Bureau of Indian Affairs

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BUREAU OF INDIAN AFFAIRS. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) essentially has two major responsibilities: protecting Indian legal rights and providing services to Native Americans. The legal basis for federal authority rests on the power of Congress "To regulate Commerce with … the Indian tribes" and federal laws, treaties, and judicial decisions.

Precursors to the Bureau

In 1789, Indian affairs were assigned to the Department of War. The secretary of war headed the "Indian Department," assisted by a chief clerk and an assistant clerk. From the first, federal administration of Indian affairs usually had a central office, various district headquarters, and the local agencies, which had direct contact with the Indians. Originally, territorial governors served as district superintendents. This created an immediate conflict of interest because the government's main concern was to promote settlement and statehood. It had little interest in advocating for the Indians and continuously pushed them further west. In 1806, Congress created a superintendent of Indian trade to supervise government trading posts. Secretaries of war often consulted with this official. After Congress abolished the government trading posts in 1824, Secretary of War John C. Calhoun appointed Thomas L. McKenny, the final superintendent of trade, as an unofficial commissioner of Indian affairs. Congress officially created the post of commissioner in 1832, and established the BIA two years later.

Transfer to the Department of Interior

After 1815, many observers questioned whether Indian affairs belonged in the Department of War, and Congress finally ordered a transfer in 1849, when it established the Department of Interior. The new department also contained the General Land Office, the Patent Office, and the Pension Office. The Department of Interior's main responsibility has been to oversee the public domain, a role that often places it in conflict with its responsibility to safeguard Indians' interests. The transfer touched off a long and bitter feud over whether military or civilian officials should handle Indian affairs.

Creation of Reservations

During the 1850s, the attempt to create reservations in California led BIA officials to extend this practice to other areas. Administering reservations imposed new burdens on the undermanned BIA. Agents and their staffs now lived in direct contact with Indians and tried to educate their children, persuade adults to farm, and force residents to remain on their reservation. The lack of central supervision allowed for inefficiency and graft within the service.

President Ulysses S. Grant's Peace Policy

In 1869, President Grant ordered that religious organizations begin nominating field workers as a way to bring honesty to the BIA. Grant also established an all-volunteer Board of Indian Commissioners, the main responsibility of which was to oversee the purchase of BIA supplies and eliminate fraud. Neither reform worked particularly well. In 1871, the Indian Appropriation Act ended the practice of dealing with the tribes by treaty, thereby threatening tribal authority and making Indians individual wards of the federal government.

Centralization of the Bureau

As late as 1877, the Washington office did not appoint field workers, exercise much control over local agencies, or possess operational regulations; but around this time, supervisors and special agents began to inspect agencies. Regional superintendents gradually disappeared, and agents reported directly to Washington. Regulations for BIA operations became increasingly specific. After 1891 most BIA field workers came under Civil Service hiring regulations.

Congress made its first direct appropriation for education in 1871, for the sum of $100,000. In expanding its operations after 1877, the BIA emphasized education and by 1892 funding had risen to $2,277,557. In 1883, Congress authorized a superintendent of Indian schools, and in 1890 Commissioner Thomas J. Morgan (1889–1893), a professional educator, developed the first plan of study.

The Progressive Era and World War I

Progressive reforms did not alter the basic BIA goals of assimilation and land allotment, but Commissioners Francis E. Leupp (1905–1909) and Robert G. Valentine (1909–1912) stressed scientific administration. Leupp established the first real health services in 1908. The Omnibus Act of 1910 updated and expanded the BIA's responsibilities, particularly in probate, irrigation, forestry, and land allotment. Attempts were also made to achieve self-support through agriculture by giving agency superintendents greater control.

During World War I, the BIA shifted its attention to increasing food production and encouraging young Indians to enter the military. Commissioner Cato Sells (1913–1921) saw the war as a means to assimilate Indians. Unfortunately, the war sharply curtailed services, especially in health and education.

