It has been more than eighty years since the passage of the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) in 1934. During that time, there have been many opportunities to examine the conventional wisdom that it is a signal example of federal administrative reforms favorable to American Indians, reversing decades of land alienation and cultural abuses caused by the 1887 General Allotment Act. John Collier was Indian commissioner from 1933 to 1945 during President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Democratic administration, and the IRA was Collier's brainchild and the centerpiece of his reforms. Collier, a radical social worker who became an anthropologist, was both a prolific writer and a skilled propagandist. His books, Indians of the Americas (1947) and From Every Zenith (1962), have been widely read, and they put the best possible interpretation on the Indian New Deal. Until recently, conventional wisdom has followed Collier's interpretation. The question remains, however: Was the IRA truly an Indian agenda, and was it fairly and intelligently applied? In short, how should one evaluate the IRA legacy?
A twenty-year appraisal of the IRA took place in conjunction with the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association in 1953. It included John Collier himself, along with several prominent Indians and anthropologists. When the fiftieth anniversary of the IRA occurred in 1984, scholars, Indian leaders, and political activists began another reevaluation. The Institute of the American West, for example, held a conference at Sun Valley entitled "Fifty Years Under the Indian Reorganization Act—Indian Self-Rule," in which many notables participated in a series of panels. Both appraisals during these reevaluations were uniformly positive.
In the past few decades, however, scholars have taken yet another look at the IRA and Collier's administrative reforms. Kenneth Philp's biographical study, John Collier's Crusade for Indian Reform, 1920–1954, came out in 1977, and Lawrence Kelly's The Assault on Assimilation: John Collier and the Origins of Indian Policy Reform appeared in 1983. Philp generally follows Collier's favorable view of the IRA. Kelly, on the other hand, emphasizes the failure of the IRA legislation to attain Collier's idealistic reform goals. He also faults the Collier administration for its failure to extend the Act's limited benefits to the majority of Indians. Two other scholars who have written major reevaluations are Graham Taylor and Lawrence Hauptman. They, too, are critical of the Indian New Deal as not being all that it was purported to be. We should also mention Deloria and Lytle, who present an insightful analysis of the IRA in The Nations Within: The Past and Future of American Indian Sovereignty.
In 1977 the American Indian Policy Review Commission reported its findings to Congress on the economic, social, and political conditions of the Indian tribes and nations. Its findings, as Graham Taylor observes, seem to indicate that the twin goals of the IRA (Indian economic development and the restoration of Indian self-determination through a council system of government) have been notable failures of existing Indian policy. As a result, as the Meriam Report found in 1928, American Indians continued to rank at the bottom of virtually every social indicator fifty years later.
New criticism of the IRA incorporates the views of traditional Indians, many of whom opposed the IRA and the Indian New Deal from its very beginnings. The traditional Indian movement has historically struggled to achieve three goals: (1) a viable land base for economic self-sufficiency and nationhood, (2) political self-determination through sovereignty under the treaties, and (3) cultural rights (language, religion, and heritage). John Collier's two aims under the Indian New Deal, on the other hand, were (1) to preserve the Indian people as a "race" and as distinct cultures, which Collier termed "grouphood," and (2) to preserve and develop resources, including land. The means to achieve these goals for Collier were "tribal" organization and economic incorporation under the IRA. For traditional Indians, however, the means to their goals is for the United States to return to the treaty relationship (treaty federalism) and to recognize the Indian peoples as sovereign with the right to self-determination.
The 1920s: Protest from the Pueblos
The first two decades of the twentieth century were particularly onerous for American Indians within the borders of the United States. Not only had the 1887 General Allotment Act resulted in reservation land loss and impoverishment, but the government's policy of Americanization and cultural assimilation ushered in a virulent period of ethnocide. One of the worst manifestations was the federal crackdown on Indian religious ceremonies. The proassimilationist Indian Rights Association led an attack on "indecent" ceremonies among the Indian Pueblos of the Southwest, and the Board of Indian Commissioners deplored the fact that tribal rituals were still being conducted on many Indian reservations. In its 1918 report, the Board described the Indian dances as evil and a reversion to paganism. On April 26, 1921, Indian Commissioner Charles H. Burke issued Circular 1665, which outlawed the Plains Sun Dance and other traditional religious ceremonies and made them punishable by fines or imprisonment. The Native American (peyote) Church also came under attack. This period of Indian policy also saw many other instances of religious abuse.
