew, known as Indian Law. Volumes by other legal scholars would follow in the next several decades addressing Indian legal rights.

Unfortunately, detrimental changes in U.S. Indian policy were soon to come. Many tribes suffered major political setbacks in the 1950s when Congress sought to abolish reservations and tribal governments. To do this Congress began terminating their federal recognition (trust status). This period became known as the Termination Period in U.S. Indian history. It was based once again on the ideas of assimilation that had fueled the Allotment period of 1887 to 1934. This action cut off federal social service benefits to terminated tribes, including healthcare and education support. Congress wanted to place tribes under state jurisdiction and responsibility. This effort continued until 1960 when opposition to this approach finally ended assimilation attempts.

Trust Responsibility

Trust responsibility refers to the federal government's legal obligation to act in the best economic interest of tribes. During the allotment period of 1887 to 1933, the federal government had trust responsibilities not only for the remaining tribal reservation lands, but also to protect the assets (timber, minerals, water, soil, and grazing resources) of individual allotments. The Office of Indian Affairs was to supervise the sale, lease, and administration of tribal lands and Indian allotments, and also receive, invest, and distribute the income from these lands to tribes and individuals. The Indian agency was to be a good steward of the assets of individuals and tribes.

Trust responsibility was defined early in U.S. history by the U.S. Supreme Court. In the 1831 case of Cherokee Nation v. Georgia the Court affirmed that the United States had a relationship to tribes much "as a guardian to a ward." As the stronger player in this relationship, the United States had a responsibility of trust to look out for its wards, in this case American Indians, and to protect them. This concept would appear later in councils with Indian tribes where the government negotiated treaties with tribes.

Despite this legal responsibility, for decades non-Indians, often working for the Office of Indian Affairs, plundered the assets of tribes and individual American Indians. Trespassers encroached onto reservations and allotments with livestock. They grazed the range and often destroyed the ground cover and caused erosion, while others stole timber from reservations. They cut the trees and hauled them off for their profit. When the Office of Indian Affairs set up a timber sale on Indian lands, at times they falsified the amount of timber or paid unfair prices for what they sold to lumber mills. Little oversight of the agency's actions existed.

Minerals on Indian lands, often having more value than forests, provoked even more plundering of the assets of American Indians. This problem was especially severe when oil discoveries promised to make the tribes in Oklahoma wealthy. Being shrewd crooks, often working with dishonest lawyers, bankers, and politicians, private individuals and federal officials created numerous ways to steal the wealth of natives. Often they insisted on being named guardians. Some American Indians, especially orphans, ended up with eight or ten guardians, each taking a fee for looking out for the "noncompetent" person. These events were scandals, only partially known but increasingly talked about in the 1910s and 1920s.

With the turmoil of the Depression in the 1930s and the advent of the Indian New Deal, Indian citizens could act as informed participants in New Deal developments. Several Indian speakers came into the public eye at this time to discuss issues important to their tribes. This included issues touched in the 1933 Indian Reorganization Act (IRA). The IRA granted new obligations to the traditional trust responsibilities, which had existed since the nineteenth century. With tribes now officially granted more rights in self-government and economic development—including taking advantage of their own natural resources and providing for cultural preservation—they could become more independent from the federal government's earlier domination of Indian affairs and preserve their way of life.

The IRA, however, was not without controversy amongst Indian tribes. Under Title III, the act transferred allotments of Indian land to communal tribal control. This troubled thousands of Indians, who considered the allotments as legally theirs and did not want to turn their land over to a communally controlled system. Vocal opposition to Title III in the 1930s gave Indians a higher profile publicly and with the government, and gained Indians status as thoughtful political participants.

It did not, however, stop the plunder of Indian resources. Just as before the Indian New Deal, resources continued to be diverted from reservations and allotments—to the detriment of the tribes. Among the most valuable of these resources in the American West were water and waterpower. Although reservations were mostly created to promote "civilization" through agriculture, non-Indians took the water that could have helped make farming possible. Power companies worked closely with Office of Indian Affairs officials to secure dam sites, often ignoring the tribal government. They would build hydropower facilities that flooded reservations.

After over a century of fraud, corruption, and just plain bad record keeping a major lawsuit was filed in 1996 on behalf of 300,000 Indians against the Secretary of Interior claiming that Indians had lost at least $10 billion through the years. Favorable rulings indicated the case would likely force major changes in how the federal government carried out its trust responsibilities.

Self-Determination Era

Another major period beneficial to American Indians began in 1970 when a program of tribal self-determination was announced in a speech by President Richard Nixon (served 1969–1974). The idea of political and economic self-determination emphasized again the independence of tribal governments. The Indian Self-Determination and Educational Assistance Act of 1974 built on the 1930s Indian New Deal policies. Through self-determination policies that included large amounts of grant monies, many tribes greatly increased their economic and political power. Tribes could gain more direct control over reservation social services such as reservation day schools and healthcare.

