For Americans mired in the hardships of the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt devised a set of widespread economic relief programs he called the New Deal. For Native Americans already suffering from generations of harsh government treatment, his administration launched the less well-known “Indian New Deal,” a corollary initiative designed to specifically help Native communities. F.D.R. signed into law its centerpiece, the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA), on June 18, 1934.

The legislation marked a sharp U-turn in federal policy toward Indigenous peoples.

Ever since its formation, the American government had waged war on tribal groups, driven them from their ancestral lands and forced them to culturally assimilate. By the early 20th century, many surviving Native people lived in destitution on barren, isolated reservations. In 1920, they earned, on average, just $100 per capita annually, compared with $1,350 for the average American, according to a government report. Tribal communities had limited access to mainstream education or economic opportunity. Their traditions, evolved over millennia, ran the risk of disappearing.

The Indian Reorganization Act (IRA), also known as the Wheeler–Howard Act, was the first government legislation designed to help protect Native lands, safeguard tribal sovereignty and empower tribes with self-rule. It fostered jobs and supported traditional culture. It wasn’t without its critics, but the bill represented significant change.

“It is, in the main, a measure of justice that is long overdue,” Roosevelt wrote to Congress in 1934. “We can and should, without further delay, extend to the Indian the fundamental rights of political liberty and local self-government and the opportunities of education and economic assistance that they require in order to attain a wholesome American life. This is but the obligation of honor of a powerful Nation toward a people living among us and dependent upon our protection.”

John Collier: An Advocate for Tribal People in Washington

The driving force behind the Indian New Deal was Roosevelt’s commissioner of Indian Affairs, John Collier. A social reformer who saw Indian cultures as superior to industrialized American culture, he pushed to preserve traditional Indigenous lands, lifeways and world views.

Collier, who spent time among the Pueblo cultures of the Southwest in the 1920s, had helped form an advocacy group called the American Indian Defense Association in 1923. Ten years later, he carried its goals with him to Washington as Roosevelt’s commissioner. His agenda included advancing educational opportunities for Indians, establishing credit for native farmers and providing protections for Indian lands that were being exploited by powerful business interests and bought by settlers.

Returning Lands, Growing Jobs and Education

The primary power of the Indian Reorganization Act came from the abolition of the 1887 Dawes Act. The federal legislation had broken up Native lands, destroyed tribal cohesion and led to the sale of 90 million acres—some two-thirds—of Indian territory to white settlers and business interests. The IRA also provided a mechanism that allowed the federal government to buy back 2 million acres to return to the tribes.

To help preserve Indigenous arts and culture, Collier decriminalized Indian spiritual practices, banned since the 1880s. He hired anthropologists and photographers to study and document tribes and their languages. The Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1935 provided protections for authentic Native American art and fostered economic development through art sales from Indian communities. Work relief projects commissioned Native artists to create public art across the U.S. and put others to work creating blankets, pottery and other handicrafts for sale.

In addition, the Indian New Deal began closing the boarding schools where Native children had been sent to unlearn their traditional ways. It facilitated the building of 100 community day schools on tribal lands and hired ethnographers to create school lessons in tribal languages.

Two men in work clothes standing outside, astride a wooden totem pole figure of Abraham Lincoln
Corbis via Getty Images
Tlingit Tribe assistant leaders Charles Brown, right, and James Starrish stand with the top of a totem pole carved to look like Abraham Lincoln. The two men were part of the Indian Civilian Conservation Corps that restored totem poles in Alaska.

The Indian New Deal also included a push for much-needed Native employment. Indians were designated as preferred employees for any Bureau of Indian Affairs jobs on Indian lands. And more than 85,000 Native men enrolled in the Civilian Conservation Corps’ Indian Division between 1933 and 1942, building roads, working on forest management and erosion control and generally improving reservation lands. These workers impacted millions of acres on 200 reservations in 23 states. And states received federal funds to support Native American agriculture and business development.

Negative Reactions to the Indian Reorganization Act

After such a long history of harsh treatment at the hands of the U.S. government, many tribal peoples expressed skepticism, or outright opposition, to Collier and the IRA. In Navajo country, for example, government efforts to minimize soil erosion by mandatory livestock reductions stood at odds with longstanding tribal land management practices. The result only deepened the Depression’s economic devastation.

And while the Indian Reorganization Act encouraged self-rule, many tribes resented the imposition of boilerplate American-style constitutions and bylaws in exchange for subsidies. Instead of perpetuating traditional ways of organizing their people in flexible “kinship societies,” tribes were encouraged to create formal councils that used strict blood quantum criteria, or a calculation of one’s amount of genetic tribal purity, to determine tribal membership eligibility.

The IRA called for a referendum on self-governance. In a vote on whether to establish new tribal councils, 174 Native communities voted to organize their own city council-style governments. Seventy-eight tribes rejected the idea.

“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,” wrote Vine Deloria Jr. and Clifford Lyttle, authors of American Indians, American Justice. “Traditional Indians of almost every tribe strongly objected to this method of organizing and criticized the IRA as simply another means of imposing white institutions on the tribes.”