The Meriam Report (1928), published as "The Problem of Indian Administration," was a government-funded report that underscored the failure of the U.S. policy of the forced assimilation of American Indians into American society. It was undertaken after a decade of growing concern about the direction of U.S. Indian policy. Events in the 1920s demonstrated the persistence of themes and concerns that had characterized white–Indian relations over the previous half century. Not only had the goals of the late nineteenth-century assimilation policy, including the division of tribal lands into individual holdings, not been achieved, but pressure from whites for more of the Indian land base continued. The study underlying the report was initiated in 1926 by Hubert Work, Secretary of the Interior, who named Lewis Meriam as the leader of a committee of ten that would examine the nation's Indian policy. Meriam's analysis broke with the pattern of earlier studies by analyzing statistical indicators of individual well-being, rather than asking for the opinions of those who had designed or administered existing national policies. By underscoring the vast disparities in the quality of life between Indians and society at large, the Meriam report indicted existing national policies and opened the door to new approaches that culminated in the creation of the Indian Reorganization Act in 1934.
Widespread dissatisfaction with the outcomes of Indian policy underscored the need for the study. The 1920s witnessed the continuing efforts to dispossess Native Americans of their resource base even as reform groups raised criticisms of existing policies. The most noted of the land grabs at that time was embodied in the Bursum Bill of 1922, designed to create a system for validating land titles on Pueblo holdings that would have given preference to the claims of individual white squatters over longstanding Pueblo tribal rights based on treaties. Reform groups coalesced in the successful effort to defeat this measure and remained vocal. John Collier created the American Indian Defense Association in 1923 as part of his opposition to the Bursum Bill. The Indian Rights Association was revitalized in the same period. In 1924 Congress extended citizenship to all Indians who had not yet acquired it (even though some Indians didn't want it). Some reformist Indian voices emerged in the Society of American Indians and the National Council of American Indians. Although not well financed, long lasting, or organically connected to the particular needs and perspectives of tribal organizations, these groups did offer coherent, compelling general criticisms of government policies.
The changing national mood from Anglo conformity toward cultural pluralism added to the willingness to reconsider forced assimilation. For example, missionaries' concern over the rising criticism of existing policies led to a sweeping study of socioeconomic aspects of Indian life as well as a defense of the efforts of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The study, published as Red Man in the United States, was written by G.E.E. Lindquist for the Institute for Social and Religious Research in 1923.
Interior Secretary Hubert Work made two separate attempts to gain independent perspectives on living conditions among Indians. The first was embodied in the Advisory Council on Indian Affairs, also known as the Committee of 100, in 1923. Composed of people from outside the government, the group reflected growing national differences on policy rather than developing ideas of how to address these differences. Secretary Work tried again in 1927 when he contracted with the Institute of Government Research and appointed Lewis Meriam to head a committee to scrutinize Indian and national Indian policy.
The selection of Lewis Meriam to direct the study ensured that the work would be carried out in the spirit of pre–World War I progressivism, with its emphasis on efficient administrative actions as the key to successful reform. Meriam brought an array of research experiences to the study of Indian policy as well as a reputation as a disinterested social scientist who would not allow personal policy preferences to intrude on his objectivity. In addition to the nonpartisan Institute for Government Research (which later became the Brookings Institution), he had worked for the U.S. Census Office and the Children's Bureau. His previous work included job classification with the civil service and the creation of wage systems in government bureaucracies.
The people selected to work with Meriam reflected the range of issues as well as the operating assumptions that defined the work of the committee. Areas of expertise represented on the committee included economic conditions (Edward Everett Dale, University of Oklahoma), education (W. Carson Ryan, Jr., Swarthmore College), extant records (Fayette Mackenzie, Juniata College), family life and women (Mary Marks, Ohio State University), farming (William Spillman, Bureau of Agricultural Economics), health (Herbert Edwards, National Tuberculosis Association), Indian relocation to cities (Emma Duke, American Health Association), and legal issues (Ray Brown, University of Wisconsin). Yale-educated Henry Roe Cloud (Winnebago) served as general advisor and liaison for visits to Indian communities.
