John Collier: One Man Crusade?

The Indian Reorganization Act came into being in June of 1934. It had started out as a bill introduced by John Collier and was "doctored" by the United States House of Representatives and Senate—stripped, poked, and prodded. The results were a success for Collier in that it was passed and became law, but also a failure because of the amending and eliminating that took place on Capitol Hill. The results were a reduced form of the grand design for the government, education, and land-management of Indians. To put it into action in a way that corresponded to Collier’s original humanitarian goals would require someone who could interpret the law and make use of any loopholes of opportunity to achieve those goals. John Collier was in such a position—he could solicit and administrate the new law with subtle interpretations that would help him make the most of it.

Collier’s reform crusade stemmed from his experience as a social worker. Collier made a mark for himself by writing letters for the 1929 Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Charles Rhoads. This was a way for him to publicize his own beliefs about the problems with the Indian system before he had political clout of his own. He managed to throw his hat into the political ring when the position of commissioner of Indian affairs opened for 1933. He proposed his highly criticized bill to the gentlemen of Washington, D.C. with style and poise, even when exchanges were hostile. His relationship with Senator Burton K. Wheeler, had been an alliance against the Indian Service during the Hoover presidency. During the proceedings of passing Collier’s bill, their relationship changed. Wheeler began to dominate the proceedings, the bill shed Collier’s name and took on Wheeler’s, and it changed so much that, indeed, it was like it was no longer Collier’s bill. By the time the bill passed and was ratified, Collier was left in a position as a public official to help put the new Indian Reorganization Act into practice.

One of the first things at hand for Collier was to interpret some of the broad statements of the statute that had only one important policy statement: " land of an Indian reservation, created or set apart by treaty or agreement with the Indians, Act of Congress, executive order, purchase, or otherwise, shall be allotted in severalty to any Indian." Interpreted, this was a way to end the allotment system that had caused problems with Indian communities. It left open the possibility of other federal intervention to achieve assimilation of the Indians. With nothing to clearly guide how this was to be accomplished, Collier found ways to use this and other types of openings to achieve his original plans. He and Nathan Margold authored a piece called "Powers of Indian Tribes" that addressed the vague wording of the Wheeler-Howard Act and attempted to interpret the unspecific powers of tribal councils or tribal laws. By stating that the lawfully vested powers of a tribe were inherent powers, rather than delegated powers, the men explained the right of the tribe to form their own government with its own offices, duties, and procedures. This seemed to be a way that John Collier could achieve his original goal of self-government for the Indians. The subject of a tribal justice system was also covered, stating that because a tribe would be able to govern marriages it should be able to cover other legal matters also. In a way, Collier’s partner, Margold, was reviving the court system ideas that Collier had allowed to be sacrificed in the House and Senate. Furthermore, it Collier’s original plans of giving power to the tribal governments had passed; they would have the potential risk of being able to be taken away. However, because the powers were given the implication of having been extant all along, they could not be taken away by Congress. In short, it was a better deal!

To get the tribes to organize a government, it was necessary to organize the tribes. In some cases there were more than one tribe on a given reservation. In order to get around this, they developed a community for the Indians at Fort Belknap, and set an example to be held up for inspection in later discussion of related issues. It was important to achieve some sort of unity for voting purposes in a community. Another problem was that when elections were held, if Congress thought that voter turnout was too low to express an accurate majority opinion about an act (such as the ratification of the Wheeler-Howard Act), it could step in and declare a ruling of its own (such as forcing the Indians to declared as ruled by the Indian Reorganization Act.) Collier and Margold took this and ran with it. It upset Congress and they issued an amendment that declared a determined percentage of voters would be required for the approval or defeat of the act. The response of the dynamic duo was that the secretary could hold another election until the required number of voters turned out.

In all, the way that Collier and Margold interpreted the new act turned it to their advantage in many ways. It seems as if his original plan to reform Indian policies would become reality one way or another. All it took was a little imagination and a lot of help from a man named Margold.

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