Native American Federal Policy

Evolution of Federal Policies Applied to Native Americans

Michael Connolly, December 2014

Over the past three hundred years, the relationship between Native American Tribes and the Federal Government has taken many different shapes. A thorough understanding of the evolution of federal policy towards Native Americans is essential to understand the current status of Native Americans. Between 1789-1828, the federal government saw Native American tribes as politically independent, self-governing communities [1]. Native Americans inhabited the United States of America, long before it was coined the “USA”. When European settlers began to make themselves present on this land, they quickly realized it was already inhabited. This contact was the genesis of the conflict that has since evolved into today’s current status.

The historical relationship between the Federal Government and the Native American Tribes is full of unfair treatment along with inconsistent policies that took advantage of the Native American culture. There were federal Indian policies intact from 1829 until 1886 that aimed at Indian removal from land onto reservation. From the late 1800’s until the early 1900’s (1887-1932) [2], polices were mostly focused on assimilation, the main one being the Dawes act.

The Dawes Act promoted cultural assimilation; one way it did this was by encouraging Native Americans to separate themselves from their tribes. The incentive that was offered to Native Americans to do this was that once they separated themselves they would be offered individual ownership of land and U.S citizenship. The policies of assimilation were the result of the U.S government attempts to prevent the total extermination of the Indian race while still maintaining protection of the country’s interests.

During this time period Native Americans clung to their culture the most, trying to keep it alive. The fact that these policies were enacted to preserve the race by destroying the culture fuels the argument between many historians today and gives an interesting perspective of how treatment changed once one group acquired power of control over another group.

There is a general consensus that most Native Americans didn’t have a clear understanding of land ownership [3]. Federal legislation such as the Dawes Act can be seen as a strong enticement, that took advantage of Native Americans. The federal government knew the concept of buying or owning land was unspoken of in the Native American tribes. Therefore they took advantage of Native American tribes by incorporating a policy that was disingenuous. This was a well-known effort to stimulate the assimilation of Indians into American society.

The Dawes Act resulted in Native Americans losing 90 million acres between 1887-1934. The traditional tribal governments were practically destroyed as a result of these losses [4]. The assimilation process was dehumanizing and pulled Native Americans away from their culture. It called for a complete change in the way Native Americans lived and thought. It promoted the American way of living, without taking others into consideration this was discriminating.

In 1933, President Roosevelt’s administration appointed John Collier, a social worker from New York, to be commissioner of Indian Affairs. The Merriam Report was the result of reforms within the Bureau of Indian Affairs during Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency. Roosevelts New Deal policies were aimed at “relief, recovery and reform” during this time. Collier’s agenda of reform was centered on the Indian Reorganization Act and was designed to move Indian policies away from assimilation. But it was the publishing of the Meriam Report that most noticeably led to the passage of Reorganization Act. The Meriam report was the most thorough study of reservation life done up to this point. It created a new era of policies for Indian affairs by setting a stage for the formation for future policies to be based on actual data.

The Meriam Report was to survey the quality of life of the Native Tribes and the social and economic conditions they were subjected to on the reservations that were established under the Dawes Act. The Department of Interior appointed a man named Lewis Meriam to organize a group of social scientists to conduct the research. The study was published in 1928 and the results gave incentive for reform. The report linked death rates and disease to the poor living conditions and the very controversial treatment of children in the boarding schools.

The report basically threw out the philosophies behind the majority of Indian policies that had prevailed up until the Reorganization Act, such as the theology of Christianity and the ideology of private property. [5] The data collected by the government study supplied sufficient evidence that explicitly outlined the social injustices suffered by the Native Americans, that were the effects of polices like the Dawes Act. The report was credited for pointing out the problems on the reservations even though they were very obvious to anyone who had even the slightest contact with anyone from the reservations.

