Reservations, Resistance, and the Indian Reorganization Act, 1900-1940

In 1900, the federal census recorded just over 200,000 American Indian people living in the United States. Most lived on reservations—parcels of land that Indian people had retained in treaty negotiations—over which the federal government claimed jurisdiction. By 1900, the policy of the federal government was that American Indian people needed to assimilate into white society, giving up their traditional ways to become like Euro-Americans in their living arrangements, dress, pastimes, religious expression, and work.

The government tried to achieve assimilation in many ways. One was to divide certain reservations into individual parcels of land for male-headed families to own and farm. A federal policy since 1887, this process drastically reduced the size of the affected reservations and saw the transfer of land from Indian hands to those of whites. A second government policy required Indian children to attend boarding schools a great distance from their homes, where school staff tried to make them look, speak, and pray like white children.

These policies largely came to an end in 1934 with the passage of the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA), which replaced assimilation programs with initiatives that attempted to strengthen the tribes. Part of the “Indian New Deal,” this legislation was spurred by a 1928 Brookings Institution report that found terrible poverty on reservations across the United States. Each American Indian nation had to vote on whether to accept the IRA. When voting was finished, 172 tribes had accepted the act, and 73 had rejected it. The Navajo nation—the largest Indian nation in the country—rejected the plan. They distrusted the Bureau of Indian Affairs because it had ordered them to kill many of their sheep and goats in 1934 in a misguided attempt to stop soil erosion on the reservation. The Navajo were left without the livestock on which they depended, especially during the harsh winter of 1934.