[CO Note: The response from our readership to Dario Robertson's recent article, has been so positive that we have asked our legal correspondent to follow up his first article with a broader piece on reforming federal Indian policy. Responding on very short notice to our request, Mr. Robertson has written a sequel that outlines past efforts to rid Indian country of the BIA and reviews relevant recommendations for reform from Native American leaders and others that have yet to be fully considered by Congress.]


Time to Abolish the Bureau?: Part 2

by Dario F Robertson
Legal Correspondent Cherokee Observer

Since it was first established within the old U.S. War Department in 1824, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) has distinguished itself as the most corrupt, ineffective and abusive agency in the federal government. Although the BIA now professes the greatest respect for "tribal sovereignty" and "tribal self-determination," there is precious little evidence of genuine concern for tribal autonomy in its administration of federal Indian policy as its recent illegal intervention into the internal affairs of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma substantiates. The overwhelming weight of evidence tells a very different story about BIA policy making. By any standard, the BIA is a colossal failure as a government agency and the dead weight of its administrative wreckage represents the single greatest obstacle to the freedom, prosperity, cultural integrity and progress of Native Americans. Until the BIA is abolished and federal Indian policy is fundamentally reformed, the future holds little promise of a significant change in the lives of Native Americans.

This conclusion will probably come as no surprise to most Native Americans with any experience dealing with the BIA, nor are the BIA's inadequacies unknown to Washington policy makers. Edgar S. Cahn and David W. Hearne reached the following conclusion in their important critique of the BIA in 1970:

Judged by four basic standards of governmental performance--efficiency, technical competence, innovation or effective advocacy--the Bureau of Indian Affairs is a failure. It appears remiss in meeting even the minimal standards of performance for a public body entrusted with a public function.[1]

In the ensuing 27 years since that sad assessment was reached, the BIA has only gotten worse, prompting one recent evaluation of the BIA's performance to characterize it as the "worst federal agency" and a "national disgrace. [2]" Wilcomb E. Washburn, the former Director of the Office of American Studies the Smithsonian Institution summarized the history of the BIA's accomplishment as follows:

The Bureau, except for the period of New Deal influence, has tended to hoard up power to itself even while rhetorically talking about terminating Bureau supervision of Indian economic and social life... [I]ts tendency to self-aggrandizement has not only been carried on by deceiving or ignoring the Indian, but, on occasion, also by flouting the will of the Secretary of the Interior and of the Department's Solicitor who reviews Indian Bureau rulings. In part, the history of the Bureau of Indian Affairs reflects the normal process of bureaucratic growth; in part it reflects the antipathy or ignorance of the dominant white majority concerning the Indian minority. The combination of these two attributes has caused the Bureau to have achieved the unenviable reputation of being either hopeless or hateful. Few government bureaus have a less savory record. [3] The Bureau's failings are no secret. Why does not Congress act to terminate the BIA and reform federal Indian policy?

The Obstacles to Reform

The reasons why fundamental reform of federal Indian policy is so hard to achieve are both subtle and complex. First, elected congressional representatives believe that they are unlikely to receive sufficient political benefits by incurring the very substantial political costs of attempting to reform federal Indian policy. Since Indians constitute sizable voting blocks in only a handful of congressional districts nationwide, there is little pragmatic reason for elected congressional representatives to care whether the BIA is corrupt or ineffective unless the majority of non-Indian voters start to care. Since the majority of non-Indian voters do not support candidates on the basis of their position on Indian issues, Indians experience great difficulty in receiving the sustained attention of congressional representatives except in periods of overt "crisis."

Second, tribal governments are often compelled by subtle threats of retaliation to support the BIA whenever Congress makes any move in the direction of terminating the Bureau, as Russel Lawrence Barsh and James Youngblood Henderson have perceptively explained:

When the bureau approaches tribal leaders for support on an issue, it may be an offer they cannot refuse. The agency has so much discretion in the allocation of funds, authorization of tribal programs, and development of reservation resources, that it can if it chooses hold up on any one of a number of actions beneficial to a tribe until it agrees to pay a ransom in the form of public support. It is like the warden asking his prisoners to say good things to the inspection committee. The power of the agency to reward and punish cooperation deprives the tribes of any free choice in the matter.[4]

The BIA routinely conducts its affairs with tribal governments as if it were running a protection racket. Pay your "protection money" in the form of political support for the Bureau or face the music. Felix Cohen called this act of political extortion the "Retort Churlish," designed to discourage any thought of abolishing the BIA:

[BIA official:] "Your councilmen are talking about doing away with the Indian Bureau. If that doesn't stop, we're going to have to close down your hospital."