Thanks to the new policies, by the 1990s the Indian population was growing rapidly in size. Tribes were substantially influencing the economies of a number of localities in the United States. Industries exploiting the rich natural resources located on tribal lands, tourism, and commercial enterprises including gambling casinos began prospering in some areas. Organizations such as the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) intensively lobbied both Congress and the White House for favorable consideration in any new U.S. domestic policies.

More About…Native American or American Indian?

Peoples whose cultures existed in North America prior to the arrival of the first Europeans are variously referred to as Native Americans and American Indians. Both terms are regularly used in U.S. laws addressing native issues and by the general public as well. Their use has varied through time, and neither are particularly appreciated by those to whom the labels are applied. The term "American Indian" was first used by the earliest European explorers in the sixteenth century. The word American comes from the first name of explorer Amerigo Vespucci, who landed on what is now the American mainland in the late 1490s. Indian refers to peoples of the Indian subcontinent who Christopher Columbus mistakenly thought he had contacted. As Europeans continued colonizing the New World, the term American Indian continued in use despite the wide variety of native groups that lived in North America and the fact it was not India that Columbus found. To the colonists all the native groups were primitive and uncivilized, thus a common name was collectively applied to all. The individual native groups had names for themselves in their own languages that commonly meant "the people" or "human beings."

By the mid-twentieth century the term Native American gained increasing use. Anyone born in North America of any ethnicity, however, could be considered a native American. By the 1980s American Indian became favored once again by native peoples. However, both terms are objectionable to natives because to them the terms reflect the racism of the dominant white society. American Indians prefer reference to their tribal affiliation when possible, such as Navajo or Oneida or Lakota. When referring to a group of people who are members of several tribes, then American Indian is preferred given the lack of any other commonly accepted term. However the use of Native American still continues as well.

The Johnson-O'Malley Act of 1934, which had provided funds to support and care for American Indian students by granting federal dollars to state and local school districts, remained unchanged until it was amended by the 1974 Indian Self-Determination Act. The law greatly revised the Johnson-O'Malley Act by allowing the BIA to contract with Indians directly so they could provide for their own education needs. The JOM remained effective into the twenty-first century, playing a major role in supporting Indian education. Its primary purpose was still to provide supplementary financial assistance to meet the specialized educational needs of American Indian children. JOM funds were in addition to other local, state, and federal monies.

In a precursor of later affirmative action (encouraging increased representation of minorities) hiring policies, the New Dealers also introduced new procedures in hiring that allowed members of tribes to gain employment in the Office of Indian Affairs. By the late twentieth century, the BIA had become not only predominately staffed by American Indians, but with an Indian as its head. Tribes had considerably more say in how BIA funds could be spent for Indian services.

Notable People

Felix Cohen (1905–1953). Cohen was the brilliant attorney who helped shape New Deal policy toward American Indians. Born in New York City, Cohen graduated from City College of New York, then earned a graduate degree in philosophy at Harvard in 1929 and a law degree from Columbia in 1931. When Franklin Roosevelt began his first term as president, Cohen left private law practice in New York to join Nathan Margold in the office of the solicitor in the Department of the Interior, in Washington, DC. Cohen's first assignment was to draft the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA).

Cohen, working closely with the Commissioner of Indian Affairs John Collier, charted a major change in federal policy toward American Indians in the IRA. Following passage of the IRA by Congress, Cohen and Collier toured the United States in 1934 to discuss the law's provisions. In the late 1930s, Cohen compiled the various treaties, laws, and court rulings relating to the affairs of native peoples. The materials eventually filled 46 volumes and were condensed into the landmark volume on Indian law Handbook of Federal Indian Law (1941).

Cohen also served as an attorney in a number of cases involving tribes. In 1947 he represented the All-Pueblo Council to force New Mexico and Arizona to provide public assistance to aged and indigent natives. In 1948 he left the Department of the Interior to engage in private practice, public service, and teaching. He continued to serve as general counsel for several tribes and published widely as a legal scholar.

Edgar Howard (1858–1951). Howard was the co-sponsor of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, sometimes known as the Wheeler-Howard Act. Born in Iowa, Howard attended Iowa College of Law but did not graduate. He was elected in 1923 to Congress and developed a reputation as a liberal Democrat. He introduced numerous bills permitting tribes to sue in the U.S. Court of Claims, tried to protect tribal and individual mineral resources on reservations and allotments, and by 1933 became chair of the House Committee on Indian Affairs. Howard lost his re-election campaign in 1934.