One quote stated in the Meriam Report reads as followed; “the missionaries need to have a better understanding of the Indian point of view of the Indians religion and ethics, in order to start from what is good in them as a foundation. Too frequently, they have made the mistake of attempting to destroy the existing structure and to substitute something else without apparently realizing that much in the old has its place in the new”.[6]

The fact that Native American tribes played a crucial role in World War I was a main reason why the federal government conducted the study of the quality of life on reservations and was a substantial contribution that brought about the end result of the war. The American government used the spoken languages found in certain tribes to relay information and communicate during the war. Men from the Choctaw tribe were some of the first “Code Talkers”[7]. These spoken languages of the tribes were never able to be decoded by the Germens. After the war, congress felt somewhat indebted to the tribes due to their service and in an attempt to express gratitude they organized the “Meriam Report” in 1924.

U.S Congress passed the Indian Reorganization Act (Wheeler-Howard Act) on June 18th, 1934 which is of great importance because its passage began the new era of government to government relationship we see today. The passage of the Indian Reorganization Act in 1934 provided a framework for the continuously evolving government-to-government relationship that we can see in the present day. [8] The Reorganization Act ended the allotment of tribal land that was empowered by the Dawes Act, which stopped land from being taken away for tribes without their consent.

The Indian Reorganization Act accomplished many things in its nineteen sections. But the most prominent one being that it promoted tribal self-government while also decreasing the control of the federal government over Indian affairs. When the Reorganization Act of 1934 ended the Dawes Act’s system of allotment, it replaced it with allowing the department of interior to purchase more land and enact new reservations for advancement of the Native American people. Within the first two decades after the passing of this federal legislation (IRA), about two million acres of land were returned to certain tribes. The Reorganization Act also established definitions of the terms “Indians and Tribes”[9]. One more notable accomplishment of this act was the loan program. This program increased development of the native people and gave them better opportunities in life, this can be seen in the aiding for educational assistance.

Although the intended purpose of this act was to return control back to the Native Americans and to establish an economic foundation for them to thrive upon, it was met with some forces of opposition and resistance. In the eyes of some Native American tribal members the IRA contained a mist of paternalistic nature around it. This led some tribes such as the Navajo and Crow to reject it and refuse signing. 78 out of approximately 250 tribes refused to sign it. Also parts of the Reorganization Act that prompted some opposition were for instance where tribal autonomy was limited, for example, in certain situations where tribal government actions required the approval by U.S.

The existing status of Native Americans in the United States is one that illuminates a strong foundation of cultural identity. The government to government relationship between the United States and Native American tribes has a long and unique history. A thorough understanding of the evolution of federal policy towards Native Americans is essential to appreciating the current status of Native Americans. The historical struggle by Native Americans to maintain Sovereignty and their cultural identity against federal policies that promoted otherwise is of great significance to understand the evolution of federal policies towards the Native Americans because the historical struggle made the passage of the Indian Reorganization Act essential to the current status.

The hardships founded by Assimilation policies like Dawes act, were portrayed in the Meriam report and are what fueled the passage of the Reorganization Act. The publication of the Meriam report created the need for federal government to redeem the injustices of past policies that crippled and did much more damage than good to the native people. The history presented in this essay demonstrates a unique meaning of the term, naturalization. Presently, the federal government recognizes Tribal Sovereignty. The rights established by their sovereignty allow them to govern themselves.

[1] +[5] Rusco, Elmer R. A fateful time: the background and legislative history of the Indian Reorganization Act. University of Nevada Press, 2000.

[2]Woodcock, Don B., and Osman Alawiye. “The antecedents of failure and emerging hope: American Indians & public higher education.” Education 121, no. 4 (2001): 810.

[3]+[11] “Indian Reorganization Act.” Dictionary of American History. 2003. (October 26,2014).

[4]+[9]Casey,James A. “Sovereignty by sufferance: The illusion of indian tribal sovereignty,” 79 Cornell Law Review 404, 413 (1994)

[6]+[10] “The Meriam Report.” Native American Netroots. July 6, 2010. Accessed November 14, 2014.

[7] Allen, Phillip. “Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.” Code Talkers of WWI. CHOCTAW Nation of Oklahoma, 1 Jan. 2010. Web. 19 Nov. 2014.

[8] Encyclopedia Britannica Online, s. v. “Indian Reorganization Act”, accessed October 28, 2014,

Further Reading

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