Bureau employees whose jobs are at stake, and who are well supplied with gasoline and expense money, are able to bring terrific pressure upon an Indian community to see that protests against Bureau extravagance are discouraged or that councilmen who voice such protests are not re-elected. [5]

The BIA even unabashedly resorts to the arbitrary de-recognition of tribal leaders who become too outspoken about BIA abuses. With tribal leaders cowed by threats of BIA retaliation, formal support for the abolition of the BIA is a dangerous gambit that many cautious tribal leaders would prefer to avoid, thereby obstructing reform.

Third, many Native Americans have been subjected to the coercive psychological affects of reservation life for so long that they may have internalized the autocratic values which makes the BIA's political blackmail so effective. In short, rather than just acquiescing in BIA coercion, some Native American may actually come to agree that the BIA is as indispensable to Indian people as the BIA's propaganda invariably suggests. Over time, reservation Indians may internalize the BIA's view of them as "wards" who are incapable of governing their own affairs and in need of the BIA's paternalistic guidance.

Even worse, Native Americans may internalize the very racist stereotypes projected onto them by BIA officials and the dominant cultural around them. Unfamiliar and ignorant of traditional Native American culture, federal bureaucrats and members of more dominant social groups may project a "negative identity" onto Native Americans which consists mostly of the repressed values and modes of behavior found unacceptable by their own cultural group. As UCLA law professor Kenneth Karst explains, "If we are uncomfortable when we confront the members of other groups, who have other beliefs and other ways of behaving, part of the reason is that our own acculturation has not prepared us to understand their behavior---or, worse, has prepared us to expect what we define as misbehavior." [6] These negative projections turn complex, individual human beings into objects, mere abstract images of the other. The abstract image then serves as a convenient rationalization for discrimination or the stigmatized position of a cultural group.

In short, Indians are stigmatized for their difference because it threatens the beliefs of the dominant cultural groups. BIA intervention to protect its "wards" reinforces this stigma because it suggests to Indians and the rest of the world that Indians are inherently incapable of managing their own affairs.

The stigma which the dominant group attaches to the oppressed group may result in a "spoiled identity" for many members of the oppressed group. The members of the dominant group come to believe that members of the oppressed group cannot be fully human and are, in fact, discounted and perceived to be unworthy of the same respect or the same rights as members of the dominant group. Through the lens of such racism, the members of the oppressed group are seen to be inherently inferior. Professor Karst explains:

Stigma thus represents the breakdown of empathy. It dissolves the human ties we call acceptance; it excludes the stigmatized from belonging to a community. The relationship between stigma and inequality is also clear... [T]he essence of any stigma lies in the fact that the affected individual is "not treated as an equal..."

Any inequality, when it is taken as an index of personal worth, directly wounds self-respect. Although some members of stigmatized groups... may escape psychic harm or even draw increased self-esteem from seeing themselves as the objects of persecution, most victims of stigma are less hardy and tend to accept at least part of the version of their identities imposed by the stigma.... The victim of stigma may suppress aspirations that look unattainable when seen with the restricted vision imposed by a withered self-concept.[7]

The next step in this process of oppression, as Erving Goffman explains, is for the dominant group to "construct a stigma-theory, an ideology to explain [the stigmatized person's] inferiority and account for the danger he represents." [8] The stigma-theory constructed about reservation Indians and tribal governments is all too familiar to most Native Americans. Building on subconscious and conscious perceptions of Indians as "savages," the dominant group rationalizes the superintendence of the BIA over indigenous Americans in terms of a solemn "trust" to insure that they behave "appropriately," that they become like the dominant group, that they be educated in the ways of "civilization." After all, according to this stigma-theory, these "wild animals" cannot manage their own affairs. Indians have no government, no political institutions, no social system similar to that of the dominant group, so the Indians must be transformed. Perhaps the dominant group might let the Indians experiment with self-government, but should the Indians falter the dominant group will have to resume full control over them both to protect the wayward Indians from themselves, and, more importantly, from the members of the dominant group around them who might be endangered by their inability to manage their own affairs.

