Indian New Deal to AIM

In 1929, the stock market crashed and the United States entered the worst depression in its history.

Millions of Americans found themselves unemployed, and stark pictures of breadlines and starving children replaced images of national prosperity.

In 1932, Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt was swept into the Oval Office with a mandate for reform.

Roosevelt committed the federal government to unprecedented levels of economic planning and social responsibility.

He promised a new deal for "the forgotten man"-and no one was more forgotten than American Indians.

Roosevelt's presidency reversed some of the disastrous policies of the previous fifty years.

John Collier and the Indian New Deal

FDR appointed as his Commissioner of Indian Affairs John Collier, who served from 1933 to 1945.

Collier envisioned and implemented far-reaching changes in the relationship between the United States government and the Indian tribes within its borders.

Collier had been a social worker among immigrants in New York City,

There he became concerned with what he saw as the fragmentation of community life and the decline of traditional cultures among immigrants in the United States.

He learned about Indian life primarily from his visits to Pueblo peoples in New Mexico during the early 1920s.

At that time many American intellectuals and idealists turned from the havoc of the First World War in Europe to seek harmony in the Indian communities of the Southwest.

 A visit to Taos Pueblo in 1920 changed Collier's life and convinced him that Indian cultures had something fundamental to offer American society.

"He saw modernity as a disaster that was defeating man's perfectibility:' Collier's son recalled.

"He saw the Indian as the last remnant of natural perfection, a model that must be preserved for human rejuvenation."'

Modern American life seemed shallow, materialistic, individualistic;

 Indian life, as evidenced by the Pueblos, seemed deeply spiritual and communal.
He thought that Indians might be the only people in the western hemisphere who still possessed "the fundamental secret of human life--the secret of building great personality through the instrumentality of social institutions."

But he feared that indian life might not survive.3

Like many other idealists before and since, Collier saw in Indian society the chance for the salvation of his own society.

    Collier helped to establish the All-Pueblo Council, which lobbied successfully against the Bursum bill of 1922

This bill threatened to deprive the Pueblos of land and water rights

 placing jurisdiction over those rights in the state courts and legitimizing the claims of many non-Indians on Pueblo lands.

He became executive secretary of the American Indian Defense Association in 1923.

As Commissioner of indian Affairs, Collier introduced his own beliefs in the formulation of Indian policy.

For a century and a half, the federal government had tried to break up and sell off tribal land holdings, dismantle tribal governments, stamp out native languages, and eradicate tribal cultures.

Now the government tried to reverse the assault on Indian lands, rejuvenate tribal governments, preserve native languages, and revive tribal cultures.

The late Flathead anthropologist D'Arcy McNickle, who worked on Collier's staff, said that the Roosevelt administration, with Collier's prompting, "accepted the radical concept that the Indian race was not headed for early extinction.""

Instead, it was committed to promoting revitalization of Indian life.

The "Indian New Deal:' masterminded by John Collier, charted a new direction in United States Indian policy which,

Despite efforts to reverse it after 1945, had a lasting impact on indian America.

But in some ways the "indian New Deal" was not new, but another at-
tempt by non-Indians to do what they regarded as the right thing for Indians.

It was another paternalistic promise to bring a "new era" in Indian affairs,

one of many twentieth-century shifts in Indian policy that left Indian people distrustful of anything coming out of Washington.

It was another blueprint for reform, mandating one policy for all Indians, and making little allowance for the tremendous diversity of Indian America.

   Collier was devoted to championing Indian rights as he understood them, and he did so with a zeal that both attracted and alienated others.

He attributed opposition to his Indian Reorganization Act to misrepresentation by special interest groups, not to genuine misgivings on the part of Indian people.

In the assessment of historian Alvin M. Josephy, Jr., Collier possessed "the zeal of a crusader who knew better than the Indians what was good for them."6

Returning Indian Governments to Indian Hands

Collier's long-term goals still included the eventual absorption of Indian people into mainstream American society,

but he opposed his predecessors' concept of rapid assimilation and tried to develop a program that would preserve much more of the tribal heritage.

