U.S. Indian Reorganization Act

U.S. Indian Reorganization Act
U.S. Indian Reorganization Act

This 1934 legislation, also known as the Wheeler Howard Act, was a New Deal program that significantly reshaped, in mostly positive ways, federal policies concerning the Native American population. Spearheaded by reformer John Collier, the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) empowered tribal leaders, recognized the legitimacy of Indian customs and culture, and preserved Indian land rights. It was not, however, a final "fix" in the tortured four-century history of white and Native interaction.

By 1900, 10 years after the last battle between federal troops and Sioux Indians at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, the U.S. Native population had dwindled to 237,000. By 1934 Native land holdings had declined by two-thirds, to 7,500 square miles.

Although in 1924 all Natives had been granted U.S. citizenship, the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) continued to supervise every aspect of Natives' lives, while states with large native populations regularly imposed special restrictions on them. Efforts to separate and "civilize" Indian children continued at places like the Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and Albuquerque, New Mexico, Indian Schools.

Sympathetic whites, beginning with Helen Hunt Jackson in 1881 and Charles Lummis in the 1890s, took up the Indian cause in books and articles that caused a sensation but had minimal effect on actual Natives except often to romanticize their history and plight. Lummis was able to interest his Harvard classmate Theodore Roosevelt in some Indian issues.

John Collier, likewise born to wealth, was educated at Columbia University and in Paris. In 1919 he first encountered the "Indian problem" while visiting artist and heiress Mabel Dodge Luhan in New Mexico. (She had married Tony Luhan, a Pueblo Indian.) Collier soon came to oppose forced Americanization programs and attacked the competence and honesty of BIA officials.

At the urging of Collier and his Indian Defense Association, a two-year study, the Meriam Report, was released in 1928. It revealed vast failures in previous federal programs, especially the assimilationist 1887 Dawes Act.

Named commissioner of Indian affairs by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933, John Collier created a special public works program for Natives—the Indian Civilian Conservation Corps. Serving as BIA head until 1945, Collier sought out more Indian staff for his agency. The BIA instituted new health programs and encouraged Native practices, including communal living and farming practices that the Dawes Act had tried to wipe out.

Less successful were efforts to turn tribal leadership into formal constitutional governing bodies. An estimated 60 percent of tribal units chose not to create governments sanctioned by the IRA. Suspicion kept some tribes from working effectively with their members or with mixed-blood relatives who were no longer tribally affiliated. Traditional Indians did not always appreciate the involvement of "progressive" tribal members who often lived in cities or later fought in World War II.

Despite infusions of aid during the Great Depression, Natives, already one of the poorest groups in the United States, saw little meaningful improvement in living conditions. Sometimes other New Deal programs ignored or harmed tribal groups. One such massive project to install dams along the Northwest's Columbia River flooded tribal hunting and fishing lands.

By 1950 the IRA, although still considered a huge improvement over previous relationships between whites and Native peoples, had seemingly reached the limits of its ability to truly improve the lives and autonomy of America's original inhabitants.