Indians at Work Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Much of what Commissioner of Indian Affairs John Collier did in 1933 and early 1934 set the stage for broader reforms of the federal government's relationship with American Indian nations. Collier wanted to see a radical change in the focus and goals of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA)–from doing everything it could to assimilate American Indians into mainstream society, to preserving and celebrating the cultural diversity represented by American Indian peoples. This change, which took the form of the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA), was not easily accomplished, and many people opposed Collier's tactics as well as his overall aims. One way that Collier sought to convince people of the morality of his cause was to write articles that appeared in national periodicals, outlining his reform agenda. His June 1934 article in Survey Graphic was published just as the congressional debates over the IRA were coming to a head.

Summary Overview

Much of what Commissioner of Indian Affairs John Collier did in 1933 and early 1934 set the stage for broader reforms of the federal government's relationship with American Indian nations. Collier wanted to see a radical change in the focus and goals of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA)–from doing everything it could to assimilate American Indians into mainstream society, to preserving and celebrating the cultural diversity represented by American Indian peoples. This change, which took the form of the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA), was not easily accomplished, and many people opposed Collier's tactics as well as his overall aims. One way that Collier sought to convince people of the morality of his cause was to write articles that appeared in national periodicals, outlining his reform agenda. His June 1934 article in Survey Graphic was published just as the congressional debates over the IRA were coming to a head.

Defining Moment

Collier used the case of the Navajo to illustrate his point about the need for more effective tribal governments. Though he used them as a positive example of a tribal government cooperating with a federal livestock reduction program, he truth was a bit more complex. By the time Collier took office, the number of livestock held by the Navajo, combined with the natural erosion and drought cycles of the region, had taken a heavy toll on the rangelands. The government feared that overgrazing and trampling hooves broke down the soils needed to support the grasses and that accumulations of silt from the reservation's runoff threatened the functioning of Boulder Dam, farther down the Colorado River. Regardless of the economic and environmental arguments behind the ensuing livestock reduction, the program's cultural effects on the Navajo had a dramatic impact on the relationship between the Navajo and the federal government.

Navajo viewed sheep and goat herds as extensions of their family in addition to being symbols of wealth, success, and social prestige. Though Collier portrayed great cooperation between the Navajo Council and the government, the way that collaboration was obtained was by tying their cooperation with stock reduction to the success of pending legislation regarding the extension of reservation boundaries, the availability of relief programs needed during the Great Depression, and improvements to reservation infrastructure. In the end, the Navajo Council was forced to pass the stock reduction requests even though they were fully aware of the social and economic impact the program would have on tribal members. The number of stock owned by poorer Navajo was reduced to the point that their subsistence was threatened. Further, the cultural function of the herds in Navajo society was not considered, and many Navajo reacted emotionally for many years to what they saw as a unilateral federal action.

The role of the BIA changed with the IRA (also called the Wheeler-Howard Act), as the agency began working to help Indians retain their culture rather than actively suppressing it. Collier needed to convince people of the efficacy of his cause because opposition to his plan was vocal. Assimilationists strongly believed that the only future for the Indians was assimilation into American life. Business interests that had leasing rights on the reservations feared strengthened tribal governments with greater control over Indian land. Some Indians also opposed the tribal council system of government proposed by the IRA because it would displace traditional leaders and governmental systems.

Author Biography

John Collier was born in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1884. He had a long history of social reform activity by the time he was appointed commissioner of Indian affairs under President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933. Collier, in reaction to a tragic childhood and home life–his mother died of drug addiction and his father committed suicide before he was sixteen–rejected material pursuits and became a social reformer, working to improve the lives of immigrants in New York City during the early 1900s. He became civic secretary of the People's Institute, an organization set up to foster a sense of community among the city's immigrant population. Upon a visit to Taos, New Mexico, in 1920, Collier became aware of both the beauty of and problems facing American Indian cultures. He immediately became an advocate for the Pueblo tribes, who were facing legislation that would deprive them of much of their land. In 1923, he founded the American Indian Defense Association and was instrumental in the promotion of the findings of the Meriam Report, which brought Indian issues to public attention. He served as commissioner of Indian affairs from 1933 until 1945.

