Tag Archives: Bureau of Indian Affairs

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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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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Scrutinizing the BIA

Hubert Work

Hubert Work

Soon after he took office, Secretary of the Interior Hubert Work contacted the Institute for Government Research; he wanted them to take an intensive look at how his organization was managing the Native American population under its control. The Institute gathered a team of experts headed by Lewis Meriam to survey reservations, schools, and other Indian Bureau facilities. On February 21, 1928, they presented Work  with a report called “The Problem of Indian Administration” that didn’t mince words.

Meriam’s report reviewed the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians, and found it lacking. By this time, the institution had several buildings, and the report began with a brief description of them: “At Hiawatha (the local name for the asylum) . . . the central portion of the main building contains the administrative quarters and the culinary section on the first floor, and the employees’ living quarters on the second floor.”

Sample Pages From The Problem of Indian Administration

Sample Pages From The Problem of Indian Administration

The bakery was located in the basement of the building and “was in disorder and the oven was in a bad state of repair.” The inspectors noted the sleeping arrangements for patients and said that: “Equipment is confined almost entirely to iron beds.”

It was a dismal picture, and it seemed consistent. “The hospital building is located about fifty yards from the main building. On the first floor is a good sized dining room in great disorder.” It added later, “The dairy barn was very disorderly,” and that “the power plant and laundry are located in a separate building . . . both were in disorder.”

Much of Meriam's Report Dealt With Indian Boarding Schools Like This One at Fort Spokane

Much of Meriam’s Report Dealt With Indian Boarding Schools Like This One at Fort Spokane

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Combating Smallpox

Lokata Sioux Winter Count Showing Smallpox Outbreak, courtesy National Institutes of Health

Lokata Sioux Winter Count Showing Smallpox Outbreak, courtesy National Institutes of Health

Smallpox decimated Native Americans (see last post) after Europeans arrived and spread this virulent disease on a population with no immunity to it. However, the disease was not simply accepted and endured. Though native peoples did not immediately connect smallpox with Europeans, they did understand illness and how to treat it.

Native Americans first turned to traditional medical practices to help combat smallpox. Drums, rattles, and incantations helped patients rally, while fasting and dreaming also followed traditional healing ways. Herbs and oils were used to alleviate discomfort. Unfortunately, the common use of the sweat lodge in treatment may have made a patient’s condition worse, since heat and steam caused sweating and dehydration, while cold water plunges may have overly shocked the body.

The Cherokee developed a Smallpox Dance in the 1830s, and other tribes formed curing societies and developed healing rituals. Families eventually stopped their traditional practice of crowding around a sick patient and allowed a quarantine for those with smallpox; people also avoided traveling to places with active cases, and burned (or thoroughly cleaned) homes where someone had died of smallpox.

The smallpox vaccine was available as early as the 1700s, though Native Americans were not routinely vaccinated. When the vaccine was offered, however, many native peoples took advantage of it. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) was the official vaccination administrator, but missionaries and  traders also urged vaccines. Traders, especially, who cared little for Washington politics and did not need to put white settlers’ needs ahead of their trading partners’, were probably just as successful in helping the vaccination effort as the BIA.

The Mandan Tribe Suffered Greatly From Smallpox

The Mandan Tribe Suffered Greatly From Smallpox

Medicine Man Administering to a Patient, courtesy National Institutes of Health

Medicine Man Administering to a Patient, courtesy National Institutes of Health

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And One Step Backward

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

By the early 1920s, some of the indifference to Native Americans’ cultural values had lessened.

However, even if  a government official occasionally saw positive traits in native peoples or respected their need for cultural wholeness, his viewpoint could be buried in a continued avalanche of popular sentimentality and/or naivete that perpetuated stereotypes and fed unrealistic daydreams about the status of Native Americans. Continue reading

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A Divided View

Secotan Indians' Dance in North Carolina, Watercolor by John White, 1585

Secotan Indians’ Dance in North Carolina, Watercolor by John White, 1585

White society saw Native American dancing in two ways: immoral and/or depraved, or as perfectly acceptable cultural expression (see last two posts). Native Americans often pointed out that their dances were not as immoral as white dancing, which included close physical contact as well as uninhibited movements. Continue reading

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How Does the Bureau of Indian Affairs Run?

John Collier

John Collier’s article about Amerindians (see last post) laid the blame for much of the Indians’ misery on the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Indians were now full citizens of the United States, Collier wrote, but unlike all other citizens, were completely under the control of Congress through the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). The BIA controlled Indian property valued at $1,650,000,000, Indian income, and even their persons to a great extent.

The BIA could force Indian children to go to schools hundreds of miles away from home, “enforce an unpublished penal code” that allowed them to arrest Indians at will, censor Indians’ religious observances, and nullify an Indian’s last will and testament unless it had been previously approved by the BIA.

Worst of all, said Collier, the BIA “makes accounting to no agency juristic, legislative, and administrative.” It acted as a government unto itself and had a monopoly of control on reservations. He did note that the agency was finally having to account for itself through a survey being conducted at the time of his writing. This accounting resulted in the Meriam Report, discussed in posts on May 12-19.

Native American Farmer on Flathead Reservation , circa 1920, courtesy BIA

Sioux Men in Traditional Dress, 1909, courtesy Library of Congress

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