Collier, John

views updated May 14 2018


John Collier (May 4, 1884–May 8, 1968) was commissioner of Indian affairs from 1933 to 1945. Collier championed Native American concerns and advocated legislation under the New Deal banner to alleviate their suffering. Serving under Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes, Collier, an astute promoter and publicist, held the commissionership of Indian affairs for twelve years, the longest reign in that division's history. During that time, a new concept of self-government emerged that delineated the federal government's approach to American Indian policy and forever changed the way Native Americans defined themselves.

A reformer of federal policy toward Native Americans, Collier was born in Atlanta, Georgia.

He graduated from Atlanta High School, studied at Columbia University, worked as civic secretary of the People's Institute in New York City, edited the Civil Journal, which sanctioned progressive urban reform, and established the Home School, a utopian experiment saturated with John Dewey's theories. After watching Native American dances at Taos, New Mexico, in 1920, Collier recognized the importance of preserving tribal life. He taught sociology at San Francisco State College in the early 1920s and then accepted an appointment as research agent for the Indian Welfare Committee of the General Federation of Women's Clubs. Opposed to the Bursum Bill, named for U.S. Senator Holm O. Bursum of New Mexico, which would have terminated Pueblo water and land rights without proper remuneration, Collier successfully campaigned for its defeat. In 1923, one year before Congress enacted the Indian Citizenship Act, Collier organized and began serving as executive secretary of the American Indian Defense Association.

A lobbyist in the nation's capital for a decade, Collier promulgated his views in various ways. He favored the termination of the land allotment system, supported the revamping of the Indian Bureau in an attempt to improve services and avoid mismanagement, and advocated the cognizance and freedom of Native American cultures and the right of self-rule. Collier urged federal credit for reservations, accepted Native religious independence, endorsed the Indian Oil Act of 1927, wrote essays for American Indian Life, and emphasized the necessity for conserving tribal resources.

Collier's criticisms forced the Interior Department under Secretary Hubert Work and Indian Affairs Commissioner Charles Henry Burke to request an outside organization, the Brookings Institution, to examine the Indian Bureau. A task force led by Lewis Meriam submitted a report, The Problem of Indian Administration, issued in 1928. It concurred with some of Collier's suggestions, recommended an increase in federal appropriations for Native Americans, and proposed ending land allotment. Touring western reservations to investigate Native American living conditions and criticizing Interior Department officials under Secretary Ray L. Wilbur for not implementing the Meriam Report, Collier kept himself visible and vocal during President Herbert Hoover's administration.

In April 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt selected Collier to serve as commissioner of Indian affairs. With this appointment, Roosevelt offered a New Deal to Native Americans and provided Collier, who had an ally in First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, with the opportunity to put his ideas into practice. Almost immediately changes occurred for Native Americans. Collier approved congressional legislation to compensate Pueblos whose lands had been lost to encroaching white settlers. He encouraged the dissolution of the Board of Indian Commissioners, ended the selling of Native trust land, and by limiting missionary work at Native American schools, he affirmed the right of freedom of religion for native peoples. Active in advancing Native American education and civil liberties, Collier surfaced as a dedicated and competent public official during the Great Depression.

The most important piece of Native American legislation that passed Congress under Collier's stewardship was the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, which marked a major turning point in the relationship between Native Americans and the United States government. It signaled a fundamental reversal of federal policy. Instead of forcing Native Americans to forsake their traditions for new lives on farms or cities, the 1934 act, also known as the Wheeler-Howard Bill, conceded their right to exist as a separate culture. Tribes were allowed to form their own governments, and reservations continued to be strongholds of Native identity. The main provisions of the Indian Reorganization Act were to restore to Native Americans management of their assets, prevent further depletion of reservation resources, build a sound economic foundation for the people of the reservations, and return to Native Americans local self-government on a tribal basis. The measure also established federal revolving credit to foster economic development and scholarships to encourage education. Government officials vigorously pursued the objectives of the bill until the outbreak of World War II.

Other reforms in Collier's New Deal for Native Americans included the creation in 1935 of an Indian Arts and Crafts Board within the Interior Department to market the production and distribution of Native goods. The Johnson-O'Malley Act of 1934 offered general federal assistance to some Native American students to attend public schools and permitted the Indian Office to contract with the states to provide education, health, and welfare services to Natives on reservations within their borders. The Indian Civilian Conservation Corps enlisted Natives in relief programs. Collier also secured funds for Native service activities from the Public Works Administration. In fact, New Deal agencies funded 29 percent of Native service expenditures in 1934.

Despite his lofty aspirations, Collier frequently suffered setbacks. He met with native opposition to certain regulations and proposals and encountered criticism from Congress. Secretary of War Henry Stimson repudiated Collier's suggestion that the government create separate Native American military units for wartime purposes, preferring an integrated service during World War II. These and other problems enveloped Collier at times during his tenure.

Collier envisioned a time when Native American tribes would have their own governmental institutions to replace the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He believed that consolidation of individual and communal land under a tribal government was the means by which to achieve this independence. Puzzled by the lack of native support for the Indian Reorganization Act, Collier learned that his plans for consolidation offended tribes who had come to value personal ownership of land, some of whom angrily accused the commissioner of communism.

Following his resignation as commissioner of Indian affairs in January 1945, three months prior to the death of President Roosevelt, Collier became president of the Institute of Ethnic Affairs in Washington, D. C. Later he taught sociology and anthropology at the City College of New York, pursued research on Native America, and wrote newspaper columns. In 1964 Collier received a distinguished service award from the Interior Department headed by Stewart L. Udall. Collier died in Taos, New Mexico, having left a significant impression on government relations with Native Americans during the Great Depression.



