Category Archives: BIA Bureau of Indian Affairs

The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) was called by a number of names, including the Indian Office and Indian Bureau. The head of the bureau was the Commissioner of Indian Affairs. The BIA hired Indian agents to oversee the reservations it controlled.

Irresponsible and Unaccountable

Lee Moorhouse Was an Indian Agent for the Umatilla Indian Reservation

Lee Moorhouse Was an Indian Agent for the Umatilla Indian Reservation

The United States government always knew that native peoples were important–whether as friends or foes. Early federal practice was to interact with tribes as the country would with other independent nations, but this soon proved cumbersome and restrictive for the domestic policy U.S. leaders wanted to pursue. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (known more generally as the Indian Office or Office of Indian Affairs) shifted its role from negotiating with Indian nations to simply enforcing its will on them.

In 1849, Congress transferred the BIA from the War Department to the Department of the Interior and began to greatly increase its intrusiveness into native affairs. Tribes which had been removed to reservations and forced to farm arid, nonproductive land, soon faced extreme poverty. The BIA distributed food and supervised many services on reservations, but unscrupulous agents took advantage of the people they were supposed to help. Many accusations of fraud and abuse hit the agency, which never suffered a loss of power even after investigations proved many accusations to be well-founded.

Sioux Indian Women Receiving Rations, Pine Ridge Reservation, 1891, courtesy Library of Congress

Sioux Indian Women Receiving Rations, Pine Ridge Reservation, 1891, courtesy Library of Congress

Tulalip Indian School Learning Modern Farming Methods, 1912, photo by Ferdinand Brady, courtesy californiaindianeducation.org

Tulalip Indian School Learning Modern Farming Methods, 1912, photo by Ferdinand Brady, courtesy californiaindianeducation.org

Eventually the BIA became responsible for Indian schools, the issues involved in allotting land, all the contracts associated with providing supplies and service to Indians, and even with  providing justice. Tribal governments were weakened and shunted aside, giving the BIA and particularly its Indian agents dramatic power on reservations. Needless to say, there were agents who did not hesitate to use their power for selfish ends, rather than for protecting people who had been stripped of their own power and rights.

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An Easy Way to Grab Land

Indian Inspector George Wright, courtesy Oklahoma State Digital Library

Indian Inspector George Wright, courtesy Oklahoma State Digital Library

Many whites wanted access to Indian lands, and there were plenty of politicians who were glad to help them. Guy P. Cobb was typical. He held a position as the Creek Revenue Inspector (appointed through the recommendation of Commissioner of Indian Affairs William Jones, 1897-1904) and had served under Indian Inspector George J. Wright.

While he was a revenue inspector, Cobb was also general manager of the Tribal Development Company, which Cobb said “helped” Indians manage their land. How? Cobb’s company negotiated rental agreements with Indians–with the option to buy their land as soon as any restrictions were removed. He further assisted them by helping them find “good” allotments. Additionally, (and, of course, quite usefully) Cobb was one of the directors of the Bank of the Chickasaw Nation.

Cobb was not the only politician involved in trust companies, and Samuel M. Brosius of the Indian Rights Association named names in his special report on the land speculation. Dawes commissioners Thomas Needles and C. R. Breckinridge, U.S. District Attorney E. Pliny Soper, assistant U.S. District Attorney for the Northern District of the Indian Territory James Huckleberry, Indian Inspector Wright, and many other politicians and Indian Office employees were involved in various trust companies.

Clifton Rodes Breckenridge of the Dawes Commission, courtesy Biographical Directory of the United States Congress

Clifton Rodes Breckenridge of the Dawes Commission, courtesy Biographical Directory of the United States Congress

Indian Land Was Highly Desirable

Indian Land Was Highly Desirable

These companies typically induced Indians to rent their allotted lands for about five years, but then wouldn’t surrender the land after that period and/or refused to pay rent on it. Any heirs of the allottees were then manipulated into selling the land for little money. Even though allotted land was not actually vested in title for 25 years, the courts generally looked the other way at these dealings.

The losers in these arrangements were always the very people the Indian Office and Interior Department had been charged with protecting.