The aims of his "Indian New Deal" included ending allotment and consolidating tribal lands;

allowing Indians to play a more active role in running their own affairs;

organizing tribal governments;

supporting Indian cultures;

ending government suppression of tribal rituals;

and allowing Indian children to attend day schools on their home reservations.

He was only partially successful in achieving these goals.
To some extent, Indians benefited from general New Deal legislation that provided jobs and relief, built schools and hospitals.

Collier succeeded in channeling funds from other agencies and programs to benefit Indians.

But Collier also managed to get specific programs passed by Congress.

Under the Johnson O'Malley Act of 1934, the Secretary of the Interior was authorized to negotiate contracts with any state for financial relief in areas of Indian education, medical aid, agricultural assistance, and welfare.

For example, the federal government funded school districts to provide services for the Indian children attending public schools.

The idea was that state and federal government would work together to improve the quality of Indian education.

Only Arizona, California, Minnesota, and Washington made contracts in the 1930s.

In some areas, the system worked well, but Indian children in public schools still encountered racism and prejudice and some school districts drew Johnson O'Malley money without making any provision for the needs of their Indian students.

In another federal initiative, in 1935 the Indian Arts and Crafts Board was established within the Department of the Interior to promote and preserve traditional crafts and arts by helping Indian people form craft cooperatives, authenticate items of Indian manufacture, and establish marketing networks.

The Indian Reorganization Act

The centerpiece of Collier's Indian New Deal was the Indian Reorganization Act.

"The repair work authorized by Congress under the terms of the act " he said in his report as commissioner in 1934, "aims at both the economic and the  spiritual rehabilitation of the Indian race."'

Passed in 1934, the IRA aimed to protect Indians in their religion and lifestyle and represented an open admission that the Dawes Act was a mistake.

The original bill stated:

1. Indians living on reservations were allowed to establish local selfgovernment and tribal corporations to develop reservation resources.

The Secretary of the Interior would issue a charter of home rule, granting an Indian community greater responsibility over its own affairs,

and the Indians would vote to accept it in tribal elections.

    2. The federal government was to train Indians in such issues as land management, public health, and law enforcement and prepare them for employment in the BIA, as well as provide scholarship money for Indian students.

3.  The Dawes Act was terminated. Further allotments of Indian lands were prohibited.  In fact it reversed the Dawes Act.

The bill provided for consolidation of allotted lands into units for community use and provided $2 million each year to purchase lands for the tribes.

Any "surplus" land remaining from allotment would be restored to the reservations.
    4. A special court of Indian Affairs was to be established. The bill that finally passed Congress was substantially modified.
Tribes were required to accept or reject the IRA by referendum;

the establishment of tribal self- government was to be decided the same way.

When a majority of adult tribal members approved the IRA, they could then write a constitution, which had to be approved by another majority vote and by the Secretary of the Interior.

Tribes who accepted the IRA could elect a tribal council.

The IRA applied only to those tribes who accepted it, and Oklahoma and
Alaska were left out of its provisions.

(Congress passed laws in 1936 to encourage the establishment of tribal and village governments in those areas.)

Collier spent much time and energy selling his program to Indian communities and he held ten regional conferences in the spring of 1934 to explain the philosophy, operation, and importance of the IRA.

For the first time, a commissioner of Indian affairs traveled around the country to explain legislation to Indian people.

Opposing the IRA

Nevertheless, he encountered opposition which slowed the progress of his reform program.

Many Indians and non-Indians feared that after generations of painful adjustment the reversal of policies would mean a "return to the blanket."

Some Indian traditionalists disliked the proposed changes in tribal government.

The Indian Rights Association argued that the new legislation perpetuated segregation, and some members of Congress opposed it for protecting communal ownership.
Some tribes were divided over the New Deal.

Collier underestimated the diversity of Indian life and wanted Indians to function as unified tribes.

In fact, the IRA proposed to impose rigid and alien political and economic systems on Indian communities,

Majority rule went against traditional practices in those societies that reached decisions by consensus

Navajos Say No

In Indian country, not voting was often viewed as a negative vote;

In Western-style democracy, however, those who do not vote have no voice.
Eventually, some 174 tribes accepted the IRA and 135 communities drafted tribal constitutions.