Quite clearly, it is precisely this racist stigma-theory which the BIA has implicitly invoked to justify its illegal intervention into the internal political affairs of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. Although the Cherokee Nation's internal political system could have effectively addressed the constitutional crisis created when Principal Chief Joe Byrd fired all the Cherokee Marshals and orchestrated the illegal impeachment of the Justices of the Cherokee Judicial Appeals Tribunal, the BIA recklessly intervened, without undertaking any formal fact-finding, upon the self-serving recommendation of the principal culprit in the crisis---Joe Byrd himself.

Needless to say, the outside world knew little of the unconstitutional misconduct of the Principal Chief and has virtually no interest in whether the Cherokee constitution is followed or not. Consequently, the BIA can easily invoke the racist image of an Indian tribe unable to govern its own affairs as a subterfuge to rationalize its own illegal intervention in support of the Principal Chief. In fact, the BIA knows from long experience that members of the dominant culture are much more comfortable with the false and misleading image of Indians as incapable of managing their own affairs than with the reality of a highly sophisticated Cherokee political system that, if left to operate free from the unwanted meddling of the BIA, could have resolved the crisis internally in accordance with Cherokee law.

Perhaps the most tragic aspect of the imposition of the stigma-theory is that it may be internalized by the victims of stigma. The process is essentially two-fold. First, the victims merely comply with the orders enforced by the dominant group. Initially, Indians on reservations merely obeyed the rules to obtain rewards and avoid punishment, but after continued socialization under the rules a second more subtle process began. The reservation Indians began to accept the rules imposed on them to maintain their standing as "good" Indians and a positive relationship with the Indian agent. The pressing need to maintain the relationship with reservation authority figures often resulted in a "global identification, an acceptance of all rules for behavior that are required for maintenance of the relation." [9]

This is precisely the same phenomenon that allegedly accounted for the internalization of the rules and values of the Nazis by prisoners in concentration according to a fascinating study by Bruno Bettelheim as described by Leopold Pospisil:

New prisoners resisted SS influence and pressure successfully, for a while. Slowly, however, the problem of survival, the brutal treatment, and the incessant exposure to the enforcement of the oppressors' values began to manifest its influence upon the thinking and value system of the prisoners. They stopped talking about their former life and began accepting their degradation. [10] Eventually there came a time when the prisoners actually accepted the values of the Gestapo as their own, as by Leopold Pospisil explains further:

The Gestapo themselves found this fantastic accomplishment hard to believe. They had thought it was impossible that the prisoners would be won over to the Gestapo's values after being subjected to ill treatment for so long. The internalization of the values was not limited to verbal expressions only; the prisoners began to behave like their jailers, and some of them, when in charge of other prisoners (the notorious Kapo), behaved worse than the Gestapo.[11]

Both reservations and Nazi concentration camps shared the objective of breaking the will of individual internees and replacing their traditional values with the preferred values of the dominant group. Both Indians and Jews were to be rendered docile, complacent objects of manipulation with little or no wills of their own by a superintendent making claims of racial superiority. Commissioner of Indian Affairs Francis A. Walker wrote bluntly of this objective in his November 1, 1872 annual report:

No one certainly will rejoice more heartily than the present Commissioner when the Indians of this country cease to be in a position to dictate, in any form or degree, to the Government; when, in fact, the last hostile tribe becomes reduced to the condition of supplicants for charity. This is, indeed, the only hope of salvation for the aborigines of this continent. If they stand up against the progress of civilization and industry, they must be relentlessly crushed.[12]

Commissioner Walker refers here not only to crushing Indian armed resistance, but to crushing the Indians' identity as Indians. From this cruel oppression and stigmatization came the tainted identity, the loss of self-respect that lead so many reservation Indians and even contemporary Indian employees of the BIA to silently acquiesce in BIA abuses and even accept them as just and good.

