Indians in Oklahoma and Native Alaskans (1936)

For various reasons, both political and cultural, American Indians in Oklahoma and native groups in Alaska were not fully included in the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 (the “Indian New Deal”). This was addressed in 1936 with two pieces of legislation: the Oklahoma Indian Welfare Act and the Alaska Indian Reorganization Act.

The Oklahoma Indian Welfare Act (OIWA) was signed into law by President Franklin Roosevelt on June 26, 1936 and was designed “to promote the general welfare of the Indians of the State of Oklahoma” [1]. It gave tribes the option of self-governance, the right to incorporate, access to credit, and a better ability to acquire land – essentially, the same benefits of the 1934 legislation but tailored to the special circumstances and politics that existed in Oklahoma [2].

The OIWA was opposed by people and organizations who had long exploited American Indian resources, including oil, timber, mining, farming, and ranching groups [3]. While they were successful in changing parts of the OIWA, the law still gave Oklahoma tribes and individuals substantial control of their resources [4]. By November 1939, sixteen Oklahoma tribes had created constitutions for self-governance and five tribes had incorporated and received federal government loans [5]. Some tribes benefitted from OIWA’s land protections, as with the Kiowa, who stopped losing land through previous “allotment” and “assimilation” policies, and even regained some previously lost lands [6].

The Alaska Indian Reorganization Act (AIRA) became law on May 1, 1936 [7]. AIRA provided “for organization of native groups; supplying of credit to these organizations; increase and protection of land of the natives; education of natives through appropriate loans; the preference of natives in employment in the Indian Service; and settling claims of native tribes” [8].

As with Oklahoma, political and cultural realities in Alaska had made the original 1934 legislation problematic. For example, land ownership and boundaries were much less certain in many parts of territorial Alaska than in other states, and many natives were fearful that reservations might restrict their movement. Nevertheless, the AIRA was enacted and, after several years of legal wrangling and maneuvering, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes (a longtime advocate for native rights) began setting aside large tracts of land and fishing areas for native protection, such as “32,200 acres and adjacent tidelands for the villagers at Karluk on Kodiak Island… and 14,000 acres of water for the 194 Eskimos at Wales on the Seward Peninsula” [9].

The AIRA had its shortcomings, not the least of which was a lack of funding to fully implement its provisions [10]; yet, its benefits and legacy are still seen today. For example, the Nome Eskimo Community proudly notes their AIRA formation in 1939, as well as their subsequent growth [11]. In fact, “In recent years, the Department of the Interior has received a number of requests from groups in the State of Alaska seeking to organize under the Alaska IRA” [12].

The OIWA, AIRA, and the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 were part of the New Deal’s overall effort to improve the quality of life for native peoples, while at the same time preserving their culture. Of the legislative effort, President Roosevelt said, “It is in the main a measure of justice long overdue” [13].

Sources: (1) For the original text of the act, see, Library of Congress (accessed November 2, 2020).  (2) See, e.g., “Oklahoma Indian Welfare Act,” Oklahoma Historical Society (accessed November 2, 2020).  (3) Jon S. Blackman, Oklahoma’s Indian New Deal, University of Oklahoma Press, 2013, pp. 6-7.  (4) Ibid., p. 6.  (5) “Sixteen Tribal Units Have Now Adopted Constitutions,” The Oklahoma Daily (Norman, Oklahoma), November 8, 1939, p. 3.  (6) “Kiowa – 20th Century,” Kansas Historical Society (accessed November 2, 2020).  (7) For the original text of the act, see, Office of the Law Revision Counsel of the United States House of Representatives (accessed November 2, 2020).  (8) Annual Report of the Governor of Alaska to the Secretary of the Interior, for the Fiscal Year Ended June 30, 1940, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1940, pp. 46-47. (9) Kenneth R. Philp, “The New Deal and Alaskan Natives, 1936-1945,” Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 50, No. 3 (Aug. 1981), p. 318.  (10) Ibid., pp. 314-315.  (11) See, e.g., “Who We Are,” Nome Eskimo Community (accessed November 2, 2020).  (12) “Alaska IRA,” U.S. Department of the Interior, Indian Affairs (accessed November 2, 2020).  (13) See note 3, p. 3.