Indian Reorganization Act

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Indian Reorganization Act
Great Seal of the United States
Other short titles
  • Indian New Deal
  • Indian Reorganization Act of 1934
Long title An Act 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.
Nicknames Wheeler-Howard Act
Enacted by the 73rd United States Congress
Effective June 18, 1934
Public law 73-383
Statutes at Large 48 Stat. 984
Titles amended 25 U.S.C.: Indians
U.S.C. sections created 25 U.S.C. ch. 14, subch. V § 461 et seq.
Legislative history
  • Introduced in the Senate as S. 3645 by Burton K. Wheeler (D-MT) on May 22, 1934
  • Passed the Senate on June 12, 1934 (passed)
  • Passed the House on June 15, 1934 (284-101)
  • Reported by the joint conference committee on June 15, 1934; agreed to by the Senate on June 16, 1934 (agreed) and by the House on June 16, 1934 (agreed)
  • Signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on June 18, 1934

The Indian Reorganization Act of June 18, 1934, or the Wheeler-Howard Act, was U.S. federal legislation that dealt with the status of Native Americans (known in law as American Indians or Indians). It was the centerpiece of what has been often called the "Indian New Deal." The major goal was to reverse the traditional goal of assimilation of Indians into American society, and to strengthen, encourage and perpetuate the tribes and their historic traditions and culture. The Act also restored to Indians the management of their assets—land and mineral rights—and included provisions intended to create a sound economic foundation for the inhabitants of Indian reservations. The law did not apply to Hawaii; Alaska and Oklahoma were added in 1936. The census counted 332,000 Indians in 1930 and 334,000 in 1940, including those on and off reservations in the 48 states. Total spending on Indians averaged $38 million a year in the late 1920s, dropping to a low of $23 million in 1933, and returning to $38 million in 1940.[1]

The IRA was the most significant initiative of John Collier, Commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) from 1933 to 1945. He had crusaded on Indian issues in the 1920s particularly with the American Indian Defense Association. He intended to reverse assimilationist policies and provide ways for American Indians to re-establish sovereignty and self-government, to reduce the losses of reservation lands, and establish ways for Indians to build economic self-sufficiency. He saw Indian traditional culture as superior to that of modern America, and thought it worthy of emulation. The proposals were highly controversial at the time, and ever since. Congress revised Collier's proposals and preserved oversight by the BIA .

The self-government provisions would automatically go into effect for a tribe unless a clear majority of the eligible Indians voted it down. When approved, a tribe would adopt a variation of the model constitution drafted by BIA lawyers. Of the tribes that voted on the IRA, 174 voted yes and 78 rejected it.

History of IRA

What is the IRA? Check the Wiki page.


At the time the Act passed, it was United States policy to eliminate Indian reservations, dividing their territory and distributing it to individual Indians to own like any other person, in a process called "allotment." Before allotment, reservation territory was not owned in the usual western sense, but was reserved for the benefit of entire Indian tribes, with its benefits apportioned to tribe members according to tribal law and custom. Generally, Indians held the land in a communal fashion. It was not possible for any non-Indian to own land on reservations, a fact which limited the value of the land to the Indians (It reduced the market for it).

The process of allotment started with the General Allotment Act of 1887, and by 1934, two thirds of Indian land had converted to traditional private ownership (i.e. it was owned in fee simple) and most of that had been sold by its Indian allottee. The IRA provided a mechanism for the recovery of land that had been sold—including land that had been sold to tribal Indians, who would thereby lose their property.

John Collier was appointed Commissioner of the Indian Bureau (it is now called the Bureau of Indian Affairs, BIA) in April 1933 by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He had the unwavering support of his boss Secretary Secretary of the Interior, Harold L. Ickes, who was himself an expert on Indian issues.[2]

The federal government held land in trust for many tribes. Numerous claims cases had been presented to Congress because of failures in the government's management of such lands. There were particular grievances and claims due to the government's failure to provide for sustainable forestry. The Indian Claims Act included a requirement that the Interior Department manage Indian forest resources "on the principle of sustained-yield management." Representative Edgar Howard of Nebraska, co-sponsor of the Act and Chairman of the House Committee on Indian Affairs, explained that the purpose of the provision was "to assure a proper and permanent management of the Indian Forest" under modern sustained-yield methods so as to "assure that the Indian forests will be permanently productive and will yield continuous revenues to the tribes."[3]

Implementation and results

The act slowed the practice of allotting communal tribal lands to individual tribal members. It did not restore to Indians land that had already been patented to individuals, but much land at the time was still unallotted or was allotted to an individual but still held in trust for that individual by the U.S. government. Because the Act did not disturb existing private ownership of Indian reservation lands, it left reservations a checkerboard of tribal or individual trust and fee land, which remains the case today. .

