Indian Reorganization Act

Passage of the Indian Reorganization Act by the U.S. Congress permitted Native American groups to form self-governing bodies, ending decades of forced assimilation.

Summary of Event

From earliest colonial times, the U.S. government sought to assimilate Native Americans into mainstream American culture. Whether government policy called for abrupt, forced acculturation or advocated gradual change, politicians generally believed that ultimately American Indians must adopt the lifestyle of the whites or perish. The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 was the first legislation designed to preserve, not to destroy, Native American cultures and to give back some of what had been taken away during the settlement of the United States, including Indian lands. [kw]Indian Reorganization Act (June 18, 1934)
[kw]Reorganization Act, Indian (June 18, 1934)
[kw]Act, Indian Reorganization (June 18, 1934)
Indian Reorganization Act (1934)
Native Americans;self-government[self government]
[g]United States;June 18, 1934: Indian Reorganization Act[08660]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;June 18, 1934: Indian Reorganization Act[08660]
[c]Indigenous peoples’ rights;June 18, 1934: Indian Reorganization Act[08660]
[c]Social issues and reform;June 18, 1934: Indian Reorganization Act[08660]
Collier, John (1884-1968)
Rhoads, Charles J.
Cohen, Felix
Zimmerman, William F., Jr.
Roosevelt, Franklin D.
[p]Roosevelt, Franklin D.;Indian Reorganization Act
Ickes, Harold
Howard, Edgar
Wheeler, Burton Kendall

The greatest loss of Indian lands after the assigning of reservation territories to the various surviving tribes occurred as a result of the Indian General Allotment Act Indian General Allotment Act (1887) (also known as the Dawes Act) of 1887. The goal of this legislation was to destroy tribal structure and the communal lifestyle of Native Americans by encouraging tribal Indians to become individual farmers. Tribal structure and authority were bypassed as allotments of acreage were made to individuals. A patent in fee, or negotiable title, was issued on this land, which was held in trust by the federal government for twenty-five years and could not be sold until that period expired. Any surplus lands remaining after allotments had been made for a particular reservation were then auctioned off, which often created a massive land grab by eager white settlers. The funds from the sale of these surplus lands were held in a trust fund for the tribes by the federal government. However, when few Native Americans attempted to farm their allotments, the lands were leased to non-Indians and the meager fees were given to the allottees as rental income.

This system proved too slow in breaking up the reservations, and so the Burke Act was passed in 1906. It permitted the secretary of the interior, through a declaration of competence, to release a particular allottee from the twenty-five-year restriction of federal supervision. By the 1930’s, ninety million acres of reservation lands had been lost through legal means. Unscrupulous, land-hungry settlers often cheated Native Americans out of their allotments, leaving them destitute and no more acculturated than they had been before implementation of the Indian General Allotment Act.

Although Native Americans had always had a few champions, it was not until the Bursum Bill of 1922 was introduced that the Indian reform movement gathered appreciable force and Indian affairs garnered sustained interest. This bill was designed to permit non-Indians to gain title to lands within the Pueblo Indian land grants. It was defeated by protest of the Pueblo people and their many supporters.

One of the champions of Indian rights was John Collier, who would be appointed commissioner of Indian affairs eleven years later by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and would be instrumental in the passage of the Indian Reorganization Act. In the meantime, as executive secretary of the Indian Defense Association, Indian Defense Association he tirelessly questioned and protested government policy regarding Native Americans and made the case for desperately needed reforms.

In 1923, Herbert Work became secretary of the interior. Work commissioned several examinations of the Indian Service, including the Meriam Report of 1928, Meriam Report (1928) which served as the blueprint for reforms sought through the Indian Reorganization Act. Unfortunately, reforms were not attempted until the next administration, in which Ray Lyman Wilbur was appointed secretary of the interior, Charles J. Rhoads was commissioner of Indian affairs, and J. Henry Scattergood was assistant commissioner. Although Wilbur wanted to move quickly on the issue of assimilation, Rhoads and Scattergood were cautious. Rhoads’s only direct victory was the Leavitt Act of 1932, which concerned the issue of reimbursable debts, in which Native American tribes would be relieved from millions of dollars in liens placed on their lands for projects that they had not requested and that gave them little benefit.