Darcy McNickle (1904–1977). McNickle was a member of the Flathead Tribe and an anthropologist who worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs during the Depression. McNickle helped shape the creation of the National Congress of the American Indian (NCAI) in 1944. The NCAI became a major national organization representing tribal interests in the United States.

McNickle wrote several books including a novel, The Surrounded, The Indian Tribes of the United States: Ethnic and Cultural Survival (1962), Indian Man: The Life of Oliver La Farge (1971), and Native American Tribalism: Indian Survivals and Renewals (1973).

Nathan Ross Margold (1899–1947). Margold was an attorney and political activist who played an important role in shaping the reform of American Indian policies by the federal government during the New Deal. Born in Romania, Margold came to the United States in 1901, grew up in Brooklyn, and graduated from the City College of New York and Harvard Law School. He served as an assistant U.S. attorney in New York and in 1927 joined the faculty at Harvard Law School. His appointment at Harvard sparked an intense battle because he was Jewish. Margold return to New York in 1928 to enter private law practice.

In the early 1930s, Margold served as special counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He helped develop the strategy for the future court proceedings that led to the integration of U.S. public schools in the 1950s. In 1933, as part of the Roosevelt administration, Margold became solicitor for the U.S. Department of the Interior. He played an important role in promoting tribal sovereignty and rights of American Indians during the New Deal. Margold also served as special assistant to the attorney general from 1933 to 1935. Roosevelt appointed him to the Municipal Court for the District of Columbia in 1942. He became a judge of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in 1945. He died only two years later.

Lewis M. Meriam (1883–1972). Meriam, a statistician, headed the significant fact-finding commission studying the status of American Indians from 1926 to 1928. A graduate of both Harvard and the George Washington law schools, Meriam became a career federal employee in Washington, DC. He worked for the Office of the Census from 1905 to 1912, Children's Bureau from 1912 to 1915, and the Institute for Government Research from 1915 to 1920. In that year the institute became part of the Brookings Institution, with whom Meriam was associated until his retirement in 1951.

Funded by the Rockefeller Foundation through the Institute of Government Research, Meriam and a team undertook a national assessment of the condition of native peoples in the United States. Everywhere they found problems of poverty, poor health, short life expectancy, unemployment, low levels of educational achievement, loss of land, and failings in federal commitments to tribes. The team produced The Problem of Indian Administration (1928), popularly called the Meriam Report, which summarized its findings. Considered for Commissioner of Indian Affairs in 1933, Meriam withdrew and supported John Collier who was appointed.

Burton K. Wheeler (1851–1941). Wheeler was the co-sponsor of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, sometimes known as the Wheeler-Howard Act. Born in Massachusetts, Wheeler received his law degree from the University of Michigan. He was elected in 1923 to the Senate as a Democrat from Montana. Wheeler joined other liberals to work for reform as a member of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. He sought to protect American Indian mineral and water resources. In 1934 he headed the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs and co-sponsored the Indian Reorganization Act, a bill he had not read. When Wheeler discovered the bill fostered tribal self-governance, a Court of Indian Affairs, and tribal land ownership, he turned against the draft bill and forced through a number of amendments. In 1937 he introduced a bill to repeal the Indian Reorganization Act, but it failed. Wheeler continued as a critic of New Deal policy toward American Indians until he lost his bid for reelection in 1946.

Primary Sources

The Plight of American Indians in the Early Twentieth Century

A 1928 report by Lewis Meriam for the Brookings Institute entitled The Problem of Indian Administration (1928, pp. 7–8) described the history of U.S.-Indian relations and the resulting sad state of the American Indian population. The report was highly influential in shaping New Deal Indian policies in the 1930s and beyond and noted the following:

When the government adopted the policy of individual ownership of land on the reservations, the expectation was that the Indians would become farmers. Part of the plan was to instruct and aid them in agriculture, but this vital part was not pressed with vigor and intelligence. It almost seems as if the government assumed that some magic in individual ownership of property would in itself prove an educational civilizing factor, but unfortunately this policy has for the most part operated in the opposite direction. Individual ownership has in many instances permitted Indians to sell their allotments and to live for a time on the unearned income resulting from the sale.…

Many Indians were not ready to make effective use of their individual allotments. Some of the allotments were of such a character that they could not be effectively used by anyone in small units. The solution was to permit the Indians through the government to lease their lands to the whites. In some instances government officers encouraged leasing, as the whites were anxious for the use of the land and it was far easier to administer property leased to whites than to educate and stimulate Indians to use their own property. The lease money, though generally small in amount, gave the Indians further unearned income to permit the continuance of a life of idleness.

