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Indians and the BIA
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Indians and the BIA

The publication in 1881 of Helen Hunt Jackson's A Century of Dishonor, which portrayed federal violations of Indian treaties, and a government investigation of the reservation system stimulated sentiment for Indian policy reform during the 1880s. The progressive notion that Indians should be placed on an equal footing with other Americans found expression in the Dawes Act or General Allotment Act of 1887. Under it, heads of Indian families would receive 160-acre allotments, with the Secretary of the Interior holding the titles in trust for 25 years. As Indians became individual landowners and farmers, tribal affiliations would wither and the need for reservations would evaporate.

But few Indians were prepared to make the great cultural leap from communalism to individual enterprise. Instead of going to allotments, much Indian land was purchased by the Secretary and sold to the general public under another provision of the law, with the proceeds held in trust for the tribes. The result was that Indian holdings declined from 155,632,312 acres in 1881 to 77,865,373 acres in 1900. In the first decade of the 20th century most restrictions on the alienation of Indian allotments were removed, enabling the direct transfer of lands to white settlers. [43]

By the 1920s not only was the failure of the allotment policy evident, but the assimilationist impulse behind it was seriously questioned. The new thinking was exemplified by John Collier, executive secretary of the Indian Defense Association and editor of the magazine American Indian Life. Collier became Commissioner of Indian Affairs under Secretary Harold L. Ickes in 1933 and remained until 1945--an unprecedented tenure in that challenging post.

Collier immediately moved to employ more Indians in the Bureau of Indian Affairs and to encourage traditional Indian religion and culture. He is most remembered for his efforts to enact and implement the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. This reversal of the Dawes Act abolished the allotment system and attempted to reinvigorate communal patterns through the formation of tribal governments. It also affirmed the Secretary of the Interior's responsibility for conservation and economic development on the Indian lands. During the 1930s the reservations benefited much from new dwellings, schools, hospitals, roads, and other improvements under the various New Deal programs.

But the Indian Reorganization Act did not achieve the success its proponents sought. The concept of formal tribal governments with constitutions was an idea whose time had not come for many Indians, and the BIA failed to promote it effectively. Some critics saw the effort to build tribalism as alien to the American tradition if not communistic.

After military service in World War II aided the integration of Indians into mainstream society, the pendulum swung back toward assimilation. The goal became to terminate the special supervision exercised by the federal government through BIA and to provide needed services to Indians through the same agencies that served other citizens. As Assistant Secretary William E. Warne put it in 1948, BIA sought "to work itself out of a job." [44] A step in this direction occurred in 1955 when the U.S. Public Health Service assumed BIA's health program.

Soon, however, talk of "termination" cooled as Indians came to fear the loss of their special relationship with the government. Speaking in 1960, Secretary Fred A. Seaton interpreted the evolving policy. BIA, he said, had "one overriding objective":

. . . to provide our Indian citizens with adequate opportunities for personal development and growth so they can ultimately take whatever place they choose in the larger fabric of our national life. It is not to try to mold Indian people into some abstract image of what we think they ought to be. Neither is it to terminate special Federal protection and services for any tribe or group of Indians until they themselves are ready, prepared, and willing to take on the full responsibilities of managing their own affairs.

Encouraging as our progress has been of late years, I must warn that much more must be done before we can completely bridge the gap still separating so many Indian people from full participation in the benefits of modern America. [45]

In 1967 the idea of transferring BIA to the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare was floated among Indian leaders. They opposed it, fearing a tendency to termination and doubting HEW's capacity to handle land problems and insure fulfillment of treaty rights. "Self-determination" became the federal policy under President Richard M. Nixon and was reconfirmed by President Ronald Reagan, under whom Interior sought to give tribes more control without terminating the government's historic trust responsibilities.

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