Indian Rights Association

views updated

Indian Rights Association






From the time of first European encounters with the Native peoples of the “New World” to the present time, much has been said and much time and money have been expended in an effort to “civilize the savage.” But in fact, and depending on where one stands, one could also spend a great deal of time and energy in arriving at a just conclusion as to exactly who was the savage: the European bent on acquisition of land and riches at any cost, or the indigenous peoples of the Americas reacting in a mostly defensive posture to protect the lands that they had inherited from their ancestors. In the process of “civilization,” the native population was reduced from tens of millions at the time of European contact to a low point of 248,000 in 1890, while the Anglo population increased from 107 with the founding of the Jamestown Colony in 1607 to an 1890 total U.S. population of 62,622,250.


While most members of the dominant (Anglo) society were interested in exterminating the Native Americans, there were other groups who believed that Indian Peoples had souls worthy of converting to Christianity and that in this effort the “savages” could be civilized if they would lay aside their languages, traditions, tribal structures, and adopt a “civilized” yeoman-farmer type mentality. One such group was the Indian Rights Association (IRA).

Herbert Walsh and Henry Spackman Pancoast formed the IRA in Philadelphia in 1882. The Association was dedicated to providing equal protection of the law to Indian Peoples as well as education, citizenship, and ownership of land in a fee-simple title status (personal ownership). While these goals may sound altruistic and high-minded, it should be noted that most Indian Peoples believed that the Creator had given them title to the land, and they had little or no interest in attending Anglo schools or becoming U.S. citizens. In short, the IRA was concerned with turning Indians into a picture of the white person, a vision not shared by those to be converted. The IRA was also interested in civil-service reform and reorganization of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) to include employment of Indian people. In a move that set apart the IRA as a progressive organization, the Association placed the blame on avaricious whites and a corrupt and paternalistic government for the continuing existence of what had become known as the “Indian problem.”

Groups such as the IRA were among a number of groups who considered themselves to be “Friends of the Indian,” and although most were well intentioned and some of their activities proved to be beneficial, many of the policies they helped enact were tremendously destructive to Indian people. The IRA and other Friends of the Indian groups saw themselves as advocating equal status for Indians, and to that end they organized branch associations in cities across the United States, sent representatives on fact-finding missions into Indian Country, and published pamphlets and reports to the Congress, while maintaining a high public visibility through speeches and in the press. For the most part, members of the IRA and Friends of the Indian groups never left their comfortable urban homes in the East to venture into Indian Country to see the Indian experience first hand.


To ensure passage of reform legislation, the IRA kept a full-time lobbyist in Washington. So effective was the association that most of its program was enacted before 1900. Among the IRA’s projects were the formation of a comprehensive compulsory government Indian boarding school system; the passage of the General Allotment Act of 1887 (Dawes Act), which included land allotments and citizenship; and the extension of civil-service rules to the Indian Office. Of these three main initiatives, only the extension of civil-service rules and the reorganization of the BIA worked to the benefit of American Indian people.

The BIA had its beginnings in 1824. Because the U.S. government’s view of Indians was one of savages, the BIA was placed under the War Department until 1949, at which time it was transferred to the Department of the Interior. Under the War Department the BIA became a powerful non-Indian organization that led tribes down a path toward poverty and extinction. The BIA was powerful, and in many instances the BIA super-intendent’s word was law. But following passage of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 and with the backing of the IRA, Congress extended Indian preference in employment to the BIA and the Indian Health Service (IHS). The intent of Congress in establishing Indian preference was to give tribes greater control over their own self-government. As a result, the BIA and IHS were required by law to give preference to persons of American Indian or Alaska Native descent. Over the ensuing years, Native people began to take control of the agency. At the time of passage of Indian preference, less than 15 percent of the BIA and IHS were of Indian descent or ancestry. In 2007, 95 percent of approximately 14,000 employees are recognized as Native people.


The IRA also endorsed a key component to the civilization of “the savage” : the removal of Indian children from the Indian family and tribal environment and their education on a Western model. In 1877 the Congress appropriated $20,000 for the expressed purpose of the reeducation of Indian children, to “kill the Indian, and save the child.” In 1879 Army Captain Richard H. Pratt founded the Carlisle Indian School at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, as a demonstration project to convince the government and the general public that Indians could be educated. Carlisle became the model for off-reservation boarding schools. The number of students enrolled in day schools on reservations and off-reservation boarding schools increased rapidly. From an enrollment of 3,598 in 1877, more than 20,000 Indian students were enrolled in 148 boarding schools and 225 day schools by the close of the nineteenth century.