Collier, John. The Indians of the Americas. 1947.

Collier, John. Papers. Yale University Library, New Haven, Conn.

Deloria, Vine, Jr., ed. The Indian Reorganization Act: Congresses and Bills. 2002.

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

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

Philp, Kenneth R. John Collier's Crusade for Indian Reform. 1977.

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

Leonard Schlup

John Collier

views updated Jun 11 2018

John Collier

John Collier (1884-1968) was a proponent of American Indian culture. His appointment as Commisioner of Indian Affairs helped shape federal policy toward Native Americans, especially through the Indian Reorganization Act.

A lifelong proponent of social reform, John Collier first became involved in the fight to preserve American Indian culture in the early 1920s, after spending time among the Pueblo of New Mexico. His work led to his appointment as commissioner of Indian Affairs in 1933. In this position he played a vital role in reshaping federal policy toward Indians, primarily through the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. Rather than forcing Indians to assimilate, the new policy encouraged self-sufficiency among tribes and provided them with the land rights, religious and educational freedom, and organization to achieve it.

Collier was born in Atlanta, Georgia, on May 4, 1884. He was educated at Columbia University and at the College de France in Paris. During his years at Columbia, Collier began to form the social philosophy that would shape his later work on behalf of the American Indians. Under the guidance of teacher Lucy Crozier, Collier began to worry about the adverse effects of the industrial age on mankind. He felt that it made people too materialistic and individualistic, and he argued that American culture needed to reestablish a sense of community and responsibility. "He believed that dignity and power for the average person, the future of leisure and of realized life, could be ensured only by revitalizing and enriching the primary social group until it was adequate to human nature, and that, to this end, the preservation and nurture of ethnic values was essential," Kenneth R. Philp wrote in his essay "John Collier and the American Indian."

Collier's philosophy led him to enter the field of social work in 1905, and to concentrate his efforts on assisting immigrants. For ten years, beginning in 1909, he worked at the People's Institute, an organization which tried to build a sense of community in the immigrant neighborhoods of New York City. One of Collier's successes in this role was to convince the city's board of education to keep public schools open after class hours for community activities. From 1915 to 1919 Collier acted as director of the National Training School for Community Workers created by the People's Institute.

Collier moved to California in 1919 to run the state's adult education program. Since this was the era of the red scare, however, he was soon placed under surveillance by the Department of Justice for his "communistic" beliefs. As a result, Collier resigned his post within a year and accepted the invitation of bohemian artist Mabel Dodge to visit the Indian Pueblo at Taos, New Mexico. He spent much of the next two years at an art colony near Taos, where he studied the history and current life of American Indians. He soon came to view the communal and cooperative existence of the tribes as a possible solution to the problems he saw in white culture. "He believed that Pueblo culture offered a model for the redemption of American society because it concerned itself very little with the material aspects of life," Philp explained. "Instead, its goals were beauty, adventure, joy, comradeship, and the relationship of man to God." From that point on Collier dedicated himself to preserving Indian culture and securing reforms in the federal administration of Indian affairs.

Collier led the opposition to the Bursum Bill of 1922, which would have taken 60,000 acres of treaty-guaranteed New Mexico lands away from the Pueblos. After successfully defeating the bill, Collier helped form the American Indian Defense Association and became its executive secretary. One of his duties was to serve as editor of the organization's magazine, American Indian Life. Through this publication, and through his work as a lobbyist in Washington, D.C., Collier fought for a liberalization of government policy toward the Indians. The trend until this time was toward confiscating Indian lands and suppressing tribal customs and self-government. Collier and his group instead promoted placing increased land and other resources into Indian hands and allowing greater religious and educational freedom.

In recognition of Collier's work, Harold Ickes, Secretary of the Interior under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, appointed Collier commissioner of Indian Affairs in 1933. According to Philp, Ickes chose Collier to lead the beleaguered federal agency because he believed the activist would be "the best equipped man who ever held this office." In the early years of his tenure, Collier initiated reforms at a rapid pace under the Indian New Deal. For example, he issued two executive orders limiting the influence of Christian missionaries on the tribes by prohibiting coercion and restricting religious education at reservation schools. Though his orders met with protests among clergymen of several denominations—and led some to call him an "infidel" and an "atheist"—Collier insisted that "liberty of conscience in America was never meant to be liberty only for those who professed Christianity," Philp noted.

Collier's "most spectacular attempt to preserve Indian heritage," in the view of Philp, occurred in June 1934, when he secured passage in Congress of the Indian Reorganization Act. In its overall effect, this act radically changed the government's official policy on American Indians from one of forced assimilation to one of cultural pluralism. Some of the specific provisions of the act replaced a complex system of individual land allotments with a simpler system of communal lands belonging to tribes; established a fund to buy more land for the reservations; encouraged the tribes to organize their own governments and services; and removed the bans on traditional languages and religions. The act was also used to create an Arts and Crafts board to expand the markets for handmade goods and to provide funds for the college education of qualified Indians.

Collier resigned from his post in 1945 after serving longer than any previous Indian commissioner. Throughout his tenure he was known for his vigorous defense of American Indian rights and culture. Though Collier's successors retreated somewhat from his positions, young American Indians raised under his Indian New Deal often demonstrated a new militancy in dealing with the government and seemed better prepared to secure their own rights. Collier remained active in the following years, serving as director of the National Indian Institute, as a professor of sociology at the College of the City of New York, and as president of the Institute of Ethnic Affairs. He was also the author of several books, including Indians of the Americas (1947), Patterns and Ceremonials of the Indians of the Southwest (1949), and From Every Zenith (1963). He died in Taos, New Mexico, on May 8, 1968. □

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