About the same time that the assault on Indian culture and religion was occurring, Secretary of the Interior Albert B. Fall led an attack on Indian rights through his sponsorship of the Bursum and Indian Omnibus bills in Congress. The former bill would have confirmed white encroachment on sixty thousand acres of Pueblo Indian land, while the Omnibus bill sought to individualize remaining tribal assets, including timber, coal, and other minerals, thereby ending federal trusteeship responsibility. Fall also attempted to create a national park out of part of the Mescalero Apache Reservation bordering on his Three Rivers ranch, which would have enhanced the value of his own property. When oil was discovered on the Navajo Reservation in 1922, he issued a ruling that opened all executive order reservations to exploration by oil companies under the 1920 General Leasing Act. These were the federal Indian policies that struck at Indian sovereignty, especially in New Mexico, and that led to the protest from the Pueblos and the entry of John Collier as an advocate for Indian rights.
Instead of destroying Native societies and cultures through forced assimilation, John Collier believed in a policy of cultural pluralism and Indian administration through indirect rather than direct U.S. rule. The controversy over the Pueblo land grants (part of a larger struggle against landlessness stemming from allotment) and religious dancing led to the formation of the American Indian Defense Association in May 1923. Facing criticism from Collier, the Pueblo Indians, New Mexico democrats, and the 2-million-member General Federation of Women's Clubs, Fall was forced to resign from the Harding administration. He was replaced in 1923 by Dr. Hubert Work, who was described as the last of the frontier commissioners. Secretary Work was under the influence of Christian missionaries and opposed Indian dancing, but he had to back off from former Commissioner Burke's order prohibiting the theocratic Taos and Zuni Pueblos from withdrawing selected Indian youth from Bureau of Indian Affairs schools for traditional religious training.
Despite Collier's advocacy work, the Bureau continued its policy of suppressing Indian religious ceremonies. The issue came to a head during the summer of 1925 at Taos when the Pueblos' officials disciplined two members of the Native American Church for invading traditional religious ceremonies. Acting unilaterally to "establish order," the Indian Bureau thereupon arrested virtually the entire governing body of Taos Pueblo. Collier's Defense Association provided bail and lawyers, and the All-Pueblo Council swung into action, denouncing the Bureau's effort to destroy Indian self-government. Collier took Pueblo representatives on a tour of Utah and California in the cause of Indian religious freedom and to raise money for its defense. Secretary Work denounced these activities, saying that "propagandists are touring part of the country with a company of dancing and singing Pueblos in full Indian regalia in order to awaken people to the 'crime' in New Mexico. There is no crime in New Mexico." Congressman Scott Leavitt of Montana sponsored a bill drafted by the Bureau that would give Indian superintendents the power to throw any reservation Indian in jail for six months and levy a $100 fine without trial. Because of the work by the Defense Committee the Leavitt bill did not get out of committee.
In 1928, on the eve of the Indian New Deal, a government commission issued a landmark report to Congress, "The Problem of Indian Administration." Collier declared that the Meriam Report, as it was popularly called, had "blasted apart the walls of the dungeon called the Indian affairs system" and constituted a major indictment of the Indian bureau. The report made it clear that allotment policy had not produced assimilation and was, in fact, an unmitigated disaster judging by any social or economic indicator. The Indian population had actually decreased since the passage of the 1887 General Allotment Act. There were more landless Indians than before; Indian trust lands had decreased in value; family income was as low as $48 per year on some reservations; the annual death rate had increased; and the Indian land base had shrunk from 137 million acres to a mere 47 million. Collier saw horrible material and spiritual decline as a result of the allotment policy.
As the Depression deepened, the Bureau began a retreat from instituting reform, and Congress was less inclined to vote for Indian appropriations. In March 1932, representatives of forty-nine Indian tribes petitioned the U.S. Senate, alleging that the Hoover administration had reneged on its promises for Indian reform as recommended in the Meriam Report. After his election in 1932, President Roosevelt received a document signed by more than 600 educators, social workers, and other concerned citizens, drawing attention to the extreme situation of the American Indians. The signers asserted that "your administration represents almost a last chance for the Indians."
