Criticisms of the Bureau of Indian Affairs

The bureau had over time grown to vast proportions. Critics claimed that the organization's massive size inhibited its progress and slowed action. The number of BIA employees over a century illustrates this growth: 1852 (108), 1888 (1725), 1911 (6000), 1934 (12,000), and from 1934 to the 1970s (11,000 to 16,000) (Taylor, 1984: 35). The main cause of this increase was the multiplication of divisions—such as forestry, health, and education—whose responsibility the BIA obtained and that required greater numbers of specialized personnel. In response in part to the bureau's unwieldy administration, American Indian students created the National Indian Youth Council (NIYC) in 1961 and took actions to protest the bureau's policies and decisions. One of the youth council's actions was the protest against fishing rules.

However, the council's most significant act against the BIA was the sit-in organized in Washington, District of Columbia, near the White House on November 2, 1972. The goal was to protest against the lack of respect for treaties. Native people from many different states traveled to Washington for the protest, which was named the Trail of Broken Treaties.

International press coverage and numerous signs of public support in favor of the Natives put the government in a delicate situation at a time of pre-electoral campaigns. However, no agreement seemed possible between the government (which wanted the sites to be abandoned) and the Natives (who asked for a guarantee of major future changes in the BIA). Soon after the elections, the government agreed to limited changes: to examine the nomination of Natives to federal offices, to extend the percentage of Natives employed by the bureau, to accelerate the entire assistance process, and to improve development programs in reservations. In exchange, the Natives left their sites on November 7, 1972, but declared that they had put BIA files proving the corruption of its members in a safe place. Louis Bruce, Indian Affairs commissioner, lost his job. Despite the promises, the regional offices did not change in any way.

Some changes however were noticed, as in July 1972 when the BIA offered the Navajos self-rule, which meant the transfer of bureau functions on the reservations to the Navajos. Moreover in 1975, the Indian Self-Determination and Educational Act implemented self-determination policies.

Under the administration of President Ronald Reagan, the president dealt with the Native people on a "government-to-government basis," and initiated a new policy for economic development. Reagan appointed a presidential Commission on Indian Reservation Economies that submitted a report and recommendations to the office of the president in November 1984. The report underlined the administrative spending of tribal governments, noting that the BIA consumed more than two-thirds of its budget on the organization itself, leaving little monies for investment purposes. In June 1996, another action against the BIA ensued. A class-action lawsuit representing 300,000 American Indians was filed in federal court against the bureau, the United States Treasury, and the Department of the Interior. The suit alleged that the BIA had mishandled $450 million in revenues from mineral leases on lands held in trust for Indians. The suit further alleged that no accurate records were kept of the monies collected and that funds were illegally diverted to other projects.


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