Although a hundred years have passed since Commission Walker articulated the BIA's purpose to reduce Indians to "supplicants for charity" in order to remake them in the white man's image, the BIA still refuses today to acknowledge the legitimacy of the essential cultural identity of Native Americans and continues to treat them as helpless "wards" who are unable to take care of themselves. The greatest irony in the BIA's racist presumption is that the very act of administering Indian policy on such an ethnocentric basis helps inculcate the very state of psychological dependence on federal support that such a policy was supposedly intended to eradicate. Thus, in every sense, the BIA's mistaken policies are inherently self-defeating. Although these policies are intended to make Indians more self-reliant, the highly autocratic, culturally insensitive, arrogant manner in which they are administered only assaults Indian self-respect and promotes an attitude of alienated dependence on federal largess.

Overcoming the Obstacles to Reform

The three major obstacles to reforming federal Indian policy--congressional indifference, BIA political power over tribes and Indian internalization of the values of their oppressors--are not easily overcome. These obstacles, however, are all less formidable now than they were a century ago. The barriers to reform are crumbling and a collapse of the old edifice may be imminent. In its place, Native Americans will have an opportunity to reconstruct federal Indian programs and, with them, new meaning and opportunities in their lives.

The obstacles to reform are not insurmountable, but may only be overcome with much hard work, ingenuity and moral courage. First, Indians must document their problems. They must continuously gather evidence to prove their case against the BIA on both an individual and tribal level. Second, Indians must bring proof of their plight to the attention of the public... Once the evidence has been gathered, they must be vigilant in bringing it to the attention of Congress and the press. The media must be educated. There is no more effective strategy for overcoming congressional indifference or the power of the BIA to retaliate against its critics than the involvement of the press. As many Indians may know from their own traditions, sunlight has remarkable curative properties and the light shed by the press is no different. Media spotlights on BIA abuses makes once arrogant bureaucrats remarkably cooperative and forgiving. Media involvement is essential to the successful reform of federal Indian policy.

The internalization of degraded images of self imposed by the dominant society is a vastly more complex obstacle to effective reform for it is an effect with many socio economic causes in addition to BIA paternalism. Yet unless Native Americans can come to terms with this inner enemy, changes in the substance or administration of policy will have little effect on their lives. The solutions to the lingering psychological effects of racism and oppression will be hard to find. Just as the old Jim Crow system in the South demeaned its black victims, so the BIA's irrepressible paternalism and the abominable socio-economic conditions of reservation life demean their Native American captives. The beginning of an answer lies with the understanding that simply by having survived the great holocaust suffered by the indigenous people of North America over the last five centuries, the Native Americans living today need no further self-justification. In the aftermath of such unspeakable tragedy and in the face of continuing oppression, the continued vitality of these indigenous people reveals a source of self-esteem unrivaled in all the achievements of the dominant society that surrounds them.

Brief History of Reform Efforts

Throughout most of the twentieth century, critics of the BIA have been proposing reform and, while some recommendations have resulted in beneficial legislative action, change in Indian policy has been largely unresponsive to the needs of Native Americans. A fundamental restructuring of federal Indian policy has simply not occurred in the last thirty years. The following chronology of modern reform efforts suggests the extent to which the cry for comprehensive reform has gone unheeded by successive congresses unwilling to confront the chaos of contemporary federal Indian policy.

February 21, 1928: The Meriam Report. Published under the title, The Problem of Indian Administration, by the John Hopkins Press, the 800-page Meriam Report found the socio economic conditions of Indians deplorable and Indian Bureau personnel incompetent and inefficient. The Report included 35 pages of suggested remedies and provided much of the factual justification for the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. The Meriam Report advocated tribal economic development, modified forms of tribal government, respect for Indian culture, a de-emphasis on boarding schools, new sources of credit and better-trained administrators. [13]

October 1948: Hoover Commission. The Hover Commission announced that Indian assimilation must be the goal of Indian policy, stressed a return to individual self-reliance, recommended the termination of the trust status of Indian lands and suggested that administrative responsibility over Indian social programs be transferred to the states. This report helped justify the termination policy pursued during the Eisenhower administration. [14]

