President Truman and the Indians

With the death of President Franklin Roosevelt in 1945, Vice-President Harry Truman became President. Truman called for the elimination of the Indian Office (now called the Bureau of Indian Affairs) within three years. According to Truman, the Indian Office-

“has segregated the Indian from the general citizenry, condemned him to an indefinite if not perpetual wardship, tied him to land in perpetuity, and forced a system of Bureau-controlled education and land use upon him.”

With this, the federal government begins to turn its back on the reforms initiated during the Roosevelt Presidency and to return to the ideas of the nineteenth century which called for the assimilation of Indians and the destruction of Indian cultures. The Truman Presidency for American Indians marks the beginning of a new dark ages nurtured in ignorance and inspired by greed and out-dated notions of racial superiority.

In 1952, President Harry Truman stopped in Montana where he was met by a delegation of Assiniboine dressed in traditional outfits. Chief First to Fly conducted a brief pipe ceremony and passed the pipe to the President, a non-smoker. The President took a few puffs and then handed it to Montana Senator Mike Mansfield who later reported:

“The President doesn’t smoke. What he did here was for the first time.”

Hoover Commission:

In 1949, the Hoover Commission recommended that American Indians be economically, culturally, and politically integrated into American society. The members of the Commission blasted the previous administration’s celebration of Indian cultures and insisted that the United States return to the nineteenth century policies of assimilation. While the Supreme Court had pointed out that the states tended to be the enemies of Indian tribes, the Commission recommended that functions of the Bureau of Indian Affairs be transferred to state governments. According to the Hoover Commission:

“The basis for historic Indian culture has been swept away. Traditional tribal organization was smashed a generation ago. … Assimilation must be the dominant goal of public policy.”

Administration of Indian Affairs:

In the bureaucracy of the American government, the administration of Indian affairs has been delegated to the Department of the Interior. Within this department, the Indian Office was headed by the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, a political appointee.

Legislation reorganized the Indian Office in 1946. Forty reservation-based offices were eliminated and regional headquarters were established in five cities: Minneapolis, Billings, Portland, Phoenix, and Oklahoma City. On the one hand, this reorganization was justified as a movement to streamline management and to make it more cost-effective. On the other hand, it was a move away from meeting the needs of reservation Indians and a vehicle for accelerating the relocation of Indians from their tribal homelands into urban areas.

The Indian Office was renamed the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) in 1947. At this time, the BIA began an experimental program to relocate single Navajo men to Denver, Los Angeles, and Salt Lake.

In 1948, the Secretary of the Interior considered moving 1,000 Navajo families from their reservation in Arizona and New Mexico to the Colorado River as a means of alleviating overpopulation on the reservation.

In 1951, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) withheld $140,000 of credit funds from the Oglala Sioux until the tribe withdrew its criticisms of the BIA’s extension service program.

In 1951 the BIA opened four urban field relocation offices: Los Angeles, Denver, Salt Lake City, and Chicago. Of these, only the office in Chicago had not been involved with the earlier Hopi and Navajo relocation program.

In 1952, the BIA abandoned the Indian reorganization program started in 1934 under the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) and set out to take the government out of the Indian business. The BIA intended to destroy bilateral United States-Indian treaties and to end the government’s commitment to its trusteeship obligations. With no legislative authority, Commissioner Dillon Meyer made an offer to all Indian tribes to end their federal relationships. In the annual report of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Meyer wrote:

“If any Indian tribe is convinced that the Bureau of Indians Affairs is a handicap to its advancement, I am willing to recommend to the Secretary of Interior that we cooperate in securing legislative authority to terminate the Department’s trusteeship responsibility to that tribe.”

The BIA closed all federal Indian schools in Idaho, Michigan, and Wisconsin in 1952. In the boarding schools, there was a return to the assimilation philosophy that had guided Indian education at the beginning of the century. The BIA also discontinued all loans to students under the Indian Reorganization Act.