Another reform targeted by the Meriam Report was the incorporation of tribes for the purpose of self-government and the management of tribal resources, an issue that was basic to the Indian Reorganization Act. The report suggested a special claims commission to hear the claims of individual Indian tribes against the United States. Education and health care were examined and targeted for reforms of often dismal conditions. State employees and agents were permitted to enter reservations to inspect health and educational conditions, and they found a higher death rate among Native Americans than in the general population, mainly from diseases such as tuberculosis. Sanitation and quarantine regulations were enforced by the state employees, and efforts were made to improve conditions by teaching personal hygiene and disease prevention. Compulsory school attendance was enforced for Native American children, and some attempt was made to improve the boarding schools. Although the Rhoads administration of the Bureau of Indian Affairs Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) improved some conditions, much more was needed.

John Collier was appointed commissioner of Indian affairs in 1933. He set about designing legislation to redress problems made clear by the Meriam Report. Collier’s team included assistant commissioner William F. Zimmerman, Jr., and Felix Cohen. The latter became an expert on Indian law and helped to draft the Wheeler-Howard bill, which evolved into the Indian Reorganization Act.

While the act was being assembled, Collier’s administration moved ahead with some reforms. Where possible, Native American children were transferred from boarding schools to community-based day schools. The boarding schools that remained in use were developed as special facilities for certain children with needs best met by these institutions. A statement was issued to the effect that BIA employees would no longer interfere with Native American culture, religion, and languages. The bureau itself sought to employ Native Americans in increasing numbers.

President Roosevelt’s New Deal reforms were extended to Native Americans through a specially organized branch of the Civilian Conservation Corps Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) called Emergency Conservation Work (ECW). This program provided work for Native Americans on the reservations in conservation and improvement projects similar to that offered to other Americans through the CCC. This wage labor caused a temporary increase in income for many Native Americans, but it worried Collier, who wondered what would take its place when the relief projects ended.

In 1934, Congress passed the Indian Reorganization Act, which officially stated the changes that studies such as the Meriam Report had recommended. Congresses were held to permit Native Americans to discuss the act and to vote whether to accept it for their individual tribes.

The Indian Reorganization Act allowed tribes to incorporate and form governing bodies in a democratic fashion. These governing bodies were designed to resemble boards of directors and had an elected chairperson. Individual Native Americans acted as “shareholders” who had the right to vote.

Furthermore, the act officially ended the allotment process and sought to restore lands lost in the past, or at least to replace them with other lands purchased for the tribes. Native American culture and religions were encouraged, often to the dismay and the protest of Christian missionaries. The boarding school system was further improved, and more community-based day schools were established. A revolving credit system was established based on the principle of a credit union, whereby Indians could borrow funds to improve their lands or establish businesses. Native American arts and crafts were encouraged as a form of industry and a source of ethnic pride.

Critics argued that the act was not properly implemented, and they were especially critical of the fact that Native Americans were not fully cognizant of the reorganization process and that the new forms of self-government were alien to the cultural practices of many groups. BIA personnel were not adequately prepared for changes in policy, and the new policy often conflicted with past goals and with personal philosophies concerning American Indians. Many people concerned about American Indians were not sure that the act provided the best means for improving their conditions. Under the terms of the Indian Reorganization Act, however, Native Americans could retain their lands and their culture and still find ways to survive in the modern world.


The Indian Reorganization Act was the first responsible effort to deal with the problems of a people who the federal government had for years assumed would “vanish” either by assimilation or by extinction. Although BIA personnel sometimes failed to implement its good designs, the act was the first major reform that attempted to give Native Americans a choice in determining their own lives. As politicians prepared to implement the Indian Reorganization Act, they followed a unique procedure: Indians themselves were asked to express their opinions on the legislation affecting them and to vote on whether such legislation should be accepted by their tribes. By giving Native Americans a choice, the act implicitly validated them as a people, something that had never before been done by the federal government.

The government also reversed its policy by encouraging Native American cultures, languages, and religious practices. Not all Indians, and certainly not all non-Indians, welcomed this change. Some feared that acculturated Indians would be forced back onto the reservations and into an outdated lifestyle, but this did not occur. Other people were alarmed and offended that the federal government would officially sponsor—and use public funds to support—cultures whose beliefs and practices deviated from those of mainstream American culture. These people were deeply suspicious of the communal lifestyles that many tribes maintained. Others who rejected the Indian Reorganization Act sought to acquire use of—or title to—Indian lands for themselves or for corporations. The act curtailed the number of these opportunities and made them less profitable. The demand for such lands, however, was not great at this time, as the United States was suffering through the Great Depression.