January 1961: Private Commission Report on Indian Policy. In January 1961, a private group of distinguished experts on Indian policy calling itself the Commission on the Rights, Liberties, and Responsibilities of the American Indian published a report that was finally called, "The Indian: America's Unfinished Business," which contained detailed recommendations concerning every significant aspect of federal Indian policy. The strongly worded report emphasized that the federal government should not impose programs on Indians without their consent, but should adopt policies that would encourage Indians to initiate and administer their own programs. [15]

June 20, 1961: Declaration of Indian Purpose. In June 1961, the National Congress of American Indians and University of Chicago anthropologist Sol Tax organized a remarkable meeting of more than 450 Indian tribal leaders called "The Voice of the American Indian: American Indian Chicago Conference," which resulted in the "Declaration of Indian Purpose." Rejecting termination, government "charity" and even benevolent paternalism, the Declaration asked that Indians be allowed to determine their own future and develop their own programs with guidance as needed from a local, decentralized staff of federal public servants. [16]

July 10, 1961: Udall Task Force Report. Secretary of the Interior Stewart L. Udall endorsed a special task force report prepared for him which recommended a transition from termination and specifically suggested the adoption of new programs relating to industrial development, vocational training, Indian loans, the construction of new educational facilities, and off-reservation Indians. [17]

1966: Johnson Presidential Task Force Report on the American Indian. A group of distinguished Indian policy experts was assembled at the invitation of the Johnson administration to evaluate federal Indian policy. Their final report was highly critical of the BIA and recommended that it be fundamentally reorganized. The report rejected termination and focused its recommendations on new programs for economic and educational development to be implemented with the full participation of the Indians. The report also recommended the transfer of the BIA to the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, but this recommendation was strongly opposed by Indian leaders fearing a return to termination. Inexplicably, the Johnson administration suppressed the report. [18]

March 6, 1968: Johnson's Special Message to Congress on Indian Policy. President Lyndon Johnson proposed in his "Special Message to Congress on the Problem of the American Indian: 'The Forgotten American,'" the "new goal" of self-determination, rather than termination. President Johnson's message was based on a set of woefully inadequate recommendations from an Inter-Agency Task Force made in 1967. President Johnson's message did not recommend the kind of fundamental reform of federal Indian policy needed to bring real improvements in the lives of Native Americans. [19]

1969: Josephy Study on the American Indian and the BIA. The incoming Nixon administration requested the distinguished historian Alvin M. Josephy, Jr. to evaluate the performance of the BIA and predictably concluded that the BIA as then structured was very inefficient. Josephy recommended removing the BIA from the Interior Department and creating a new, thoroughly restructured Indian Agency within the executive office. [20]

November 20, 1969: Occupation of Alcatraz Island. A group of Native Americans, most of whom were students then residing in the San Francisco Bay Area, occupied Alcatraz Island and issued a statement of goals and demands entitled, "Proclamation to the Great White Father and All His People." Over time, the occupying group gradually abandoned the island and the few who remained were removed by federal marshals. The Alcatraz occupation heightened public awareness of the need to reform federal Indian policy and inspired other Indian groups around the country to occupy public lands as a means of protesting corruption within the BIA. [21]

July 8, 1970: Nixon's Special Message to Congress on Indian Policy. President Richard Nixon's special message to Congress forcefully stated his administration's opposition to termination and called for a series of legislative reforms to strengthen tribal self determination. Nixon's Indian policy was conceived and implemented at a time of great turmoil in Indian country when the devastating socio-economic problems of American Indians were receiving extensive publicity. [22]

November 2, 1972: Indians Occupy the BIA Building. Indian participants in a movement calling itself the "Trail of Broken Treaties," dominated by members of the American Indian Movement (AIM), occupied the Bureau of Indian Affairs building in Washington, D.C. and seriously damaged the interior of the building in protest of BIA abuses. The protesters presented a list of 20 demands to the federal government which were almost all rejected. The group expressly called for the "Abolition of the Bureau of Indian Affairs" in demand number 14, noting that it was "[u]nconvinced that the BIA as constituted could ever escape its past and requested the establishment of a "new agency" to be called an "Office of Federal Indian Relations and Community Reconstruction" within the executive office of the president. [23]

