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Bureau of Indian Affairs

The Bureau of Indian Affairs is responsible for administering the United State’s overall relationship with more than 500 tribes and Alaskan communities. Each tribe, depending on its history, treaties, and applicable congressional laws and legal decisions, maintains a separate and unique relationship with the United States. For many tribes, the bureau has represented mistrust, fraud, and cultural destruction; for the national government it has represented both the goal of fair dealing and the reality of mistreatment. In 1824, Secretary of War John C. Calhoun created within the War Department, the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Calhoun appointed Thomas McKenney as the bureau's first head and instructed him to oversee treaty negotiations, manage Indian schools, and administer Indian trade, as well as handle all expenditures and correspondence concerning Indian affairs. By the mid-1830s, the tribes' relationships with the United States had changed dramatically. President Andrew Jackson viewed the tribes solely as obstacles to American expansion. The Indian Removal Act and other federal legislative initiatives sought to separate Indians from the path of settlement, and by 1840, the bureau and the American military had relocated more than 30 tribes to west of the Mississippi. In 1849, Congress shifted the Indian Office from the Department of War to the newly created Department of the Interior. This structural change also symbolized a new federal objective in Indian relations. Led by Commissioners Luke Lea and George Manypenny, the bureau energetically espoused the "civilization" of Indians through the creation of the reservation system. By negotiating treaties with tribes for their settlement on reservations, the Indian Office hoped to protect tribes from whites and to offer alternatives to their traditional way of life. The Civil War disrupted the bureau's agenda and services to tribes. Many tribes, especially those in and around Indian Territory, were drawn into the war. In 1865, when the war ended, the bureau began a new, ambitious program to dismantle tribal governments and assimilate Indian people into the American mainstream. In a policy strongly supported by Ely S. Parker, a Seneca, who served as the first Indian commissioner of the bureau, the government initiated a series of reforms designed to decrease corruption within the bureau and to Christianize and civilize Indians. As Indian agents increased their control over the distribution of rations, goods, and lands, tribal leaders were divested of their authority. With the establishment of Indian police forces in 1878, this further undermined the traditional role of clans and leaders in resolving disputes. Other federal regulations forbade the practice of Indian ceremonies and required Indians to perform manual labor for their rations. The passing of the General Allotment Act in 1887 paved the way for an attack on the last cultural mainstay of tribal existence — communal ownership of land. The bureau was directed to break up the tribal land base; agents surveyed reservations, divided them into individual parcels, and assigned lands to individual Indians. The agents also oversaw the sale of what were labeled "surplus" lands to white settlers. Over the next 40 years, the Indian Office allotted and issued patents to more than seven million acres, a process that eventually reduced Indian lands from 138 million acres to 48 million. In 1933, the social worker, John Collier, became commissioner of the bureau. For the first time, tribes had a head of the bureau who was both knowledgeable and respectful of tribal cultures and values. Supported by the reform momentum of President Franklin D.Roosevelt's "New Deal," Collier successfully stopped the allotment of Indian lands, improved Indian education programs, and sought to restore tribal political authority through the passage of the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act. Collier's campaign to restore authority to the tribes incurred considerable hostility from the American public. The commissioner was heavily criticized during the later years of his 12-year tenure in office. In 1948, the Hoover Commission, reporting to Congress, stated that the assimilation of Indian people into American society must once again be the dominant objective of federal policy. Toward this end, the bureau implemented a number of bureaucratic reforms designed to speed the entry of Indians into the mainstream. Congress also terminated bureau responsibility over more than 100 tribes and bands, a move that ended both government control and government protections for those communities. In the mid-1970s, passage of such significant legislation as the Indian Self-Determination and Educational Assistance Act and the Indian Child Welfare Act, directed the bureau to shift its efforts from paternalism and control to service to tribes, in their quest for self-determination. This new policy was put into effect by a bureau work force that was increasingly (and, by the mid-1970s, predominantly) Indian. Currently the Indian Bureau is formally committed to allowing tribes to assume responsibility for the administration of programs and services funded by the federal government. In 1991, Congress passed the Tribal Self-Governance Demonstration Project Act, raising to 30 the number of tribes who are in the process of assuming total control from the bureau of all local programs and services. Despite bureaucratic foot-dragging and tribal concerns that self-determination may revive congressional support for termination, the bureau's relationship with Indian nations is coming full circle. The bureau is slowly returning to its original role as the government's negotiator with and protector of more than 500 inherently sovereign political communities, that maintain a special relationship with the United States.