The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, which became known as the Indian New Deal, dramatically changed the federal government’s Indian policy. Although John Collier, the commissioner of Indian affairs who was responsible for the new policy, may have viewed Indians with great sympathy, not all Native Americans viewed his programs in equally positive terms. Antonio Luhan, the husband of the wealthy writer Mabel Dodge Luhan and a Taos Pueblo Indian, was a friend and supporter of John Collier. In this letter to Collier, which he dictated to his wife, he reported on his efforts to persuade other Indians that Collier was their friend and that the reorganization act would bring positive change.
MY DEAR JOHN:
Last summer when I went to the Snake Dance, I talked with Fred Kabotie of Chimopavi about the Wheeler- Howard Bill. He told me then, it was impossible to have an organization, on account of they’re living far apart in separate pueblos. At that time, Fred said that all the old people were against that Bill and did not believe in him.
This time when I went, on the 15th of November, I went first to Hotevilla and I asked how I could arrange to get a meeting to talk about the Wheeler-Howard Bill. They told me to go and see the Chief about it for that is all they have —just a Chief. I went to see the Chief to ask him to have the meeting and he asked me if I had any right to come there and do that kind of work. I hadn’t the recommendation of the agent that day. I just said I had the Bill you sent me, signed John Collier, and I told him, “I am coming from John Collier and he signed this Bill, ”and I showed him the sign.
The Chief then told me he would call a meeting for the afternoon.
I went up at two o’clock and there was no sound of any meeting. I went again to the Chief and then he began to call the people.
The ones that were there that day came and I explained to them what the Bill meant, and all about Self-Government. I told them how the Rio Grande Indians rule by self-government, by having a Governor and a Lieutenant-governor and the twelve officers. And the War Chief has a Lieutenant and he has twelve members for himself. I explained what the War Chief has to do.
The War Chief has to take care of and look after all the land outside, look after the boundaries and their fences, and the Governor takes care of everything inside the village, family troubles and the way the people must behave. He has the same power as a white man’s judge or justice of the peace. He can fine the people if they don’t obey the rules, and everybody knows the rules for they are old rules.
Besides the Governor, there is the Council. The Council is made up of those who have been governors, lieutenant-governors, war chiefs and his lieutenants. If anything goes wrong, the Governor calls the Council together in his house to talk it over. Or if there is any important business of letter to talk over or a visit from somebody to do with the village affairs, he calls the Council together. The Council decides everything by a majority vote. After the Council decides questions, the Governor signs.
I told them that is the power of Self-Government.
And I told them to look ahead and see that, maybe sometime, some Secretary of the Interior could allot Indian land to separate Indians and pretty soon they would have nothing, but if they decide to have Self-Government under the Wheeler-Howard Bill, they are safe, forever. To be safe, they have to be a community like we are and have rulers.
I told them how about twice a year we have All-Pueblo meetings at Santo Domingo where we talk over different business that effects us. Each Governor of a Pueblo sends two or three delegates of the best men to these All-Pueblo meetings. I told them they must do the same and have All Seven-Pueblo meetings, in Hopiland and send delegates from their seven villages to talk over things and know each other’s troubles. Also, they are entitled to their connection with the New Mexico tribes and can send delegates to the All-Pueblo council meetings there.
I told them that a lot of outsiders would tell them not to take this Bill, for this Bill is no good for the white people. I told them that in past times, the Government tried to make white people out of us, and force us into different ways by schools and things, but it looks now they have turned around and are giving us back to our own Indian ways and this Bill helps us to that. But there are still people in the Indian Service who don’t understand this yet, and there are some of those who are against the Bill. And I said, "I know no white man came here and told you this Bill is good, like I come to tell you, who am an Indian, myself.
This is what I said at all the different villages and, of course, I said a lot more things.
Then, they asked me questions.
They asked me, “How could we vote without having any Governor?”
I said, “You could elect a Governor first. When the time come to vote on the Bill, you will already have a Governor.”
I said, “I don’t know how it will work out exactly. Maybe the Commissioner has a plan for you.”
Some villages they have just one Chief. Polacca, they have three.
I visited all seven villages many times. I had several meetings in several villages. But in two villages, I couldn’t get any meetings. That was Mushongovi and the one next to it. They had already heard about the Bill from one of their people named Phillip and they are in favor of it. They have a copy of the Bill and understood it, but all the men of the villages were scattered out working, and we could not get them together.
At Walapi, they were against the Bill when I got there. At the end of the meeting I had there, they said, “Before you came, we were against this Bill. Our white friends who told us about it, never explained as you have done. We didn’t like this Bill but now we like it.”
At Hotevilla, they just listened to me and said nothing. Then at the end of the meeting, the Chief said, “I am going to write to John Collier and ask him all about this.” I said, “All right. Write carefully and make a petition and have your men sign it and John Collier will explain to you better than I do,” I said.
I said, “We have got a real friend in John Collier. He really likes Indians. In past time, we had Commissioners against us who tried to stop our ceremony dances and our dances-religious. They nearly destroy us; call our ways bad or moral or something, and put in the paper they are going to stop us. But John Collier fight for us with the Indian Defense Association and he save us. Now, he look far ahead and it is like he is putting a wall all around us to protect us - and this Wheeler-Howard Bill is this wall. And no white man or grafter can come inside and take away our land or our religion which are connected together.”
I said, “Otherwise, if we don’t take this Bill, our white neighbors are all round the edge of us, they always look, they always look what they going to see! And maybe, they see gold. They might see coal. And if we had the allotment, the white men might begin to loan money to some Indian boy or girl because they see something on their land. And the boy or girl might want to buy an automobile and will lose their land in a few years because they have borrowed on it. That is enough to finish the Indians. You have no place to hang your hat or shawl. No house, no home. And that all be destroyed.”
I told them now we’re lucky because the President, Mr. Ickes and the Commissioner are all on the side of the Indians. In times to come, maybe, another kind get in and want to go back to the old treatment. But if we have come under the Wheeler-Howard Bill, they cannot get at us and we are safe from them.
I said a whole lot more things but it cannot all be written down. Anyway, they understood what I meant.
I explained to them how they would vote for the Bill just as we did here.
And I also told them how to vote for their officers for their own government.
The Bill said election on it will be coming in June and I think someone should go back in the Spring and make it fresh in their minds.
Source: Mabel Dodge Luhan, Winter in Taos (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Company, 1935), pp. 215–220.
See Also:"It Had a Lot of Advantages"Alfred DuBray Praises the Indian Reorganization Act
"It Didn't Pan Out as We Thought It Was Going To" Amos Owen on the Indian Reorganization Act
"It Set the Indian Aside as a Problem"A Sioux Attorney Criticizes the Indian Reorganization Act