The 1920s Reform Crusade

During the 1920s, the BIA came under very sharp attacks led by social reformer John Collier. Unlike earlier critics, Collier questioned the bureau's basic assimilation philosophy and land allotment. In 1926 and 1927 a panel of ten experts, the Meriam Commission, carried out an investigation of BIA field administration. The commission's report, while generally moderate, strongly condemned land allotment, health services, and education. Modest improvements followed during the Herbert Hoover administration.

The Indian New Deal

The BIA entered perhaps its most dynamic period when John Collier became commissioner in 1933. The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 highlighted the new administration's reforms. The legislation, among other things, allowed tribes to form governments that acted as federal municipalities. Collier also espoused cultural pluralism and tried to make the BIA into an advisory agency rather than a director of Indian affairs.

One of the Indian New Deal's strongest features was cooperative agreements with emergency agencies such as the Public Works Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps. These arrangements greatly increased BIA funding and expertise, especially for construction and conservation.

Collier also added many Indian employees within the BIA. In 1933, Indians held a few hundred minor positions. By 1940, 4,682 Indians served in the agency, not including emergency programs. In 1980, Indians and Alaskan natives held 78% of BIA jobs, including all the major posts.

World War II

The BIA's problems in World War II repeated many of those incurred in World War I. Shortages of personnel, especially in health care and education, disrupted social services. Morale suffered when the Washington office was removed to Chicago. Finally, the urgency of the war and high rates of employment pushed the BIA into the background.


The conservative postwar mood led to renewed demands to phase out the BIA and to have its programs assumed by other federal or state agencies. Commissioner Dillon S. Myers (1950–1953) established a Division of Program to plan for withdrawal of services on reservations. The Eisenhower administration pursued the same goals through legislation terminating individual tribes. Although relatively few Indians were affected, widespread hostility and fear resulted. The BIA's relocation and industrialization programs after 1953 complemented the termination policy.

The Recent History

After 1961, the BIA assumed a very different role. Federal programs, especially President Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty, allowed tribal leaders to apply to federal agencies for grants and to administer programs themselves. This shift in policy broke the BIA's monopoly on funding for tribal programs, and enabled the tribes to develop ties with a wide range of federal agencies. In 1975, Congress approved a major investigation of the BIA known as the American Policy Review Commission. Largely staffed by Indians and headed by Ernest L. Stevens, a Wisconsin Oneida, eleven task forces investigated such topics as trust responsibilities, tribal government, federal administration, health care, and education. An overriding theme in the Final Report was greater recognition of tribal sovereignty, a goal that BIA now fully endorses. Congress met another recommendation in 1977 when it elevated the commissionership to an assistant secretary of interior. The change gave the head of the BIA a voice in policy decisions.

The BIA has operated as a government within the federal government. Throughout its history it has suffered from serious conflicts of interest as it attempted to represent a constituency that has little influence on national politics. In 2000, the head of the BIA, Pawnee attorney Kevin Gover, issued a formal apology for the agency's past misdeeds.


Prucha, Francis Paul. American Indian Policy in the Formative Years: Indian Trade and Intercourse Acts, 1790–1834. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1962.

———. The Great Father: The United States Government and the American Indians. 2 vols. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984.

Schmeckebier, Laurence F. The Office of Indian Affairs: Its History, Activities, and Organization. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1927.

Stuart, Paul. The Indian Office: Growth and Development of an American Institution, 1865–1900. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University Microfilms International, 1978.

Viola, Herman J. Thomas L. McKenney: Architect of America's Early Indian Policy, 1816–1830. Chicago: Sage Books, 1974.

Donald L.Parman

See alsoBoard of Indian Commissioners ; Indian Reservations ; Interior, Department of the ; Meriam Report .

Bureau of Indian Affairs

views updated May 21 2018

Bureau of Indian Affairs

The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) is the federal agency responsible for administering policies for Indian nations and communities.