Indian parents were demoralized and terrorized by the threat of their children being kidnapped by Indian agents (who for the most part were corrupt officials hired as the result of nepotism or favoritism) and soldiers and being taken to remote boarding schools, some as distant as 800 miles from their homes. Attendance was made mandatory, however. In 1891 Congress authorized the Commissioner of Indian Affairs “to make and enforce by proper means” rules and regulations to ensure that Indian children attended the schools. Native people resisted by sequestering their children in mountain hide-aways or by taking them deep into reservations, where agents often pursued them on horseback and lassoed them like animals, bound them hand and foot, threw them into wagons and hauled them like freight to train terminals where they were then shipped off to distant schools (Rinaldi 1999).

In the Southwestern United States pressure to enroll children in boarding schools began in earnest in 1887, when the first government school was established at Keams Canyon. According to Indian agent E. H. Plummer, the Keams Canyon School was in dismal condition. The school was crowded and the buildings were poorly maintained. Plummer himself feared that disease would spread and children would die (Holliday 1998). As a result, many Hopi parents refused to send their children to a school so far away to learn the white man’s ways. As an example to resistant families, the government arrested nineteen Hopi Indian men and sentenced them to confinement on Alcatraz Island because they had hidden their children and would not allow them to be taken to the boarding school. The prisoners were released in September 1895.

When Indian children arrived at the boarding schools, both boys and girls had their hair cut short and were given new “American” names. For most Indian people the cutting off of the hair represented a condition of mourning, and was associated with death. For Indian children in boarding schools this represented a life and death battle to retain their religion, language, and cultural identity. Many Indian children were required to select an Anglo name from lists that they could not possibly read or understand. Other children were simply assigned new names. Traditional clothing was taken away and miniature copies of military uniforms with high collars, stiff shirts, and leather boots were given to the boys and long cotton dresses and hard leather shoes were given to the girls (Lomawaima 1995).

The goals of the boarding schools were numerous. First and foremost was the belief that Indian children should be removed from parental and tribal influences. A summer “outing” program was added to the boarding school program, placing Indian children on farms and ranches near the boarding school. This prevented the child’s return to the reservation during the summer months. The federal government paid the host family $50 per year per student for upkeep, and any money generated by the labor of the student was claimed by the boarding school. As a result of the distant schools and the outing program, Indian children typically were separated from their family for periods ranging from four to eight years.

Treatment at the boarding school varied, but most children endured harsh discipline, particularly if they were caught speaking their native language, performing a traditional ceremony, or practicing their native religion. Corporal punishment, solitary confinement, and withholding of rations were common punishments used to control Native students who insisted on retaining and practicing traditional ways.

For most Indian children the conversion to a copy of “the white man” proved to be more illusionary than real. Indian boys and girls were taught skills in the boarding schools that had little or no relationship to tribal or reservation life. Indian children who attempted to return to their families could no longer speak their native languages. Skills necessary for survival in a tribal or reservation setting had been crushed. The children were poorly trained for the non-Indian world as well. Some Indian boys found work on farms and ranches. To the disappointment of boarding school administrators, most returned to the reservations and attempted to reestablish themselves within the tribal culture. A small number of Native girls found work at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, but most met only with discrimination and unemployment.


The next step in the IRA’s plan to civilize and Americanize Indian Peoples into the general U.S. population came with the passage of the Dawes General Allotment Act of 1887. The act is more generally known as “the allotment act” or “Allotment in Severalty.” The intent of the Act was to abolish reservations and to allot land to individual Indian people as private property. It was the single most devastating development during this period, because it worked to undermine tribal self-sufficiency and tribal sovereignty. As more and more settlers moved west under the national ideology of Manifest Destiny, new lands were needed. Pressure mounted to abolish Indian reservations. Allotment, a thinly disguised way to break up tribal land holdings, was the answer. The chief provisions of the Allotment Act provided that each Indian family head would receive a grant of 160 acres of reservation land, in fee-simple title. Each single Indian person over eighteen years and each orphan under eighteen years of age received eighty acres, and each other single person under eighteen usually received forty acres of former reservation land, although the amounts varied from reservation to reservation. The key to the Allotment Act was that all land remaining after the allotment to Native Peoples would revert to the federal government and the government would in turn offer this “surplus” land for sale.

Proponents of the Allotment Act claimed that they had the endorsement of IRA chapters across the country. Allotment would break up communal holdings, they said, and instill the American ethos of individual ambition in the Indian. The overarching goal of the “Friends of the Indian,” those who supported allotment, was to substitute white civilization for Indian culture. Individual landholding would break up extended families and further undermine traditional leadership patterns.