February 27, 1973: Occupation of Wounded Knee. Members of AIM occupied the small town of Wounded Knee, South Dakota on the Pine Ridge Reservation to protest both the unjust treatment of Native Americans generally as well as the allegedly corrupt administration of tribal chairman, Richard Wilson, who ruthlessly ruled the reservation with a group of lawless enforcers know as the "goon squad." AIM Leader Russel Means claimed that Wilson did not truly represent the tribal membership and that his lawless regime was fully supported by the BIA. The occupation drew national and world media coverage until the occupiers withdrew on May 8, 1973. [24]

May 17, 1977: American Indian Policy Review Commission Final Report. On July 16, 1973, Senator James Abourezk, the leading congressional proponent of Indian rights, introduced a joint resolution sharply critical of the federal Indian policy which proposed the establishment of an American Indian Policy Review (AIPR) Commission. After the strong language of Senator Abourezk's resolution was substantially softened, his resolution was enacted on January 2, 1975 establishing an eleven member commission consisting of three senators, three representatives and five Indians. Of the five Indian members, three would be elected from federally recognized tribes, one would be urban Indian and one would come from an unrecognized Indian group. The Final Report reaffirmed the full political sovereignty of Indian tribes, yet called for increased federal appropriations for Indian programs. Critics argued that the Final Report lacked balance and failed to offer pragmatic proposals to improve conditions in Indian country. The Final Report did, however, recommend the establishment of a new "consolidated Indian Department or independent agency" to which all appropriate "Indian programs" should be transferred. [25]

October 13, 1977: First Assistant Secretary Indian Affairs. On July 12, 1977, the Carter administration announced the nomination for the first Assistant Secretary Indian Affairs, Forrest J. Gerard, who was formally installed in office on October 13, 1977. In December 1977, the Carter administration appointed yet another task force to evaluate the administrative structure of the BIA. The task force eventually pushed the BIA in the general direction of decentralization without any apparent change in the quality of BIA performance. [26]

1980-1992: Policy Drift in the Reagan-Bush Years. In their successive efforts to dismantle the Great Society, the Reagan and Bush administrations inadvertently strengthened the political appeal of tribal self-determination in Indian country. The message that tribal governments received was that they had to become self sufficient as soon as possible before all federal funding was cut off. Aside from cutting the BIA's budget, little changed in the implementation of federal Indian policy, aside from the passage of the a new federal statute regulating Indian gaming in 1988. [27] The BIA continued to consume about 80 percent of its own budget and offered no improvement in its delivery of services to Native American Indians. Federal Indian policy ceased to be as prominent a topic in the national news as it had been in the 1970s. Without the media spotlight, the BIA returned, as if by reflex, to its practice of intervening in tribal affairs whenever it believed it was in its institutional self-interest to do so.

April 29, 1994: Clinton's Government-to-Government Relations Memo. At a meeting with the heads of tribal governments in April 1994, President Bill Clinton announced his executive memorandum on "Government-to-Government Relations with Native American Tribal Governments" in which he directed each executive department and agency to "consult, to the greatest extent practicable and to the extent permitted by law, with tribal governments prior to taking actions that affect federally recognized tribal governments. All such consultations are to be open and candid so that all interested parties may evaluate for themselves the potential impact of relevant proposals." [28] Since the memorandum was intended only to improve the internal management of the executive branch and created no new judicially enforceable rights, it amounted to little more than a ceremonial gesture. Meanwhile, at the BIA administrative chaos and lawlessness continue unabated. Clearly, well-intended rhetoric from the White House was not enough to curb Bureau abuses.

August 1994: Task Force Report on BIA Reorganization. On December 20, 1990, the Secretary of the Interior chartered the "Joint Tribal/BIA/DOI Advisory Task Force on Reorganization of the Bureau of Indian Affairs" under a congressional mandate that had resulted from well-justified tribal fears that the BIA was planning to reorganize itself without input from the tribes. Although 36 of the 43 members of the Task Force were tribal members and the Task Force held 22 meetings with tribes across the country, the Task Force Report proposed no significant institutional reform of the BIA and was written in such abstract "bureaucratize" as to leave the average reader wondering what, if anything, the Report actually proposed the Secretary to do. The Report met with caustic criticism in Congress and was generally perceived to be a proposal for more proposals on how to reform the BIA. Although the report strongly endorsed the idea of "down sizing" the BIA, there is no mention of its abolition at all.[29]

One Possible Program for Reform

In the 69 years since the publication of the Meriam Report, Congress has been besieged with recommendations to reform Indian policy and even abolish the BIA in its current institutional form. The will to analyze and identify the problems with the BIA, however, has proven must stronger than the will do something about them.

