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“It Didn’t Pan Out as We Thought It Was Going To” Amos Owen on the Indian Reorganization Act

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 the Indian New Deal in equally positive terms. In this 1970 interview with historian Herbert T. Hoover, Amos Owen, Mdewakanton Sioux tribal chairman, gave a mixed verdict on the Indian Reorganization Act.

Listen to Audio:

Herbert Hoover: You were going to talk a little bit about the government. I was curious to know when did this group of Indians here incorporated under the Wheeler-Howard Act.

Amos Owen: Well, it was 1934 when Wheeler-Howard Act came into effect—otherwise known as the Indian Reorganization Act. And most of the small reservations in Minnesota, they all accepted and adopted the Wheeler-Howard Act. So, Prairie Island, of course, we were one of the first to go under it. It was, we thought, a good way for the American Indian to be self-supporting and be able to get a little more land and be able to farm the land that they have. That’s where the Wheeler-Howard Act bought up, I think, 300 or 380 acres of land out here. And my brother and I, we were one of the ones that went into farming in 1938. We farmed it until all of us left for World War II. And the other two of my brothers they made a career out of the service though. I came home all shot up and I wasn’t able to run the land. So we just leased it back to the tribal government then. So that’s the way it’s been now the last few years. Everything is refered back to tribal council. Any leasing that we do is all handled by the tribal council now, so there really isn’t anyone doing any farming now on their own.

Hoover: Did you get many benefits from the Wheeler-Howard Act, do you think? You said they were pretty limited here.

Owen: Yes. It didn’t pan out as we thought it was going to be. Of course, I was pretty young at the time, but I remember when we first organized, the Wheeler-Howard Act was I guess originally the way it was written up, it was really good. If the Indians made a little money or they became more prosperous as a community, they could, in turn, buy up more land. That was the way the Wheeler-Howard Act was written up. And before it went through Congress, I guess, it was revised a bit so that buying back land was struck out of some of the papers it was drawn up on. I don’t know how this came about, but it wasn’t in the charter and the constitution and bylaws when the thing came into effect. So we done it; I can’t just go out and say the Bureau of Indian Affairs done it. But they didn’t believe in colonies like ours, a small community like ours buying back land that originally belonged to us anyway.

Hoover: Did you get any help a far as small business loans or anything like that?

Owen: Well, there were farming loans, we had farming loans. That was the only benefit we got out of the Wheeler-Howard Act. We bought machinery and livestock and things that are beneficial to the community. In fact, they were all personal loans to families. But it had its good points, too. I didn’t think too badly of the Wheeler-Howard Act. I thought it helped some of the families out here to get started in farming.

Source: Oral history courtesy of Institute of American Indian Studies, South Dakota Oral History Center, University of South Dakota.

See Also:"We Have Got a Good Friend in John Collier": A Taos Pueblo Tries to Sell the Indian New Deal
"It Had a Lot of Advantages"Alfred DuBray Praises the Indian Reorganization Act
"It Set the Indian Aside as a Problem"A Sioux Attorney Criticizes the Indian Reorganization Act