Document Analysis

Looking to convince skeptics that his plan to reform and create a sustainable future for American Indian tribes was the right way to go, John Collier took to writing articles in national publications. The article in the June 1934 issue of Survey Graphic contains a number of arguments, all leading to the conclusion that the Indian Reorganization Act is a much-needed reform that would create sustainable tribal nations through ending assimilation, reinforcing the land base of the tribes, and giving the tribes a working governmental system through the formation of tribal councils. Though Collier spends much of the article addressing cases that are seemingly unrelated to his main point, he attempts to convey to the American public that the Indians are not merely the remnants of a nomadic race, living in obscurity and not contributing to society. On the contrary, Collier asserts, they are already active partners in his reform efforts and would benefit even more if the IRA were passed by Congress and signed into law.

Collier begins by talking about the Navajo and how they have cooperated with federal efforts to deal with the soil erosion caused by an overabundance of livestock. Collier conveniently omits any discussion of the devastating toll that the livestock reduction program had on the Navajo, concentrating instead on the functioning of the Navajo Tribal Council in cooperating with the federal government. The argument seems to follow that, if a functioning government on the largest Indian reservation in the nation could cooperatively work with the federal government on the livestock problem, then such a government would be capable of handling much larger matters. Collier goes on to praise the spirited participation of American Indians in federal conservation work programs. If the American Indian people were capable of working in Great Depression–era work programs, he argues, they could be just as successful as whites when prosperity returned.

After the Navajo case study, Collier shows the negative impact of American Indian policy since the Civil War. The General Allotment Act of 1887 apportioned tribally-held lands to individual Indian landowners, selling the “surplus” lands to whites and reducing the total land owned by Indians by about two-thirds, he notes. The policy of allotment, instituted in 1887, worked to deprive Indians of their land base and, thus, their means of attaining economic prosperity. Collier argues that the IRA will address these land problems by ending allotment and seeking to augment the Indian land base. Further, Indians would benefit psychologically, by having an opportunity for prosperity that they had not had since their first contact with Euro-Americans.

Essential Themes

The Navajo case study and the IRA as a whole both had important legacies after the June 1934 article appeared and after Congress passed the IRA that same month. The IRA meant true reform to the goals of federal Indian policy. It ended the allotment program, it replaced the goal of assimilation with the goal of cultural diversity, and it created a tribal council system of government that could be instituted by any tribe that was willing to do so. By those counts it was a success, but it is ironic that Collier uses the Navajo as his primary example of the tribal cooperation that could be expected after the passage of the IRA.

The ill will the Navajo felt toward the government–a direct result of the stock reduction program–manifested as firm opposition to the IRA. Although the tribal council supported many of Collier's reforms, a large number of Navajo held Collier personally responsible for the stock reduction program. This resistance came to a head when the time came for the Navajo to vote on whether or not to accept the provisions of the Wheeler-Howard Act. When the referendum was held in June 1935, 98 percent of eligible Navajo voted to firmly reject the act. The Navajo were among the seventy-seven tribes that rejected the IRA, whereas 181 tribes accepted it.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Collier, John. From Every Zenith: A Memoir; and Some Essays on Life and Thought. Denver: Sage, 1963. Print.
  • Deloria, Vine, Jr., & Clifford M. Lytle. The Nations Within: The Past and Future of American Indian Sovereignty. New York: Pantheon, 1984. Print.
  • Hauptman, Lawrence M. “The Indian Reorganization Act.” The Aggressions of Civilization: Federal Indian Policy since the 1980s. Ed. Sandra L. Cadwalader & Vine Deloria, Jr. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1984. 131–48. Print.
  • Iverson, Peter. Diné: A History of the Navajo. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 2002. Print.
  • Kelly, Lawrence C. The Assault on Assimilation: John Collier and the Origins of Indian Policy Reform. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1983. Print.
  • McPherson, Robert S. “Navajo Livestock Reduction in Southeastern Utah, 1933–46: History Repeats Itself.” American Indian Quarterly 22.1/2 (1998): 1–18. Print.
  • Philp, Kenneth R. John Collier's Crusade for Indian Reform, 1920–1954. Tucson: U of Arizona P, 1977. Print.
  • White, Richard. The Roots of Dependency: Subsistence, Environment, and Social Change among the Choctaws, Pawnees, and Navajos. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1983. Print.
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