American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Bureau of Indian Affairs: Establishing the Existence of an Indian Tribe

Title: Thomas J. Morgan with Sioux delegation, 1891
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The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) is the branch of the federal government charged with organizing and carrying out governmental policy relating to American Indians. While the original purpose of the BIA was to liquidate Indian lands, over the course of its history, the BIA has become an institution that attempts to manage Indian affairs and to act as the federal government's liaison with American Indian peoples on and off the reservations. Originally called the Office of Indian Affairs (OIA), the bureau was established by President James Monroe in 1824 as part of the Department of War for the purpose of supporting and, it was hoped, eventually assimilating American Indians.

In the beginning, the Office of Indian Affairs was dominated by the individual Indian agents, most often apolitical appointees placed on reservations. The Indian agents directed the distribution of food, goods, and other treaty annuities, oversaw education and missionary work, and policed various activities such as the prohibition of liquor as well as controlling the payroll of tribal police. The lack of direct supervision of Indian agents opened the door for corruption and mistreatment.

The Office of Indian Affairs was run by the Secretary of War until July 1832, when Congress established the position of the commissioner of Indian Affairs and appointed Elbert Herring to the post. The OIA was conceived as a temporary institution that would manage Indian affairs until the Native peoples were settled enough on the reservations to create new governments or had assimilated into mainstream society. On May 20, 1834, the House Committee on Indian Affairs reported that the activities of the OIA were being carried on in violation of law and without any legally recognized authority. The committee advised that the OIA be shut down and its work passed on to the Native peoples. After the committee's initial admonishment, they passed a bill on June 30, 1834, that effectively gave the Office of Indian Affairs branch status and legal status. In 1849, the renamed Bureau of Indian Affairs was transferred to the new Interior Department where it would more efficiently be able to liquidate Indian lands. The BIA was not a part of any treaty plan, but, as the federal government began to tighten its hold on reservation life, due to increased Western migration and demands for Indian lands, the bureau gained power and became unwieldy, often resulting in actions that reflected the government's rather than the Indian's interests.

After the Civil War, the BIA began to focus on breaking up traditional forms of tribal governments on reservations in order to harness political and decision-making powers. The BIA also began to search for a more effective means of eradicating Indian cultural practices. The General Allotment Act of 1887 changed the relationship between the BIA and Indian tribes. With the Allotment Act and the introduction of individual ownership of reservation property, the government found it easier to acquire more Indian lands as well as to exploit those lands for their natural resources. Indian agents were encouraged to force their charges to give up their property and traditional ways. The BIA policy toward American Indians was that of assimilation, the preferred method of assimilation was through education, and the preferred method of education was the boarding school, which separated children from their families and traditional culture. From 1900 through the 1970s, at least half of the BIA budget went toward schooling. And in 1908, Commissioner Francis E. Leupp eradicated the post of Indian agent and passed the administrative powers of the BIA onto the school teachers and educators on the reservations. After years of assimilation policies, the Bureau of Indian Affairs endured a public setback in 1928 with the publication of the Meriam Report. This report chastised the BIA for the poor reservation conditions American Indians suffered under and for the lack of programs for their economic, educational, and political development. The report also proposed that the BIA become an agency that worked to protect and encourage American Indian traditions. Beginning with Commissioner Charles Rhoads in 1929, policies began to turn more toward Indian self-determination.

In 1934, during the Great Depression, Commissioner John Collier took government policy significantly closer to self-determination, at least when compared with the past. Collier is, perhaps, the best-known commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He believed that the purpose of the BIA was to protect Indian rights and lands and to bring greater cultural understanding of American Indians to the larger American population. He worked to preserve Indian traditions and to bring power back to Native polities with the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. The so-called Indian New Deal attempted to create tribal governments with administrative power and democratic elections, but it failed to provide these governments with enough control due to the continued veto authority of the Secretary of the Interior over reservation laws. The Indian Reorganization Act has also been viewed as contributing to the destruction of traditional forms of power on reservations due to its enforcement of a uniform system of governance.

By 1950, the relationship between the BIA and American Indians had become increasingly strained due to the federal policy calling for the Termination of tribal status. Dillon S. Meyer, a supporter of termination, was appointed Indian commissioner in 1950 and began to install a policy of scattering Indian peoples in order to reduce their ties to the land. The launching of termination came with the passage of House Concurrent Resolution 108 and aimed to remove all federal services to American Indian tribes. Through strong agitation and protest, however, the termination policy was disbanded in 1960. The BIA also derived the relocation program from its Termination predecessor with the intent of moving Indians off poverty-stricken reservations and into cities where they could find work and a place to live. However, due to lack of funding and services for the new urban migrants, the program fell short of its goals.

The 1960s and 1970s saw an increase in nonBIA–controlled programs for American Indians and the weakening of BIA power. President Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society included a place for independent autonomous reservations and began to flow money into housing programs, health care, education, and work training. The successes of these programs led President Richard M. Nixon to declare a policy of self-determination for Indian tribes and nations in which the Bureau of Indian Affairs would play a reduced role on reservations, and tribes would eventually host their own administrative governments. In 1975, the Indian Self-Determination and Education Act called for more Indian control over the BIA by giving tribes the ability to gain the contracts for reservation programs in order to manage the programs themselves. In addition, the 1960s saw the appointments of Indian commissioners to the BIA like Robert Bennett (Oneida) and Louis Bruce (Mohawk-Sioux.) These new commissioners were willing to challenge the bureaucracy of the BIA and refashion it into a governmental agency that would work for American Indians. Hiring practices also changed and by 1980, 78 percent of BIA employees were of American Indian descent.

From approximately 1908 to 1949, the BIA consisted of a central office, located in Washington, D.C., and field offices located on various reservations. In 1949, the BIA was reorganized in an attempt to increase communication and to reduce bureaucratic red tape. New area offices were added to coordinate between central and field offices. For the most part, this three-tiered BIA structure is still in place today. Currently the BIA is under the direction of the assistant secretary of the interior and is a suborganization of the Department of the Interior. Under the secretary of the interior is the commissioner of Indian affairs who is responsible for the execution of congressional laws, as well as Department of the Interior orders, rules, and regulations.

Today the BIA attempts to promote self-determination, and American Indian tribes and nations administer over 50 percent of all BIA programs. However, the BIA still retains power over many of the educational and management opportunities on reservations through financial control. In September 2000, Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Kevin Gover (Pawnee) issued an official apology on behalf of the Bureau of Indian Affairs for the policies of land theft and assimilation that had been practiced by the agency. His statement is an effort to reconcile the past with the present and to lead the BIA in a firmly Indian direction.

Vera Parham

Further Reading
Deloria, Vine, Jr., and Clifford M. Lytle. 1984. The Nations Within: The Past and Future of American Indian Sovereignty. Austin: University of Texas Press.; Forbes, Jack D. 1981. Native Americans and Nixon: Presidential Politics and Minority Self-determination, 1969–1972. Los Angles, CA: UCLA American Indian Studies Center.; Galli, Marcia J., and Curtis E. Jackson. 1977. A History of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Its Activities Among Indians. San Francisco: R&E Research Associates.; Hirschfelder, Arlene, and Martha Kreipe de Montaño. 1993. The Native American Almanac: A Portrait of Native America Today. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.; Prucha, Francis Paul. 1984. The Great Father: The United States Government and the American Indians. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.; Taylor, Theodore W. 1984. The Bureau of Indian Affairs. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

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