Indians in overalls

The referenced film Rebuilding Indian Country 1 signals Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) Commissioner John Collier’s proactive attitude. While his Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) had not passed Congress yet, let alone funds appropriated,2 he was able to secure almost $6 million through the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) for an Indian Division, also called Indian Emergency Conservation Work (IECW), and make film propaganda for it, too. The CCC was a New Deal work program implemented mere weeks after President Roosevelt took office, in March 1933; IECW was up and running in July 1933 and lasted until 1942.

Early in the film the IRA is mentioned as the culmination of “370 treaties and 2,000 laws relating to Indian affairs” (omitting for the sake of the argument a few dozen million Native Americans killed). Significantly, images of the Act’s text prominently feature many instances of the term Secretary of the Interior, an indication of the continued paternalism federal Indian policies were resented for by their recipients. Initially, then, the film appears to suggest that footage of conservation and infrastructure work projects were initiatives of the IRA rather than the IECW, even though the filmmakers as well as the Indian Division began work a full year before the act was signed into law. Only later the film’s emphasis shifts to this New Deal’s public work program.

All of IECW’s projects took place on or near the reservations. This provided much needed income: throughout the decade most Native Americans lived in a “quasi-separate economy”, which comprised “a combination of traditional subsistence activities, leasing or annuity income, and sporadic wage income from occasional jobs as unskilled laborers.”3 It also improved the reservations’ land and infrastructure and gave its (male) residents instruction in vocational skills in, as the film shows, agricultural work such as reforestation and contour plowing, or in road construction. It also shows how Native Americans move into white-man’s style housing and clothing; “the new Indian”, the narration says, “is the Indian in overalls”

All in all, then, the film reflects the continuation of assimilatory practices, albeit without the intention to destroy Native American cultures: Indian communities were shown as being scaffolded on a white economic and welfare infrastructure. Perversely one may even see it as anticipating the return of assimilatory ideas in Indian policies, in the mid-1940s, when the so-called Termination Acts ended the legal status of many tribes and reservations, as well as, it was argued, Indians’ dependency on bureaucracy. As the narration concludes, “[t]here always must be influence by the majority of inhabitants of the United States to change the habits and customs of the minority.”

Nico de Klerk

Rebuilding indian country
USA. Dpt. of the Interior Division of Motion Pictures; 1933.
35mm | b&w | sound | 36’

Topic: Indigenous peoples
Case: American journeys


1 The film’s narration’s transcript is available at: Discontinuities in the transcript reflect gaps in the film’s soundtrack.

2 “[N]one of the [Act’s] authorized appropriations became available until May 1935.” See: Theodore H. Haas. Ten years of tribal government under the Indian Reorganization Act. n.p. [Washington, D.C.]: United States Indian Service; 1947; 1, See also: Graham D. Taylor. The New Deal and American Indian tribalism: the administration of the Indian Reorganization Act, 1934-1945. Lincoln – London: University of Nebraska Press; 1980; 18.

3 Nancy Shoemaker. American Indian population recovery in the twentieth century. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press; 1999; 80.

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