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Indians At Work (1934)

Indians At Work

by John Collier

an article in Survey Graphic,  (June, 1934)

IS it too late for Indian tribes, wards of the government, to demonstrate statesmanship? Have the Indians still a race to run?

The twelve months behind, even the five years behind, have supplied, for the Indians as a whole, merely the beginnings of a possible answer. Whether (ignoring the question of their capacity) the Indians shall be allowed to try to run their race at all, is still an unanswered question. It is discussed below. But let us start at the point of clearest evidence and greatest hope.

That point is the Navajo tribe and the Navajo regional plan. Forty-five thousand Indians, pure bloods and mostly non-English-speaking; in their religion, pre-Columbian; a nomad desert tribe, occupying nearly twenty-five thousand square miles of desert land of wild, somber and splendid beauty. They have multiplied nearly fourfold in seventy years. Their flocks have multiplied faster. They overpopulate and congest their barren range, and their sheep and goats desperately overgraze it. Their material standard of living very low indeed, their psychical standard is high, their elan vital is irrepressible. They are esthetes, adventurers, gamblers, sportsmen and nature-mystics. They have not the peasant’s submissiveness to work, nor the bourgeoise idolatry toward it.

And suddenly the Navajos have been faced with a crisis which in some aspects is nothing less than a head-on collision between immediate advantages, sentiments, beliefs, affections and previously accepted preachments, as one colliding mass, and physical and statistical facts as the other.

The crisis consists in the fact that the soil of the Navajo reservation is hurriedly being washed away into the Colorado river. The collision consists in the fact that the entire complex and momentum of Navajo life must be radically and swiftly changed to a new direction and in part must be totally reversed.

And the changes must be made—if made at all—through the choice of the Navajos themselves; a choice requiring to be renewed through months and years, with increasing sacrifices for necessarily remote and hypothetical returns, and with a hundred difficult technical applications.

Nor is the burden of sacrifice an equal one; indeed, those Navajos, individuals and families, who have the greatest power to prevent the collective sacrifice from being made are the ones whose uncompensated individual sacrifice must be greatest.

It is the Navajos’ past which has made their virtues. Their past still is, psychologically, their present. These virtues, aggressive and yet attractive and appealing, must not die from the new order which has suddenly become a matter of life or death. Yet can they live on? For human qualities are institutional products. The question is intense with sociological as well as with human interest.

About ten months ago, a joint committee of the Departments of Agriculture and Interior described the crisis and charted the emergency program. Soil erosion, they found, due to extreme overgrazing, had totally destroyed several hundred thousand acres of the Navajo range. It had seriously damaged millions of acres more. It was advancing not in arithmetical but in geometrical progression, and in fifteen, perhaps twenty years the Navajo reservation would be changed to a divinely painted desert and the Navajos would be homeless on the earth.

Whereupon, last July, the Navajo tribal council and two thousand other Navajos were brought together at Fort Wingate, New Mexico. With technical detail, through interpreters and endless hours of discussion the facts were supplied them. And the condition precedent to an ultimate saving of the soil was stated with no sparing of words That condition was a sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of their sheep and goats. But in addition there must be a planning of economic use for the whole reservation; range control, with redistribution of range privileges; an intensive revival of subsistence farming, irrigated and dry; a recasting and diminution of the road-building program; the fencing of areas of the range for soil experimentation, with total removal of stock from these areas; and erosion engineering and re-vegetative operations, under time pressure, throughout the wide region.

Nor could government funds pay for all the needed innovations. The Navajos themselves must pay, in labor and money.

The Navajo reservation is being washed into the Boulder Dam reservoir. That reservoir’s rate of silting has been computed upon a static erosion rate which is but a fraction of the present and speeding-up rate. Hence; Southern California, as well as New Mexico and Arizona, is involved with the Navajos in their crisis. Actually, two thirds of the silt being fed to Boulder Dam is washed from the Navajo lands.