Surplus land remaining after allotments were made was often sold and the proceeds placed in a tribal fund. Natural resources, such as timber and oil, were sold and the money paid either into tribal funds or to individual Indians if the land had been allotted. From time to time per capita payments were made to individual Indians from tribal funds. These policies all added to the unearned income of the Indian and postponed the day when it would be necessary for him to go to work to support himself.

An outspoken critic of the Office of Indian Affairs, John Collier, was appointed the agency's head by President Roosevelt in 1933. Collier was instrumental in introducing sweeping new federal policies concerning American Indians. A key part of the programs was the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, otherwise known as the Wheeler-Howard Act. Collier made the following observations regarding the act in his "Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs," published in the Annual Report of the Secretary of the Interior (1935, pp. 78–83).

The repair work authorized by Congress … aims at both the economic and the spiritual rehabilitation of the Indian race. Congress and the President recognized that the cumulative loss of land brought about by the allotment system, a loss reaching 90,000,000 acres—two-thirds of the land heritage of the Indian race in 1887—had robbed the Indians in large part of the necessary basis for self-support. They clearly saw that this loss and the companion effort to break up all Indian tribal relations had condemned large numbers of Indians to become chronic recipients of charity; that the system of leasing individualized holdings had created many thousands of petty landlords unfitted to support themselves when their rental income vanished; that a major proportion of the red race was, therefore, ruined economically and pauperized spiritually.…

Through 50 years of 'individualization,' coupled with an ever-increasing amount of arbitrary supervision over the affairs of individuals and tribes so long as these individuals and tribes had any assets left, the Indians have been robbed of initiative, their spirit has been broken, their health undermined, and their native pride ground into the dust. The efforts at economic rehabilitation cannot and will not be more than partially successful unless they are accompanied by a determined simultaneous effort to rebuild the shattered morale of a subjugated people that has been taught to believe in its racial inferiority.

The Wheeler-Howard Act provides the means of destroying this inferiority complex, through those features which authorize and legalize tribal organization and incorporation, which give these tribal organizations and corporations limited but real power, and authority over their own affairs, which broaden the educational opportunities for Indians, and which give Indians a better chance to enter the Indian Service.

Suggested Research Topics

  • Why was John Collier a significant figure in helping change the course of federal policy toward American Indians in the 1930s? How might American Indians think of him?
  • What was the promise of the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) to tribes that adopted it? Where did the IRA fail to meet expectations? How did it influence U.S. Indian policy in the late twentieth century?
  • How did the Indian Arts and Crafts Board seek to promote and protect American Indian artists? How much success in restoring cultural traditions did it have?



Brookings Institution. The Problem of Indian Administration. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1928.

Cohen, Felix S. Felix S. Cohen's Handbook of Federal Indian Law. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1971.

Collier, John. "Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs," Annual Report of the Secretary of the Interior, 1934. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1934, pp. 78–83.

Collier, John and Laura Thompson. "The Indian Education and Administration Research," Sociometry 9 (2/3) (May-August, 1946):141–142.

Kroeber, Alfred L. Cultural and Natural Areas of Native North America. Berkeley: University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Anthropology, Vol. 38, 1939.

Philp, Kenneth. John Collier's Crusade for Indian Reform. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 1977.

Standing Bear, Luther. Land of the Spotted Eagle. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1978.

Taylor, Graham D. The New Deal and American Indian Tribalism: The Administration of the Indian Reorganization Act, 1934–45. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1980.

Washburn, Wilcomb E., ed. Handbook of North American Indians: History of Indian-White Relations. Vol. 4. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1988.

Wilkinson, Charles F. American Indians, Time, and the Law: Native Societies in a Modern Constitutional Democracy. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987.

Further Reading

Bordewich, Fergus M. Killing the White Man's Indian: Reinventing Native Americans at the End of the Twentieth Century. New York City: Doubleday, 1996.

Champagne, Duane, ed. Chronology of Native North American History: From Pre-Columbian Times to the Present. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, Inc., 1994.

——. Contemporary Native American Cultural Issues. Walnut Creek, CA: Alta Mira Press, 1999.

Davis, Mary B. Native America in the Twentieth Century: An Encyclopedia. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1994.

Deloria, Vine, Jr. American Indian Policy in the Twentieth Century. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1985.

Malinowski, Sharon, and Anna Sheets, eds. The Gale Encyclopedia of Native American Tribes. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, Inc., 1998.

National Congress of American Indians, [cited February 20, 2002] available from the World Wide Web at

Wilson, James. The Earth Shall Weep: A History of Native America. New York City: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1999.

See Also

Civilian Conservation Corps ; Ethnic Relations

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American Indians 1933-1941

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American Indians 1933-1941