Permission requested

With his letter of December 2, 1938, Ross sought permission from the Commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), John Collier, to visit and film a number of Indian reservations and pueblos in America’s southwest. In his letter he referred to a meeting during his earlier American sojourn, in 1934, when he had made a similar request. After his letter’s reception was confirmed an appointment was made for December 6, in Washington, D.C.—the date is scribbled on the letter.

By the time of Ross’s arrival for his second extensive journey in the USA, in October 1938, resistance to Collier’s 1934 Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) was at its height. The most vocal organization was the American Indian Federation (AIF); in fact, the Act had sparked AIF’s foundation by a number of Collier’s opponents.1 The Federation’s attention-grabbing charges of anti-Christianity and communism against the BIA caught the interest of such right-wing organizations as the Daughters of the American Revolution, Silver Shirts of America, and the German American Bund. The AIF, strapped for financial resources, welcomed their support and collaboration. These organizations, in their turn, used the AIF as a front for their own political purposes. Seizing on Indian volatile voting behavior and the mistrust, or misunderstanding, of the IRA among various Native American tribes as well as on their calls for the abolition of the Bureau of Indian Affairs with its paternalistic bureaucracy and for running its Commissioner from office, they represented the AIF in litigations and Congressional hearings and harassed the Bureau in order to both distract the administration and increase their own visibility. The Department of the Interior and its BIA, besides authorizing infiltration and surveillance, struck back in kind by a smear campaign that applied some of these organizations’ association with Nazi Germany to the AIF; as well they instigated a federal investigation. Meanwhile, the AIF had become increasingly disillusioned with the Bund’s and Silver Shirts’ indifference to Indian concerns and with their ways of fundraising.2

It is in this atmosphere that Ross sought permission from Commissioner Collier, in December 1938, to visit and film a number of Indian communities in America’s southwest. Meanwhile the State Department had been warned of Ross’s arrival. As his lectures were considered lobbying for a foreign nation, by law a file was opened on him on January 24, 1939, and authorities nationwide were instructed to keep a watchful eye.3 It is thus that Ross got caught in the crossfire between government departments: while looking for (and receiving) BIA’s permission, he was being investigated by the FBI and by the Special Committee on Un-American Activities (or Dies Committee) for alleged espionage.

Nico de Klerk 

Colin Ross, Letter to John Collier, Commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs; New York, 1938 December 2,
National Archives and Records Administration. Washington, D.C. 5677405. Entry 178; box 15. Ross Dr. Colin...German Nazi propaganda in U.S. Colin Ross. Record Group 75 Office files of Commissioner John Collier. Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. National Archives Bldg., Washington, D.C.

Topic: Indigenous peoples
Case: American journeys


1 Donald L. Parman. Indians and the American West in the twentieth century. Bloomington – Indianapolis: Indiana University Press; 1994; 98.

2 Laurence M. Hauptman. The American Indian Federation and the Indian New Deal. In: Pacific Historical Review. 1983 November; 52 (4); 378-402.

3 Bodo-Michael Baumunk. Colin Ross. Ein deutscher Revolutionär und Reisender 1885-1945. [unpublished master’s thesis]. rev. edn. Berlin; 2015 [1999]; 105-106. See Library.

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