Capitol (Hill) Ideas

The Wheeler-Howard bill had its beginnings as the Collier Bill, introduced by John Collier. Originally, his intentions included forty-eight pages of reform suggestions. These included four titles concerning self-government, education, Indian lands, and Court of Indian Affairs. One by one, the houses of Congress tore these subjects apart and reformatted them as the Wheeler-Howard Bill, later to become the Indian Reorganization Act. Collier wanted to "grant to those Indians living under Federal tutelage and control the freedom to organized for the purposes of local self-government and economic enterprise, to the end that civil liberty, political responsibility, and economic independence shall be achieved among the Indian peoples of the United States." When this bill was introduced in the 1930’s it stirred controversy not only within the two houses of Congress that pondered its fate, but also between those two houses. By the time it left Capitol Hill, it was considerably shortened and revamped.

The House Committee on Indian Affairs heard the proposal first. Collier presented them with the idea of holding conferences with Indians around the country to inform them of the particulars of the bill and to allow them to make suggestions as well. Then as the titles of the bill were discussed, the opposition began their debate with Collier. The first of the titles, Title I on Self-Government, caused concerns on the issues of citizenship, segregation, and assimilation of the tribal communities of Indians. The committee was more receptive of the second title on education. A major concern was that although many Indians were gaining employment in programs with the Indians Service, they were finding trouble passing the Civil Service exam to enable them to take government jobs like forestry, or nursing that would be beneficial to the management of Indian affairs. The third title, on Indian lands, was not so easily dealt with. The protection of the vested property rights of Indians was of major concern, especially when the Congressmen began to consider the provision that provided the secretary with powers to sell or transfer tribal lands, or the section that suggested how to handle the inheritance of Indian land allotments. The final title of the bill, which contained the outline for a Court of Indian Affairs, was almost resigned from the beginning as expendable. It would mean the judicial system’s dealings with Indians would have to be reorganized, and even though it appeared that the committee members sympathized with the plight of the Indian’s misunderstanding of the white system, they were reluctant to go into the reorganization that would be required. The House of Representatives heard testimony from Indians of tribes that were in favor of and opposed to the bill. There were also members of special interest groups that testified their opinions. Overall, the hearings prompted the first of many amendments and changes that would happen to Collier’s plan. Some of these were as specific as a particular tribe’s concerns, or as general as the elimination of the Court of Indian Affairs from the proposal.

The Court of Indian Affairs was not discussed as in-depth in the Senate as it was in the House of Representatives. In fact, it received very little attention—probably due to the fact that Collier had resigned to its expendability. There was, however, much discussion on other points of the bill, especially by Senator Burton K. Wheeler. With Elmer Thomas and Henry Ashurst, Wheeler proceeded to pick the bill apart and amend it to create the Wheeler-Howard bill. One of the first objections raised by Wheeler was the "propaganda and verbiage" that were used in the policy statements. Once the proceedings were directed toward the meat of the bill, the arguments and attacks only worsened. Some of the specific criticisms that Wheeler and Thomas hurled at Collier and his ideas were: promising appropriated money to the Indians that would never be allowed by Congress, the isolation of Indians on reservations would not promote the senators’ goals of assimilation, and the incompetence of some Indians would hamper their effective self-government. Where the question about the Court of Indian Affairs had been argued in the House and only lightly discussed in the Senate, the issue of the secretary of the interior’s power in land dealings caused a great stir in the Senate. When one considers that Deloria and Lytle label United States senators as "elected aristocrats," it is easy to understand how the concept of land allotments and administration would be of great importance to them. The topic of education was also a discordant issue. The dilemma of segregated education versus integrated and assimilated education for Indian children was another hot topic that Wheeler pounced upon. By the time the Senate Committee of Indian Affairs had compromised on the Court, amended for special interest groups, and volleyed the question of the amount of "blood" one needed to qualify for allotment, the bill had transformed immensely. No longer was it Collier’s controversial legislation proposal—Wheeler had taken over, and deleted two of the titles completely.

Like the hearings of the House, the discussion was wrapped up with testimony from several witnesses, including Indians. Collier had attempted to lay groundwork before and during the Congressional hearings by conferencing with the Indians about the bill. Opposition in Congress had made things difficult for Collier. Even so, with the original bill, there seemed to be some support among Indian interests. After the new and improved version was unleashed, opposition from the Indians began, too. Indian groups reacted to the idea of mandatory property transfers in inheritances. To get around government organization problems, some tribes were allowed to "merge" in order to fall under the stipulations of the Act.

With all the opposition and amending and cutting, the final bill that was produced by Wheeler was barely over five pages long. The resulting Indian Reorganization Act had eliminated the Court of Indian Affairs and ended allotment of lands. About three years later, Wheeler was trying to have it repealed because he was still concerned about the assimilation of Indians, rather than their self-government. In 1944, there was another try at repealing the Act by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, who cited problems with land and money mismanagement. In practice, all was not going well. History shows that Indians were realizing the problems, and by 1954 they began a movement for their rights that continued parallel to Civil Rights movements of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Reorganizing to help the Indians maintain their "national" identities was resulting in the quest to be treated as fairly as other American citizens.

natbutton.gif (7607 bytes) cowhome.gif (2032 bytes)