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“A Bill of Rights for the Indians”: John Collier Envisions an Indian New Deal

John Collier’s appointment as Commissioner of Indian Affairs by Franklin Roosevelt in 1933 marked a radical reversal—in intention if not always in effect—in U.S. government policies toward American Indians that dated back to the 1887 Dawes Act. An idealistic social worker, Collier first encountered Indian culture when he visited Taos, New Mexico, in 1920, and found among the Pueblos there what he called a “Red Atlantis”—a model of living that integrated the needs of the individual with the group and that maintained traditional values. Although Collier could not win congressional backing for his most radical proposals, the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 dramatically changed policy by allowing tribal self-government and consolidating individual land allotments back into tribal hands. Collier set out his vision for what became known as the “Indian New Deal” in this 1934 article from the Literary Digest. Although he was sympathetic to Indians, he depicted them in a stereotypical manner.

A big pow-wow was being held in the heart of the Black Hills. A pale-face was explaining a new deal the Great White Father was preparing in Washington. It was to be a Bill of Rights for the Indians. They were to get back the land they had lost to the dispossessor during the last fifty years. The Great White Father and his chief aide in the new plan, John Collier, who is white of skin but Indian at heart, had decided that, after all, it was better to make an Indian a good Indian rather than a poor white man and that the way to help him was to put him back on the land and restore to him his tribal rights and customs.

Here were Flatheads, Crows, Cheyennes, Black feet from Montana, Chippewas from Turtle Mountain, near the Canadian line; Arapahoes, Mandanes and Shoshones from Wyoming; Winnebagoes from Iowa, Sioux from the Dakotas. Young Red Tomahawk, son of the Indian who killed Sitting Bull, acted as Sioux interpreter.

To Rewrite Laws

Young bucks, old men with sculptured faces, a few squaws and a few papooses too young to be left behind listened to Mr. Collier, Commissioner of Indian Affairs. The small, bespectacled man, with the light of purpose in his eyes, told them that the United States “is honorable, intelligent and powerful.” He said that “there is no reason why it should go on disgracing itself in Indian matters,” and that “the President, Secretary Ickes and the Indian Bureau have determined that the time has come to stop wronging the Indians and to rewrite the cruel and stupid laws that rob them and crush their family lives.” Mr. Collier visited other Indian conclaves and repeated the same story and promise.

The Indians may have remembered that they have much to forgive. They were a kindly, cultured people when the white man set foot on Jamestown Island and Plymouth Rock. They had developed agriculture and trade, and their lines of commerce stretched from ocean to ocean and from Canada to South America. They were a moral people, with a firm belief in God, and their family life was a lesson to the invader. But the white man almost destroyed them, luring them with pretty beads and slaughtering them with leaden bullets. Yielding to the advance of “civilization,” they were shunted onto reservations where no white man wanted to settle. It was a rich joke when the Osage Indians discovered oil beneath their lands and became wealthy. No such luck attended the Sioux. Destitution has been their lot. All told, there are 100,000 Indians reduced to begging at the white man’s door.

Mr. Collier, who has made the Indians' cause his own, determined to change all that. A bill—the Wheeler-Howard bill drafted by the Office of Indian Affairs and the Office of the Solicitor of the Interior Department—which is designed to rehabilitate the Indians and give them land settlement is now in Congress. When Mr. Collier took office the records of the Indian Bureau showed that the Indian lands had shrunk from 113,000,000 acres in 1887, when the land-allotment law was passed, to 47,000,000 acres.

Tribal funds had been reduced from $500,000,000 to $12,000,000, and 93 percent of tribal income was being used for bureau maintenance. Politicians were in complete control; graft was said to be wholesale. Federal money was being wasted on boarding-schools, which took children from their parents and tried to make white children of them, and a national scandal was exposed at the asylum for Indians at Canton, South Dakota. Tribal and social customs were being suppressed.

Mr. Collier put the boarding-schools out of business, obtained $3,600,000 of Public Works Adjustment money to finance Indian day schools, prohibited the sale of Indian lands, weeded out incompetent and crooked office-holders, organized emergency conservation work for Indians, and ordered reservation and agency superintendents to respect tribal customs.

The Wheeler-Howard bill will further his aim, if it is passed. It proposes to repeal the allotment law of 1887, under which the Indians have lost two-thirds of their lands to white ownership, and to prevent further alienation of Indian lands outside of Indian ownership. For the autocratic powers of the Office of Indian Affairs over the Indians it proposes to substitute a cooperative and advisory relationship, and, in conjunction with the Johnson-O’Malley bill, it would provide a definite system of financial cooperation between the Federal Government and the States for Indian education and health service.

Self-Governing Communities

The bill seeks to consolidate Indian-owned land into tribal or community ownership, while retaining individual use thereof and inheritance rights, but would prohibit sale. It provides for buying additional land, so that, eventually, all Indians desiring it will have some land for their own use. It would permit Indians to organize into self-governing communities under Federal supervision, with extension of responsibility as Indians show capacity for self-rule.

In the words of Commissioner Collier, the bill “strikes a double blow at the two fatal weaknesses of Indian administration across a whole century: first, the dissipation of the Indian estate and the progressive pauperization of the Indians, and, second, the suppression of Indian tribal and social and religious institutions and the steadfast failure of the Government to organize any effective plan of collective action by which the Indians could advance in citizenship and protect their rights.”

So would the white man perform a belated act of justice for the original possessors of the soil, now reduced to 320,454. Happily that is an increase of 3,000 over the Indian population of 1932.

Source: "A New Deal for the American Indian," Literary Digest, 7 April 1938, 21.

See Also:"We Took Away Their Best Lands, Broke Treaties": John Collier Promises to Reform Indian Policy