However, the Act also allowed the U.S. to purchase some of the fee land and restore it to tribal trust status. Due to the Act and other actions of federal courts and the government, over two million acres (8,000 km²) of land were returned to various tribes in the first 20 years after passage.

In 1954, the United States Department of the Interior (DOI) began implementing the termination and relocation phases of the Act, which had been added by Congress and represented the continuing interest by some of having American Indians assimilate to the majority society. Among other effects, termination resulted in the legal dismantling of 61 tribal nations within the United States and ending their recognized relationships with the federal government. This also ended the eligibility of the tribal nations and their members for various government programs to assist American Indians.[4]

Constitutional challenges

Since the late 20th century and the rise of Indian activism over sovereignty issues, as well as many tribes' establishment of casino gambling on reservations as a revenue source, the US Supreme Court has been repeatedly asked to address the IRA's constitutionality. The provision of the Act that is controversial is the one that allows the US government to acquire non-Indian land (by voluntary transfer) and convert it to Indian land ("take it into trust"). In so doing, the US government partially removes the land from the jurisdiction of the state, which makes certain activities, such as casino gambling, possible on the land that wouldn't otherwise be. It also makes the land exempt from state property taxes and some other state taxes. Consequently, many people oppose implementation of this part of the Act and, typically represented by state or local governments, they sue to prevent it.

In 1995, South Dakota challenged the authority of the Interior Secretary, under the IRA, to take 91 acres (370,000 m2) of land into trust on behalf of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe (based on the Lower Brule Indian Reservation), in South Dakota v. United States Dep't of the Interior, 69 F.3d 878, 881-85 (8th Cir. 1995). The Eighth Circuit found Section 5 of the IRA to be unconstitutional, ruling that it violated the non-delegation doctrine and that the Secretary of Interior did not have the authority to take the land into trust.[5]

The US Department of the Interior (DOI) sought U.S. Supreme Court review. But, as DOI was implementing new regulations related to land trusts, the agency asked the Court to remand the case to the lower court, to be reconsidered with the decision to be based on the new regulations. The US Supreme Court granted Interior's petition, vacated the lower court's ruling, and remanded the case back to the lower court.[5]

Justices Scalia, O'Connor and Thomas dissented, stating that "[t]he decision today—to grant, vacate, and remand in light of the Government's changed position—is both unprecedented and inexplicable." They went on, "[W]hat makes today's action inexplicable as well as unprecedented is the fact that the Government's change of legal position does not even purport to be applicable to the present case."[6] Seven months after the Supreme Court's decision to grant, vacate, and remand, the DOI removed the land in question from trust.[5]

In 1997, the Lower Brulé Sioux submitted an amended trust application to DOI, requesting that the United States take the 91 acres (370,000 m2) of land into trust on the Tribe's behalf. South Dakota challenged this in 2004 in district court, which upheld DOI's authority to take the land in trust. The state appealed to the Eighth Circuit, but when the court reexamined the constitutionality issue, it upheld the constitutionality of Section 5 in agreement with the lower court. The US Supreme Court denied the State's petition for certiorari. Since then, district and circuit courts have rejected non-delegation claims by states. The Supreme Court refused to hear the issue in 2008.[5]

In 2008 (before the US Supreme Court heard the Carcieri case below), in MichGO v Kempthorne, Judge Janice Rogers Brown of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals wrote a dissent stating that she would have struck down key provisions of the IRA. Of the three circuit courts to address the IRA's constitutionality, Judge Brown is the only judge to dissent on the IRA's constitutionality. The majority opinion upheld its constitutionality.[7] The U.S. Supreme Court did not accept the MichGO case for review, thus keeping the previous precedent in place. The First, Eighth and Tenth Circuits of the U.S. Court of Appeals have upheld the constitutionality of the IRA.[8]

In 2008, Carcieri v Kempthorne was argued before the U.S. Supreme Court; the Court ruled on it in 2009, with the decision called Carcieri v. Salazar.[9] In 1991, the Narragansett Indian tribe bought 31 acres (130,000 m2) of land. They requested that the DOI take it into trust, which the agency did in 1998, thus exempting it from many state laws. The State was concerned that the tribe would open a casino or tax-free business on the land and sued to block the transfer. The state argued that the IRA did not apply because the Narragansett was not "now under federal jurisdiction" as of 1934, as distinguished from "federally recognized."[10] In fact, the Narragansett had been placed under Rhodes Island guardianship since 1709. In 1880, the tribe relinquished its tribal authority to Rhodes Island. The tribe did not receive federal recognition until 1980, after the 1934 passage of the IRA. The US Supreme Court agreed with the State.

