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Indian Reorganization Act of 1934

Indian Reorganization act of 1934

Lawrence Schlam

When Congress adopted the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 (P.L. 73-383), in many respects it intended to allow Native Americans to resurrect their culture and traditions lost to government expansion and encroachment years earlier. The act replaced the Indian General Allotment Act of 1887, known as the "Dawes Act," which broke up tribal lands and allotted them to individual members of tribes; traditionally the tribes held the land on reservations in a communal capacity. The Dawes Act also opened up surplus lands to nonAmerican Indians. As a result of the Dawes Act, Native American lands totaling 138 million acres in 1887 had fallen to 48 million acres by 1934.

These losses virtually destroyed traditional tribal government on the reservations. In essence, the federal government replaced tribal councils and courts that had once given the tribes autonomy with its own legal structures.

In the early 1920s the secretary of the interior authorized the Institute of Government Research to conduct a survey of the social and economic status of Native Americans. One study conducted by the Institute, the Meriam Report, uncovered the destructive impact of the earlier federal policy of allotting to individual tribe members plots of tribal land. This policy, it found, resulted in extreme poverty and a substantial loss of tribal land due to sale to white settlers. As a result, the United States Senate, some members of which were skeptical about these conclusions, launched a thorough investigation, including field hearings on reservations. The Senate ultimately reached the same conclusion as the Meriam Report.

With the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932, John Collier, a staunch supporter of the Meriam Report, became Indian commissioner. He immediately began to work on legislation that incorporated the Meriam Report and several other ideas for the advancement of the Native American population proposed by members of tribal delegations. Although it was defeated, this bill led the way for the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934.


Also known as the Wheeler-Howard Act, the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 terminated the Dawes Act's allotment system, extended limits on the sale of American Indian lands, and authorized the secretary of the interior to purchase additional lands or proclaim new reservations for Native American people. In addition, it provided definitions for "Indians" and "tribes" (through subsequent amendments, these terms now include Alaskans and Hawaiians), extended to tribes the right to form corporations, established a credit system for Native Americans, granted limited tribal sovereignty, and provided Native Americans with educational opportunities and funds for trade, vocational, elementary, and secondary schools.

Certain features of the act, however, tempered its benefits. The requirement that various actions of the tribal government needed the approval of the secretary of the interior limited the tribe's autonomy. Moreover, American Indian autonomy and success were also limited by the effects of previous laws. For example, earlier laws had consolidated several independent tribes on reservations, and thus former enemies were living and working together in a situation that led to much social and cultural unrest.

Courts have interpreted the term "Indians" to include all people of Native American descent who are members or descendants of any recognized American Indian tribe under federal jurisdiction and are residing within the boundaries of any Native American reservation. The word "tribe" refers to any organized band, pueblo, or Native American people residing on one reservation, including any group that meets the definition of "Indians" under the act. Finally, the federal government need not recognize American Indian people in order for them to be considered a tribe.

Despite contrary policies enacted before 1934, this act has been construed in light of present federal policy, which is to strengthen tribal self-government. Part of Congress's intent was to help Native Americans achieve economic parity with white people, while not becoming dependent on state governments. The goal of the act, however, is to give greater independence to local tribes, not individual members.

The law did not retroactively change the individual allotments given out under the earlier Dawes Act. This is important because there are crucial differences between allotted and tribal lands. Allotted lands are grazing and agricultural lands, while tribal lands are the boundaries of the reservation. Moreover, allotted lands are not under tribal jurisdiction as are tribal lands. For example, if a crime is committed on tribal land, tribal courts would have the power to adjudicate the criminal case, but if the crime was on allotted land, it is under state court jurisdiction. With regard to ordinary civil cases, like contract or taxation disputes, tribes have jurisdiction over not only Native Americans but nonAmerican Indians found on their reservations. They may tax the activities of non-tribal members who have agreements with the tribe through commercial dealing or other similar arrangements.

The act has been expanded since 1934 by amendments adding new territories and greater flexibility in the act's application.

See also: Indian Civil Rights Act; Indian Gaming Regulatory Act; Indian General Allotment Act (Dawes Act); Indian Removal Act.


Casey, James A. Sovereignty by Sufferance: The Illusion of Indian Tribal Sovereignty, 79 Cornell Law Review 404, 413 (1994).

Cohen, Felix S. Handbook of Federal Indian Law. Charlottesville, VA: Michie, Bobbs-Merrill, 1982.

Deloria, Vine, Jr., and Clifford M. Lytle. American Indians, American Justice. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1983.

Taylor, Graham D. The New Deal and American Indian Tribalism: The Administration of the Indian Reorganization Act, 193445. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1980.

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