President Roosevelt signed the Indian Reorganization Act (also called the Wheeler-Howard Act) on June 18, 1934. The law was designed, “To conserve and develop Indian lands and resources; to extend to Indians the right to form business and other organizations; to establish a credit system for Indians; to grant certain rights of home rule to Indians; to provide for vocational education for Indians; and for other purposes” .
For many decades prior to the Indian Reorganization Act, government policy towards American Indians was one of assimilation, privatization of tribal lands, and the suppression of native cultures. In a statement to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs in 2011, Jefferson Keel, then-president of the National Congress of American Indians (and current Lt. Governor of the Chickasaw Nation), said: “Kill the Indian and save the man was the slogan of that era. The Federal Government did everything it could to disband our tribes, break up our families and suppress our culture. Over 90 million acres of tribal land held under treaties were taken, more than two-thirds of the tribal land base … In 1934, Congress rejected allotment and assimilation and passed the IRA” .
The Indian Reorganization Act improved the political, economic, and social conditions of American Indians in a number of ways: privatization was terminated; some of the land taken was returned and new land could be purchased with federal funds; a policy of tribal self-government was implemented; tribes were allowed to incorporate businesses and credit established to further such business; and education & employment opportunities were greatly enhanced . While there were some problems with the law (particularly in its implementation), it showed some significant successes. For example, by 1940 “135 tribal constitutions [had] been written, voted upon, and put into operation”; millions of acres were restored or added to tribal lands; $4.4 million was loaned for livestock and farm equipment (about $73 million in 2014 dollars); and employment of American Indians in the federal Office of Indian Affairs (today called the “Bureau of Indian Affairs”) was greatly increased .
The Indian Reorganization Act faced considerable opposition from people who wanted to acquire or exploit tribal lands. It even faced opposition from some tribes. Nevertheless, a 1938 report, signed by a large group of scholars, former government officials, activists, and American Indians, suggested that while some tribal opposition “represents an honest difference of view,” much of it was due “to the deception and manipulation of Indians by interested whites, or to property and class conflicts among the Indians themselves” . Crucially, Indians were allowed to vote on whether the law would apply to their tribe. After the voting period was over, 266 tribes had accepted the Indian Reorganization Act and 77 had rejected it . For some tribes, there were negative consequences from rejecting it. For example, the Colville Tribe of Washington State voted against the act (under suspicious circumstances), losing valuable land to non-Indians and putting its sovereignty in jeopardy with the state .
The Indian Reorganization Act was one of several initiatives by New Deal policymakers to improve the quality of life for American Indians. A 1940 report summed this up: “Through the Indian CCC division and the extension of other such emergency funds as PWA, WPA, and emergency relief, many necessary physical improvements have been installed on 200 reservations, while at the same time thousands of Indians have received employment and training opportunities in skills formerly unavailable to them” .
Sources: (1) The full text of the law can be found at “Indian Affairs: Laws and Treaties…Chapter 576,” Oklahoma State University Library, http://digital.library.okstate.edu/kappler/Vol5/html_files/v5p0378.html, accessed September 18, 2015. (2) The Indian Reorganization Act—75 Years Later: Renewing Our Commitment to Restore Tribal Homelands and Promote Self–Determination, Hearing Before the Committee on Indian Affairs, United States Senate, One Hundred Twelfth Congress, First Session June 23, 2011, http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/CHRG-112shrg68389/pdf/CHRG-112shrg68389.pdf, p. 67, accessed September 18, 2015. (3) Jay B. Nash (Ed.), The New Day for the Indians: A Survey of the Working of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, New York: Academy Press, 1938, p. 13. (4) Annual Report of the Department of the Interior, 1940, pp. 364-390. (5) See note 3, pp. 35-36. (6) See note 3. (7) See note 2, “Statement of Hon. Michael O. Finley, Chairman, Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation,” pp. 69-72. (8) See note 4, p. 390.