Congress passed the Allotment Act into law even though there was little or no support of the concept of allotment by Indian people. In 1888 Congress ratified five agreements with different Indian Nations providing for the allotment and sale of what the federal government now described as surplus reservation lands. In 1889 eight such laws were passed. In the first nine months of 1891 an additional 8,000,000 acres of former reservation lands passed into non-Indian hands. Oil speculators and timber companies bought up individual allotments. Minor Indian children who possessed allotment lands were declared wards of non-Indians so that oil could be extracted from their allotments or fertile farmlands could be exploited. Through these methods, the total of Indian land holdings was cut from 138,000,000 acres in 1887 to 48,000,000 acres in 1934. Many Indian people did become landless and Native people living on the remaining allotted reservation lands increasingly experienced extreme poverty, despondency, and despair.

It soon became evident that allotted land would be the target of Congressional theft as well, as evidenced in the 1903 legal case Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock. Following increased white migration and conflict, the Kiowa, Comanche, and Apache tribes signed the Treaty of Medicine Lodge in 1867, which created a sizable reservation for them in Indian Territory. Article 12 of that treaty states that no further land cessions would occur “unless executed and signed by at least three-fourths of all the adult male Indians” within the reservation. Although the U.S. government lacked the signatures of a three-fourths majority of Indians, the Secretary of the Interior directed the sale of more than two million acres of land ceded to the federal government. Lone Wolf and other Kiowa-Comanche landholders sued. In Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock, the Supreme Court affirmed the rulings of the lower courts and ruled that the land sale was legal, stating: “the power exists to abrogate the provisions of an Indian treaty. . . .” Congress has exercised this plenary authority over the tribal relations of the Indians from the beginning, and the power has always been deemed a political one, not subject to control by the judiciary.

The primary goal of the IRA as defined by its constitution is “to secure to the Indians of the United States the political and civil rights already guaranteed to them by treaty and statute of the United States, and such as their civilization and circumstances may justify.” The founders of the IRA, Pancoast and Welsh, believed in the immediate acculturation of Native Peoples into American society. Pancoast and Welsh were instrumental in the passage of the Indian Reorganization Act (1834), the termination of tribal land holdings, the crushing of Indian culture, and “civilization” as the solution to the nation’s Indian problem. Other early Indian advocacy groups, such as the Lake Mohonk Conferences of the Friends of the Indian and the American Indian Defense Association, supported the IRA.

The IRA was founded by individuals who were of the philanthropic sort who believed that American Indians’ best hope for survival lay in a program of assimilation. They did not see the survival of Indians as a separate race of people as a viable option. The destruction of the Indian would require a dedicated effort of education, conversion to Christianity, adoption of Anglo-Saxon legal institutions, institution of private land ownership, and the abandonment of Indian culture and tradition. The organization’s initial stated objective included racist goals, to “bring about the complete civilization of the Indians and their admission to citizenship.” The IRA was not alone in this racist approach to the nation’s Indian problem. The IRA was among several reform organizations that considered themselves to be friends of the Indian, but in reality had little understanding of the physical, cultural, or spiritual needs of Native Americans. Welsh and other IRA leaders lobbied heavily for allotment of Indian lands in severalty, believing that private property and the reduction of communal land holdings would replace tribal membership and place the Indian on the road to extinction as a separate race.

SEE ALSO Native American Rights Fund (NARF).


Baxter, Jonathan. 1887. Indian Rights Association. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Clinton, Robert N., Carole E. Goldberg, and Rebecca Tsosie. 2007. American Indian Law: Native Nations and the Federal System, 5th ed. Newark, NJ: Lexis/Nexis.

Getches, David H., Charles F. Wilkinson, and Robert A. Williams Jr. 1998. Cases and Materials on Federal Indian Law, 4th ed. St. Paul, MN: West Group.

Holliday, Wendy. 1998. “Hopi History: The Story of the Alcatraz Prisoners.” Available at

Lomawaima, K. Tsianina. 1995. They Called It Prairie Light: The Story of Chilocco Indian School. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Prucha, Francis Paul. 1981. Indian Policy in the United States: Historical Essays. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

_____. 1995. The Great Father: The United States Government and the American Indians. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Rinaldi, Ann. 1999. My Heart Is on the Ground: The Diary of Little Rose, a Sioux Girl. New York: Scholastic Press.

Rose, Cynthia, and Duane Champagne, eds. 2001. The Native North American Almanac: A Reference Work on Native North Americans in the United States and Canada, 2nd ed. Farmington Hills, MI: UXL.

Wilkins, David E. 1997. American Indian Sovereignty and the U.S. Supreme Court. Austin: University of Texas Press.

_____. 2002. American Indian Politics and the American Political System. New York: Rowman & Littlefield.

Troy R. Johnson

About this article

Indian Rights Association

Updated About content Print Article