The BIA was created in 1824 as a part of the U.S. War Department, a cabinet department that was the forerunner of the Department of Defense. Its task was to handle the growing problems caused by the westward expansion of the United States into territories mainly inhabited by the Indians. The early BIA had three levels of administration. Its leaders, including the commissioner, were stationed in Washington, D.C. BIA superintendents were posted throughout Indian-occupied lands, where they oversaw territorial-level agencies. Indian agents and subagents lived among the various tribes. The BIA remained within the War Department until 1849, when Congress transferred the Indian agency to the Department of the Interior.

The BIA was accused of abuse, mismanagement, and corruption from its early days and throughout the nineteenth century. Many of the agency's top administrators received their jobs as political favors; they were not qualified for the job or even interested in the plight of the American Indians. Many pocketed the money set aside for the Indians.

Taking the land

The BIA came into being around the same time that Congress passed the Indian Removal Act of 1830. The act authorized the federal government to transfer Indians living in the eastern part of the country to lands west of the Mississippi River. The BIA was responsible for the task of confining

them to designated Indian reservations in the West and training them to adapt to mainstream American ways. For several decades, the BIA concentrated on Indian removal and relocation, which involved dislodging, usually by force, entire Native American communities from lands throughout the ever-expanding United States.

By 1870, the federal government had secured most of the present-day United States from the Indians. It signed treaties with them that promised the Indians that they could remain on their reservation lands forever. In 1871, however, the government called for an end to treaties. The Indian Appropriations Act declared Indians to be wards (people under the protection and care) of the government and gave the BIA the authority to carry out the government's role as guardian on the reservations.


On February 8, 1887, Congress passed the Dawes Severalty Act (General Allotment Act), designed to promote the concept of individual ownership of land by dividing the reservations into tracts and allotting one tract to each Indian. This was a tremendous change for most tribes, because Native American land was traditionally held in common by all members of the community and used for the good of everyone. Under the act, the individual tracts of land “given” to the Indians were to be held in trust (something held by one party for the benefit of another) for twenty-five years while the Indians received training in farming and other mainstream American customs.

The effect of the Dawes Act was to destroy the social and political systems of the tribes while transferring authority to powerful BIA Indian agents. The BIA staffed the tribal government, courts, and law enforcement agencies with hand-picked Indians who were willing to cooperate in pursuing the agency's goals. The BIA drafted a Code of Indian Offenses that prohibited many traditional cultural and religious practices. While the Indians were being trained to become farmers, the BIA rationed their food and necessities of life. The agency thus could starve into submission those Indians who refused to crop their hair short, who continued to paint their faces, or who persisted in engaging in traditional religious ceremonies. The bureau also assumed responsibility for the education of young Indians. Not surprisingly, its policy was to provide them with knowledge and skills necessary to fit into mainstream society. Students were not allowed to speak their native languages or practice many of their customs.

Indian New Deal

By the mid-1930s, it was clear that the Dawes Act had failed to benefit the Indians. The BIA-administered reservations were in disastrous shape, while those reservations owned and operated by the tribes as a group had fared much better. President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945; served 1933–45) promised reform. He appointed sociologist John Collier (1884–1968) commissioner of the BIA to help carry out the “Indian New Deal.” Under Collier's direction, the BIA stopped trying to force Native Americans to adapt to the non-Indian ways. Management of reservations was turned over to the tribes. Reservation schools were free to teach traditional Indian culture and languages in the classroom.

The BIA was not always popular after the reforms of the 1930s. In 1972, the American Indian Movement (AIM) staged a demonstration in which the protesters took over BIA headquarters in Washington, D.C., in protest of the federal government's Indian policies. In the 1990s, various groups accused the BIA of mismanagement of tribal funds. Nevertheless, in the early 2000s, the BIA continued to act as trustee over 55.7 million acres of land held in trust by the United States for the 561 federally recognized tribal governments. The agency is responsible for developing the forests, farms, and other resources of these lands and protecting water and land rights. The BIA also continues to provide education, health, and social services.

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