Indian Reorganization Act: Good Deal or Raw Deal?

Notes from Indian Country

By Tim Giago (Nanwica Kciji, Stand Up For Them)

It was 83 years ago on June 18, 1934 when the Indian Reorganization Act became the law of the land. On the 50th anniversary of the IRA, a conference was held at Sun Valley, Idaho to talk about the good and the bad of the Act. On the 75th birthday of the Act, there was nothing but silence. Has Indian Country forgotten the significance of the IRA?

When the proposed Act was making the rounds in early 1934, an Act also known as the Wheeler-Howard Act, 10 meetings were held across the country that were supposed to bring the Indian people and the government officials together to go over the finer points of the Act. Oddly enough, the Act itself never made it to any of the meetings or congresses; only the "explanations" were there to be discussed.

To many tribal leaders it became known as the Indian New Deal, or as some skeptics called it, "The Indian Raw Deal." Those opposed to the Act feared that it would be detrimental to them because it would be controlled by the federal government. In the end 181 tribes voted in favor of the Act and 77 tribes rejected it.

S. L. Tyler, in his "History of Indian Policy" wrote about some of the criticisms of the IRA. "It was put into effect too rapidly. Neither the Congress nor the Indians were adequately informed concerning it nor prepared for it. Bureau personnel needed better training for application of provisions contained in IRA, some of which were quite foreign to their past experience and to their personal philosophy concerning the Indians. The philosophy of the IRA itself was violated in that Indians did not play a truly significant part in preparing [tribal constitutions]. As a result, some also felt that many good tribal governments were replaced with less capable ones."

I was in attendance at the conference in Sun Valley, Idaho in 1983 as was Gerald One Feather, a noted Oglala leader. I was delighted to hear the Indian historian, publisher and journalist, Rupert Costo, Cahuilla, speak. He had many observations to make about the IRA and since he was one of the early and lasting opponents of the ACT, his comments were cogent to the debate.

Costo said, "The IRA was the last great drive to assimilate the American Indian. It was also a program to colonize the tribes. All else had failed to liberate the Indians from their land: genocide, treaty-making and treaty-breaking, sub-standard education, disruption of Indian religion and culture, and the last and most oppressive of such measures, the Dawes Allotment Act. Assimilation into the dominant society, if by assimilation we mean the adoption of certain technologies and techniques, had already been underway for some hundred years. After all, the Indians were not and are not fools; we are always ready to improve our condition. But assimilation, meaning fading into the general society with a complete loss of our identity and our culture, was another thing entirely, and we had fought against this from the first coming of the white man." Costo died shortly after that historic conference.

There was a lot of nodding heads in agreement with the analysis of the IRA by Costo. One man, Kenneth R. Philp, said, "My assessment of the Indian New Deal has become more negative over the years. The policy of termination grows out of many of the failures of the New Deal. One of the failures of the New Deal is that it did not have wide Indian support. One of the reasons that occurred is because the IRA was a white -imposed reform program."

The Indian Reorganization Act was the brainchild of Indian commissioner John Collier, a man who was loved, hated, cherished and despised. But Collier was not an assimilationist, as some have accused. Because he stressed that the Indian reservations were permanent homelands for Indians, he was accused of initiating Jim Crow Indian policies.

Many of John Collier's critics believed him to be paternalistic and domineering. When he did not encounter the docile Indians he always expected to meet, but instead met Indians with good educations and even sharper wits, he was taken aback. Some say he then started to leave these Indian leaders out of his planning sessions.

On the 83rd anniversary of the Indian Reorganization Act there is still much to be learned because after 83 years, the Act is still with us. One of the best sources of information available on this topic is the book "Indian Self-Rule: First Hand Accounts of Indian-White Relations from Roosevelt to Reagan." Why was the 75th anniversary of the Act totally ignored?

Many of the conclusions on the 50th anniversary drawn from the conference in Sun Valley in 1983 can be found in the book. It is a compilation of writings by many authors including Rupert Costo and it was edited by Kenneth R. Philp.

The Navajo Nation was one of the tribes that did not adopt the IRA.
I wonder if the IRA will be remembered on its 100th Anniversary or be forgotten as it was on its 75th anniversary. Has it been a success or a failure? The debate is far from over because thousands of people from Indian tribes across America are still living with the impact of the Indian New Deal. There are Indians to this day who believe it was a "raw deal."

(Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, was the founder and first president of the Native American Journalists Association, the 1985 recipient of the H. L. Mencken Award, and a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with the Class of 1991. Giago became the first Native American inducted into the South Dakota Newspaper Hall of Fame in 2008. He can be reached at unitysodak1@vastbb.net)