The reliance on social scientific expertise (rather than prior experience as an administrator of Indian policies) or on expertise on Indian issues underscored the desire of the committee to reach objective findings that would inform government policy. The work of the committee included extensive field visitation. The committee's staff visited all but fifteen areas under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, conducted over 500 home visits, and met with a wide range of groups on reservations, including many Indian-only sessions. Anthropologists were not included, in the belief that they were not value-neutral on issues of Indian life.
The summary of findings, presented as Chapter One, indicted the impact of past policies without assigning responsibility for the deplorable conditions. The report stated: "An overwhelming majority of the Indians are poor, even extremely poor, and they are not adjusted to the economic and social system of the dominant white civilization" (Meriam, 1928, 3). Policies intended to promote the individualization and assimilation of Indian people had failed. Debate about Indian economic or social "progress" from earlier eras was avoided because the report made comparisons with indicators of well-being in white society of the mid-1920s. This tactic undercut arguments used by some to claim that Indians were better off than they had ever been in the past. The committee's decision to examine the lives of Indians who had migrated to cities produced data demonstrating that social and economic difficulties were pervasive among Indians rather than confined to those who continued to reside on reservations. Statistics underscored the high incidence of disease, the alarming extent of infant mortality, the prevalence of extreme poverty, the absence of economic development, the disorganization of family life, and the failure of existing approaches to education. At each juncture, the report showed that the conditions were worse than most citizens could imagine and would be intolerable if experienced by white citizens.
The Meriam Report was premised on the desirability of assimilating American Indians into society at large. It called for the Indian Service to be converted to an organization devoted to education for the social and economic advancement of Indian people in order to prepare them for fuller participation in general society or, absent that development, to be readied to live in parallel with white society. An underlying assumption of the report was that an improved Indian quality of life and a fuller participation in the national economy would reduce the degree of prejudice expressed toward Indians by white society. General recommendations included more respect for Indian people and the recognition that Indian rights extended beyond treaty provisions to embrace the full range of rights enjoyed by the general citizenry. Specific actions included the creation of a planning and development program that would make use of experts in areas such as agricultural economics, endemic diseases among Indians, marketing, and vocational guidance. These new workers would keep accurate records, maintain better relations with Indians, receive adequate salaries, be provided with better housing, and receive good retirement and health benefits. For the members of the Meriam Commission, the combination of professional expertise and social science methodology would yield an effective assimilation program.
Despite the Meriam Report's support for a more intelligent implementation of modified assimilation policies, symbolically the report marked the end of assimilation as a policy and stimulated the debate over the future direction of Indian policy. The report amplified growing criticisms of the Bureau of Indian Affairs from those who wanted more rapid assimilation and those who sought to restore traditional Indian culture to the extent possible. Proponents of radical assimilation saw the BIA as retarding assimilation by serving as a crutch that made Indians reluctant to "stand on their own" within American society. On the other side, a group of reformers led by John Collier sought to restore tribal sovereignty and traditional Native values to the extent possible and practicable. They believed that the BIA was destroying Indian ways. This debate was won by the Collier forces in the early years of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's administration with the passage of the Indian Reorganization Act in 1934. Although Lewis Meriam tried for a time to work with Collier on the promotion of IRA goals, he ultimately broke with the volatile reformer and moved into the ranks of conservative Republicans who favored assimilation.
David S. Trask
Critchlow, Donald T. 1981. "Lewis Meriam, Expertise, and Indian Reform." The Historian XLIII (May): 325–344.; Daily, David. 2004. Battle for the BIA: G. E. E. Lindquist and the Missionary Crusade Against John Collier. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.; Meriam, Lewis, et al. 1928. The Problem of Indian Administration. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.; Parman, Donald. No date. "Lewis Meriam's Letters During the Survey of Indian Affairs, 1926–1927." Parts 1 and 2. Arizona and the West 24 No. 3 (1982), 253–280; 24 No. 4 (1982), 341–370.; Rusco, Elmer. 2000. A Fateful Time: The Background and Legislative History of the Indian Reorganization Act. Reno: University of Nevada Press.