Federal Fathers & Mothers: A Social History of the United States Indian Service, 1869-1933

By Cathleen D. Cahill | Go to book overview

Introduction

In Custer Died for Your Sins, his 1969 manifesto, Native intellectual Vine Deloria Jr. (Standing Rock Sioux) wryly observed: “It would be fair to say that Indian people are ambivalent” about government agencies. “Some Indian people want desperately to get rid of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Others want increased bureau services to help solve problems of long standing.”1 This ambivalence has a long history. For many Native people,2 the Bureau of Indian Affairs has been the face of conquest, a reminder that the federal government has exercised power over Indian land and lives but has not always had their best interests at heart. A joke often told in Indian country has it that the bureau’s acronym, “BIA,” stands for “Bossing Indians Around.” On the other hand, the bureau is also the executive agency charged with fulfilling federal trust responsibilities and thus administers many services that were stipulated in treaties between sovereign Native nations and the U.S. government. Indeed, even radical critics have seen the need for some sort of federal office. The American Indian Movement (AIM) demanded that the agency be dismantled; one member, Floyd Red Crow Westerman (Sisseton-Wahpeton), even wrote a popular song called “B.I.A.” with the lyrics: “B.I.A. you can’t change me don’t you try… / I’m not your Indian anymore/You belong to White man.” But AIM still proposed the formation of a new federal agency to serve Indian people.3

Native people have not been alone in feeling ambivalent about the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Whites have also been of two minds about it. Many white policy makers have deemed the agency unnecessary, called it an impediment to the assimilation of Indians into the nation, or simply criticized it as a drain on the federal treasury. Almost from the moment of its creation, whites spoke of the agency as a temporary bureau that should gradually disappear. In point of fact, policy makers spent decades trying to get rid of the agency, whether by breaking up tribal landholdings in the 1880s or terminating the tribes’ sovereign status in the 1950s. There were many moments when policy makers optimistically announced that the need for federal oversight was at an

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