John Collier was born in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1884. His father was a lawyer and banker who went on to become mayor of Atlanta. His mother, a New Englander, instilled in her son a love of literature and nature. The family eventually fell on hard times, and both parents died when Collier was a teenager. As a youth he began regular restorative trips to the southern Appalachian Mountains, and a love of the outdoors continued throughout his life. His later interest in folk cultures began during these outings. Collier entered Columbia University in 1902 and later studied at Woods Hole Marine Laboratory in Massachusetts. He soon turned from the study of biology to an interest in social issues. According to Collier's biographer, Kenneth R. Philp, a book by the Russian anarchist, Prince Peter Kropotkin, Mutual Aid, caught the young man's imagination and began his interest in the community life of precapitalist societies. It was a harbinger of his later interest in American Indians.
Upon leaving college, he at first took a job as a newspaper reporter. By 1907, however, he had become a reform social worker who for the next twelve years devoted himself to the welfare of European immigrants on Manhattan Island. In this endeavor he shared the interests of early American sociologists in the problems of immigration and urbanization. They, like Collier, believed that the machine age had undermined the old sense of community found in preindustrial societies and left the individual isolated. Crime and social problems were the result.
Collier became civic secretary for the People's Institute, an immigrant betterment organization, and editor of the Institute's bulletin. The Institute sponsored regular forums on relevant social issues for Jewish and Italian immigrants, along with the establishment of school community centers. Collier was a vigorous opponent of the Americanization policy that pressured immigrants to give up their native languages and cultures.
By 1912, Collier had become a frequenter of Mabel Dodge's weekly salons in New York City where leading intellectuals of the day gathered to share radical ideas. Dodge was to play a pivotal role in Collier's entry into American Indian advocacy a few years later. As a writer, poet, lecturer, and social reformer, Collier continued his social activism, establishing a training school for community workers and becoming editor of the publication of the National Community Center Conference. In 1916, when funding for the New York operations dried up and political difficulties arose, he moved with his family to Los Angeles, California, to become the director of the state's adult education program. After taking up the new work, he lectured extensively and established public forums similar to those of the People's Institute. His two main themes were the cooperative movement and the "Bolshevik experiment" of the Russian Revolution, both of which he admired. Collier's radical social work roots were to cause him problems later as Commissioner of Indian Affairs when he lobbied Congress for an Indian New Deal.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, Anglo-America had been persuaded that Indians were a vanishing race; therefore, the assimilation of the survivors through Americanization and Christianization was made to seem a task of philanthropy. In reality, American Indians had passed the nadir of their population decline and were no longer "vanishing," either physically or culturally. It was at this juncture that the missionary-oriented Indian Rights Association called on the Indian Office to place a ban on Indian ceremonial dancing. In the early 1920s, Indian commissioner Charles H. Burke banned Indian religious dances, and Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall sponsored legislation that would legitimize the seizure of 60,000 acres of Pueblo lands and the individualization of tribal economic assets.
In 1920, Collier interrupted a wilderness trip to Mexico to visit the Taos pueblo in New Mexico at the urging of his old friend Mabel Dodge. For two years he resided at the pueblo where he and others from the art community gathered around the fireplace in Mabel Dodge's home to discuss the meaning of Indian life. He came away determined that Pueblo culture, and Indian life in general, must be preserved. After his stay at Taos, Collier returned to California to accept a lecturer position at San Francisco State College.
A strong believer in cultural pluralism, Collier took up the protest from the Pueblos against the persecution by the Office of Indian Affairs and its Christian "reformers." The controversy over the Pueblo land grants, part of the larger struggle aimed at stopping reservation land dispossession and pauperization stemming from the 1887 General Allotment Act, led to the founding of the American Indian Defense Association (AIDA) by Collier in May 1923. The political agitation by the AIDA, along with the 2-million-member General Federation of Women's Clubs and the Indian Rights Association, led to the resignation of Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall from the Harding administration.
The year 1928 saw the issuance of the government's The Problem of Indian Administration, better known as the Meriam Report. For Collier it confirmed the horrible legacy of the allotment policy and the fact that major reform was needed in Indian administration. When Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected in 1932, the new president chose Harold Ickes as his Secretary of the Interior. Ickes was a Chicago progressive and former director of the American Indian Defense Association. Collier was then tapped to become the new commissioner of Indian affairs.