Mandatory sheep and goat reduction, mandatory range control, federal dominance over the Navajos’ present and future program, are already possible in law and might be justified from the standpoint of national necessity.

But the Navajos were expressly and formally told that compulsion would not be used. This problem was their own and they, not the government, must do the things necessary to its solution. profound recasting of the economic and social life of a people must be sought through knowing consent of the people and must be forced through their own will, or it must fail.

How did the Navajos respond? The tribal council adopt the program, with the proviso that it must go by referendum to the whole Navajo people through those local “chapters” which are the ultimate units of Navajo government. The tribe adopted the program at this referendum

Again, after four months, a more drastic and more fast-moving program went before the council, was by it submitted to the people and was adopted. The Navajos through this decision surrendered ninety thousand of their sheep.

And again, after four months, a yet more drastic program was submitted. It called for the immediate sacrifice of 50,000 Navajo goats, and for coordinate adjustments that will cut the total of Navajo flocks by much more than one third. The cost of this latest stock reduction will be $225,000; the government does not undertake to pay the bill and the Navajos themselves are proposing to pay it, dependent on a government loan to the tribe. This latest sacrifice was adopted by referendum and confirmed by the tribal council in early April.

Meantime, the positive tasks of erosion control are well under way. The technical direction is being supplied by the Soil Erosion Service of the Department of the Interior. The Navajos are themselves carrying out the projects. In February, at Washington, the Carnegie Institute presented a photographic display showing erosion as a menacing condition threatening many parts of the United States. The exhibit climaxed with photographs of model erosion-control operations. The pictures bore no local designations, but they were photographs of the engineering works not merely built with Navajo hands but planned, practically in their entirety, by the Navajos. Four hundred Navajos had worked at the projects, assisted by only two white men.

I do not believe that any white community in the United States would have met a complicated and profound, urgent challenge, entailing the upset of widely distributed but unequal vested property interests, with the spirit, the audacity and the resourcefulness which the Navajo tribe has shown. Be it remembered that the Navajos are illiterates, in the main, and speak only the Navajo language, in the main And that the women are in most cases the owners of the goats and sheep; and that goats and sheep are viewed by the Navajos emotionally, all but as human children.

Let me quickly sketch the social program, going beyond erosion and range control, now being put into effect by the Navajos and by the government as their partner. First comes the drastic decentralization of Indian Service administration. The new Navajo capital (called Nee Alneeng, which means Center of the Navajo World) will be the Indian Service office for the whole reservation. Into it, whatever Washington authority can be legally transplanted will be transplanted. Under the pending Wheeler-Howard bill, discussed below, that will be substantially the whole authority of the federal government.

Here, likewise, will be the capitol of the tribe—the headquarters of the tribal council.

BUT beyond this headquarters, decentralization will be carried to the more than twenty-five sub-agencies, each the center of the locally organized Navajos and the administrative office for the school work, health work, agricultural extension, erosion, law-enforcement and other services of the government. These sub-agencies will be people’s houses, and into them the formal schooling of the Navajos will be merged; indeed, if hopes are fulfilled there will be no formal schooling of the cloistrated or standardized order. All educational work will start from, and end in, the community group. The Navajo language will be used coordinately with English; Navajos and the government’s workers with the Navajos will be bilingual in the future. The employee at these sub-agencies, and at the capital, will increasingly be (again, subject to the enactment of the Wheeler-Howard bill) Navajo Indians.

I have begun with this happy and inspiriting example, and I will give one bright instance more because it testifies to what qualities there are in all Indians; and then I will pass to the gloomy side. For it will become evident that the Indians, now as before, are shrouded in gloom.

Last May, President Roosevelt decided that 14,000 Indians in all parts of the Indian country should be admitted to emergency conservation camps, to work on reforestation, on water development and erosion control. We were glad, but we were frightened. For the permission extended beyond the Pueblos, Pimas, Papagos and Navajos, famed for their sobriety and their industry. It reached to the Oklahoma, Dakota, Montana and Pacific Coast tribes—to those Indians reputedly not willing to work and reputedly demoralized. Would the camps become centers of drink, of debauchery? Would the Indians respond to their opportunity, and after they responded, would they work?

