When Franklin D. Roosevelt became President of the United States in 1933, he appointed John Collier as Commissioner of Indian Affairs. Collier’s office had responsibility for administering law, health care, education and many other matters on American Indian reservations. Collier was known as a person who wanted to see some reforms in the relationship between American Indian tribes and the federal government. He admired Indian cultures. Collier helped to establish the Indian Emergency Conservation Program, or the Indian CCC. He asked that other federal work programs hire American Indians.
In 1934, Collier presented to Congress the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA). This new law ended the allotment program (the 1887 Dawes Act), allowed tribes to purchase land, repealed the ban on tribal languages and customs, and allowed tribes to write constitutions.
The IRA was controversial on many reservations. Collier thought that if tribes wrote constitutions, they would be able to govern their own reservations without federal interference. The tribes would also be able to establish businesses. The IRA required that each tribe vote on the law. If the tribe accepted the IRA, the tribe would write a constitution (subject to approval by tribal members) and set up a tribal council that would have responsibility for governing the reservation. The tribal council could, with approval from tribal members, become a business corporation and conduct tribal business.
Many tribes saw this part of the IRA as an attempt to end traditional tribal leadership systems. Some said that voting, a process in which the majority rules, was foreign to traditional methods of tribal decision-making. Many tribes had previously made decisions by consensus or general agreement. In a voting society, the majority wins, but one (maybe more) group of people doesn’t win. These people may feel their views are not taken into consideration. This political division often leads to “factionalism.” A faction, a group of people who share a particular idea, may be in conflict with other factions. After tribes adopted constitutions and majority voting, factionalism often led to discord on the reservations.
Other problems weakened the IRA. Tribal members who had no experience with constitutions and voting may not have understood their role in approving the IRA. It is also possible that some federal agents assigned to the tribes did not support the IRA because it would weaken their control over the tribes. Nationwide, about half of the tribes accepted the IRA and wrote constitutions. In North Dakota, only the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara tribes of the Fort Berthold Reservation voted to accept the IRA. At Standing Rock, Turtle Mountain, and Fort Totten (now Spirit Lake) reservations, tribal members voted against the IRA.Many years after the IRA was presented to the reservations, the tribes that originally rejected the IRA wrote constitutions using tribal sovereignty as the legal authority for doing so.
Why is this important? The Indian Reorganization Act was a turning point for American Indian tribes. It created in law the idea that tribes could govern themselves and that tribal cultural traditions had value and should be preserved. Though the law was flawed, it held out hope for changes in the relationship between the federal government and American Indians in the twentieth century.