By Daniel Cobb, Ph.D., The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
By the time of the Stock Market Crash of 1929, calls for reform from the Indian Country had gained momentum. All of this activism prepared the ground for the Indian New Deal, which President Franklin D Roosevelt inaugurated as part of the larger New Deal that he had promised all Americans upon taking office.
Natives and non-Natives turned back assaults on tribal land rights and religious freedom and dealt a significant blow to allotment and, to a lesser extent, assimilation. The loss of tribal sovereignty was not an acceptable cost of US citizenship. Due to this pressure, President Roosevelt inaugurated the Indian New Deal in 1933.
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Indian Reorganization Act
To oversee the Indian New Deal, Roosevelt turned to John Collier as his Commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Collier had already established himself as an outspoken advocate of Native rights, and, in fact, he had founded the American Indian Defense Association in 1923. Between 1933 and 1934, Collier worked with some of the best legal minds to devise the Indian Reorganization Act.
Introduced to Congress in February 1934, the Indian Reorganization Act, or IRA, sought foremost to end allotment. In its place, it proposed fostering self-government, reconsolidating the tribal land base, and promoting economic development.
The IRA provided for self-government through the adoption of tribal constitutions and bylaws. Tribes would draft constitutions on their own or with assistance, and then hold an election to determine whether they would be ratified.
The Indian Reorganization Act further turned the tide on allotment by extending the trust period for current allottees, withdrawing, and returning to tribal control surplus land that had been open for sale, and by providing $2 million annually for the repurchase and reconsolidation of land that had been fractionated by allotment.
And, in regard to economic development, the legislation called for a $10 million revolving loan fund—a figure that was later reduced to $2.5 million. Tribes that adopted constitutions could form business corporations to access this money and then engage in a number of business enterprises for the first time.
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The IRA Becomes a Law
In the spring of 1934, Collier convened a series of congresses across Indian Country to explain the Indian Reorganization Act and to get feedback from tribal communities.
While the reception might be best described as cautiously optimistic, Native people didn’t hesitate to critique Collier’s vision. Many argued that Indians accepted U.S. citizenship and learned how to be successful farmers and ranchers. Some feared the government would take their land away from them; a few even wondered aloud whether Collier might be a communist.
On the other hand, still others, such as former Society of American Indians (SAI) member and Omaha lawyer Thomas Sloan, took a different stance. They argued the IRA didn’t go far enough in reducing the federal government’s influence over tribal communities.
The Indian Reorganization Act became law in June 1934, and, when all was said and done, 181 tribes with a total population of 129,750 people voted to accept it. Seventy-seven tribes, with a population of 86,365, rejected it. Later iterations extended its provisions to Oklahoma Indians and Alaska Natives.
Learn more about allotment and assimilation.
The Tribal Nation Diné
Among the tribal nations rejecting the IRA were the Navajo or Diné. The Diné reservation stretched across parts of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado. Between 1863 and 1868, thousands of Diné were forced on the Long Walk from their homeland to incarceration at the desolate Bosque Redondo reservation in southeastern New Mexico.
In 1868, Diné leaders successfully negotiated a treaty that provided for their return to their ancestral homeland. “After 1868,” writes the Diné historian Jennifer Nez Denetdale, “the People came under American rule and were assaulted with American values about education, religion, family, health, and sexuality, many of which contradicted Navajo values.”
But the Diné also restored connections to family and place and rebuilt the nation.
Central to Diné identity, sustenance, and life ways were their livestock, especially goats and sheep. They served as markers of wealth for Diné women. Sheep also provided the source for an enormous weaving tradition, and sheepherding was the mainstay of Diné economies.
Not to be trivialized were the feelings of affection that Diné children felt toward these animals, as well.
Diné and Their Livestock
In 1868, the Diné had 14,000 sheep. By 1929, sheep and goats numbered 1.3 million. But soil erosion, drought, hard winters, and the intrusion of non-Native ranchers conspired against the Diné, and in 1933, the Soil Erosion Service and Bureau of Indian Affairs strong-armed Diné leaders into accepting forced stock reduction.
Federal officials, including Collier, argued that destroying the sheep and goats was necessary to bring the numbers in line with the carrying capacity of the land. Diné men and women responded that a better solution would be to expand the land base.
Nonetheless, beginning in 1933, the federal government initiated a decade-long program that reduced the Diné stock of goats and sheep by 50 percent. The experience proved traumatic to adults and children alike.
The Diné blamed Collier personally for the stock reduction, and their vote against the IRA can be read as much a rejection of Collier as the legislation.
Common Questions about the Impact of the Indian Reorganization Act
The Indian Reorganization Act sought foremost to end allotment. In its place, it proposed fostering self-government, reconsolidating the tribal land base, and promoting economic development.
The Indian Reorganization Act became law in June 1934.
The Diné reservation stretched across parts of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado.