Maya and Aztec

Ancient Mesoamerican civilizations

Indian Reorganization Act of 1934

Category: History

A survey in 1926 brought into clear focus the failings of the previous 40 years. The investigators found most Indians “extremely poor,” in bad health, without education, and lacking adjustment to the dominant culture around them. Under the impetus of these finding and other pressures for reform. Congress adopted the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, which contemplated an orderly decrease of federal control and a concomitant increase of Indian self-government and responsibility. The essentials of the new law were as follows: (1) allotment of tribal lands was prohibited in the future, but tribes might assign use rights to individuals; (2) so-called surplus lands not pre-empted by homesteaders might be returned to the tribes; (3) tribes might adopt written constitutions and charters of incorporation embodying their continuing inherent powers to manage internal affairs; and (4) funds were authorized for the establishment of a revolving credit program, for land purchases, for educational assistance, and for aiding the tribes in forming organizations. Moreover, the act could be rejected on any reservation by referendum.

The response to the 1934 act was indicative of the Indians’ ability to rise above adversity. About 160 tribes, bands, and Alaska villages adopted written constitutions, some of which combined traditional practices with modern parliamentary methods. The revolving credit fund helped Indians build up their herds and improve their economic position in other ways. Borrowers from the fund were tribal corporations, credit associations, and cooperatives that loaned to individual Indians and to group enterprises on a multimillion-dollar scale. Educational and health services were also improved through federal aid.

Originally, the United States exercised no guardianship over the person of the Indian; after 1871, when internal tribal matters became the subject of national legislation, the number and variety of regulatory measures multiplied rapidly. In the same year that the Indian Reorganization Act was passed, Congress significantly repealed 12 statutes that had made it possible to hold Indians virtual prisoners on their reservations. Indians were then able to come and go as freely as all other persons. The Snyder Act of 1924, extending citizenship to all Indians born in the United States, opened the door to full participation. Few Indians took advantage of the law, and because of their lack of interest a number of tribal governments following the Reorganization Act, however, seemed to awaken an interest in civic affairs beyond tribal boundaries, and when Indians asked for the franchise, they were generally able to secure it eventually, thought not until 1948 in Arizona and New Mexico, after a lengthy court action.

The federal courts consistently upheld the treaties made with Indians tribes and also held that property may not be taken from Indians, whether or not a treaty exists, “except in fair trade.” The latter contention was offered by the Hualapai Indians against the Sante Fe Railway. The company was required by the courts in 1944 to relinquish about 500,000 acres it thought had been occupied since prehistory by the Indians, without benefit of treaty recognitions, and the Supreme Court held that, if the occupancy could be proved as it subsequently was, the Indians were entitled to have their lands restored. In 1950 the Ute Indians were awarded a judgment against the United States of $31,-750,000 for lands taken without adequate compensation. A special Indian Claims Commission, created by act of Congress on August 13, 1946, received many petitions for land claims against the United States and awarded, for example, about $14,789,000 to the Cherokee nations, $10,-242,000 to the Crow tribe, $3,650,000 to the Snake-Paiute of Oregon, $30,000,000 to the Nez Perce, and $12,300,000 to the Seminole.

The period from the early 1950s to the 1970s was one of increasing federal attempts to seek new policies regarding the Indians, and it was also a period in which Indians themselves became increasingly vocal in their quest for a better measure of human rights and the correction of past wrongs. The first major shift in police came in 1954 when the Department of the Interior began terminating federal control over those Indians and reservations deemed able to look after their own affairs. From 1954 to 1960, support to 61 tribes and other Indian groups were ended by the withdrawal of federal services or trust supervision. The results, however, were unhappy. Some Indians groups, in extreme poverty, lost more acreage in deals for the private exploitation of Indian land and water resources. Indians in certain states became subject exclusively to state laws that were less liberal or sympathetic than federal laws. Finally, the protests of Indians, anthropologists, and other interested groups became so insistent that the program was decelerated in 1960. In 1961 a trained anthropologist was sworn in as commissioner of Indian Affairs, the first anthropologist ever to hold that position. Federal aid expanded greatly, and in the ensuing decade Indians were specifically brought into various federal programs for equal economic opportunity. Indian unemployment remained severe, however.

American Indians came more and more into public attention in the 1970s and 1980s as they sought (along with other minorities) to achieve a better life. Following the example set by black civil-rights activists of the 1960s Indians groups drew attention to their cause through mass demonstrations and protests. Perhaps the most publicized of these actions were the 19-month seizure (1970-71) of Alcatraz (California) by members of the militant American Indian Movement (AIM) and the February 1973 occupation of a settlement at the Oglala Sioux Pine Ridge (South Dakota) reservation, the latter incident becoming known as the second Battle of Wounded Knee. Representing an attempt to gain a more traditional political power base was the establishment in 1971 of the National Tribal Chairman’s Association, which eventually grew to include more than 100 tribes.

Indian leaders also expanded their sphere of influence into the courts; fishing, mineral, forest, and other rights involving tribal lands became the subject of litigation by the Puyallup (Washington State), the Northern Cheyenne (Montana), and the Penobscot and the Passamaquoddy (Maine), among others. Although control of economic resources was the focus of most such cases, some groups sought to regain sovereignty over ancient tribal lands of primarily ceremonial and religious significance.

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