The sequel has been, I believe, the most impressive event in Indian affairs in these “lonesome latter years” of Indian life. The Indians thronged to the camps and projects. The camps became and have uniformly remained (there has not arisen even one exception) models of orderly, happy living. The work-projects, involving every kind of technical operation connected with forestry and with land conservation and use, have been pursued with better than mere industry—rather, with joyous ardor. Of all the technical and supervisory positions, more than 60 percent are now being efficiently filled by Indians, and the rank-and-file of the workers is 100 percent Indian. But the main significance is here: that the southwestern tribes have in no degree, in no particular, excelled those of the other regions.

These Indians of the allotted areas have been, at the camps, like creatures released from prisons and dungeons. Once more they have been allowed to live in groups, to work in groups and to work for a common good. They have furnished the solution of the so-called problem of the American Indian. Just in such a way, the Mexican peons of yesterday, now members of the recreated pueblos or ejidos of Old Mexico, have furnished the solution of the problem of the Indians south of the Rio Grande.

Because this article has space limits I shall now deal with only one other matter, the Wheeler-Howard Indian land and home-rule bill and, in conclusion, with the objection raised against this bill, namely that it tends toward an unfortunate segregation Of the Indians.

Though this article will be published too late to have persuasive weight with the out going Congress, a description of the Wheeler-Howard bill will serve to give a perspective of the Indian situation as a whole, and will tell what it is that the present administration seeks to do. President Roosevelt has thus summarized the intent of the bill:
In offering the Indian these natural rights of man, we will more nearly discharge the federal responsibility for his welfare than through compulsory guardianship that has destroyed initiative and the liberty to develop his own culture.

The bill primarily drives against two states of fact—an Indian landholding system fatal, sinister and dishonest, and a system of law which makes of the executive an unreviewable czar over Indian life.

THE present system of land tenure was ushered in fifty-seven years ago with the passage of the General Allotment Act. Previous to this time the soil of the various Indian reservations was owned in common, title resting in the tribe. Every member of a tribe had the right to occupy as much land as he could beneficially use; his house and other improvements passed on to his heirs, but he could not alienate and dispose of a square foot of tribal soil. Those reservations which escaped allotment have today as much and frequently more land than they contained sixty years ago.

Through the General Allotment Act the government proceeded to break up the reservations, to attach to each Indian then living a tract of land as his individual property and throw the part of the reservations not used in this individual land distribution open to white settlement. Thus the Indian was to become an individualized farmer and assume all the white man’s burden after a comparatively short “trust” period during which the privilege of mortgaging and selling his land was denied him.

After allotment the individualized land began to slip out of the Indian owners’ hands at high speed. When the trust period expired or the Indian was declared “competent,” he disposed of his land in short order, spent the proceed and went to live with his relatives. And when an allotted Indian died, the usual impossibility to make an equitable partition of the land forced its sale not to Indians, but to those who had the money to buy, to the waiting white people. Thus allotment dissipated, continues to dissipate the Indian estate.

In 1887, the Indians were owners of 136,340,950 acres of the best land. In 1933 they were owners of 47,311,099 acres, of which a full 20,000,000 acres were desert or semi-desert. The surface value of the Indian-owned lands had shrunk 90 percent in these forty-six years. Of the residual lands, 7,032,237 acres (the most covetable of the remnant) were awaiting “knock-down sale” to whites—sale conducted by the government itself, usually without reference to Indian choice. And of the usable land still owned by the allotted Indians, a full three fourths was already possessed and used by whites under the allotment leasing system. Such land is tax-exempt, and the white lessees (cattlemen, sheep-men, farmers and grain corporations) reap the benefit of tax exemption. Since 1887, one hundred and fifty thousand Indians have been rendered totally landless; and existing law—the practices mandatory or administratively inescapable under it—insured the dispossession of the remaining allotted Indians within the present generation.

