The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934
In my recent blog post on Black Elk, a holy man and healer of the Oglala Sioux, I mentioned how the early reservations were before the Indian Reorganization Act… no food, inferior shelter, meager provisions and uncaring superintendents. In today’s topic, I explain the changes brought about by the Indian Reorganization Act and how they furthered tribal lands and economies and labor.
A policy set in motion by John Collier, then newly appointed Commissioner of Indian Affairs, and signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on June 28, 1934, the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 (the Reorganization) addressed the failures caused by the Dawes Severalty Act.
The Dawes Act of 1887 (Dawes) was a misguided attempt to assimilate Native Americans into mainstream white culture in the United States. It broke up the reservations, allotted lands to individual tribal members, and sent children to boarding schools where they were punished for speaking their Native languages. As you can imagine, Dawes had disastrous results for Native American populations everywhere and actually furthered the already desperate situation faced by many tribes at the time.
The Reorganization attempted to reverse these devastating effects and, at the same time, give Native Americans a chance at a “New Deal” that ran parallel to many other programs Roosevelt was creating for all Americans, programs such as the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration.
The Meriam Report that came out in 1928 outlined in great detail the extreme failure of Dawes… how since 1887 the Native-owned tribal land base had decreased from 137 million to only 47 million acres… how poverty and hunger issues had actually increased… how the loss of culture due to the boarding schools had accelerated too. John Collier and President Franklin Roosevelt both found this report to be a strong argument for immediate and much-needed reform in the area of Indian Affairs.
From 1934 until 1945 when John Collier left his position, the Bureau of Indian Affairs moved forward with many of these reforms and through the different sections of the Indian Reorganization Act promoted a more positive approach to the issues facing the tribes. To be succinct, the Reorganization:
- Ended the allotment of tribal lands and extended the trust period for existing allotments
- Recognized tribal governments and encouraged tribes to adopt constitutions
- Prohibited lands from being taken away from tribes without their consent (something Dawes DID NOT do)
- Gave the tribes the power to manage their assets, which consisted mainly of land at the time
John Collier truly cared that conditions were horrible for most Native Americans and he wanted something better for them. To this end, John Collier championed the Indian Reorganization Act as essential to the survival and existence of Native Americans as a people. He saw that no effort was being made to give Native Americans a chance to improve their own situation. And he believed that giving them the power to govern themselves locally and to manage their resources and assets would further the self-sufficiency that he felt Native Americans (and all people) needed to maintain economic, physical, and spiritual well-being. An example was the Collier-led creation called the ECW (Emergency Conservation Work), a Native American counterpart to the Civilian Conservation Corps. By the time it ended in 1943, the ECW trained and employed over 85,000 Native Americans to utilize land and resources and work on their tribal homelands.
There exist, I feel, both successes and shortcomings in the Indian Reorganization Act. It was a much-needed improvement in the approach the United States had with tribes before and after the Reorganization was established, but it was by no means perfect. Before, Dawes was awful and made life so much worse for Native Americans, but after the Reorganization, the U.S. regressed to its policy of termination and relocation. So, although not perfect in its scope or enactment, the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 was a good beginning.