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Your Land is Our Land

Ojibwe Girls in a Classroom at the St. Benedict's Mission School, White Earth Reservation, circa 1900

Ojibwe Girls in a Classroom at the St. Benedict’s Mission School, White Earth Reservation, circa 1900

The Bureau of Indian Affairs’ mission was always to “manage” Indian relations, but its mission changed over time until “civilizing” Indians through the reservation system became its primary one. Part of the Indian Office’s (which the agency was more generally known by) policy included dismantling traditional tribal governments and assimilating native peoples into the broader white culture.

The Chicago Daily News, 1901

The Chicago Daily News, 1901

As it did so, the Indian Office allowed disservice after disservice to Native Americans. In 1903, a Washington dispatch to the Chicago Daily News discussed an emerging scandal which the paper then covered. The Interior Department and the Justice Department had become interested in companies trying to acquire Indian land at “ridiculously low figures and selling them at their actual values.” Bad in itself, the article also reported that: “Members of the Dawes commission are said to be implicated in the alleged efforts ‘to fleece the Indians.'”

Cartoon of Indian Agent, courtesy Library of Congress

Cartoon of Indian Agent, courtesy Library of Congress

The irony, as the paper put it, was that “in several instances the very men who are now implicated in the effort to fleece the Indians came to Washington to consult with the heads of the departments (Interior and Justice) here in devising a plan for the Indians’ protection.”

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Falling Silent

A Collection of Native American Vocabular, courtesy American Philosophical Museum

A Collection of Native American Vocabulary, courtesy American Philosophical Museum

Languages around the world have been lost over time, and this loss continues. The reference work Ethnologue lists 245 indigenous languages in the United States, with 65 already extinct and 75 near extinction.

This language loss happened in several ways. A prominent cause came from the federal government’s push to eradicate Native American culture. Children were taken from their homes to boarding schools and forbidden to use their native languages. By the time they came back home, many had forgotten it. As native peoples dispersed into cities and used English, their original languages also fell into misuse. Though there are documents that have recorded many native languages, they cannot document the vocal attributes of the language–often an important part of understanding the language’s meaning. These languages also includes concepts and culture which cannot be replicated in English.

Anthropologist Frank Speck and Delaware Lenape Chief Witapanoxwe, circa 1928, courtesy American Philosophical Society

Anthropologist Frank Speck and Delaware Lenape Chief Witapanoxwe, circa 1928, courtesy American Philosophical Society

People are making attempts to preserve languages. The Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages has partnered with the National Geographic Society to form the Enduring Voices Project to preserve particularly unique, poorly understood, or threatened indigenous languages. The  Administration For Native Americans also provides grants to native communities and nonprofits to teach young people to speak native languages.

The Smithsonian Institution’s Bureau of Ethnology collected audio recordings of Native American languages in the 19th century. You can hear digitized snippets of these languages at the Smithsonian’s site, http://siris.si.edu. In the blue box on the right hand side under “Culture & History” click “Native American Language.” In the new page, on the left hand side under “online media” click “sound recordings.”

Ethnogropher Alice Cunningham Fletcher and Chief Joseph of the Nez Pierce

Ethnographer Alice Cunningham Fletcher and Chief Joseph of the Nez Pierce

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Time and Tasking

Family Life Could Be Ovewhelming, While Still Not Comparable to Caring for Adults in an Asylum

Family Life Could Be Ovewhelming, While Still Not Comparable to Caring for Adults in an Asylum

Ward attendants were the backbone of patient care in asylums, and their attitudes and skills could make or break a patient’s experience (see last post). At the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians, attendants were never trained and very likely relied on their home experiences with raising children or being around perhaps difficult family members. The stress and tempo of caring for several children at home might mimic some of the tasks of attendants, but it made a difference that attendants were usually dealing with adults rather than children. Carrying a small child to a bath–even an unwilling one–might be stressful, but a parent would prevail. That might not be so true in the asylum setting. Here are just some of the routine tasks male attendants were expected to complete for ten or more patients each day:

— wake patients up (6:00 a.m.) and see that each patient washes his face and hand, and combs his hair

— attend the morning cleaning, bedmaking and tidying of the ward

— see that the lavatories, tubs, toilets and urinals are in good working order and not leaking. Fixtures are to be washed whenever necessary and scrubbed with a cleaning powder at least once daily. All faucets are to be polished whenever necessary

— all wood work is to be rubbed down once daily with an oiled cloth

Willard Asylum Patients Working in the Sewing Room. Structured Activities Made Supervision Easier for Attendants

Willard Asylum Patients Working in the Sewing Room. Structured Activities Made Supervision Easier for Attendants

In addition to these duties, attendants had to take patients to the dining room, feed those who could not feed themselves, bathe and change the clothing (or at least clean and change) patients who soiled themselves, take each able-bodied patient outdoors for exercise at least twice daily, shave them once a week, give them haircuts and trim their nails, and on and on. Patients were always to be supervised, and attendants were never to leave their wards except if duty required. Before doing that, they had to make sure no patient had a lighted pipe or cigarette, etc.