But 78 tribes rejected it.

The Seneca activist Alice Lee Jemison was a vocal critic of both Collier and the Indian New Deal

She helped found the American Indian Federation, a group that campaigned against Collier's program.

The Senecas regarded the Indian New Deal as a threat to their treaty rights and to the elective self-government they had established in 1848.

With the other Iroquois tribes of New York, they voted heavily against the IRA (although the Wisconsin Oneidas accepted it).

The Crows, unlike most Plains groups, rejected it, despite the influential support of Robert Yellowtail, the Crow Indian Superintendent.

The Navajos rejected it.

After their return from confinement at Rosque Redondo in 1868, the Navajos rebuilt their communities around sheep and herding.

While Plains Indians exPerienced population collapse and loss of subsistence base with the slaughter of buffalo herds,

Navajo numbers and Navajo herds grew steadily.

The government even enlarged the Navajo reservation to accommodate the increase of human and animal population.

By 1933, the Navajos numbered more than 40,000 and were self-sufficient sheepherders.

Issued 14,000 sheep (less than 2 per capita) with which to rebuild their herds in 1868, the Navajos had increased their stock to about 800,000 sheep and goats (21 per capita) by the eve of the Great Depression.

 But, combined with natural erosion cycles in the area, the increase in livestock took a toll on the Navajo environment.

The government feared that overgrazing and trampling hooves broke down soils and that accumulations of silt from the reservation threatened the functioning of the huge Boulder Dam (later renamed Hoover Dam).

Built on the Colorado River in northwestern Arizona and completed in 1936, it provided water, flood control, and electricity to the southwestern United States and Los Angeles.

The government advocated a program of livestock reduction to relieve the stress on the land.

    In an effort to limit production and raise prices, the government imposed livestock reductions on American farmers during the New Deal era,

but Collier underestimated the importance of sheep, goats, and horses in Navajo life.

He persuaded the Navajo tribal council to accept a program of stock reduction and promised to secure additional lands for the reservation.

The tribal council had been formed under government auspices in the 1920s to facilitate access to oil deposits on the reservation;

it hardly spoke for the majority of Navajos scattered across a reservation the size of Mrest Virginia.

The council agreed to a ten percent reduction in stock, but this was only the first stage in a program that continued for more than a decade and cut Navajo herds by half.

Most Navajos saw the causes of erosion as lack of water and insufficient access to acreage for grazing--too little land, not too many sheep.

The program was brutal and devastating for Navajo families who watched the slaughter of their animals with outrage and heartbreak.

Many Navajos held Collier personally responsible for their most bitter experience since the Long Walk to Bosque Redondo.

They felt betrayed when he failed to deliver on promises he had made to expand the reservation eastwards.

When Collier visited the reservation in 1934 to promote the IRA, he encountered fierce opposition from Navajos led by the assimilationist J. C. Morgan.

When the referendum was held, 48 percent of the eligible voters cast ballots.

The voting was close but in the end the largest tribe in the country rejected the IRA and Collier's vision of a new era in Indian affairs.

The Indian Reorganization Act failed to achieve many of its goals.

Nevertheless, the Indian New Deal produced some dramatic changes in government policy.

Indian tribes regained several million acres of lands that had been lost under the allotment program and moved forward in the areas of education, cultural preservation, and control of their own affairs.

As Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Collier displayed sympathy for Indian heritage and recognized the importance of allowing Indian tribes a measure of self-determination.

However, in 1941,the United States entered the Second World War, which had broken out in Europe two years before.

Concern for righting wrongs at home diminished as the nation focused its energies on winning the war for democracy abroad.


About twenty-five thousand Indians served in the armed forces during World War II.

Some were drafted, others volunteered.

The Iroquois challenged the right of the federal government to compel indian men to fight and a group of Iroquois issued a formal declaration of war against the axis powers in 1942,

indicating that they were participating in the war as sovereign nations, not as subordinates of the United States.

Some Indian soldiers won lasting fame--Navajo code talkers in the Pacific theater baffled the Japanese with a code based on Navajo words

and Ira Hayes, a Pima Indian, participated in the famous flag-
raising by American marines on Iwo Jima.

