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“It Set the Indian Aside as a Problem”A Sioux Attorney Criticizes 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, 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 1968 interview with historian Joseph H. Cash, attorney Ramon Roubideaux, a Brule Sioux, denounced the Indian Reorganization Act as “a white man’s idea” of how Indians should live and argued that it “set the Indian people aside from the mainstream of American life and made them a problem.”

Listen to Audio:

Ramon Roubideaux: Well, I might say as far as the Indian Reorganization Act is concerned, I think this is possibly one of the best intentioned but unfortunate happenings that could have possibly taken place as far as the Indian people are concerned. What I am speaking about is that although it did stop the alienation, the sale of Indian lands and did stop the allotment system, it created a socialistic society, and set the Indian people apart from the mainstream of American life and made them a problem. So what this has really done, it has substituted in place of the governing system that the Indians had prior to the Indian Reorganization Act, a white man’s idea of how they should live, rather a paternalistic type of government which, had as its object the socializing of all the activities of the Indian people and while the framers of this act and the ones who are responsible for the idea of formulating it probably had the best intentions in the world, I cannot help but think that there was maybe not an overt conspiracy, but one in the back of the mind of these bureaucrats to really perpetuate their own existence.

Joseph H. Cash: The bureaucrats in the Bureau of Indian Affairs?

Roubideaux: Right! Now, now when I speak of bureaucrats, I not only include the actual officeholders, but the families and friends of all these officeholders who form the controlling and guiding memberships of these eastern Indian organizations. I want to elaborate a little on the effects of the Indian Reorganization Act insofar as it has deterred the development and the independent thinking of the Indian people. In the first place, it set the Indian aside as a problem. The Indian is, was told that he was a problem from the very day that he was born under this system and as he grew older, he was by the presence of these so-called experts in agriculture and ranching and other activities they were paying lip service to teaching the Indians, he was somehow made to feel that he was inferior, that he wasn’t able to compete. So that the whole system emphasized the activities of the Indians as a whole for the benefit of the whole, rather than the individual uh, private enterprise system of our American system. He wasn’t taught to be a capitalist, which he must be taught in order for him to survive in, in this country. Many of the programs had limitations on 'em, particularly, say the cattle program. They would allow an Indian to acquire some two hundred head of cattle and he couldn’t get any more. I forget the exact figures, but there were limitations put on him so that, that any programs that were instituted were not aimed at benefitting the Indian but where some side effects did benefit him, it was probably an unfortunate occurrence because their main objective was to show what they’ve been doing to members of Congress on the Appropriations Committee to justify the millions of dollars they were spending, when actually, the Indian was getting little or no benefit from any of this. And I think the main thing that was wrong with the whole thing was that the setting of the Indian aside on a different place in the state, designating him as a problem, making him feel he was a problem, beating down rebels, beating down Indians who expressed any independent thinking, rewarding collaborators, rewarding them with positions of importance and completely stifling independent and creative thinking from the Indian people, having, different laws apply to him, setting up a different kind of government. In other words, he wasn’t under the same kind of government that his white neighbors were. Rather, what this Indian Reorganization Act should have done, it should have set up a county system exactly like the neighboring counties, with county officials, with municipal officials, with Indians going about their daily political and economic activities in the same way that other people in the state are, so that they could benefit from the, the intercourse with their white neighbors and the meetings that we have, state-wide meetings of county officials, municipal officials, and in fact, becoming part of the mainstream of American life.

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 Didn't Pan Out as We Thought It Was Going To" Amos Owen on the Indian Reorganization Act