John Collier was the U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs from 1933 to 1945. In this position he “hacked away at Government policy that called for ‘civilizing’ the Indian. He tried instead, to re-awaken interest in Indian art and music, folklore and custom” . Collier was also the prime driver behind the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, often called the “Indian New Deal.” This sweeping law assisted American Indians by promoting self-governance, opening up lines of credit, increasing educational opportunities, and returning tribal lands .
John Collier was born in Atlanta, Georgia on May 4, 1884, to Charles Augustus and Susie Collier. John had four sisters, Julia, Henrietta, Eleanor, and Tonise, and two brothers, Rawson and Charles Allen. Unfortunately, by the time John was 16, the children were parentless. Susie Collier died from pneumonia in 1897 and Charles Augustus, a former mayor of Atlanta, died in 1900 when he fell from some stairs whiles searching for a possible burglar, and accidentally shot himself . Moving on from the tragedy, John graduated from Columbia University in 1905 and began working as a social worker in Atlanta .
Collier’s interest in American Indians began in 1920, as he traveled the Southwest and studied their living conditions. During the ensuing decade, Collier became the executive secretary for the American Indian Defense Association, editor of the magazine American Indian Life, and an aggressive advocate for tribal rights: “During this period he became familiar to the readers of liberal weeklies as a crusader, and to certain business and political circles as that ‘dangerous lobbyist.’ He waged a bitter fight for religious liberty when the attempt was made to forbid the performance of ancient Indian rituals and ceremonials” .
Indian cultures were in serious jeopardy by the early 20th century. For example, through the Dawes Severalty Act of 1887, which carved out private plots of land from communal tribal land, “Indian land holdings declined from an estimated 113 million acres in 1887 to some 47 million acres in 1932” . Meanwhile, through a policy that became known as “kill the Indian, save the man,” many young American Indians were coerced into learning white Christian culture instead of their own native culture. At its worst, American Indian children were “forcibly taken from their families and sent to distant boarding schools where they were required to cut their hair, forbidden to speak their native languages, severely punished, poorly taught, and crowded into unhealthy conditions” .
In May 1934, shortly after becoming commissioner of Indian Affairs, Collier wrote a lengthy article in the New York Times sharply criticizing past federal policies towards American Indians. He explained how land allotment policies had ultimately transferred tribal lands into white ownership and how education policies had tried to replace “Indian self-consciousness” with “white self-consciousness.” Regarding the decades-long attempt to assimilate American Indians into white culture, Collier wrote: “We have failed to prepare him to enter into our civilization, and we have done our best to destroy his sense of belonging to his own” . A month and a half later, on June 18, 1934, President Roosevelt signed the Indian Reorganization Act into law .
After he left the Office of Indian Affairs (now called the Bureau of Indian Affairs), Collier wrote several books and taught at City College of New York. He retired to Taos, New Mexico, where he died on May 8, 1968, at the age of 84. He was survived by his sons, Charlie, John Jr., and Donald, eleven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren .
Sources: (1) “John Collier, Ex-Commissioner Of Indian Affairs, Is Dead at 84,” New York Times, May 9, 1968. (2) See our summary of the Indian Reorganization Act at https://livingnewdeal.org/what-was-the-new-deal/programs/. (3) Details of the family are culled from various sources, but especially see “Friends To Pay Last Tribute,” The Atlanta Constitution, September 29, 1900. (4) See note 1. (5) Ibid. (6) Mary Ann Weston, Native Americans in the News: Images of Indians in the Twentieth Century Press,” Praeger Publishers, 1996, pp. 19-20. (7) Ibid., p. 20. (8) John Collier, “A Lift For The Forgotten Red Man, Too,” New York Times, May 6, 1934. (9) See our summary of the Indian Reorganization Act (note 2 above) for some of the accomplishments of the law. (10) See note 1. Also, there is conflicting information, but it appears Collier was married three times – to Lucy Wood, from 1906 to 1943; to Laura Thompson, in 1943; and to Grace Volk in 1957 (in addition to note 1, also see “John Collier Memorial Is Established Here,” The Taos News, May 16, 1968, pp. 1-2).