In a challenge to the U.S. DOI's decision to take land into trust for the Oneida Indian Nation in present-day New York, Upstate Citizens for Equality (UCE), New York, Oneida County, Madison County, the town of Verona, the town of Vernon, and others argue that the IRA is unconstitutional.[11] Most recently, Judge Kahn dismissed UCE's complaint, including the failed theory that the IRA is unconstitutional, on the basis of longstanding and settled law on this issue.[12]

Approval by tribes

Section 18 of the IRA required that members of the affected Indian nation or tribe vote on whether to accept it within one year of the effective date of the act (25 U.S.C. 478), and had to approve it by a majority. There was confusion about who should be allowed to vote on creating new governments, as many non-Indians lived on reservations many Indians owned no land there, and also over the effect of abstentions. Under the voting rules, abstentions were counted as yes votes,[13] but in Oglala Lakota culture, for example, abstention had traditionally equaled a no vote. The resulting confusion caused disputes on many reservations about the results. When the final results were in, 172 tribes had accepted the act, and 73 had rejected it.[14] The largest tribe, the Navajo, had been badly hurt by the federal Navajo Livestock Reduction Program, which took away half their livestock and jailed dissenters. They strongly opposed the act, John Collier the chief promoter, and the entire Indian New Deal.[15] Historian Brian Dippie notes that the Indian Rights Association denounced Collier as a 'dictator' and accused him of a "near reign of terror" on the Navajo reservation. Dippie adds that, "He became an object of 'burning hatred' among the very people whose problems so preoccupied him."[16]


Historians have mixed reactions to the Indian New Deal. Many praise Collier's energy and his initiative. Philp praised Collier's Indian New Deal for protecting Indian freedom to engage in traditional religious practices, obtaining additional relief money for reservations, providing a structure for self-government, and enlisting the help of anthropologists who respected traditional cultures. However, he concludes that the Indian New Deal was unable to stimulate economic progress nor did it provide a usable structure for Indian politics. Philp argues these failures gave ammunition to the return to the previous policy of termination that took place after Collier resigned in 1945.[17] In surveying the scholarly literature, Schwartz concludes that there is:

a near consensus among historians of the Indian New Deal that Collier temporarily rescued Indian communities from federal abuses and helped Indian people survive the Depression but also damaged Indian communities by imposing his own social and political ideas on them.[18]

Collier's reputation among the Indians was mixed—praised by some, vilified by others.[19] He antagonized the Navajo, the largest tribe as well as the Seneca people,[20] Iroquois, and many others.[21] Anthropologists criticized him for not recognizing the diversity of Native American lifestyles.[20] Hauptman argues that his emphasis on Northern Pueblo arts and crafts and the uniformity of his approach to all tribes are partly explained by his belief that his tenure as Commissioner would be short, meaning that packaging large, lengthy legislative reforms seemed politically necessary.[22]

The Reorganization Act was wide-ranging legislation authorizing tribal self-rule under federal supervision, putting an end to land allotment and generally promoting measures to enhance tribes and encouraging education.[23]

Having described the American society as "physically, religiously, socially, and aesthetically shattered, dismembered, directionless",[24] Collier was later criticized for his romantic views about the moral superiority of traditional society as opposed to modernity.[25] Philp says after his experience at the Taos Pueblo, Collier "made a lifelong commitment to preserve tribal community life because it offered a cultural alternative to modernity....His romantic stereotyping of Indians often did not fit the reality of contemporary tribal life."[26]

The act has helped conserve the communal tribal land bases. Collier supporters blame Congress for altering the legislation proposed by Collier, so that it has not been as successful as possible. On many reservations, its provisions exacerbated longstanding differences between traditionals and those who had adopted more European-American ways. Many Native Americans believe their traditional systems of government were better for their culture.[27]