Federal Indian policy is in dire need of fundamental rethinking from the ground up. For example, if BIA supervisory powers over tribal affairs are eliminated, what institutional checks and balances exist within tribal governments or the federal system to prevent corrupt or abusive tribal governments from merely assuming the BIA's pattern of illegal misconduct? There are very serious problems with civil rights abuse committed by tribal governments, often related to a lack of an independent tribal justice system, that must be pragmatically addressed.

Rather than suggest yet another program for reforming federal Indian policy, The Cherokee Observer has chosen to republish the thought-provoking ideas suggested by Robert Burnette, a former Tribal Chairman of the Rosebud Sioux, and John Koster, a journalist specializing in Indian affairs. Although their recommendations were first published in 1974 in their book, The Road to Wounded Knee, there has been so little improvement in the administration of federal Indian policy since then that their recommendations are as relevant today as they were when they were first published:

To correct the situation, the president should recommend to Congress that an entire new Indian act be adopted and that outmoded laws be rescinded. The title of this new legislation is unimportant, but the contents should signal that the citizens of the United States, expressing their will through Congress, desire to do the following:

1. Abolish the BIA and replace it with a secretary of Indian affairs, an autonomous organization outside the Department of the Interior. This would eliminate the tremendous conflict of interest between Interior's stewardship over the Indians and their responsibility for timber, minerals, water, grazing, parks, and other resources.

2. The Department of Indian Affairs should be staffed by ten Indians, elected by the Indians who reside [within the jurisdiction of the BIA's] area offices. These ten Indians would act to protect the best interests of their people and would be answerable to the reservation and urban [Indian] communities.

3. New laws should be enacted making elected tribal officials accountable to their respective tribes and to the federal government for all tribal property and finances.

4. Congress should enact a national Indian election law protecting those who seek political office and Indian voters from election fraud or threats. This law should make it a crime to buy votes or to bribe election officials.

5. Legislation should give the individual Indian new freedom to manage his property under the trusteeship of the government.

6. Congress should guarantee that federal appropriations should remain at their present level, with contractual agreements between the tribe and the government.

7. Congress should enact new tribal enabling acts giving each tribe the right to adopt its own form of government, providing that such governments adhere to the principles of the Constitution of the United States.

8. Congress should enact a "New Indian Finance Act" and appropriate $500 million for the purpose of lifting the Indians to an economic level equal to that of their non Indian counterparts.

9. Last but not least, Congress should enact a jurisdictional act giving the U.S. district courts jurisdiction over all matters from Indian affairs concerning tribal governments.[30]

While neither the author of this article, nor The Cherokee Observer, necessarily endorse any or all of the recommendations made by Burnette and Koster, we do agree that that their proposals are thought-provoking and should be discussed throughout Indian country. We republish them here in an effort to stimulate creative thinking among Native Americans on ways to reform the BIA and improve federal Indian policy. The suggestions of Burnette and Koster offer us all very intriguing points of departure to more in-depth debate and analysis.


Invitation to Submit Your Suggestions for Reform

The Cherokee Observer is interested in your reaction to this article and the Burnette and Koster proposals. If you have any ideas, suggestions or comments about reforming federal Indian policy or abolishing the BIA, please send them to us over the Internet or by mail. In addition, we are interested in encouraging our readers to send us "case studies" of problems they have experienced with the BIA. If you or your tribe have had a significant problem with the BIA that has national policy implications, we would like to know all about it--in excruciating detail. We welcome your input.


1. Edgar S. Cahn and David W. Hearne, eds., Our Brother's Keeper: The Indian in White America (New York: New Community Press, 1970): 147 (italics in original).

2. Michael Satchell and David Bowermaster, "The Worst Federal Agency: Critics Call the Bureau of Indian Affairs a National Disgrace," U.S. News & World Reports, November 28, 1994, pp. 61-64.

3. Wilcomb E. Washburn, Red Man's Land---White Man's Law: A Study of the Past and Present Status of the American Indian (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1971): 208.

