By Daniel Cobb, Ph.D., The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
The Indian Reorganization Act was introduced to Congress in February 1934. It proposed fostering self-government, reconsolidating the tribal land base, and promoting economic development. It also provided for self-government through the adoption of tribal constitutions and bylaws. But, the tribal nations that adopted the Indian Reorganization Act met with mixed results.
Stockbridge-Munsee in Wisconsin
In Wisconsin, the intersection between the introduction of the Indian Reorganization Act, or IRA, and a grassroots movement for federal recognition among the Stockbridge-Munsee led to a vote of 166 to 1 in favor of the legislation.
The Stockbridge-Munsee, descendants of displaced Mohicans and Munsee Delawares from the East, lost all of their land and federal acknowledgment during the 1920s. But they were able to use the new law— along with the Federal Emergency Relief Administration and the Farm Security Administration—to restore 15,000 acres of their former reservation, bolster self-government, and spark a period of political and economic renewal.
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Native tribes in the South experienced the IRA differently.
In North Carolina, the Lumbee, an unrecognized tribe located in Robeson County, responded eagerly to what they believed to be an opportunity to organize and gain federal recognition through the new law.
However, John Collier, who was instrumental in bringing the IRA to effect, operated under the assumption that to be considered Indian a person had to be one of three things: a member of a federally recognized tribe; a descendent of a member of a recognized tribe and living on a reservation; or one-half or more Indian blood, whether or not they resided on a reservation.
After subjecting Lumbees to a variety of tests, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) rejected their effort to organize under the auspices of the IRA.
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The Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians
The Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians lived in similar circumstances, particularly in regard to their need to define a third space for their Indian identity in a biracial world that segregated black from white.
After the Choctaws voted to approve the IRA in 1934, some of them organized the Mississippi Choctaw Indian Federation and adopted a constitution. At the same time, the local BIA agent took it upon himself to organize a separate representative body called the Tribal Business Committee. The debate that followed among the Mississippi Band was not about whether self-government was a good idea, but on whose terms self-government would be exercised.
Despite their use of strikes, boycotts, and petitions, the Mississippi Choctaw Indian Federation lost out to what became the officially sanctioned tribal council in 1945—and then only after the Shell Oil Company wanted to access Choctaw oil. The federal government swiftly reclassified Choctaw farm allotments as a reservation; the Choctaws were officially acknowledged as a tribe under the IRA, and a newly-formed council formed to negotiate the oil leases.
Pine Ridge and Rosebud Reservations in South Dakota
Like many other tribal nations, the Lakota in the Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations in South Dakota, were divided over whether to engage in treaties with the United States, accept reservation life, embrace Christianity, adopt Western forms of education, and practice farming and ranching. They also disagreed over who had the political authority and on what grounds to make decisions for their community, with some pointing to traditional means of reckoning leadership and others pointing to the favor they held in the eyes of the federal government.
The tribal councils formed under the auspices of the IRA at Pine Ridge and Rosebud were not representative of traditional forms of government. And because of that, Collier’s version of self-government seemed to many Lakotas to be a mechanism through which the federal bureaucracy legitimated itself by creating only an illusion of grassroots support.
Moreover, the locus of power remained outside even that tribal government—with the agency superintendent. Making matters worse, the secretary of the interior retained the right to review and approve or reject the decisions made by the tribal councils. Needless to say, this wasn’t self-government, and it led to decades of conflict at Pine Ridge, Rosebud, and in many other Native nations.
Nevertheless, in the final analysis, the Indian Reorganization Act provided a more compelling vision of the future than either allotment or assimilation, and it established, if imperfectly, the expectation for self-government, land reconsolidation, and on-reservation economic development.
It is important to acknowledge, though, that the Indian New Deal had many other dimensions other than just the IRA.
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Other Aspects of the Indian New Deal
The Indian Division of the Civilian Conservation Corps provided much-needed direct relief by putting thousands of Native people to work on conservation projects across the West.
Meanwhile, the Works Progress Administration or WPA provided jobs building homes, renovating schools, and constructing roads, while also supporting American Indian writers and artists through the Federal Writers and Federal Art Projects. Moreover, the Indian New Deal helped open the door to the protection of property rights based on aboriginal land claims and the acceptance of oral tradition as legitimate evidence in legal cases.
Without the tenacity of Native people through the early 20th century and their persistent calls for reform, the Indian New Deal may not have happened at all. If it had, it may simply have been full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Common Questions about the Adoption of the Indian Reorganization Act and Its Results
The Indian Reorganization Act, along with the Federal Emergency Relief Administration and the Farm Security Administration, helped the Stockbridge-Munsee to restore 15,000 acres of their former reservation, bolster self-government, and spark a period of political and economic renewal.
John Collier believed that to be considered Indian a person had to be one of three things: a member of a federally recognized tribe; a descendent of a member of a recognized tribe and living on a reservation; or one-half or more Indian blood, whether or not they resided on a reservation.
The Indian New Deal had many other dimensions, such as the Indian Division of the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration.