The Thirties in America
Indian Reorganization Act
The Law: Federal legislation that reversed government policies forcing
Native American assimilation
Also known as: Wheeler-Howard Law; Indian New Deal
Date: Enacted on June 18, 1934
The Indian Reorganization Act stopped the practice of dividing Native American tribal lands into individual allotments, encouraged each tribe to establish its own formal government under a written constitution, and introduced other reforms to promote Native American autonomy and protect cultural traditions.
Before the U.S. Congress passed the Indian Reorganization Act in 1934, federal government policy regarding Native Americans was based primarily on the Dawes Severalty Act of 1887. That law had pressured tribes to abolish their communally owned reservations and to adopt individually owned parcels of land. The law's intent was to promote Indian assimilation into mainstream American society, but its primary effect was to reduce the amount of Indian-owned land. According to a 1928 report, the policy of creating individual land parcels was one of the causes of the deplorable conditions on Indian reservations. After President Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in 1933, he endorsed the report and appointed John Collier, an outspoken advocate of reform, to head the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA).
As head of the BIA, Collier worked closely with Felix Cohen and other government lawyers to draft a congressional bill to repeal the Dawes Act and increase tribal self-government. Burton Kendall Wheeler, the chairman of the Senate's Indian Affairs Committee, insisted on a number of amendments that weakened the bill, including elimination of a special Indian court. Nevertheless, with Roosevelt's support, Congress enacted the forty-eight-page Indian Reorganization Act, although it included most of Wheeler's amendments, in June, 1934.
All the tribes were covered by the act's stipulation that no additional Indian lands would be divided into individual allotments. Although the law did not affect the ownership rights of Indians who had already acquired individual parcels of land, it placed all such land under the jurisdiction of the reservations for purposes of taxation. It also returned unsold surplus lands to tribal control. In addition, the U.S. Department of Interior was authorized to establish reservations, to purchase land and water rights when needed, and to help reservations consolidate areas of land large enough for ranching and other activities.
The tribes were given two years to accept or reject the portions of the law dealing with governmental organization and economic development. For an individual tribe to opt out of the law, a majority of its members had to vote against participation. In 250 tribal elections throughout the United States, the majority of Indians voted against the law. Only 78 of the 250 elections resulted in nonparticipation, but Native Americans were so unenthusiastic about adopting formal constitutions that only 93 of the tribes adopted them over the next ten years. Most of these constitutions followed a model provided by the BIA. Because the act did not require a separation of powers similar to that of the federal government, a large number of the tribal constitutions concentrated power in elected councils. Although the law recognized "inherent" powers and expanded prerogatives of self-government, enacting laws and making constitutional amendments required BIA approval.
The complex law also contained a number of other provisions, including federal loans for tribal economic development, procedures for creating tribal business corporations, hiring preferences to permit the BIA to recruit more Indian employees, expanded freedom to engage in religious ceremonies and traditional dances, and educational scholarships and academic programs for Native American studies. After 1934, the various components of the legislation were frequently amended in response to changing conditions and political forces.
The Indian Reorganization Act marked a turning point in federal Indian policy, which became more humane and less coercive. Had the law not been passed, continuation of individual allotments might have eventually resulted in the termination of the reservation system. Under the law, about two million acres of land were added to Indian reservations over the following twenty years. The law was also reasonably successful in providing a mechanism for establishing stable reservation governments, even though it increased Indian dependence on the BIA, thereby actually decreasing tribal autonomy. Its affirmative-action preferences for employment with the BIA benefited particular individuals and helped somewhat to minimize the longstanding distrust of Native Americans toward the agency. However, the law was not greatly successful in expanding economic development and educational opportunities.
Thomas Tandy LewisFurther Reading
Collier, John. From Every Zenith: A Memoir. Denver, Colo.: Sage Books, 1963. Pro-Indian Reorganization Act analysis from the point of view of head of the BIA, who was the person most responsible for its enactment and implementation.
Deloria, Vine, Jr. The Indian Reorganization Act: Congresses and Bills. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002. Detailed survey of the records of meetings between tribal leaders and BIA officers held to discuss the law's implementation.
Kelly, Lawrence C. The Assault on Assimilation: John Collier and the Origins of American Indian Reform. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1983. Although highly sympathetic toward Collier, Kelly emphasizes the failure of the Indian Reorganization Act to achieve Collier's high aspirations.
Prucha, Francis Paul. The Great Father: The United States Government and the American Indians. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986. Balanced account of the Indian Reorganization Act that is particularly good in regard to the Oklahoma tribes.
Rusco, Elmer. Fateful Time: The Background and Legislative History of the Indian Reorganization Act. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000. Scholarly analysis of the ideologies, people, and conflicting interests that produced the Indian Reorganization Act.
Taylor, Graham. The New Deal and American Indian Tribalism: The Administration of the Indian Reorganization Act, 1934-1945. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1980. Highly critical analysis of the Indian Reorganization Act, arguing that the BIA put pressure on the tribes to accept a cookie-cutter model for their governments that was often inconsistent with tribal customs.
Wunder, John R. "Retained by the People": A History of American Indians and the Bill of Rights. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. Survey of American Indian policy, including an excellent summary of the Indian Reorganization Act within its historical context.
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