The Indian New Deal (1933–1937)
Harold Ickes, who became FDR's new Secretary of the Interior, was a Chicago Progressive reformer and former director of the American Indian Defense Association. Ickes appointed Collier to become commissioner of Indian affairs on April 2, 1933. A cultural pluralist, Collier sought to reverse the policy of forced assimilation and its detrimental economic exploitation and land dispossession. He still believed in eventual assimilation, but at a slower and more equitable pace and without the loss of community solidarity and Indian values. He proposed that government follow a colonial policy known as indirect administration.
Upon taking office, Collier immediately instituted recovery measures legislated under the New Deal FDR administration. He successfully established a separate Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC, a jobs program for the unemployed) for Indians known as Emergency Conservation Work (ECW). The conservation of reservation lands and the training of Indians to utilize their own lands and resources distinguished it from the regular CCC. Before its demise in 1943, the ECW had employed 85,349 enrollees from seventy-one different reservations with a total of $72 million in appropriations. The ECW was perhaps the most successful of Collier's Indian New Deal reforms, and it was very popular at the grassroots level on the reservations.
Collier initiated many other reform measures as well, all of which became known as the Indian New Deal. The assimilationist-minded Board of Indian Commissioners was abolished in May 1933, and by the following August Collier persuaded Ickes to declare a temporary cessation of further Indian land allotments, of the sale of allotted lands, of the issuance of certificates of competency, and of similar measures. Of equal importance was the cancellation of debts owed by Indian tribes to the federal government. Because of the debt cancellation and the appropriation of more than $100 million in relief programs, American Indians were able to survive the worst years of the Great Depression and even enjoy a higher standard of living than they had a decade earlier. In some respects, the impact of the Depression in the wider society was already reversing the process of assimilation by driving Indians back to their reservation homelands for economic survival.
Other Indian New Deal reforms included the creation of an Indian Arts and Crafts Board, a reservation court system, and a directive ordering the Indian Service to observe "the fullest constitutional liberty in all matters affecting religion, conscience and culture." The ban against religious dances was lifted, and government repression of Indian languages in Bureau schools was ended. The major accomplishment of the Collier administration, however, was the passage of the Indian Reorganization Act.
Indian Reorganization Act
In a meeting held at the Cosmos Club in Washington, D.C., in January 1934, Collier laid out his ideas for a basic piece of legislation to correct the evils of forty-seven years of allotment policy. To this meeting he had invited representatives from organizations that formed the nucleus of Indian reform: the American Indian Defense Association, Indian Rights Association, National Association on Indian Affairs, American Civil Liberties Union, National Council on American Indians, and the General Federation of Women's Clubs. Later the same month, he tested the waters for his ideas in a circular to reservation superintendents, tribal council members, and individual Indians in a document entitled "Indian Self-Government." Despite the mostly negative replies, Collier nevertheless advanced plans to draft a bill for major Indian reorganization. The primary thrust of Collier's draft legislation was self-government, a policy that ran directly counter to the previous policy of assimilation. The completed Collier bill contained forty-eight pages and four major titles, each divided into a number of substantive sections. The final Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) as passed by Congress, on the other hand, omitted important parts of two of Collier's original titles and one title altogether, the one dealing with a proposed Court of Indian Offenses. Although the three remaining titles (self-government, education, and Indian lands) were all substantively reduced in content, they at least made it into the new law.
The bill was signed into law June 18, 1934, as the Wheeler-Howard, or Indian Reorganization, Act, but it bore little resemblance to Collier's original bill. Opposition to the Collier bill came from Indians who favored assimilation, western congresspersons (many of whom were reflecting special interests in their home states containing Indian reservations), missionaries, and Bureau personnel. The powerful Indian Rights Association still favored the melting pot concept, but hoped that the legislation with its provision for educational training would promote assimilation. Only the section of Title II in the original bill that dealt with education came through relatively unscathed. The act in its final form eliminated four key features of Collier's draft bill: (1) The tribes were denied the right to take over heirship lands; (2) the section setting up a reservation court system was eliminated; (3) social units smaller than the tribe, such as local or community level groups, were not empowered, although Alaska Native villages were later included when the IRA was amended in 1936; (4) the section on promoting Indian culture and traditions was deleted.