WHAT the Indians themselves have done or have left undone has been a negligible factor in the above-stated record. The allotment law and system intends and compels the transfer of Indian title to whites. Less swift than treaty-breaking with Indians or than outright rape of Indian lands, but surer and cheaper, bloodless and silent, the allotment law has fulfilled the “civilizing” intentions of the government of 1887.

The facts of 1933 are the facts of today. I give some other facts of the workings and consequences of Indian land allotment.

The Indian lives in an ever-narrowing prison-pen of allotment until his last acre is gone, and then he is summarily cast out from federal responsibility. But the Indian service, hardly less than the Indian, lives, and endeavors to work, in a prison-pen of land allotment. Governmental appropriations into the millions each year, sorely needed for health service to Indians, for education, for relief, and for the economic rehabilitation of Indians, are of necessity diverted to the real-estate operations connected with the still-shrinking allotted lands. Pari passu with the swindling of the lands, the costs of administration rise. And there is no escape from these results under existing law.

I refer, of course, to the allotted areas, but these are all of the Indian country of Oklahoma and nearly all of the Indian country of Wisconsin, Minnesota, the Dakotas, Montana, Nebraska and Kansas, Wyoming, Oregon, Washington and California.

The allotment system fights against all the human services attempted for Indians. Two Oklahoma cases will serve as examples, chosen because the bitterest of the embittered opposition to the Wheeler-Howard bill comes from whites.

At the Kiowa and Comanche agency, the total government expenditure, school costs aside, is $80,000 a year. Of this total, only $15,000 can be used for health, relief, reimbursable loans, agricultural extension and all the other human services. Sixty-five thousand is required for the real-estate operations of the allotted lands. Meantime the lands inexorably pass to whites by government sale. About sixty of every hundred Indians in this jurisdiction are totally landless, all but a few are in poverty, and their needs for service are extreme. At most allotted jurisdictions, the proportion of the landless Indians is greater than at this one.

On its work other than schools, the Five Civilized Tribes agency of Oklahoma spends $300,000 a year. All except $60,000 of this total is devoured by the real-estate operations of the allotted lands. Of the 100,000 Five Tribes Indians, 72,000 are totally landless; the remaining lands are swiftly being forced into white ownership; and the per capita income of the Five Tribes, omitting oil and mineral royalties paid to a few individuals, is forty-seven dollars a year. These Five Tribes possessed, twenty-five years ago, 15 million acres of the best Oklahoma land; they now possess 1 1/2 million acres.

Subdivision of inherited allotments, on a hundred reservations, has proceeded to that point where an individual equity is fixed by subdividing, for example, the sum 5200 into the sum 114,307,200, and the government solemnly pays each heir the value of a postage stamp once a month. The heir possesses an equity in ten, thirty, or fifty separate allotments. Administration costs more than the total rental, even the total value of the lands. Not merely farming lands, but grazing properties and even forests have been fractionated to these vanishing dimensions, making impossible the working of their own assets by the allotees; and the fading Indian lands are dots within the sea of white ownership. Twenty-five years ago the areas were solidly Indian.

The Wheeler-Howard Bill centers in the land problem. The bill’s forty-eight pages are their own explanation, but the principles can be stated in a few words. Under the bill, individual allotted titles may be exchanged for equitable rights in a community title. Use of the land, ownership of the improvements, ownership of the rental value of the land, and the right to use an equal area or value of land within the community estate, is safeguarded and made into an inheritable vested right. The physical allotments may be inherited so long as their subdivision does not reach the point of destroying their economic use.

Under the bill, reservation areas are to be marked out for ultimate consolidation into unbroken Indian holdings. The new land procedures will apply only inside these consolidated areas. To buy the white-owned tracts, and to purchase the Indian heirship lands for the communities, the bill authorizes $2 million a year. This grant will be used likewise for buying land on which homeless Indians will be colonized. In addition, submarginal lands, now being purchased by the government, will be furnished the Indian communities, and funds from the subsistence homestead appropriation will be used for experimental colonies.

