Indian Reorganization Act

views updated Jun 11 2018


INDIAN REORGANIZATION ACT. The Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) of 1934 represented a shift in U.S. Indian policy away from forced acculturation and assimilation. In 1928 the government-sponsored Meriam Report had documented problems of poverty, ill health, and despair on many reservations and recommended reforms in Bureau of Indian Affairs administration, including ending allotment and the phasing out of boarding schools. In 1933 the new administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt named John Collier, a former New York City social worker, to be commissioner of Indian affairs. Disillusioned with the materialistic and individualistic nature of industrial society, Collier proposed an Indian New Deal that would help preserve Native cultures and provide tribes with greater powers of self-government.

The IRA was the center of Collier's reform agenda. The act repudiated the Dawes General Allotment Act, barred further allotment, and set aside funds to consolidate and restore tribal landholdings. The IRA also provided for job training and vocational education and stipulated that Indians could gain employment in the BIA without recourse to civil service regulations. Finally, the act also allowed tribes to establish business councils with limited powers of home rule to enable them to develop reservation resources. A provision in Collier's original proposal to establish a special court of Indian affairs was rejected by Congress. Tribes were given the option of accepting or rejecting the IRA by referendum.

Despite Collier's rhetoric of self-determination, tribes felt pressured to accept the IRA just as they had felt pressed to accept previous government policies. Boiler-plate BIA home rule charters showed little sensitivity to the diversity of Native life, and attempted to impose a one-size-fits-all solution to Indian problems. IRA referendums and majority rule tribal councils also ignored the consensus-driven traditions that persisted in many communities. The IRA attracted opposition from advocates of both assimilation and traditionalism, both inside and outside Indian communities. Ultimately, 174 tribes voted to accept the IRA and 78 tribes, including the Crow, Navajo, and Seneca, rejected it.

Despite its flaws and limitations, the IRA did represent a new recognition of Indian rights and culture. Although many of Collier's policies were altered in subsequent decades, both as a result of government-sponsored programs to terminate federal services to Indians and as a result of indigenous demands for greater sovereignty, the IRA and IRA-created governments remain influential in shaping U.S. Indian policy.


Biolsi, Thomas. Organizing the Lakota: The Political Economy of the New Deal on the Pine Ridge and Rosebud Reservations. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1992.

Deloria, Vine, Jr., and Clifford M. Lytle. The Nations Within: The Past and Future of American Indian Sovereignty. New York: Pantheon, 1984.

Kelly, Lawrence C. The Assault on Assimilation: John Collier and the Origins of Indian Policy Reform. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1983.

Taylor, Graham D. The New Deal and American Indian Tribalism: The Administration of the Indian Reorganization Act, 1934–1945. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1980.


See alsoBureau of Indian Affairs ; Dawes General Allotment Act .

Indian Reorganization Act

views updated Jun 08 2018

Indian Reorganization Act

The Indian Reorganization Act was passed on June 18, 1934, as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt 's (1882–1945; served 1933–45) New Deal legislation. It marked a great shift in federal policy toward American Indians. Previous legislation had worked to bring Indians into the mainstream culture and disempower tribal unity. The Indian Reorganization Act was the federal government's first attempt to preserve rather than destroy tribal cultures. It did so in part by restoring to the Indians some rights and lands the United States had taken.

In 1933, President Roosevelt appointed John Collier (1884–1968) commissioner of Indian Affairs. Under Collier's leadership, the Bureau of Indian Affairs reformed Indian policy. Native schools were improved, employment rose, and cultural identity was revived. The act further empowered tribes by increasing their powers of self-government. It stopped the process of allotting tribal lands to individuals and restored or replaced some Indian lands taken in the past. Tribal self-determination was encouraged through the opportunity to establish democratic local rule. Indians were encouraged to restore unique aspects of their spirituality, language, and culture.

Each federally recognized tribe was given the chance to accept or reject the provisions of the act. Over two-thirds of the tribes eventually accepted it. The full potential of the act, however, was never realized. A shortage of government funds during both the Great Depression (1929–41) and World War II (1939–45) hindered implementation of the act. At the end of the war, pressure to end services to American Indians prevented further government support. It was not until the late 1950s that the federal government again embraced the policies behind the Indian Reorganization Act.

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Indian Reorganization Act

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