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Native And Other Americans
Indian policy has always had more to do with current social thinking than with tribal life
May/June 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 3
Commissioner Collier saw the Dawes Act as “more than just a huge white land grab” and set out to dismantle it.
Shift the scene now to 1933, the pit of the Depression, which rocked many of these earlier certainties, and witness the entrance of a new commissioner of Indian affairs, John Collier, to whom, as to many of his fellow New Deal appointees, those certainties had been extremely dubious to begin with. Collier resists easy classification: born in the South in 1884, trained in the social sciences at Columbia University’s graduate schools, a poet, an outdoorsman, a philosopher, and a biologist played upon by influences ranging from Walt Whitman and the anarchist Peter Kropotkin to the sociologist Lester Frank Ward, who preached that human evolution led to cooperation, not struggle. Collier found in Indian societies a sense of community and a passion for the earth that he thought the modern world sorely needed. As a major figure in the American Indian Defense Association in the 1920s, he campaigned against the erosion of tribal land and water rights and against cultural policies restricting the practices of Indian religions. He saw the Dawes Act as “much more than just a huge white land grab.” It was a “blow” whose “intended consequence was the divorce of the Indian from his community.”
Collier calculatedly set out to overturn the essence of the Dawes legislation. His guiding principles, he announced, would include recognition that “Indian societies must and can be . . . regenerated,” that they must be given “status, responsibility and power” as well as “cultural . . . [and] religious liberty,” and that their lands must be “used and cherished in the way the particular Indian group desires.” Indians must regain self-determination and their “two inseparable heritages . . . democracy and land, one and indivisible.” The transformation, however, was not to rest simply on idealistic theory but on anthropological studies of actual Indian practices. There would also be concrete programs to provide credit, employment, and other forms of economic assistance to suffering Indian families.
In the reformist atmosphere of 1934, Collier got partial implementation of these principles in the Wheeler-Howard Indian Reorganization Act, the foundation of the current policy of supervised sovereignty. Among other things it authorized tribes to draft constitutions setting up the machinery of selfgovernment and of incorporation to carry on tribal economic enterprises. The overall effect of the “Indian New Deal” was positive even if only measured by a halving of the Indian death rate between 1927 and 1938. On the other hand, it had its fierce critics, both white and Indian. No one-size-fits-all remedy of retribalization, offered paternalistically by a philosopher-king commissioner, could escape attack, and between Indian dissent and mounting conservative denunciations of “Communistic” practices, the Indian service underwent a series of cuts in its budget and authority that led Collier finally to resign in 1945. Two developments of the ensuing half-century modified but did not erase his legacy. One was a policy of “termination,” under which the federal government moved to end Indian wardship by giving less material support and more responsibility for revenue raising to the tribal governments. The other was increasing Indian organization and assertiveness. Both led to the current state of things.
Like Helen Jackson, Collier was an exemplar of his day in history, the quintessential New Dealer. He had faith that the power of social science combined with the creativity of ordinary people could produce little democratic and diversified commonwealths under the mantle of a benign national government run by experts. It was a viewpoint consistent with such things as the 1930s rediscovery of folk culture and the era’s fascination with social planning. It was a far cry from the visions of the 1880s or 1990s.
History can’t tell us what new balance between the claims of Indian nationality and assimilationist pressure will be struck in the next few years, but for a cue, a look in the current social mirror is always a good beginning.