Today’s post from Eric Rhodes, intern in the National Archives History Office, highlights the National Archives’ Native American holdings in celebration of Native American Heritage Month.
In the 1930s, in an effort to remedy the hardships Native Americans had faced under U.S. policy, Commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) John Collier took advantage of the reformist spirit of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Presidency to change the course of U.S.-American Indian relations.
American Indian policy in the late 1800s undermined native culture by forcing Native Americans to assimilate into the European-American lifestyle.
Native children were taken away from their families at a young age to off-reservation Indian boarding schools.
Moreover, the Dawes Act of 1887 instituted the practice of allotment—the division of tribal land into personal tracts—which destabilized native communal life.
Collier, a prominent activist for Native American rights, was well aware of the negative effects these policies had on Native American communities.
In 1923 Collier became the Secretary of the Indian Defense Association (IDA). During his tenure at the IDA, the Institute for Government Research released the Meriam Report, which detailed the poor condition of tribal economies and the utter destitution in the Indian country.
According to the report, the average national per capita income in 1920 was $1,350 while the average Native American made only $100 a year.
The Meriam Report implicated U.S. Indian policy in helping to create such poverty.
Collier set out to reform Indian policy after President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed him to serve as the head of the BIA in 1933. The Collier era saw a dramatic change in the direction of U.S. American Indian policy, and that change would be initiated by the “Indian New Deal.”
Instead of the goal of immediate and total assimilation, Collier set about to preserve what remained of American Indian culture. As an initiative of the Indian New Deal, he hired anthropologists to document Indian languages and ways of life.
Indian Agencies hired photographers to capture Native American culture.
Collier also helped establish the Indian Arts and Crafts Board, tasked with promoting and preserving Native American material culture.
The Arts and Craft Board established a system of authenticating products and enacting marketing strategies which led to some economic development for certain Native American groups during the country’s most severe depression.
The Indian New Deal also forwarded the cause of Native American education. Curricular committees serving Native Americans began to incorporate the languages and customs that had been documented by Government-funded anthropologists in their newly bilingual syllabi.
While the Government continued to mandate that Native Americans attend Federal schools, it subsidized the creation of 100 community day schools on tribal lands.
The Johnson-O’Malley Act of 1934, which Collier helped to steer through Congress, offered states Federal dollars to support their Native American education, health care, and agricultural assistance programs.
To ease unemployment, thousands of Native Americans were employed under a separate division of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). This division, which was popularly abbreviated as the CCC-ID, allowed Native Americans to work on public works projects on their own reservations.
The Indian New Deal’s premiere piece of legislation was the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 (IRA).
The IRA abolished the allotment program detailed in the Dawes Act and made funds available to Native American groups for the purchase of lost tribal lands. It required that Indians receive preferential treatment when applying to BIA jobs on the reservation. Finally, the IRA called for a referendum on home rule and self-governance, asking tribes to vote to establish new tribal councils.
While it was not a wholesale success, the Indian New Deal was integral in changing U.S. Government policies toward American Indians.
Visit our website to learn more about the historical records relating to Native Americans in National Archives’ holdings.