The attempts to change the way the state treated Native Americans began with the Roosevelt’s New Deal, which initiated different conservation projects and public works programs aimed at creating the conditions that enabled people’s survival (North Dakota State Government, n.d.). Even though the programs functioned, Native American people in reservations were not free since the Bureau of Indian Affairs controlled the trading process and many families had to sell the cattle at a cheap price defined by the Bureau (North Dakota State Government, n.d.). As the country underwent the chain of political reforms at that time, John Collier, commissioner of Indian Affairs, decided to make another one in order to improve the situation in the Indian communities (North Dakota State Government, n.d.). Therefore, in 1934, he suggested initiating Indian Reorganization Act in order to change the way local and state government cooperated with Indian tribes. The purpose of the Act was to guarantee new rights for Native Americans: allow them to control their lands and assets, stop the exhaustion of the sources in reservations, create favorable economic conditions for the inhabitants of the reservations, and return the tribal self-government (Arizona State University, n.d.). Collier wanted the tribal councils to participate in the federal decision-making that referred to life of Native Americans (North Dakota State Government, n.d.). The first lines of the document inform that the purpose of the Act was to conserve and develop Indian lands and resources; to extend to Indians the right to form business and other organizations; to establish a credit system for Indians; to grant certain rights of home rule to Indians; to provide for vocational education for Indians; and for other purposes. (Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America, 1934)
Even though the intentions of the document compilers were positive, the situation turned out to be quite different from expectations. The tribes needed to prepare their individual constitutions and obtain the approval of the government. The document should have guaranteed the autonomy of the reservation. However, the reality was that the non-Indian people drafted almost all Indian constitutions in Washington, whereas Native American tribal councils needed to only approve or disapprove them without contributing to their texts (North Dakota State Government, n.d.). The problem was that the constitutions did not present the traditional Native American governance but reminded the traditional form of government of the country. Moreover, the Bureau of Indian Affairs remained the institution that could either approve or disapprove the decisions of the tribal governments (North Dakota State Government, n.d.). Therefore, the autonomy was only a promise unfulfilled in real life.
The reservations were going through a difficult period in their economies at that time. They required funds in order to make the needed reorganization of lands and stimulate the economic development of the tribe. Since those tribes that agreed to accept the terms of the Act and had new constitutions could get a loan, many Native American reservations had no other choice than to follow the Act (North Dakota State Government, n.d.). Almost 160 tribes decided to implement the constitutions suggested in the Act (Arizona State University, n.d.).
Despite the fact that the document guaranteed tribal self-governance only on paper, it also brought some positive changes. The first important aspect is that it did not impose the application of alterations in tribal government organization, thus, those tribes that disapproved the suggestions did not need to follow the recommendations of the Act. Moreover, the further erosion of land stopped as in 20 years after Collier compiled the Indian New Deal, Native Americans received their land back (Arizona State University, n.d.).
The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 was a major attempt to reorganize the life in Indian reservations in order to promote their further economic, educational, and cultural development. Although the Act should have stimulated the tribal autonomy and self-governance, the reservations remained under control of local and federal governments. The Bureau of Indian Affairs continued to control the decisions of the tribal councils. However, the Wheeler-Howard Act brought some amendments as well. Native Americans got back the greatest part of the land taken from them earlier, and further erosion of land stopped. In addition to that, tribes that adopted their constitutions could take loans to develop their economies. Therefore, despite some unsuccessful moments, the Act managed to change the situation a little.
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