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Bureau of Indian Affairs examined in new book


February 24, 2012

The Bureau of Indian Affairs was created essentially by one man.

No act of Congress was passed, nor did the President of the United States sign into law an act that initiated what was then known as the Indian Office. Created by Secretary of War John C. Calhoun in 1824, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) has implemented policy for hundreds of tribes in the United States for the past 188 years.

“He took such ownership,” said Donald L. Fixico, ASU Distinguished Foundation Professor of History in the School of Historical, Philosophical & Religious Studies, in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “He just went out and did it.”

Fixico details the story, history and effects of policies administered by the BIA in his latest book, “Bureau of Indian Affairs” (Greenwood Press, 2012).

“I have always wanted to do a book on the BIA and I dedicated it to my relatives and friends of my four tribes: the Shawnee, Sac and Fox, Muscogee Creek and Seminole,” he said.  

Milestones detailed in the book include moving the BIA out of the Department of War and into the Department of Interior and the debate that ensued when this effort was under way. There also are heartbreaking aspects of policy changes such as creating reservations and relocating American Indians to their new homes – journeys that are now referred to as “The Trail of Tears” by Eastern tribes and “The Long Walk” by Navajos. The Indian Removal Act passed by President Andrew Jackson in the 1830s had terrible consequences.

“That act was just horrific,” Fixico said. “A lot of people died on the so-called Trail of Tears.”

What has impressed him throughout his research, however, are the ways that American Indians adapt and even embrace changes, incorporating challenges into their lives from the lands where they were moved to the boarding schools that separated children from their families.

“What comes out of this is the resilience of Native peoples,” he said. “One of the keys that Native people have embraced is education.”

Fixico pored over archival documents, treaties and annual reports to research the book.

“The annual reports come from field agents. It’s first-hand information,” he said.

That information allowed him to thoroughly research benchmarks such as the Dawes General Allotment Act of 1887 that divided reservations into parcels for individuals, creating a lifestyle that deviated from the communal atmosphere that was dominant before the act.

“The General Allotment Act proved to be devastating to Native people. The traditional Native emphasis on the community rather than the individual contradicted the federal government’s plan to make Native people into individual landowners,” Fixico writes.

When problems of poverty and sickness from foreign diseases invaded the reservations, the bureau was charged with trying to solve the problems through reform and change. Fixico also includes a chapter on boarding schools and Indian education, a time that scarred Native children who were separated from their families when they went away to school.

There were also opportunities, such as the Indian Education Assistance Act passed in 1972 that provided federal funds for education. Fascinating personalities are discussed, like that of Thomas Jefferson who had a vision of Native peoples becoming farmers and helping whites settle the west side by side.

Other milestones occurred in later years, such as during the Richard Nixon administration when sacred lands were returned to Native peoples for the first time and the foundation was laid for the policy of self-determination.

Organized with a timeline introducing the book, chapters are subdivided into sections with a conclusion at the end of each. Chapters explore such topics as the reform years and the Indian problem; Indian Land Allotment and U.S. Citizenship; and termination and relocation and Indian self-determination. Fixico includes biographies of key figures and documents such as the Delaware Treaty of 1778, the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988.

Modern times are discussed in the book such as the years since the Clinton era when more of a partnership with the United States government has existed, relating on a nation-to-nation basis.

“There is more of a government-to-government relationship with the governments themselves very separate,” Fixico said.

Native people still have a long way to go, especially overcoming negative stereotypes, he said.

“An important part of my job is to use my education and help people obtain a better understanding of Native people and what they’ve done through writing and teaching,” he said. “I will always write as much as I can. I’ve always wanted people to have a better understanding of Native people.”

This is Fixico’s 11th book on American Indian affairs that he has either written or edited. His next book to be published in 2013 by the University of Nebraska Press, “Call for Change: The Medicine Way of American Indian History, Ethos and Reality,” examines Indian history from a Native perspective. Another book, “Indian Country in the Modern West,” (University of Arizona Press, 2014) explores the last 100 years since the Dawes Act and how life has changed in that time.