More than five hundred Indians were killed in the war.

Another forty thousand Indian men and women worked in war-related industries.

The war took Indians away from home, often for the first time, brought them into contact with new people and new ideas,

and gave them new pride in having helped win the great fight for democracy.

   Many Indians returning from the war expected to find improved living conditions and better relations with their white neighbors.

Instead, they encountered a renewal of hard times and a renewed assault on their tribalism.

In the late 1940s and the 195Os the pendulum of public opinion and government support swung away from the reform impetus of the New Ueal to conservatism and conformity,

marked by commitment to "Americanism:'

fear of communism,

and resentment of those who did not seem to fit in with mainstream White society.

Many Americans saw Indian participation in the war as evidence of their readiness for final assimilation into American society.

The government decided to return to the assimilationist programs of the past and to "get out of the Indian business" by ending its relationship with Indian tribes.

The Indian Claims Commission

After the war, the government implemented a three-part program of compensation, termination, and relocation.

Acknowledging that injustices had been committed in the past, Congress aimed to "wipe the slate clean" by settling
once and for all the claims that Indian tribes had against the government for loss of lands;

it wanted to eliminate special tribal status and turn jurisdiction over the Indians to state and local authorities;

and it imagined that Indians would more easily enter the mainstream of American life if they moved from their reservations to cities.

    From 1778 (the first U.S. treaty with the Delawares) to 1871 (when Congress ended the treaty-making process in favor of executive agreements),the United States negotiated nearly four hundred treaties with Indian tribes.

However, many of the provisions of these treaties were never implemented, and many tribes never received payment stipulated in treaties for lands they had ceded.

In 1946, Congress established the Indian Claims Commission to review tribal grievances over treaty enforcement and management of resources and to resolve lingering disputes between Indian tribes and the United States government.

Tribes were allowed five years in which to file grievances;

they had to prove aboriginal title to the lands in question and then bring suit for settlement.

The commission would then review their case and assess the amount, if any, to be paid in compensation.

The whole process was expected to be completed in ten years.

   The work of the Claims Commission was beset with problems.

The Justice Department often discouraged or hindered tribes that wanted to file claims.

Some Indian groups had conflicting claims to aboriginal occupancy of the same lands.

In addition, some Indians rejected the idea that cash payment could settle land issues.

Land, not money, was the basis of their culture.

For example, the Taos Indians rejected an offer of $10 million for Blue Lake in northwestern New Mexico because it was sacred to them and not "for sale."

(President Nixon returned Blue Lake to the people of Taos Pueblo in 1970.)

When compensation was paid, other problems arose.

People often disagreed over whether the payments should be made per capita to individual tribal members or whether they should be invested by tribal officials in the reservation economy.

Tribal  members who lived off the reservations often differed with their relatives who had stayed behind.

In the case of per capita payments, tribal rolls had to be drawn up and verified, producing further disputes over who qualified as a member.

    By the time the Indian Claims Commission ended its operations in 1978 it had settled 285 cases, and paid out more than $800 million in settlements.

The Crows received a $10 million payment and allocated 50 percent for per capita payments and invested the rest in health, housing, education, scholarships, land purchases, and social services.

Some Indians squandered their payments;

others were cheated out of them by unscrupulous local businessmen.

Removing the Government's Trust Responsibilities

The period also saw a growing call to end federal services to Indian tribes.

Influential western Congressmen such as Senator Arthur Watkins of Utah and Representative E. Y. Berry of South Dakota were among the most vocal advocates of this termination policy.

In 1950, Dillon S. Myer, the former head of the War Relocation Authority which had taken thousands of Japanese Americans from the West Coast and put them in internment camps, became Commissioner of Indian Affairs.

The new commissioner was hostile to many of the reforms implemented by John Collier in the 1930s.

In Myer's view the BIA should "not do anything which others can do as well or better and as cheaply. The Bureau should do nothing for Indians which Indians can do for themselves and we should lean over backward to help them learn to do more things on their own"'1

He began to implement a government policy of termination and relocation of Indian tribes.

