Indian Reorganization Act: A ‘New Deal’ for American Indians

American Indians in full ceremonial dress performing a traditional dance.
Dancers compete at an annual powwow to honor veterans from the Sioux Lakota tribe on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. Getty Images

The Indian Reorganization Act, or the Wheeler-Howard Act, was legislation enacted by the U.S. Congress on June 18, 1934, intended to loosen federal government control over American Indians. The act sought to reverse the government’s long-standing policy of forcing Indians to abandon their culture and assimilate into American society by allowing the tribes a greater degree of self-government and encouraging the retention of historic Indian culture and traditions.

Key Takeaways: Indian Reorganization Act

  • The Indian Reorganization Act, signed into law by President Franklin Roosevelt on June 18, 1934, loosened U.S. government control of American Indians.
  • The act sought to help Indians retain their historic culture and traditions rather than being forced to abandon them and assimilating into American society.
  • The act also allowed and encouraged the Indian tribes to govern themselves while increasing the federal government’s efforts to improve living conditions on Indian reservations.
  • While many tribal leaders praised the act as the “Indian New Deal,” others criticized it for its shortcomings and failure to realize its potential.

The act returned control of the land and mineral rights to former Indian lands back to the tribes and sought to improve the economic condition of the Indian reservations. The law did not apply to Hawaii, and a similar law passed in 1936 applied to Indians in Alaska and Oklahoma, where no reservations remained.

In 1930, the U.S. census counted 332,000 American Indians in the 48 states, including those living on and off reservations. Due largely to the Indian Reorganization Act, government spending on Indian affairs increased from $23 million in 1933 to over $38 million in 1940. In 2019, the U.S. federal budget included $2.4 billion for programs serving the American Indian and Alaska Native population.

While many tribal leaders hail the Indian Reorganization Act as the “Indian New Deal,” others, saying that it actually had a negative effect on Indians, called it the “Indian Raw Deal.”

Historical Background

In 1887, Congress had enacted the Dawes Act, intended to force Native American Indians to assimilate into U.S. society by abandoning their cultural and social traditions. Under the Dawes Act, some ninety million acres of tribal land was taken from Native Americans by the U.S. government and sold to the public. The Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 had granted full U.S. citizenship only to American-born Indians living on reservations. 

In 1924, Congress recognized Native American’s service in World War I by authorizing the Meriam Survey assessing the quality of life on the reservations. For example, the report found that while the average national per capita income in 1920 was $1,350, the average Native American made only $100 a year. The report blamed U.S. Indian policy under the Dawes Act for contributing to such poverty. The abysmal conditions on Indian reservations detailed in the Meriam Report of 1928 drew sharp criticism of the Dawes Act and drove demands for reform.

Passage and Implementation

The Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) was championed in Congress by John Collier, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). Long a critic of forced assimilation, Collier hoped the act would help American Indians govern themselves, retain their tribal reservation lands, and become economically self-sufficient.

As proposed by Collier, the IRA met stiff opposition in Congress, as many influential private-sector interests had profited greatly from the sale and management of Native American lands under the Dawes Act. In order to gain passage, supporters of the IRA agreed to allow the BIA, within the Department of Interior (DOI), to retain oversight of the tribes and reservations.

While the act did not terminate existing private-sector ownership of any Indian reservation lands, it did allow the U.S. government to buy back some of the privately owned lands and restore it to Indian tribal trusts. In the first 20 years after its passage, the IRA resulted in the return of more than two million acres of land to the tribes. However, by not disturbing existing private ownership of reservation lands, the reservations emerged as patchwork quilts of privately- and tribally-controlled land, a situation which persists today.

Constitutional Challenges

Since the enactment of the Indian Reorganization Act, the U.S. Supreme Court has been asked to address its constitutionality on several occasions. The court challenges have typically arisen from a provision of the IRA under which the U.S. government is allowed to acquire non-Indian land by voluntary transfer and convert it into Indian land held in federal trusts. These lands may then be used for certain activities intended to benefit the tribes, such as Las Vegas-style casinos in states that do not otherwise allow gambling. Such Indian tribal lands also become exempt from most state taxes. As a result, state and local governments, as well as individuals and businesses objecting to the impacts of large Indian casinos, often sue to block the action.

Legacy: New Deal or Raw Deal?

In many ways, the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) succeeded in delivering its promise of being the “Indian New Deal.” It directed funds from President Roosevelt’s actual Great Depression-era New Deal programs toward improving conditions on the Indian reservations that had suffered under the Dawes Act and encouraged renewed public appreciation and respect for Native American culture and traditions. The IRA made funds available to help Native American groups buy tribal lands lost to the Dawes Act’s allotment program. It also required that Indians be given first consideration for filling Bureau of Indian Affairs jobs on the reservations.

However, many historians and tribal leaders argue that the IRA failed American Indians in many aspects. First, the act assumed that most Indians would want to remain on their tribal reservations if the living conditions on them were improved. As a result, Indians who wanted to fully assimilate into white society resented the degree of “paternalism” the IRA would allow the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) to hold over them. Today, many Indians say the IRA created a “back-to-the-blanket” policy intended to keep them on the reservations as little more than “living museum exhibits.”

While the act allowed Indians a degree of self-government, it pushed the tribes to adopt U.S.–style governments. Tribes that adopted written constitutions similar to the U.S. Constitution and replaced their governments with U.S. city council-like governments were given generous federal subsidies. In most cases, however, the new tribal constitutions lacked provisions for separation of powers, often resulting in friction with Indian elders.

While funding for the needs of Indians increased due to the IRA, the annual budget for the Bureau of Indian Affairs remained inadequate to deal with the growing demands of economic development for the reservations or to provide adequate health and educational facilities. Few individual Indians or reservations were able to become financially self-sustaining.

According to Native American historian Vine Deloria Jr., while the IRA provided opportunities for Indian revitalization, its promises were never fully realized. In his 1983 book “American Indians, American Justice,” Deloria noted, “Many of the old customs and traditions that could have been restored under the IRA climate of cultural concern had vanished during the interim period since the tribes had gone to the reservations.” In addition, he noted that the IRA eroded reservation Indians’ experience of self-government based on Indian traditions. “Familiar cultural groupings and methods of choosing leadership gave way to the more abstract principles of American democracy, which viewed people as interchangeable and communities as geographical marks on a map.”

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