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From War to Self-Determination: a history of the Bureau of Indian Affairs


The relationship between the US Government and Native Americans has never been an easy one. This article traces its development from attempts to obtain tribal neutrality during the Revolutionary War in 1775, through the assimilation policy of the late 1800's to the modern policy of Self-Determination. First published in 1996.


The Nineteenth Century The Twentieth Century The situation today


Photo: Linda Riley

Posted 20-Jun-2014

by C.L.Henson


The Nineteenth Century

One of the first acts of the Continental Congress was the creation, in 1775, of three departments of Indian affairs; northern, central, and southern. Among the first departmental commissioners were Benjamin Franklin and Patrick Henry. Their job was to negotiate treaties with tribes and obtain tribal neutrality in the coming Revolutionary War. Fourteen years later, the U. S. Congress established a War Department and made Indian relations a part of its responsibilities.

The office of superintendent of Indian trade was in the War Department in 1806. The superintendent was responsible for the operation of the factory trading system. Thomas L. McKenney held this office from 1816 to the end of the factory system in 1822.

The abolition of the trading system removed even this effort to centralize the work with the Indians within the War Department. March 11, 1824 Secretary of War John C. Calhoun created what he called the Bureau of Indian Affairs without authorization from the Congress. McKenney, formerly superintendent of Indian trade, was appointed to head the office, with two clerks assigned to him as assistants.

McKenney was instructed to take charge of the appropriations for annuities and current expenses, to examine and approve all vouchers for expenditures, to administer the funds for the civilization of the Indians, to decide on claims arising between Indians and whites under the intercourse act, and to handle the ordinary Indian correspondence of the War Department.

Only Secretary Calhoun seems to have called this newly created agency a Bureau of Indian Affairs. McKenney first designated it the "Indian Office" in his correspondence, and later uniformly used the "Office of Indian Affairs." He and the clerks assigned to him became in actual practice an Indian secretariat within the War Department, handling a large volume of correspondence and other detailed routine business that pertained to Indian matters.

It was apparent to McKenney that he had inherited all the routine work that related to Indian affairs but that the authority and responsibility was still in the Secretary of War. What was needed was the necessary Congressional action creating an Office of Indian Affairs, with the essential responsibility placed in a department head who would receive and act upon all matters pertaining to relations between the United States and the Indian tribes.

Thomas L. McKenney on March 31, 1826 drew up a bill that called for the Office of Indian Affairs created by the Congress, with a responsible head having authority and responsibility to deal with all matters relating to Indian affairs. This requested the appointment of a "General Superintendent of Indian Affairs," to head the Office of Indian Affairs, and to whom would have been assigned all Indian relations that had rested with the Secretary of War. After commitment to the Committee of the Whole, the bill failed to receive further action during that congress.

In 1829, at the request of the Secretary of War, Governor Cass and General Clark included McKenney's proposal in their plan to recognize Indian affairs. The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs introduced the measure a third time in the 22nd Congress, and it passed both houses to become law. The bill gave the president authority to appoint a Commissioner of Indian Affairs to serve under the Secretary of War, and have "the direction and management of all Indian affairs, and all matters arising out of Indian relations." The Commissioner was to receive an annual salary of $3,000.

With a Bureau or Office of Indian Affairs and a Commissioner to head that section within the War Department, it was now possible to work toward the development of more orderly methods of conducting Indian relations and to bring to a close what had been referred to as a period of confusion in matters that involved Indians. That part of the act of July 9, 1821 authorizing the appointment of the Commissioner was later amended by the act of 1849 that transferred the Office of Indian Affairs to the Department of the Interior. Within a century it controlled virtually every aspect of Indian existence.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), also referred to, until 1947, as the Office of Indian Affairs and the Indian Office, is one of the oldest agencies within the U.S. government. Today the BIA's role has come almost full circle, evolving into an advisory agency as the tribes progress toward self-determination.

In 1849, Congress transferred the BIA from the War Department to the newly created Department of the Interior. With this transfer came a change in policy and responsibilities. The removal of tribes to reservations had brought about disease and starvation, which forced the government to begin providing tribes with food and other supplies. Administering the distribution of this aid became a responsibility of the BIA. By the 1860s, however, the agency was not discharging its duties responsibly. Unscrupulous Indian agents increased misery on reservations and generated hostility. In 1867, Congress appointed a Peace Commission to study the problems of the BIA's administration of reservations. The commission recommended many changes, including the appointment of honest, more effective agents and the establishment of a separate, independent agency for Indian affairs. Some improvements were forthcoming, but the recommendations to remove the BIA from the Interior Department and establish it as an independent agency was never followed.