In 1952, Commissioner of Indian Affairs Dillon Meyer visited the Fort Peck Reservation in Montana and met with the Tribal Executive Board. In his talk to the Sioux and Assiniboine on the reservation, he stresses the theme of “emancipation” and told them:

“We’re not interested in hanging onto the responsibility of trusteeship any longer than the Indian folks feel that we should carry it.”


In 1946, D.C., the Standing Committees on Indian Affairs in the Senate and the House were abolished. In other words, there would no longer be regular committees to consider Indian issues, an indication that Congress no longer considered Indians to be a major concern. Indian matters were relegated to sub-committees. The following year, some Senators began to call for the abolition of the BIA, claiming that it had ceased to be of use.

In 1948, Congress passed legislation which allowed Indians to use alcohol only for mechanical, scientific, or medicinal purposes.

In 1949, Utah congresswoman Reva Beck Basone introduced a bill calling for the assimilation of Indians into the American way of life. She noted:

“It is my observation that the Indian wants more than anything else to live like the white man.”

House Joint Resolution 698 in 1950 called for an examination into the conduct of Indian affairs and a list of tribes which were sufficiently prepared for termination. Tribes subject to termination were supposed to have attained a significant degree of acculturation, to be economically self-supporting, and to be willing to accept the termination of government services. In response to the resolution, the BIA developed an extensive questionnaire for BIA officials to use in evaluating each tribe. The resulting report reflected the judgment of reservation superintendents and BIA staff.

In 1952, a bill supported by the Bureau of Indian Affairs was introduced to Congress which would authorize BIA law enforcement officers to carry arms, to make arrests, and to engage in searches and seizures for alleged violations of BIA regulations, both on and off the reservation. From the viewpoint of the BIA and those who supported the bill, Indians should not have any Fourth Amendment search-and-seizure rights.

At the same time, the BIA also petitioned Congress for blanket authority to terminate trusteeship of land, to veto any tribal expenditures, and to remove tax-exempt status from Indian Country. The BIA also asked that the BIA be exempt from any review or correction in the courts. The Commissioner of Indian Affairs asked Congress to put the BIA above the law.


In 1949, the hereditary chiefs and priests of four Hopi villages – Hotevilla, Shungopovi, Mishongnovi, and Shipalovi – sent a letter to President Harry Truman asking the United States to stay out of their affairs and to respect their sovereignty. They pointed out to the President that Hopi land had been given to them by the Great Spirit, Massauw and that they were given the task of guarding this land by obeying their religious instructions.

President Truman

Commissioners of Indian Affairs:

After having made clear that he intended to get rid of the Indian Office and return to the discredited program of assimilation that had led to massive poverty for Indians, President Truman appointed William A. Brophy as the Commissioner of Indian Affairs. Brophy had served as special attorney for the Pueblo Indians. As Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Brophy began to guide the Indian Office toward policies which emphasized a return to assimilation and abandoned the idea of cultural pluralism.

Brophy’s poor health meant that William Zimmerman, an assistant commissioner of Indian affairs, became acting Commissioner in 1946. In 1949, John Ralph Nichols, who had been an administrator in the University of Idaho system, was appointed as Commissioner of Indian Affairs. He served in this position only eleven months and spent most of his time visiting Indian reservations. He felt that Indians should be assimilated into American society, but stressed that for assimilation to be successful it had to be desired by the Indians.

In 1950, Dillon S. Meyer became Commissioner of Indian Affairs. Meyer, who had administered the Japanese concentration camps during World War II, had had almost no contact with cultures other than his own and was firmly committed to the myth of the American melting pot and the superiority of American culture. Like many Americans at this time, Meyer was convinced that communities which were culturally different from the American mainstream were un-American and weakened the fabric of American life. His distrust of and dislike for Indians has been described by some historians as “pathological.”

He felt that the development of tribal resources was best accomplished by turning this development over to private, non-Indian, companies.

He saw a return to the boarding school concept as a way of severing tribal ties. He ordered classes to stop stressing Native culture and to prepare Indian students for off-reservation employment. This included the reinstitution of the old efforts to curb the use of Native languages.