Title I of the IRA gave Indian tribes the right to organize for the purposes of local self-government and economic enterprise. Collier's bill would have conferred limited self-government on reservation Indian groups or communities, treating them as municipalities, but the final version of the IRA limited this provision to tribal units only. The first step in the process was for a tribal committee to draft a constitution. Then an election would be held to ratify the constitution, with a majority vote of reservation members necessary for adoption. Approval by the Secretary of the Interior was also required. Congress modified this section of Collier's bill by cutting the annual appropriation for the organization of tribal governments from $500,000 to $250,000.
Deloria and Lytle, in The Nations Within, point out that the self-government provision of the IRA helped to define important powers of Native political entities. With the support of Collier, after the Act was passed, a ruling by the Solicitor of the Interior Department found that the powers conferred under the Act's self-government provision were inherent in the tribes' and nations' status as domestic dependent nations. These powers are a tribe's right to adopt its own form of self-government, to determine tribal membership, to regulate the disposition of tribal property, and to prescribe the rules of inheritance on real and personal property.
Tribal business corporations
An emphasis on economic development was an important feature of the IRA. Upon receiving a petition from at least one-third of the adult reservation Indians, the Secretary of the Interior could issue a charter of incorporation. When ratified by a majority of reservation members, a Native tribe or nation could then engage in business enterprises. The IRA also established a revolving loan fund of $10 million for economic development. This was twice the amount that Collier had suggested in his original bill.
Education and employment
The education provisions of Title II were not controversial, and Congress raised the appropriation from Collier's $50,000 to $250,000. Congress, on the other hand, limited the amount to loans rather than outright grants, and training was primarily for vocational education. An important clause in Title I waved civil service requirement for employment in the Indian service, thus establishing the principle of Indian preference in hiring. Omitted from Title II was Collier's draft section declaring that it would be the policy of Congress "to promote the study of Indian civilization, including Indian arts, crafts, skills and traditions." This entire section was struck. Congress, it would seem, was not interested in promoting the Indian heritage.
A key part of Title III was the section abolishing the 1887 Indian Allotment (Dawes) Act. Title III also declared it the policy of the United States to undertake a constructive program of Indian land use and economic development, with a pledge to consolidate Indian land holdings into suitable economic units. Two million dollars was set aside annually for land acquisition.
The new law also extended indefinitely the trust period of allotted lands as a protection against loss of Indian lands to non-Natives. Under the previous system, allotted lands were held in trust for twenty-five years, after which they were vested in the ownership of the Indian allottee. At the same time, however, they became subject to state taxes. As a result, the Indian landowner almost always lost his land because of nonpayment of taxes or was forced to sell to a non-Indian.
The lands provisions of the Collier bill were so controversial in the congressional debate that its original twenty-one sections were reduced to eight, thus negating many of Collier's plans for significant land reform. The Collier bill had addressed the land alienation and heirship problems with language ensuring that previously allotted lands would be returned to tribal ownership. In the Collier draft, the Secretary of the Interior was empowered to compel the sale or transfer of trust allotments to tribal governments, and trust allotments not immediately returned would revert to tribal status upon the death of the landowner. Congress modified this section by making it voluntary rather than compulsory. In addition, the land title would now pass to the heirs and not to the tribe upon the death of the Indian landowner. This dealt a deadly blow to Collier's efforts to consolidate fragmented Indian parcels and return them to the tribal estate.
Under the IRA as passed by Congress, the Bureau of Indian Affairs became a real estate entity for thousands of Indian heirs possessing an interest in ever smaller pieces of inherited land from an original allotment. Today, the number of heirs to an original 160-acre allotment distributed under the 1887 Allotment Act in many cases exceeds one hundred. Tens of millions of dollars are lost every year to Indian tribes through the Bureau's practice of renting or leasing these uneconomical interests in allotted or heirship lands to non-Indian farmers and ranchers at low rates, who then combine the parcels into viable economic units. The heirship problem has continued to become more unmanageable with each passing generation. Because of allotment, which the IRA stopped but did not reverse, twenty-five reservations have greater non-Indian than Indian populations and thirty-eight have lost at least half of their original reservation land base to non-Indians.
