The other major strategy during this period for assimilating American Indians into mainstream American society was for religious groups and the federal government to “educate” and “civilize” American Indian youth. In 1860, the Bureau of Indian Affairs opened its first “Indian school.” By 1887, more than 200 such schools had been established under federal supervision with an enrollment of over 14,000 American Indian students (Pevar, 1992; Utter, 1993). The goal of these schools was to strip American Indian children of their cultures and to replace them with that of mainstream America. Pevar (1992) states that “the history of their authoritarian rule is notorious; for example, students were severely punished if they spoke their native language or practiced their traditions” (Pevar, 1992, p.4).
The most famous government school for American Indians was Carlisle. The first off-reservation government boarding school, Carlisle was established in 1879 by a former military officer, Henry Pratt. Pratt’s motto was: “Kill the Indian and save the man” (Utter, 1993, p.196). By the turn of the century almost half of the American Indian schools under federal supervision were such boarding schools, and American Indian children were routinely forcibly removed from their families to be placed in them. Although the overt policy of assimilation in this manner was repudiated by 1936, it was not until the 1970s that significant substantive change in the nature of these schools began to occur.
In 1928, the federal government conducted a major study of the living conditions on American Indian reservations. This study, called the Meriam Report, “... enumerated the disastrous conditions afflicting Indians at that time: high infant death rates, high mortality rates for the entire population, appalling housing conditions, low incomes, poor health, and inadequate education. The policy of forced assimilation was judged a failure” (Utter, 1993, p.254).
Because of increased popular concern for American Indian welfare, the obvious failure of the policy of assimilation to absorb American Indian communities into mainstream American society, and the reduced European American demand for American Indian land (which the Great Depression had precipitated), the federal government decided to change the direction of its American Indian policy (Pevar, 1992; Kelly, 1986). This change in policy, which came with the passing of the Indian Reorganization Act, was drastic and abrupt. Kelly (1986) writes,
After a century and a half of trying to forcibly acculturate and assimilate Indians into American society, during the 1930s the federal government changed its goals dramatically. Under the leadership of John Collier, who served as commissioner of Indian Affairs from 1933 to 1945, the Bureau of Indian Affairs decided to encourage tribal efforts to retain and even revitalize native languages, religious practices, social customs, and forms of artistic expression. (Kelly, 1986, p.242)
The Indian Reorganization Act contained major provisions that ended the policy of allotment and allowed for the reorganization of tribal governments (as well as the investment of those governments with considerable powers). The act consolidated many of the remaining American Indian lands for tribal use, as well as
... made provisions to secure lands for landless Indians, allowed a certain measure of municipal powers with the adoption of a tribal constitution and by-laws, permitted tribes to form business corporations for economic development, established a system of credit for both tribes and individuals, and made Indian preference in employment in the Bureau of Indian Affairs a major goal. (Cadwalader and Deloria, 1984, p.110)
However, the Indian Reorganization Act also mandated a predetermined framework for how tribal governments were to be structured, forcing them to resemble governments familiar to federal policymakers (Kelly, 1986; Minugh, et al., 1989; Pevar, 1992). Nonetheless, even though the act “... did not systematically incorporate existing Indian conceptions of authority... [it] at least in an Anglo-American sense provided an ‘individualistic’ opportunity to Indian tribes to formulate their own tribal governments and constitutions” (Deloria, 1985, p.28).54
From 1945 until 1960, the federal government resumed its policy of assimilating American Indians into mainstream American society. Three methods were used to accomplish this. The first was an effort to eliminate the unique relationship between the federal government and tribes as well as the federal government’s special responsibilities toward tribes. The second method was the transfer of federal Indian responsibilities and jurisdiction to state governments. The third was the physical relocation of American Indian people from reservations to urban areas (Fixico, 1986; Pevar, 1992; Utter, 1993).
Elimination of the Special Legal Status of Tribes
In 1953, Congress adopted House Concurrent Resolution No. 83-108 (H.C.R. 108) (Fixico, 1986). H.C.R. 108 declared that federal benefits and services to various American Indian tribes should be ended “at the earliest possible time,” and it called upon the Bureau of Indian affairs to list the tribes that were economically self-sufficient enough to do without them. Congress then began “terminating” those tribes, an act that entailed the loss of federal services, the loss of federal recognition of tribal governments, and the loss of tribal immunity from state taxation. During this period, “... Congress terminated its assistance to over 100 tribes. Each of these tribes was ordered to distribute its land and property to its members and to dissolve its government” (Pevar, 1992, p.7). In all, approximately 12,000 individual American Indians lost tribal affiliations that included political relationships with the United States (Utter, 1993).
The Transfer to State Governments of the Federal Government’s
Responsibilities Toward American Indian Tribes
In an effort to further reduce federal responsibility and foster American Indian assimilation, as well as to deal with the ambiguous jurisdiction regarding crime on reservations, Congress passed Public Law 83-280. Generally known as P.L. 280,
this statute conferred upon certain designated states full criminal and some civil jurisdiction over Indian reservations and consented to the assumption of such jurisdiction by any additional state that chose to accept it. State governments had long resented the notion of tribal sovereignty and had made repeated efforts to gain control over Indian resources and people. P.L. 280 thus gave powers and responsibilities to the states - the traditional enemy of Indian tribes - that previously had been assumed by the federal government. (Pevar, 1992, p.7)