Criticizing the Indian Reorganization Act
The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, known as the Wheeler-Howard Act, and called the Indian New Deal, dramatically changed the federal government’s Indian policy.
*As far as the Indian Reorganization Act is concerned, in my opinion, is possibly one of the worst intentioned happenings that could have possibly taken place as far as individual Indian people are concerned. Although it did stop the alienation, the sale of Indian lands and did stop the allotment system, it created a socialistic society, and set the Indian people apart from the mainstream of American life and made them a problem. So what this has really done, it has substituted in place of the governing system that the Indians had prior to the Indian Reorganization Act, an (a European white man’s) idea of how they should live, rather a paternalistic type of government that had as its object the socializing of all the activities of the Indian people. One cannot help but think that there was an overt conspiracy in the back of the mind of these bureaucrats.
Now when speaking of bureaucrats, I not only include the actual officeholders, but the families and friends of all these officeholders who form the controlling and guiding memberships of these Indian organizations. I want to elaborate a little on the effects of the Indian Reorganization Act insofar as it has deterred the development and the independent thinking of the Indian people. In the first place, it set the Indian aside as a problem. The Indian was and is still being told that he was/is a problem from the very day that he are born under this system and as he grows older, he is by the presence of these so-called experts in agriculture and ranching and other activities they were paying lip service to teaching the Indians, he is made to feel that he is inferior, that he isn’t able to compete. So that the whole system emphasized the activities of the Indians as a whole for the benefit of the whole, rather than the individual, (private enterprise system of our American system.) He isn’t taught to be a capitalist, which they must be taught in order to survive in today's modern society in this country.
Many of the programs had limitations, particularly, the cattle program. They would allow an Indian to acquire a few head of cattle and he couldn’t get any more. I forget the exact figures, but there were limitations put on him so that any programs that were instituted were not aimed at benefiting the Indian but where some side effects did benefit him, it was probably an unfortunate occurrence because their main objective was to show what they’ve been doing to members of Congress on the Appropriations Committee to justify the millions of dollars they were spending, when actually, the Indian was getting little or no benefit from any of this. And I think the main thing that was wrong with the whole thing was that the setting of the Indian aside on a different place in the state, designating him as a problem, making him feel he is a problem, beating down rebels, beating down Indians who expressed any independent thinking, rewarding collaborators, rewarding them economically and with positions of importance in some intense and completely stifling independent creative thinking from the Indian people, having, different laws apply to him, setting up a different kind of government. In other words, the American Indian isn’t under the same kind of government that his white neighbors are. Rather, what should have been done is set up a county system exactly like the neighboring counties, with county officials, with municipal officials, with Indians going about their daily political and economic activities in the same way that other people in the state are, so that they could benefit from the intercourse, (dealings or communications,) with their white neighbors and the meetings that they have, state-wide meetings of county officials, municipal officials, and in fact, becoming part of the mainstream of American life without sacrificing their customs and traditions.
*Paraphrased from an interview of Ramon Roubideaux, a Brule Lakota, and given to historian J.H. Cash in 1968.
Within a few years of its passage by Congress, elections were held on each separate reservation to accept or reject the IRA. Cleverly, John Collier, (commissioner of Indian affairs in the 1930’s who was responsible for the new policy,) had gotten language into the bill stipulating that the Act was accepted as long as a majority of adults did not vote against it. This got around the issue of "traditional" Indians who saw cooperation of any kind with the federal government as an encroachment on sovereignty. Ultimately a majority of adult Indians on a majority of the existing reservations accepted the IRA--or did not outright reject it--with the significant exceptions of the Crows, the Klamath, and the Navajo, where a majority actually voted and chose to reject it.
Next, tribal constitutions needed to be drafted and accepted. With no background in constitutional government, most tribes were forced to rely on model constitutions drafted by the Interior Department. These, of course, had a distinctly Euro-American flavor and, not surprisingly, the majority of tribal constitutions ended up resembling each other.
The legacy of the Indian Reorganization Act is the incorporation of Indian tribes into businesses, allowing them to exist as financial entities. While tribes still operate under financial limitations that states do not, without this provision of the IRA Indian tribes could never have entered into gaming or any of the other financial ventures that have allowed some tribes to be lifted out from under the blanket of poverty. But the individual American Indian still does not have a right to self-determination as long as the IRA exists and Indian tribes and individual American Indians refuse to face reality. And that reality is, “the American Indian is a Ward-of-the-State, second-hand citizens who needs to be treated as unruly stepchildren.” ‡