Tag Archives: War Department

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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Conflicting Ideals

Painting, George Rogers Clark Making a Treaty with the Indians

Though the U.S. population usually supported freedom passionately, the government and its people could also entertain strong paternalistic views. Eugenics laws (see last few posts) were created in part due to a feeling that certain authoritarians “knew best” which traits were good for the country and which were not. More than that, those authoritarians felt compelled and and justified in forcing those views on others. Besides the so-called “defectives” who were the targets of eugenic laws, the country’s paternalism extended to other groups like females, immigrants, and non-Caucasion races.

When European colonists first met with Native Americans, their representatives treated tribes as sovereign nations and negotiated individual treaties with each group. Once the American nation formed, the country’s Indian Department became the responsibility of the Secretary of War. As activities between the new nation and Native Americans increased, the Secretary of War became overwhelmed by paperwork. In 1822, the Secretary eventually separated all duties specifically concerned with Native Americans into a separate department and asked Thomas L. McKenney (the Superintendent of Indian Trade) to run it. He declined. In 1824, Congress established the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and this time, McKenney was persuaded to accept a position as its head. Native Americans almost immediately began to lose ground as distinct nations and increasingly fell under the power of a government who “knew best” for them.

John C. Calhoun, Secretary of War in 1824

Thomas L. McKenney, courtesy State Historical Society of Missouri

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