Indian law and order
Title IV of the Collier bill that would have created a Court of Indian Affairs was eliminated entirely from the Indian Reorganization Act. It also would have removed IRA tribes from state jurisdiction in Indian cases, heirship cases, and appeals from tribal courts. Title IV also stipulated that law and order must be consonant with Indian customs and traditions. Although the then existing tribal court system needed significant improvement and stability, and the federal attempt to deal with Indian legal problems was woefully inadequate, Collier realized that it was politic to give up Title IV more or less as a sacrificial lamb to a not too friendly Congress.
Part of the congressional debate concerned the voting or ratification by the tribes and nations for self-government under the IRA provisions. An early version of the bill merely specified "three-fifths of the Indians on the reservation or territory covered by the charter." The House bill changed this to a simple majority vote. Finally, a supplementary act passed in 1935 resolved the question to "the vote of a majority of those voting."
Collier lost out to Senator Burton Wheeler, a sponsor of the legislation, with respect to the blood quantum legal definition of an American Indian under the IRA legislation. Collier wanted one-fourth "blood," but Wheeler insisted on one-half "blood."
Within a year after the passage of the IRA the Secretary of the Interior was to call for a referendum election on the reservations. Each tribe was to discuss the provisions of the act and then vote on whether to accept or reject it. Senator Wheeler favored a simple majority vote, but Collier managed to insert language that would make the IRA operative on a reservation unless a majority of the tribal members voted to exclude themselves from the Act. In other words, the adult Indians not voting could be counted as voting for the IRA. In this way, Collier's stratagem resulted in more tribes and nations coming under the IRA than would otherwise have been the case. No matter how small the number of eligible Indians voting in favor of the IRA, by counting the nonvotes as "yes," IRA acceptance was virtually assured. A case in point is the Santa Ysabel tribe in California that came under the Act because sixty-two eligible tribal members who did not vote were counted as being in favor of adoption. Another example is the vote manipulation that took place on the bitterly divided Hopi Reservation. A plurality of Hopi "progressives" voted for the referenda while a larger number of traditional Hopi "voted" by not voting. The Collier administration nonetheless ruled that the Hopi had voted to accept the IRA. As Kenneth Philp points out in his biography of Collier, at least seventeen Native polities that voted to reject the Act were considered as being in favor of it. Collier knew that on many of the reservations the more traditional, full-blood Indians would refuse to participate in the IRA elections, preferring instead to assert their tribal sovereignty under the treaties.
A related feature of the Act was the provision that allowed a tribe only one chance to either accept or reject the IRA. Any benefits of the new law would be lost forever if a tribe wanted to take a wait-and-see approach.
When administrative manipulation of the voting was exposed, Collier was forced to agree that Congress should amend the IRA. In June 1935, an amendment was passed that extended the deadline for referenda for another year. It also clarified the voting requirements by stipulating that a majority of those voting would determine whether a tribe accepted the IRA or not. At the same time, a distressing feature of the majority rule amendment was that it also contained a provision that 30 percent of the eligible adult Indian population had to participate in the referendum in order for a majority of no votes to reject the Act. If the number of voters did not amount to 30 percent, then even an overwhelming number of no votes could not result in the IRA being rejected. On the other hand, the same rule did not apply for a tribe voting to accept the IRA. Theoretically, even a 1 percent voter participation could effect acceptance of the IRA.
Extending and applying the IRA
Because a number of nations and tribes did not want to participate in certain provisions of the new law, and because of political pressure brought by special interest groups, a section of the IRA provided for exclusions and modifications.
Congress passed the Alaska Reorganization Act on June 1, 1936, which included Alaska Natives at the village level under the IRA provisions. The original IRA, on the other hand, had limited its provisions to tribes only. Ultimately, sixty-six Alaskan Native groups adopted constitutions and corporate charters under this law. The Oklahoma Indian Welfare Act was passed in the same month, which included the Indian tribes of that state.
