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Digital History ID 3449

 

The so-called "Indian New Deal" was the only bright spot in the administration's treatment of minorities. In the late 19th century, American Indian policy had begun to place a growing emphasis on erasing a distinctive Native American identity. In 1871, Congress ended the practice of treating tribes as sovereign nations in an attempt to weaken the authority of tribal leaders. An effort was also made to undermine older systems of tribal justice. Accordingly, Congress created a Court of Indian Offenses in 1882 to prosecute Indians who violated government laws and rules. Indian schools took Indian children away from their families and tribes and sought to strip them of their tribal heritage. School children were required to trim their hair and to speak English and were prohibited from practicing Indian religions.

The 1887 Dawes Act was the culmination of these policies. The act allocated reservation lands to individual Indians. The purpose of the act was to encourage Indians to become farmers; however, the plots were too small to support a family or to raise livestock. Government policies reduced Indian-owned lands from 155 million acres to just 48 million acres in 1934.

When Roosevelt became president in 1933, he appointed a leading reformer, John Collier, as commissioner of Indian affairs. At Collier's request, Congress created the Indian Emergency Conservation Program (IECP), a CCC-type project for the reservations which employed more than 85,000 Indians. Collier also made certain that the PWA, WPA, CCC, and NYA hired Native Americans.

Collier had long been an opponent of the 50-year-old government allotment program which partitioned and distributed tribal lands. In 1934, he persuaded Congress to pass the Indian Reorganization Act. The act terminated the allotment program of the Dawes Severalty Act of 1887; provided funds for tribes to purchase new land; offered government recognition of tribal constitutions; and repealed prohibitions on Native American languages and customs. That same year, federal grants were provided to local school districts, hospitals, and social welfare agencies to assist Native Americans.

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