Financial credits which is now practically denied the Indians, is essential to the Wheeler-Howard plan, and the bill establishes a revolving fund of $10 million, which will be a federal grant, allocated to the Indian communities to be used by them as a revolving loan fund, capitalizing the individual and group enterprises.

The bill forbids any and all allotment of lands hereafter, and forbids the sale of Indian lands to whites, and through many devices seeks to enable the Indians to repossess their lands now rented to whites and to become their own operators.

The so-called home-rule provisions of the Wheeler-Howard Bill are “geared” with the land provisions, but their application is more general than that of the land provisions. Under existing law the secretary of the interior and Indian commissioner practically are forced to stand as absolutists over the Indians. Usually their actions are exempt from court review. But they, in turn, are victims of the mandatory allotment system and of an appropriation and budgeting system which conceals facts and which freezes government moneys into out-moded and sometimes even fictitious uses, leaving Congress itself helpless to control the expenditures, while the Indian office is no less helpless and the Indian is kept in the dark.

The total effect of these above conditions has been to impose on the Indian service an extreme centralization at the Washington Office. The free movement of ideas, of experimentation and of local adjustment is impeded everywhere, and in the allotted areas is all but prohibited. There has been a wealth of bold effort and of truly creative initiative within the Indian Service during the last four or five years, and by “main strength and awkwardness,” as it were, some of this innovation has been pushed through to the Indians’ actual life in the two hundred reservations. But the autocratic and centralized system practically defies the human effort, and the best administration, whether from the headquarters or from the field, is as water poured into the labyrinthine sands of bureaucracy which is forbidden by law to reorganize itself.

The Wheeler-Howard Bill cuts through the tangle of legal compulsions and inhibitions and provides for a radical decentralization of the Indian Service. Indians may organize and become chartered for any of the tasks or interests of their own lives; their organization may be geographical or functional, according to their wishes or requirements. When organized, the chartered Indian communities become instrumentalities of the federal government. Doing less or more according to the facts of the innumerable variable cases, these communities in their fullest development may become wholly self-governing, subject only to Congress and the Constitution. Any function of Indian Service, with the appurtenant federal moneys, may be transferred to these communities. The communities in turn may enter into contract with states, counties and any other local institutions.

A special Indian civil service is created by the bill, and communities may appoint their qualified members for any position of local Indian service, and power of recall over local government employees is given to the communities.

The bill in its Title 2 broadens the authority for Indian educational work, and through a system of loans and scholarship grants opens the colleges and the professional and technical schools to Indian youth.

Title 4 of the bill sets up a Court of Indian Affairs, with functions ministerial as well as judicial, and brings the Indian Service and the Indian communities under the review of this court. Through this court the constitutional rights will be insured, including minority rights, religious rights and the due process of law in matters of life and property which are necessarily withheld from Indians under the present system.

I conclude with some necessary remarks directed to the only reasoned criticism which has been brought against the Wheeler-Howard Bill and the Roosevelt-Ickes Indian policy. The bill and policy, it is contended, make for racial segregation and would wall the Indians off from civilization and from modern opportunity. To meet the contention is to bring the Indian situation under a sociological searchlight.

Where the trend or drift of a race has gone in one direction–in the case of most of the Indians, downhill–for a hundred years more or less, there cannot be any sudden or easy reversal of the trend. Subtle and deep readjustments, sociological, psychological and even biological, take place within peoples; human beings make structural adaptations to the life-limiting environment. The prison psychosis would furnish an illustration.

Space limits forbid the pursuit of this analysis, but as a practical matter, the Indian Service task has to be visioned in relation to such facts as the following.

The extreme poverty of the Indians, which was recognized as a controlling factor by the Institute for Government Research in 1928, continues unrelieved. Indeed, with data greatly enriched, the fact of Indian poverty has become more impressive. The shrinkage of landholdings, due to allotment, actually is smaller than the shrinkage of capital funds. These have disappeared altogether, in the cases of scores of tribes.

