A flawed piece of legislation

The Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) was meant to mitigate, discontinue or reverse the devastating policies that had been implemented under the 1887 Dawes Act and its revisions. It also contained new, pluralist measures, notably limited self-government. As such, the Act was an attempt to “(1) restore to the Indian management of his own affairs; (2) prevent further depletion of his material sources; (3) build up an economically sound basis for livelihood.”1

Other than Ross’s rosy suggestion in his book Amerikas Schicksalsstunde2, the IRA had been called a flawed piece of legislation at best for a number of reasons. Given his controversial reputation (“dangerous radical”, “atheist”), the new Commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), John Collier, lost no time to get his ideas enacted before he might be ousted again (even though he remained in his position throughout the Roosevelt administration). As a result he submitted one-size-fits-all proposals, bypassing all sorts of differences between tribes (except when they clashed with existing legislation, treaties or otherwise separately made cases listed in the Act). The IRA was also highly paternalistic: not only did it extend the trust on Indian lands (as stipulated in the Dawes Act), but quite a number of measures were made conditional on the Secretary of the Interior’s approval. Finally, the Act’s definition of Indian as being of “one-half or more Indian blood” created tensions between full and mixed bloods.3

What Ross didn’t mention either was that response among Native Americans was all but unanimous. Besides an almost ingrained distrust of anything federal, many strongly opposed, among others, the cessation of allotments, which was said to provide many with a source of personal income; this claim, though, may well have been overstated. Here, then, various aspects of the IRA—restoration of tribal lands, economic development, and self-determination—clashed. No wonder that 77 tribes voted against being brought under the Act.

Until today the merits and demerits of the IRA are debated. For instance its accomplishments through paternalistic measures has been criticized and replaced by the thesis that, in particular, population  recovery  among  Native Americans in the 20th century, notably  through decreased mortality and increased fertility rates,4 was partly a matter of their own agency, for which both economic and cultural factors (e.g. self-identification rather than ‘blood count’ in the decennial US Census) have been cited. In fact, measures taken before the Act was signed into law had already provided important economic incentives, notably the Indian Emergency Conservation Work (IECW). This was a separate Indian Division of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), one of the Roosevelt’s administration work programs of the New Deal. It trained participants vocational skills, and as its conservation projects were carried out on the reservations, lands were restored and infrastructure was greatly improved. No more rocky tracks to keep Indians in and tourists out.

Nico de Klerk

An act to conserve and develop Indian lands and resources; to extend to Indians the right to form businesses and other organizations; to establish a credit system for Indians; to grant certain rights of home rule to Indians; to provide for vocational education for Indians; and for other purposes, June 18, 1934. In: The statutes at large of the United States of America from March 1933 to June 1934. Washington, D.C.: Congress under the direction of the Secretary of State; 1934: 984-988.

Topic: Indigenous peoples
Case: American journeys


Scudder Mekeel. An appraisal of the Indian Reorganization Act. In: American Anthropologist. 1944 April-June; 46 (2 part 1): 209, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1525/aa.1944.46.2.02a00050/pdf.

2 Colin Ross. Die Indianer sollen wieder Indianer werden. In: Amerikas Schicksalsstunde. Die Vereinigten Staaten zwischen Demokratie und Diktatur. 12. Aufl. Leipzig: F.A. Brockhaus; 1942 [1935]; 186-191.

3 Donald L. Parman. Indians and the American southwest in the twentieth century. Bloomington – Indianapolis: Indiana University Press; 1994; 92-100.

4 Nancy Shoemaker. American Indian population recovery in the twentieth century. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press; 1999; 7-8; 39-55. Surely under the BIA the Indian Health Service was unable to significantly increase health conditions—it was relieved of this responsibility in 1954; see: Brett Lee Shelton. Legal and historical roots of health care for American Indians and Alaska Natives in the United States. Menlo Park, CA: Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation; 2004 February 2004 (Issue brief #7021); 9, 
https://kaiserfamilyfoundation.files.wordpress.com/2013/01/legal-and-historical-roots-of-health-care-for-american-indians-and-alaska-natives-in-the-united-states.pdf. See also: David S. Jones. The health care experiments at Many Farms: the Navajo, tuberculosis, and the limits of modern medicine, 1952-1962. In: Bulletin of the History of Medicine. 2002 Winter; 76 (4), relating a medical experiment in the postwar years, when tuberculosis, trachoma, and other diseases were again rampant on the Navajo Reservation.

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