An Overview of Federal Indian Policy History

American Indian occupation of Alcatraz Island, 1969-1971. Tewy, Courtesy Wikimedia Commons


Just as the United States has policies for things like the economy, foreign relations, education or emergency management, so it has always had a policy for dealing with Native Americans. For over 200 years it has been a shifting landscape shaped variously by the prevailing winds of political opinion and the balance of political and military power between tribal nations and America's settler government.
The United States as a colonial settler nation has depended upon its ability to manage its indigenous inhabitants, often to their detriment and less often to their benefit.


From the very beginning the United States negotiated treaties with tribal nations for two primary reasons: to secure agreements of peace and friendship and for land cessions in which the Indians gave large tracts of land to the U.S. for money and other benefits. The treaties also secured Indian rights to their own lands and resources, never compromising their independence. In all, the United States entered into 800 treaties; 430 of them were never ratified and of the 370 that were, every one was violated. Treaties didn't have expiration dates, and are still technically considered the law of the land. The treaty-making policy ended unilaterally by an act of Congress in 1871.


Despite treaty guarantees that Indian lands and resources would be theirs "for as long as the rivers flow, and the sun rises in the east" the massive influx of European settlers placed great pressure on the government to obtain more lands to accommodate their rapidly swelling numbers.
This, combined with the prevailing belief that Indians were inferior to whites, led to them being pushed off treaty-ceded lands in a policy of Removal, made famous by President Andrew Jackson and instigating the notorious Trail of Tears in the early 1830's.


By the 1880's the United States had gained the upper hand militarily and had been enacting laws that increasingly stripped away the rights of Indians.
Well-meaning (if not misguided) citizens and legislators formed groups such as the "Friends of the Indians" to advocate for a new policy that would once and for all assimilate Indians into American society. They pushed for a new law called the Dawes Act of 1887 which would have devastating effects on tribal communities. The law mandated children be sent away to boarding schools which would teach them the ways of white society while eliminating them of their Indian cultures. The law also turned out to be the mechanism for a massive land grab and approximately two-thirds of all Indian treaty lands were lost to white settlement during the Dawes years.


The plan to assimilate Indians into white America did not achieve its intended results but instead perpetuated poverty, contributed to alcoholism and a plethora of other negative social indicators. This was revealed in several studies during the 1920s and led to a new legislative approach to federal Indian policy which would grant tribal nations greater control of their lives, lands and resources through the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. One of the mandates of the IRA, however, was the imposition of American-style, boilerplate governments that were usually exceedingly inconsistent with traditional Native American cultures. It also ironically constituted an enormous amount of control exercised over internal tribal affairs, something that the law was theoretically designed to remedy.


Well into the 20th century legislators continued to grapple with the "Indian problem." The conservative political environment of the 1950s saw yet another attempt to finally assimilate Indians into the fabric of American society through a policy that would terminate the United States' treaty responsibility to American Indians by breaking up the reservations. Part of the termination policy involved the creation of a Relocation Program which resulted in tens of thousands of Indians being transferred to cities for low wage jobs and provided for with one-way tickets. All of this was carried out through a rhetoric of freedom from federal supervision. More tribal land was lost to private ownership and many tribes lost their treaty-guaranteed rights.


The Civil Rights era marked an important turning point in federal Indian policy. The mobilization of Indian rights activists in the late 1960's brought to national attention the failure of past policies with the actions of the Alcatraz Island occupation, the Wounded Knee conflict, the fish-ins in the Pacific Northwest and others. President Nixon would declare the repudiation of the termination policy and institute instead a policy of self-determination in a series of laws that bolstered tribal sovereignty primarily through the ability of tribes to maintain control over federal resources. However, throughout the decades since the 1980's Congress and the Supreme Court have acted in ways that continues to threaten tribal self-determination in what some scholars have called a new policy of "forced federalism." Forced federalism chips away at tribal sovereignty by subjecting tribal nations to state and local jurisdictions against the constitutional mandate that prevents states' interference into tribal affairs.


Wilkins, David. American Indian Politics and the American Political System. New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2007.

Corntassel, Jeff and Richard C. Witmer II. Forced Federalism: Contemporary Challenges to Indigenous Nationhood. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008.

Inouye, Senator Daniel. Preface: Exiled in the Land of the Free. Santa Fe: Clearlight Publishers, 1992.

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Gilio-Whitaker, Dina. "An Overview of Federal Indian Policy History." ThoughtCo, Mar. 3, 2017, Gilio-Whitaker, Dina. (2017, March 3). An Overview of Federal Indian Policy History. Retrieved from Gilio-Whitaker, Dina. "An Overview of Federal Indian Policy History." ThoughtCo. (accessed April 23, 2018).