Agnews Insane Asylum Patients Eating Lunch, courtesy Detroit Public Library Digital Collections

Agnews Insane Asylum Patients Eating Lunch, courtesy Detroit Public Library Digital Collections

It is little wonder that being an attendant was not an attractive job, and didn’t usually draw people who could get easier work with better pay, elsewhere.

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Impossible Tasks?

Supervisor-in-Chief, Attendants & Employees, Detached Building No. 4, Willard Asylum

Supervisor-in-Chief, Attendants & Employees, Detached Building No. 4, Willard Asylum

Though superintendents and other professional staff were inherently in charge of insane asylums, attendants were the true backbones of them. What attendants did or did not do, the way they treated patients, and their attitudes in general could provide some sort of therapeutic benefit or make a patient’s stay as miserable as possible.

At the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians, attendants were never trained. They likely watched what other attendants did and followed suit, also bringing in their own attitudes and experience to patient care. There were guidelines for attendants–provided after inspectors discovered that the asylum’s first superintendent (Oscar Gifford) had never disseminated them to staff–but they would have been difficult to follow due to the asylum’s perpetual short-staffing. In fact, any number of subsequent inspections showed that most guidelines obviously were not followed. The government did make its priorities clear, however:

A Group of the Asylum Staff, Willard Asylum

A Group of the Asylum Staff, Willard Asylum

“In the event of a fire, your first duty is to save the lives of all the patients under your charge. Your second duty is to save government property. Your third duty is to yourself. These duties are always to be considered in this order.”

Attendants at Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane

Attendants at Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane

Clearly, human staff were of least value to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. It is little wonder that the agency allowed its one asylum to fall into neglect simply because it would not provide enough people to adequately care for their charges.

My next post will discuss the enormity of attendants’ responsibilities.

 

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Prodded to Action

Some Physicians Were Patients' Advocates, courtesy Peoria Historical Society

Some Physicians Were Patients’ Advocates, courtesy Peoria Historical Society

Dr. Harry Hummer, superintendent of the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians, absorbed any number of inspections conducted by the Indian Service. Unless recommendations fell in with his own desires (such as recommendations for new buildings and equipment, for example), he seldom changed any of his practices to accommodate findings. Hummer was faulted early on for “managing from his desk” instead of getting out of his office and into the wards, where he could see and supervise his staff and patients. Apparently, he was still managing from his desk in 1927.

In a memo to employees written in January of that year, Dr. Hummer told them that he had been “criticised by Dr. Emil Krulish, the Medical Inspector for this district, for the honor system which I have had in effect at this place for many years past.”

Doctors Visit Patients Who Are Kept in Restraints

Doctors Visit Patients Who Are Kept in Restraints

Hummer told employees that he would now be making more frequent inspections to see if they were carrying out his instructions. He had “already discovered that collectively you are off your wards entirely too frequently.”

Dr. Hummer May Have Used a Similar Medical Bag

Dr. Hummer May Have Used a Similar Medical Bag

Hummer told his staff that they would need to give him a satisfactory reason for being off the ward; for the first offense they would receive a warning, and for the second, “summarily dismissed from the service.”

Employees had to sign and date that they had read the instructions. However, since conditions continued to deteriorate, it seems improbable that Hummer actually followed through with his promised crackdown.

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Institutional Supply

Most Staff at Asylums Were Local

Most Staff at Asylums Were Local

The Canton Asylum for Insane Indians brought plenty of federal money into the local economy. However, as part of the larger Bureau of Indian Affairs, the institution also purchased many of its day-to-day items through governmental suppliers.