Under Meyer’s leadership, the Bureau of Indian Affairs used government money and employees to influence tribal elections in favor of candidates which he approved. When Indians who were critical of BIA policies were elected, the BIA simply impounded the bank accounts of the tribes and hindered tribal management.

Commissioner Dillon Meyer outlined his new Indian policy at a 1951 speech before the National Council of Churches. This group was in favor of assimilation and had opposed the idea of religious freedom for Indian religions. He announced that the private sector or state governments could better serve the Indian people and the time had come to weaken or dissolve the relationship between Indian tribes and the federal government. He asked that religious groups help Indians to assimilate into American society.


Commissioner Meyer, issued new rules in 1950 which required that all attorneys who contracted with tribes have his personal approval. In response to the proposed rules, the Association on American Indian Affairs editorialized:

“The proposed rules, by interfering with free choice of counsel, collide head-on with the due process guarantee of the Federal Constitution.”

Columbia University Law Professor Charles Black wrote of the importance of having a tribe choose their own attorney:

“If he is chosen by somebody else, dismissible by somebody else, accountable to somebody else, he cannot devote himself with a whole heart to the interests of his tribal client.”

While the new rules were eventually rejected by the Secretary of the Interior after hearing 44 witnesses speak against them, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs continued to obstruct tribal contracts for legal services.

In 1950, the Standing Rock Sioux attempted to hire their own attorney, to be paid out of tribal funds, to help in the negotiations regarding lands taken in the Pick-Sloan dam projects. The tribe wanted legal counsel which was totally independent from the politics of the Department of the Interior. However, Commissioner of Indian Affairs Dillon Meyer rejected their choice of an attorney and allowed only a one-year contract. The attorney selected by the tribe, James Curry, was an outspoken critic of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and was one of a number of Indian claims lawyers against whom Meyer had a personal vendetta. The tribe protested Meyer’s decision to the Department of Interior. The Department of the Interior did nothing as Meyer continued to publicly attack Curry.

The Commissioner of Indian Affairs notified all tribes in 1951 that money for hiring private attorneys to represent tribal claims would no longer be available. The Commissioner explained that public money was being wasted on private attorneys when government attorneys could perform the same tasks.

In 1951, he denied the Pyramid Lake Paiute in Nevada the right to hire their own attorney in settling a claim for disputed land on their reservation. Paiute tribal chairman Avery Winnemucca and a three-member delegation traveled to Washington, D.C. to demand a hearing with the Secretary of the Interior. They failed to see the Secretary and to gain support for their cause.

In 1951, the Standing Rock Sioux sent a delegation to Washington to obtain a hearing about their choice in an attorney to represent their interests. For 26 days the delegation camped out in the office of the Secretary of the Interior, lobbied in Congress, and gave interviews to the news media to present their case. Finally, the Secretary of the Interior overruled the Commissioner of Indian Affairs’ decision about the tribe’s contract with the attorney of their choice. The Secretary of the Interior’s decision meant that for the first time tribes could select their own attorneys and could make contracts with them on their own terms. However, Commissioner of Indian Affairs Dillon Meyer managed to circumvent the decision of the Secretary of the Interior by refusing to allow the tribe to spend more than $300 per year for the attorney’s services.

Indian Leadership:

Under the leadership of D’Arcy McNickle, the Bureau of Indian Affairs sponsored a series of community development workshops in 1951 for Indian leaders in Utah, Arizona, and Oklahoma. The workshops were intended to help tribal leaders discover the internal resources available to deal with tribal problems. These workshops, however, had little real influence and failed to be translated into action.

1 Comment

  1. A slow motion atrocity by an administration that earned some kudos on foreign affairs. Harry Truman had a mind of his own and went wherever it too, him. The one exception to that was a degree of corruption that attracted some attention, and one must wonder which crony had what financial interest that NA sovereignty would inconvenience.

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