Earned income and subsistence production have continued at an almost unbelievably low level. Only when the land system is examined do the facts become credible, especially in the light of the proved readiness of Indians to work, and their ability to work efficiently, as displayed in emergency activities during the past year.

The incomplete returns have now been tabulated from ten allotted areas in the six states of South Dakota, North Dakota, California, Kansas, Montana and Oklahoma. The studies were remade by competent investigators employed under a Civil Works grant. Case records were made for families containing 38,772 individuals. The per capita per year income was found to be $47.78, after excluding the oil and mineral royalties paid to a handful of individuals in these ten areas.

This per capita income–$47.78–represents the earned income and the lease money and the market value of goods produced or consumed. These Indians have consumed no more than $47.78 worth of goods in the year. The ascertained figure is higher, not lower, than it would be in an average year, because federal emergency expenditures, on works projects in the Indian country, were rising toward their peak during the time of the survey.

The poverty of the Indians contributes to their continuing morbidity and deathrates. The deathrate, taking the Indians as a whole, continues at twice the deathrate of the general population including the Negroes. Tuberculosis, with an Indian deathrate more than seven times the white, is not yet being controlled. Trachoma is uncontrolled although clinical treatment has been multiplied tenfold since 1925.

Less tangible, but no less important, are the registrations of economic inferiority in the mental and social reactions of the Indians. Between the elder and younger generations, suppressed or open conflict rages. Between the pure bloods and the mixed bloods, conflict rages. Between the allotted Indians and the government, conflict rages. Rarely, where these conflicts go on, are the causes understood by the Indians. The causes are objective and imminent, residing as they do in the allotment system, in the dictatorial and centralized Bureau management and in the segregation forced upon the Indians by their poverty and their under-equipment. But the conflicts, psychologically analyzed, are essentially neurotic conflicts–compensations, escapes, and rationalizations of misery. And in the allotted areas, it is largely out of the question to recapture and harness these neurotic energies for practical social tasks, because the tasks are forbidden by the law and the system.

The total effect of these and related conditions is to degrade the Indian social level, and the degradation goes steadily forward. The real “values” of the Indian are driven inward, insulated from world intact, and compelled to face toward remembered glory, remembered plenty and power. And assimilation, whether biological or social, becomes for Indians, with each passing year, an assimilation into still inferior levels of the white life.

The Indian Rights Association, in company with some of the Missionaries’ fears the policies of Secretary Ickes’ administration, and looks with doubt on the Wheeler-Howard Bill, on the ground, stated above, that the policies and the bill are working toward the segregation of Indians. I have stated the facts of Indian poverty because from any point of view they are controlling in the appraisal of the Indian situation, but also because they dispose, I believe, of the segregation argument. The Indians today are segregated by factors all-penetrating, infinitely more potent than mere geographical segregations could ever be. Their extreme poverty segregates them. Their inferiority status in law intensifies their segregation. Their infectious diseases segregate them. Their inferiority sentiment, elaborately planted at the center of their consciousness by deliberate governmental policy as well as by the unintended action of poverty, effectually segregates them.

Their ancient interests and loyalties, which are far from being extinct, are by these same conditions imprisoned, and denied the chance to partake in social action, to salvage themselves through development and change.

And the Indian, in his profounder psyche, is condemned to that which could be termed a social-psychic infantilism, a dream-escape to the social mother–that social mother who, to the Indian, is always his own tribe. Yet even this escape takes with it a conflict into the very heart of the Indian’s life. Due to the rendering of the ancient values powerless by social segregation, insecurity and inferiority haunt even this inmost refuge or shrine.

The mechanisms and policies of the Wheeler-Howard Bill are, first and last, a prescription for bringing this Indian segregation to an end.

This work may also be read through the Internet Archive.

Source: Collier, John, Survey Graphic, Vol. 23, No. 6, p. 261, (June, 1934), New Deal Network, (September 10, 2014).

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