In a 1927 letter to the superintendent of the Warehouse for Indian Supplies in Chicago, Illinois, Dr. Harry Hummer requested a couple of staples:

Oleomargarine Was a Butter Substitute

Oleomargarine Was a Butter Substitute

— “Oleomargarine, in 60-lb containers, artificially colored–1600 lbs.” He requested a 60-lb container every two weeks for the fiscal year.

— “Hams, smoked, 600 lbs.” He requested the meat in 200 lb. increments three times a year (November, January, and March). The asylum additionally raised its own cattle and hogs to supplement this order.

Institutional Cooking Required Full Time Staff

Institutional Cooking Required Full Time Staff

Dr. Hummer also bought cots, shoes, and clothing (often excess items that were extremely inexpensive) through federal channels. What he almost never obtained through the government, though, was labor. Attendants, cooks, laborers, etc. were almost always locals, though certain positions like the matron’s (as well as his own) were appointments within the Indian Service.

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Canton Asylum a Good Value for the Government

Most Asylums Had More Amenities Than Canton Asylum

Most Asylums Had More Amenities Than Canton Asylum

When the  subcommittee of [the] House Committee on Appropriations met to discuss Indian monies for 1924, the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians came under discussion. Assistant Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Edgar B. Meritt, asked for $40,000 for the asylum’s equipment and maintenance.

In his presentation of expenses, Meritt added this information:

“The Canton Asylum for Insane Indians has the custodial care of 90 patients whose hospitalization, in the majority of cases, will be during the period of their lives. This institution is maintained very efficiently on the appropriations estimated for, which is the same as allowed for the last fiscal year.

Patients Offset Many Asylum Expenses by Working, Such as These Patients Sewing at the Cherokee State Hospital for the Insane

Patients Offset Many Asylum Expenses by Working, Such as These Patients Sewing at the Cherokee State Hospital for the Insane

“The average annual cost, including employees, transportation, hospitalization, clothing, burials, the upkeep of the buildings and all incidentals is something less than $400 for each patient. The cost of the custodial care in State institutions ranges from $480 to $800 a year exclusive of transportation, clothing, and burial expenses in case of death. In private asylums the expenses are still greater with a larger list of exclusions.”

Unmarked Graves at Central State Hospital in Milledgeville, GA

Unmarked Graves at Central State Hospital in Milledgeville, GA

Meritt made a convincing case for the requested amount of money. Oddly, none of the committee members asked why Canton’s expenses were so much lower than any other institution’s. They may have been afraid of uncovering something they didn’t want to hear.

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Suggested Changes From The Problem With Indian Administration

Patients Seated in Dining Room at Pennhurst, circa 1915, the Former Eastern Pennsylvania Institution for the Feeble Minded and Epileptic

Patients Seated in Dining Room at Pennhurst, circa 1915, the Former Eastern Pennsylvania Institution for the Feeble Minded and Epileptic

When The Problem With Indian Administration was delivered to the Secretary of the Interior by Lewis Meriam’s team (see last post), the report made many recommendations for the hundreds of schools, reservations, and hospitals the team had visited. These included increasing salaries of personnel who had direct contact with Indians (to attract better people to the Indian Service), more cubic feet per child at boarding schools, and adopting the standards established by the American College of Surgeons for accredited hospitals to all Indian Service hospitals.

The team recommended several specific improvements for the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians: Increase the personnel; put a graduate nurse in charge of each building with patients; provide additional laborers for the farm and dairy; segregate epileptics, children, and the tuberculous into three groups apart from the other patients; and improve equipment in the hospital, kitchen, and bakery. The team included a call for installing “a system of records conforming to accepted psychiatric practice in hospitals for the insane.”

Cottages 6 and 5, Epileptic Colony, Abilene, Texas

Cottages 6 and 5, Epileptic Colony, Abilene, Texas

Children's Dayroom at Byberry Mental Institution, circa 1938, courtesy Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Children’s Dayroom at Byberry,  Later the Philadelphia State Hospital,, circa 1938, courtesy Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Dr. Harry Hummer, superintendent at the Canton Asylum, did try many times to get a separate cottage for epileptic patients, but was never successful. However, a later inspector who was a psychiatrist–which no one on Meriam team had been–believed that most of the patients with convulsions were not even epileptic. Meriam’s team likely had to go by Dr. Hummer’s diagnoses, in which he had identified any patient with convulsions as epileptic.

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