By 1934, the new commissioner had drafted a bill that became the framework for the Indian Reorganization Act. It was rough sailing for Collier, however, and Congress ended up dropping key provisions from the bill and amending others. The section of Title II having to do with promoting Indian arts, crafts, skills, and traditions was deleted by Congress, as was the section in Title III having to do with land alienation and the Indian heirship problem. Title IV, dealing with law and order, was dropped entirely. Not to be outdone, Collier launched his Indian New Deal anyway through a series of administrative reforms and edicts to the Office of Indian Affairs. A singular feature of the Indian New Deal was the exclusion of Christian missionaries from the Collier administration and the inclusion of anthropologists in their place. This represented a policy shift from cultural assimilation to cultural pluralism.
The new commissioner's critics, including a number of Indian tribes and reservation superintendents, viewed self-government under the IRA with suspicion, as socialistic and un-American. Collier, on the other hand, proposed that Indian tribes become chartered corporations with the powers of a community or county, a form of limited self-government. The new tribal councils would act as advisory bodies to the Secretary of the Interior. The IRA self-government provisions were seen by Collier as a form of indirect rule by the federal government and a progressive advance in U.S. Indian policy. By the 1920s and 1930s the European powers had come to favor this form of colonial administration since direct rule, especially by the French, had been such an abysmal failure. From today's perspective, Collier's reform may be criticized as a form of neocolonialism, but, taken in the context of the times, his ideas resulted in a progressive shift in federal Indian policy.
Despite the accomplishments of the IRA, World War II drained funds from the reform program and turned Congress and the country to other priorities. Discouraged, Collier resigned on January 10, 1945, after twelve years as the head of Indian affairs. For the next twenty-three years he continued an active public life. During his tenure as commissioner, Collier helped found the first pan-American conference on Indian life held at Patzcuaro, Mexico, in the spring of 1940. He headed up a National Indian Institute in 1943 that undertook an important Indian personality research study, founded the Institute of Ethnic Affairs in 1945, and took an active interest in America's newly acquired trusteeships in the Pacific after the war. He published a major work in 1947, Indians of the Americas, which was used in anthropology courses for many years. In the same year he became professor of sociology and anthropology at the City College of New York, a position he retained until 1955. His memoir, From Every Zenith, came out in 1960, and he died at his Taos residence in 1968 at the age of eighty-four.
How should one evaluate the Collier legacy? In the first place, the IRA resulted in only a partial and imperfect restoration of Indian sovereignty. Furthermore, for all his democratic idealism, Collier's administrative style as commissioner has been criticized as authoritarian and paternalistic. In some cases he manipulated tribal elections to favor IRA acceptance. He also imposed Anglo-American model constitutions and charters on traditionally oriented tribes that undercut the political leadership of chiefs and the old band and treaty councils. The Navajo Nation never forgave him for the ruthlessness of his pursuit of the livestock reduction program on their reservation. The Lakota and some other tribes with allotted lands split into factions as a result of the IRA, the bitter legacy of which manifested itself in the occupation of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1973.
It may be that religious freedom was his most lasting accomplishment. In his memoirs Collier depicts ceremonial tribal dances as the core of Indian religion. "Through the dances are united body and soul, and self with the community, and self and tribe with nature and with God." Upon taking office as commissioner he immediately reversed the old Bureau policy of religious persecution by issuing Circular No. 2970, "Indian Religious Freedom and Indian Culture." He also issued an order curtailing missionary activity on the reservations. Yet the issue of Indian religious freedom was excluded from the Indian Reorganization Act. Religious persecution continued in less obvious ways and was not specifically addressed by Congress until the passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act in 1978 and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act in 1990. The repatriation of human remains is still not resolved, and the question of sacred lands has scarcely been addressed by public policy.
Collier, John. 1963. From Every Zenith: A Memoir. Denver, CO: Sage Books.; Kelly, Laurence C. 1996. "Indian New Deal." Native America in the Twentieth Century: An Encyclopedia. Edited by Mary B. Davis, 218–220. New York: Garland Publishing.; Philp, Kenneth R. 1977. John Collier's Crusade for Indian Reform: 1920–1954. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.; Stefon, Frederick J. 1983–1984. "The Indians' Zarathustra: An Investigation into the Philosophical Roots of John Collier's New Deal Educational and Administrative Policies." The Journal of Ethnic Studies Part I: 11, no. 5 (Fall 1983): 1–28; Part II: 11, no. 4 (Winter 1984): 29–45.