History of the Bureau of Indian Affairs

Throughout its history the BIA implemented radical changes to its Indian policy. The attitude of the BIA towards Indians was complex and often ambiguous. Nonetheless, it is possible to distinguish two major orientations: protection and assimilation. Initially, one of the bureau's responsibilities was the protection of Indian people, including their culture and lands. For example, in February 1829 the BIA head Thomas McKenney instructed Major Edward Du Val (an Indian agent in Little Rock, Arkansas) to prohibit white people from entering or settling on Indian lands without the Indians' approval. Generally, however, the bureau encouraged the assimilation of Indians and oriented its policy to this end. The goal was to transform Indian people into "Americans." An extract from the Annual Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, written by Luke Lea in November 1850, is eloquent: "...it is indispensably necessary that they (Native people) are placed in positions where they can be controlled, and finally compelled by stern necessity to resort to agriculture labour or starve."

Decisions that the BIA implemented in regard to assimilation policies included:

(1) Boarding school policy. In 1879, boarding schools in locations such as Carlisle (Pennsylvania) integrated young Native people within North American culture through the teaching and learning of English. These integration attempts further distanced young Natives from their families and cultures.

(2) In 1883, the BIA published a list of Native religious practices that were not approved by the government. For example, the Sun Dance and other traditional medicinal practices were forbidden.

(3) In 1887, the BIA approved the General Allotment Act (or Dawes Act) promulgated by the Congress. Henry Dawes was convinced that private property as well as agriculture and schooling were the only avenues toward civilization; the act hence called for the creation of Indian reservations. The government granted a certain number of acres to each Indian of the United States, and then took for itself whatever was left of the lands of the former reservations. The Indians subsequently lost two-thirds of their lands or nearly a hundred million acres. The Dawes Act also allowed non-Indian settlers on Indian lands west of the Mississippi River. Gradually, Native life was regulated, decided, and organized by white Americans, with the BIA specifically in charge of decision making. The bureau's power increased when, in August 1876, an act (19 Stat. 200) passed by Congress enlarged the authority of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs by giving him the right to appoint traders in Indian tribes.

One important aspect of organization lies with the field agent. In the field, one agent represented each reservation, functioning as the contact between the reservation's inhabitants and the United States government. Many of these field agents stole money and food while Indian people were left starving and dying of exposure. Field agents were also charged with reporting activities that occurred on the reservations and, if the case arose, to denounce them.

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