The timing for the Indian Reorganization Act was especially good. Assimilated Indians had suffered more during the Depression than had reservation Indians engaged in subsistence farming. Because there was little demand for land, it was a good time to give back the lands lost through allotment. More than two million acres were purchased and returned to Native American title, including some purchases made for “landless” tribes.

The act’s reformation of the boarding school system radically improved a system that had not provided adequate food or clothing for its charges and had often exploited their labor. Where possible, community-based day schools were established. Indian children were also encouraged to attend public schools where feasible. Educational goals were shifted from irrelevant, elitist training to more practical, agrarian-based learning and technical and professional training. Many graduates chose to return to the reservations and contribute their skills to improving their communities.

One tragic incident involved the BIA’s attempt to improve reservation land resources of soil, water, and vegetation. The livestock population had exceeded the carrying capacity of the arid lands on the Navajo reservation. When the Navajo resisted Collier’s plan to reduce the livestock, it was forced on them. Navajos had to watch helplessly as their animals were sold off or slaughtered. Although the reduction plan allegedly resulted in improved livestock and vegetation, bitter feelings remained among the Navajo, who had voted to reject the Indian Reorganization Act. Indian Reorganization Act (1934)
Native Americans;self-government[self government]

Further Reading

  • Dippie, Brian W. The Vanishing American. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1982. A comprehensive and sympathetic study of Native American relations with the federal government. Good coverage of the climate of reform leading up to passage of the Indian Reorganization Act. Extensive notes and a good index.
  • Donns, James F. The Navajo. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1972. Specific ethnographic study of the Navajo people serves as a useful introduction to the culture and lifestyle of the largest Native American group. Explains the relationship of livestock to Navajo livelihood and culture, a relationship that was disrupted by Collier’s plan to reduce the livestock population.
  • Fey, Harold E., and D’Arcy McNickle. Indians and Other Americans: Two Ways of Life Meet. Rev. ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1970. Good account of the Collier years. McNickle, a Montana Blackfoot, was a BIA employee during this era.
  • Hoxie, Frederick, ed. Indians in American History: An Introduction. 2d ed. Arlington Heights, Ill.: Harlan Davidson, 1998. Collection of chronologically arranged essays by authors who speak from a variety of disciplines and perspectives provides an introduction to the Indian side of U.S. history. Draws attention to the depth and complexity of the American Indian experience. Includes list of suggestions for further reading following each chapter, illustrations, and index.
  • Kelly, Lawrence C. “The Indian Reorganization Act: The Dream and the Reality.” Pacific Historical Review 44 (August, 1975): 291-312. Balanced look at what the act failed to achieve in contrast to the claims of some proponents. Discusses Collier’s strong points and shortcomings as American Indian commissioner during the New Deal era.
  • Kelly, William H., ed. Indian Affairs and the Indian Reorganization Act: The Twenty Year Record. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1954. A collection of scholarly essays on this subject.
  • Parman, Donald L. The Navajos and the New Deal. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1976. A study of the troubled relations between the American Indian policy reformers in the Roosevelt administration and the nation’s largest tribe.
  • Philp, Kenneth R. John Collier’s Crusade for Indian Reform, 1920-1954. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1977. A detailed, objective account of Collier’s achievements and shortcomings as a policy critic, activist, reformer, and administrator.
  • Taylor, Graham D. The New Deal and American Indian Tribalism: The Administration of the Indian Reorganization Act, 1934-1945. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1980. Argues that the act, although enlightened compared to previous policies, was weakened by its emphasis on tribal reorganization and its mistaken assumptions about contemporary American Indian societies.
  • Tyler, S. Lyman. A History of Indian Policy. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Indian Affairs, 1973. An extremely well-organized and detailed historical account of U.S. government policy toward Native Americans. Covers criticism and accomplishments of government programs. A useful guide to the philosophy and expedients behind historical government policy. Highly recommended for the serious student. Includes tables and charts, foldout maps, and black-and-white photographs. Extensive bibliography.
  • Wilkins, David E., and K. Tsianina Lomawaima. Uneven Ground: American Indian Sovereignty and Federal Law. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002. Reviews the often inconsistent federal legal precedents related to issues concerning Native Americans.

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