See also


  1. US Bureau of the Census, Statistical Abstract of the United States: 1951 (1951) pp 14, 306
  2. T. H. Watkins, Righteous Pilgrim: The Life and Times of Harold L. Ickes, 1874-1952 (1990) pp 530-48.
  3. Shaunnagh Dorsett; Lee Godden (1998). A Guide to Overseas Precedents of Relevance to Native Title. Aboriginal Studies Press. p. 228.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Canby, William (2004). American Indian Law, p. 24. ISBN 0-314-14640-7
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 South Dakota v. Dept. of Interior (1995), Department of Justice
  6. Dep't of the Interior v South Dakota, 519 U.S. 919, 919-20, 136 L. Ed. 2d 205, 117 S. Ct. 286 (1996)
  7. United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit MichGO v Kempthorne<--dead link
  8. Carcieri v Kempthorne, 497 F.3d 15, 43 (1st Cir. 2007), overruled as Carcieri v. Salazar (U.S. Supreme Court); South Dakota v United States Dep't of Interior, 423 F.3d 790, 798-99 (8th Cir. 2007); Shivwits Band of Paiute Indians v. Utah, 428 F.3d 966, 974 (10th Cir. 2005).
  9. 555 U.S. 379 (Feb. 24, 2009)
  10. Carcieri ("[i]n 1934, the Narragansett Indian Tribe ... was neither federally recognized nor under the jurisdiction of the federal government.")
  11. Actual Complaint filed in court
  12. "Judge dismisses citizen-group's claims", Utica OD
  13. Terry Anderson, Sovereign Nations or Reservations: An Economic History of American Indians. Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy 1995, p. 143
  14. T. H. Watkins, Righteous Pilgrim: The Life and Times of Harold L. Ickes, 1874-1952 (1990) p 541
  15. Donald A. Grinde Jr, "Navajo Opposition to the Indian New Deal." Integrated Education (1981) 19#3-6 pp: 79-87.
  16. Brian W. Dippie, The Vanishing American: White Attitudes and U.S. Indian Policy (1991) pp 333-36, quote p 335
  17. Kenneth R. Philp, "Termination: A Legacy of the Indian New Deal." Western Historical Quarterly (1983) pp: 165-180.
  18. E. A. Schwartz, "Red Atlantis Revisited: Community and Culture in the Writings of John Collier," American Indian Quarterly (1994) 18#45 p 508.
  19. Wallis & Parsons 2001, p. 78.
  20. 20.0 20.1 Hauptman 1979, pp. 15-22; 60-62.
  21. Hauptman 1988, p. xii.
  22. Hauptman 1988, p. xii, 29.
  23. Graham D. Taylor, The New Deal and American Indian Tribalism: The Administration of the Indian Reorganization Act, 1934-45 (U of Nebraska Press, 1980), ch 1.
  24. John Collier, "Does the Government Welcome the Indian Arts?" The American Magazine of Art. Anniversary Supplement vol. 27, no. 9, Part 2 (1934): 10-13
  25. Stephen J. Kunitz, "The social philosophy of John Collier." Ethnohistory (1971): 213-229. in JSTOR
  26. Kenneth R. Philp. "Collier, John" American National Biography Online Feb. 2000. Access Date: May 05 2015
  27. William Canby, American Indian Law (2004) p 25.

Further reading

  • Blackman, Jon S. Oklahoma's Indian New Deal. (University of Oklahoma Press, 2013)
  • Clemmer, Richard O. "Hopis, Western Shoshones, and Southern Utes: Three Different Responses to the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934." American Indian culture and research journal (1986) 10#2: 15-40.
  • Kelly, Lawrence C. "The Indian Reorganization Act: The Dream and the Reality." Pacific Historical Review (1975): 291-312. in JSTOR
  • Kelly, L. C. The Assault on Assimilation: John Collier and the Origins of Indian Policy Reform. (University of New Mexico Press, 1963)
  • Kelly, William Henderson, ed. Indian Affairs and the Indian Reorganization Act: The Twenty Year Record (University of Arizona, 1954)
  • Koppes, Clayton R. "From New Deal to Termination: Liberalism and Indian Policy, 1933-1953." Pacific Historical Review (1977): 543-566. in JSTOR
  • Parman, Donald Lee. The Navajos and the New Deal (Yale University Press, 1976)
  • Philp, K. R. John Collier and the American Indian, 1920–1945. (Michigan State University Press, 1968)
  • Philp, K. R. John Collier's Crusade for Indian Reform, 1920-1954. (University of Arizona Press, 1977)
  • Philp, Kenneth R. "Termination: a legacy of the Indian new deal." Western Historical Quarterly (1983): 165-180. in JSTOR
  • Rusco, Elmer R. A fateful time: the background and legislative history of the Indian Reorganization Act (University of Nevada Press, 2000)
  • Taylor, Graham D. The New Deal and American Indian Tribalism: The Administration of the Indian Reorganization Act, 1934-45 (U of Nebraska Press, 1980)

Primary sources

  • Deloria, Vine, ed. The Indian Reorganization Act: Congresses and Bills (University of Oklahoma Press, 2002)

External links