According to the reorganization plan, after a tribe or nation voted to accept the IRA, it would draw up a constitution and bylaws, submit it to a referendum, have the Secretary of the Interior certify the results, and then start operating as a corporate tribal council. Of the 181 tribes accepting the Indian Reorganization Act between 1934 and 1945, only ninety-six adopted a tribal constitution, and only seventy-three tribes ever received corporate business charters. Seventy-seven tribes with a population of 86,365 members rejected the Act outright. Several of these were large reservation groups, such as the Klamath Indians of Oregon and the Crows of Montana. An especially bitter blow to Collier was the rejection of the IRA by the Navajo Nation. With 98 percent of the eligible Navajo voting, the tribe rejected the Act by 419 votes. The Navajo had not forgiven the Collier administration for its drastic livestock reduction program on the reservation, carried out ostensibly to protect the land against over-grazing, that had reduced many of the small herding families to destitution.
Councils vs. communities
Graham Taylor stood alone as the only contemporary critic to raise the question of Native political organization and the nature of Indian communities at the time the IRA went into effect. He believed that the Indian responses to the Act differed because each Indian group was at a different point on the assimilation–traditional continuum. There were great differences among the reservations in terms of inter-marriage, English literacy, Anglo-American education, and acceptance of Christianity. These differences provoked factional strife on most reservations at the time. Many of the monolingual, full-blooded, traditional Indians were unfamiliar with parliamentary procedures, their aboriginal political systems having been a council of elders and chiefs acting on the unanimity principle. Consequently, many of the traditionals boycotted the IRA proceedings altogether. For most reservation Indians, the "tribal governments" established under the IRA constitutions were a totally new and unfamiliar form of political organization. At Hopi it was primarily the more acculturated villages on the First Mesa that strongly supported the IRA and drew up the tribal constitution, while the villages on the other mesas, being more traditional, either vacillated or withheld their support.
The misreading by Congress and Collier on the question of Indian social organization defies explanation because many of Collier's closest advisers were anthropologists. Yet Collier and his Applied Anthropology Unit, in pressuring Native peoples to accept the IRA, neglected the existing social organization of Indian communities, the nature of which varied tremendously from reservation to reservation. Many of the Six Nations Iroquois were still committed to a confederacy based on the clan system; the Choctaws, Cherokees, Chickasaws, and Creeks had a history of secular Indian republics; the Shoshones and Paiutes of Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming were organized only at the level of the extended family band; the Rio Grande Pueblo societies were settled, agricultural villages run as theocracies; and the full-bloods among the Plains Indians were organized into a complex of band councils under traditional chiefs. If the goals of the Indian reform were cultural preservation and economic self-sufficiency, then it would have made sense for reorganization to be tailored to each specific situation. Instead, the "tribal" governments established under the IRA constitutions were a totally new and unfamiliar level of sociopolitical organization for many Indian populations.
John Collier continually defended the IRA and the Indian New Deal programs during his tenure as commissioner of Indian affairs. He was forced to appear before Congress several times to justify the reforms, and there were two attempts by Congress to repeal the Act, although both were ultimately unsuccessful. The House Appropriations Committee underfunded IRA programs, and by 1944 the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs had also come to oppose the commissioner and his program of Indian reform. Among the most active Indian opponents of the IRA was the American Indian Federation, which joined forces with American pro-Nazi groups in labeling Collier a communist.
In hindsight one can conclude that the self-government provisions of the IRA, although important, had a problematic impact on Indian communities, but Collier's most lasting achievement was economic development. Much of the Indian New Deal involved bringing needed resources to economically depressed reservation communities. Collier's economic policies also helped Indians rebuild their badly depleted land base, if only modestly; Indian land holdings increased from 48 to 52 million acres, and almost 1 million acres of surplus land was returned to Native tribes and nations.
Following Collier's resignation in 1945, federal Indian policy became stridently regressive for the next two decades during the termination and relocation policy periods in which the limitations of Indian "self-government"—the relative powerlessness of the tribes under the IRA—became apparent. Federal policy did not improve until the federal War on Poverty in the early 1960s and the resurgence of American Indian activism.