4. Russel Lawrence Barsh and James Youngblood Henderson, The Road: Indian Tribes and Political Liberty (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980): 226-27.

5. Felix S. Cohen, "The Erosion of Indian Rights," 62 Yale Law Journal 378-79 (1953).

6. Kenneth L. Karst, Belonging to America: Equal Citizenship and the Constitution (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989): 23.

7. Kenneth L. Karst, Belonging to America: Equal Citizenship and the Constitution (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989): 25-26.

8. Erving Goffman, Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1963): 35.

9. Leopold Pospisil, Anthropology of Law: A Comparative Theory(New Haven: HRAF Press, 1971): 200.

10. Id. at 203; Bruno Bettelheim, "Individual and Mass Behavior in Extreme Situations, " Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 38 (1943): 447, 417-52.

11. Leopold Pospisil, Anthropology of Law: A Comparative Theory (New Haven: HRAF Press, 1971): 203-204.

12. 1872 Annual Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, reproduced in Francis Paul Prucha, ed., Documents of United States Indian Policy (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1975): 140.

13. Institute for Government Research, The Problem of Indian Administration: Summary of Findings and Recommendations (Washington, D.C. Institute for Government Research, 1928).

14. John Leiper Freeman, Jr., "A Program for Indian Affairs: Summary of the Report of the Hoover Commission Task Force on Indian Affairs," American Indian 7 (Spring 1954): 48-62.

15. William A. Brophy and Sophie D. Aberle, The Indian: America's Unfinished Business: Report of the Commission on the Rights, Liberties, and responsibilities of the American Indian (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1966).

16. The "Declaration of Indian Purpose" is reprinted in part in Shirley Hill Witt and Stan Steiner, eds., The Way: An Anthology of American Indian Literature (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1972): 216-19. For a comprehensive account of the conference from the pen of one of its coordinators, see Nancy Oestreich Lurie, "The Voice of the American Indian: Report on the American Indian Chicago Conference," Current Anthropology 2 (December 1961): 478 500.

17. Report to the Secretary of the Interior by the Task Force on Indian Affairs, 10 July 1961, p. 4.

18. Most of the Task Force Report was published two years later in Herbert E. Striner, Toward a Fundamental Program for the Training, Employment and Economic Equality of the American Indian (Washington, D.C.: W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, 1968).

19. Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Lyndon B. Johnson, 1968-69 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1970): 335-44.

20. The Josephy report is briefly summarized in Edgar S. Cahn and David W. Hearne, eds., Our Brother's Keeper: The Indian in White America (New York: New Community Press, 1970): 189.

21. The Alcatraz Proclamation is reprinted in Peter Blue Cloud, ed., Alcatraz is Not an Island (Berkeley, California: Wingbow press, 1972): 40-42.

22. Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Richard Nixon, 1970 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1971): 564-76.

23. An account of the occupation appears in Robert Burnette and John Koster, The Road to Wounded Knee (New York: Bantam Books, Inc., 1974): 195-219. The list of 20 demands and the government's response are reprinted in Seizure of the Bureau of Indian Affairs Headquarters: Hearings before the Subcomm. on Indian Affairs of the House Comm. on Interior and Insular Affairs, 92d Cong., 2d Sess. 162-79 (1972).

24. The wounded knee occupation has been described in Robert Burnette and John Koster, The Road to Wounded Knee (New York: Bantam Books, Inc., 1974): 220-54.

25. American Indian Policy Review Commission, Final Report (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1977): 4-9.

26. Francis Paul Prucha, The Great Father: The United States Government and the American Indians vol. II (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1984): 1123-24.

27. Betty Ballantine and Ian Ballantine, The Native Americans: An illustrated History (Atlanta: Turner Publishing, Inc., 1993): 450-51.

28. Government-to-Government Relations with Native American Governments, 59 Fed. Reg. 22,951 (1994).

29. Report of the Joint Tribal/BIA/DOI Advisory Task Force on Reorganization of the Bureau of Indian Affairs to the Secretary of the Interior and the Appropriations Committees of the United States Congress (August 1994): 1-14.

30. Robert Burnette and John Koster, The Road to Wounded Knee (New York: Bantam Books, Inc., 1974): 287-88.


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