His successor, Glenn Emmons, who took over as commissioner in 1953, carried on his work.
Tribes deemed to have made most "progress" were identified as eligible for termination.

The government's list included the Six Nations of New York, the Prairie Potawatomis of Kansas, the Menominees of Wisconsin, the Flatheads of Montana, the Klamaths of Oregon, the Hooyas of northern California and various southern California bands.

In 1953, House Concurrent Resolution 108 proposed ending federal relations with a number of these eligible tribes.

In the next decade Congress terminated federal services to more than sixty Indian groups.

A 1958 law terminated forty-one California reservations at one stroke.

In 1953, Congress passed Public Law 280, transferring jurisdiction over tribal lands to state and local governments in California, Oregon, Nebraska, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.

In 1954, responsibility for Indian health was transferred from the BIA to the Public Health Service.

Impact: The Menominees and Klamath

As had the proponents of allotment in the 1880s, advocates of termination justified their new policy as one that would liberate Indian people from the stifling atmosphere of reservation life and dependence on government support.

    In fact, the withdrawal of special federal services to Indian tribes was often disastrous.

The Menominees and the Klamaths were especially hard hit.

The Menominees were fairly self-sufficient in 1950, with their tribal lumbering operation and sawmill providing employment and paying for most of their community services.

Termination struck at their prosperity and society.

In 1953, the Menominees were seeking distribution of an earlier settlement on a per capita basis.

Payment required congressional approval;

it passed in the House, but encountered stiff opposition before the Senate Committee on Interior Affairs.

Utah Senator Arthur Watkins, a termination advocate, supported an amendment calling for the termination of federal assistance to the Menominees and then informed the Menominees that agreeing to termination was a precondition to obtain the payments in question.l3

With little understanding of the exact termination provisions, most of those Menominees who voted for termination were probably only voting to receive their per capita payments.

In June 1954, President Eisenhower signed the Menominee Termination Act.

 The law gave the tribe four years in which to establish their own
municipal, educational, health, and other services previously provided by the federal government.

The Menominees won a deadline extension to 1961.

They reorganized the tribe as a corporation, Menominee Enterprises Incorporated (MEI), to manage the lands and lumber mill formerly owned and operated by the tribe, and the reservation became a county.

Nevertheless, the impact of termination was devastating.

The once-thriving tribal lumber industry was deprived of federal contracts at a time of a nationwide slump in housebuilding.

Menominees had to sell land to pay taxes.

Hospitals closed and health problems increased.

A plan to save the federal government money cost it more than ever in the form of welfare payments.

    The law terminating the Klamaths was passed in 1954 and went into effect in 1961.

Like the Menominees, the Klamaths impressed government officials as a model tribe for termination because of their rich timber resources and relative prosperity with a gross annual income of $2 million from sale of tribal timber.'"

 But the Klamaths relied heavily on federal services and contracts and, as in the case of the Menominees, termination brought economic disaster.

Cutting off health and education services previously provided by the federal government caused additional suffering.

Some communities had little choice but to sell lands which the government had previously held in trust.

Many Indians regard termination as another land grab, with lumber interests influencing poiicy and lumber companies emerging as the actual beneficiaries of a policy that was supposed to "liberate" Indian people.'"

    The National Congress of American Indians led the fight against termination, under its chairman Joseph Carry, a Coeur d'Alene veteran of World War II and an Idaho state legislator.

"Reservations do not imprison us:' declared the NCAI, "they are our ancestral homelands, retained by us for our perpetual use and enjoyment. We feel we must assert our right to maintain ownership in our own way, and terminate it only by our consent.""

Both the Menominees and the Klamaths fought for restoration of tribal status.

A young Menominee social worker named Ada Deer led the movement to reverse Menominee termination, lobbying in Washington until Congress passed the Menominee Restoration Act, which President Nixon signed in 1973.

Deer went on to become the first indian woman to head the Bureau of Indian Affairs when President Clinton appointed her Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs in 1993.)

The Klamaths secured restoration of tribal status in 1986.

But the experience of both tribes stood as a warning to others: economic success could bring termination.