During the assimilation era, in the 1880s, the BIA's presence on reservations increased dramatically. Indian agents became responsible for operating schools, dispensing justice, distributing supplies, administering allotments, and leasing contracts. By 1900 the Indian agent had, in effect, become the tribal government.

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The Twentieth Century

The next major change in BIA services came in response to the Meriam Report of 1938, which detailed the government's shortcomings in providing services to reservations. Congress responded to the report by passing the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA), which aimed to improve tribal economies and strengthen tribal governments. BIA services were expanded to include forestry, range management, and agricultural extension service, construction, and land acquisition. BIA services continued to expand until the 1950s and 1960s, the termination era, at which time congress dismantled some of the agency's duties. The responsibility for educating Indian children passed to the states and Indian health care became the responsibility of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (now called the Department of Health and Human Services).

In the 1970s the new policy of self-determination reversed the policies of termination. Along with the new policy came greater application of Indian culture and tribal governments. Congress passed a series of laws, including the Indian Self-Determination Act, the Indian Child Welfare Act and the Health Care Improvement Act, which aimed to improve the quality of reservation life without destroying tribal government. Today the BIA is trying to change its structure and character from a management to an advisory agency. Its goals, as stated in its manual, reflect this objective: (1) To encourage Indians and train Indians and Alaska Native people to manage their own affairs under a trust relationship with the federal government; (2) To facilitate, with maximum involvement of Indian and Alaska Native people, full development of their human and natural resource potentials; (3) To mobilize all public and private aids to the advancement of Indian and Alaska Native people for use by them; and (4) To use the skill and capabilities of Indian and Alaska Native people in the direction and management of programs for their benefit.

In line with the fourth objective the BIA gives Indian applicants first consideration when hiring employees. Before the 1930s, few bureau employees were Indians. As part of the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act, Congress required that Indians be given preference in hiring. This requirement was challenged in the 1970s as unconstitutional and racially discriminatory. The Supreme Court ruled, however, that preferential hiring of Indians by the BIA did not violate the law but was proper given the government's special political relationship to tribes. Today more than 95 percent of the bureau's twelve thousand employees are Indian.

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The situation today

The tribes' relationship with the bureau is often described as a love/hate relationship. On the one hand, the bureau is the symbol of the tribes' special relationship with the federal government. On the other hand, tribes have suffered from bureau mismanagement, paternalism, and neglect. It is the hope and objective of many tribal peoples and government officials that tribes can enter into a more equal relationship with the bureau and that the bureau can truly function in an advisory capacity as opposed to dictating policy to tribes.

The federal government's relationship with tribes has wavered over the years between respect for tribal sovereignty and rights and attempts to extinguish tribal existence. The current relationship between tribes and the federal government is one of respect for tribal rights. It is an era of self-determination in which the federal government has committed itself to protecting and enhancing inherent tribal resources, rights, and the ability of tribes to manage their own governments.

The current administration is in the process of "downsizing" in order to meet balanced budget promises. Only time will tell how the first owners of this America will be treated by the current Administration and Congress.

C.L. Henson is the former head of the Education Section of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington D.C. and now runs his own consultancy service orgainising lecture tours in Europe and the USA. He can be contacted at The Henson Company, P.O. Box 2274 Vienna, VA 22183, USA. E-mail

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Further reading

There are two other articles on Native Americans in American Studies Today on-line. Follow the links if you would like to read them.

The Dancing Ground: David and Valerie Forster describe a day course in Navajo culture which Dennis Dennis Lee Rogers, a Navajo artist and educator conducted at a local adult education college.

The Native American Peoples of The United States Christopher Brookeman looks at the way in which native American culture and values have been misunderstood and misinterpreted by mainstream American society. He examines the conflict between their traditional values and pervasive commericalism, and the debates over assimilation versus cultural identity.

Visit the The Bureau of Indian Affairs Website

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The views expressed are those of the contributors, and not necessarily those of the Centre or the College.

© 1996, City of Liverpool College and the Contributors.

Articles in this journal may be freely reproduced for use in subscribing institutions only, provided that the source is acknowledged.

The Nineteenth Century The Twentieth Century The situation today

Visit the The Bureau of Indian Affairs Website


American Studies Today Online is published by
American Studies Resources Centre, Aldham Robarts Library, Liverpool John Moores University, Maryland Street, Liverpool L1 9DE, United Kingdom.
Tel 0151-231 3241
International(+44)151-231 3241
The views expressed are those of the contributors, and not necessarily those of the Centre or the University.
Liverpool John Moores University and the Contributors, 2009
Articles and reviews in this journal may be freely reproduced for use in subscribing institutions only, provided that the source is acknowledged.

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