Tag Archives: Department of the Interior

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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Teach Your Natives Well

Book for Indian Mothers

Book for Indian Mothers

There was no subject at all, it seems, in which the Indian could not benefit from a little instruction. The pamphlet at the left (created by the Department of the Interior) began with a friendly letter from the commissioner of  Indian Affairs, Cato Sells.

It advised Indian mothers not to feed their babies on demand, but by the clock. It also discouraged strapping babies into the traditional cradle, so they could be carried on the mother’s back.

The pamphlet did warn about serious diseases rampant within Indian communities, like smallpox and consumption. People who might be infected with consumption (TB) were advised not to swallow their spit, as it could then carry the disease to the stomach and bowel. With more practicality, it advised all Indians to get vaccinated for smallpox.

Baby in Cradle, Department of Interior pamphlet

Baby in Cradle, Department of Interior pamphlet

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The Bureau of Indian Affairs

Issue Day at Agency Building, San Carlos AZ

Issue Day at Agency Building, San Carlos AZ

The U.S. government was concerned early on with Indian affairs, and placed responsibility for them under the War Department. In 1824, the current Secretary of War, John C. Calhoun, created the Bureau of Indian Affairs and appointed a commissioner. During its life, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) was also called the Indian Office, the Indian Service, the Indian Department, and the Office of Indian Affairs. Its official name was adopted in 1947.

In 1849, jurisdiction over Indian affairs was transferred from the War Department to the newly created Department of the Interior (9 Stat. 395, March 3, 1849.) which also administered the General Land Office, the Patent Office, and the Pension Office.

The BIA controlled almost every aspect of Indian life, and operated on the assumption that native cultures were inferior to white culture. The BIA removed Indians to reservations, sent agents to oversee and control affairs on the reservations, provided medical care and distributed supplies, and created “assimilation” policies that were often harsh and cruel. Indian agents gained great power over the years, and it is often one of these men who decided that an Indian was insane.

A brief history of the BIA

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