Carol A. Hand
This morning, it occurred to me that it might be helpful if I provided some background for my previous reblog, Go FISH!
In designing a critical ethnographic study of Ojibwe child welfare, I gave some thought to the meaning of “critical” in this context. Where should one focus a “critical gaze” if the purpose is to discern the ways in which hegemony over Native American tribal communities has been imposed and perpetuated? Most research only considers contemporary consequences rather than the complex historical structural forces that have left a distressing legacy of harm. Many “blame” tribes, counties, or states for the continuing over-use of child removal and non-Native placements as the preferred responses to situations of child neglect and abuse.
I decided it was crucial to consider the federal government’s past and present role as well, and interviewed Theresa Edwards (not her real name), the regional child welfare specialist for the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). I headed out to the distant city where she was located on a hot day at the end of June in 2002. Theresa graciously shared valuable information about the BIA, tribal child welfare issues, and Ojibwe culture. She also shared personal stories and insights into her past and present experiences and initiatives.
It was clear that Theresa was an incredible resource for tribes. She played a crucial role as an ally and advocate within an oppressive bureaucracy. In response to my observation at the end of our interview, “Tribes are so lucky to have a resource like you!,” she told me that she has been able to remain within the bureaucracy largely because of her relationship with the tribes in the region. “The decision-making structure in the regional office is focused largely on micro-management, but it doesn’t bother me if someone wants to change the wording of my letters as long as it isn’t a matter of ethics.”
Image: BIA Seal (Source Wikipedia)
Few outside of Native American tribal communities know about the Bureau of Indian Affairs, or BIA. Yet the BIA has played a pivotal role in the lives of indigenous people in the United States since its creation in 1824. Fewer still have an opportunity to learn about the history of the Federal relationship with indigenous tribes that emerged with the very creation of United States, summarized briefly below.
- 1775 – The Continental Congress created a Committee on Indian Affairs.
- 1789 – The U.S. Constitution, Article 1, Section 8 defines the power of Congress “to regulate commerce with foreign nations and among the several states.” Tribes were considered foreign nations at that point.
- 1789 – Congress placed the responsibility for dealing with Tribes in the newly created War Department.
- 1819 – Congress created the Civilization Fund, the first federal policy to affect the education of children, to provide grants to churches and private agencies to “civilize the Indian.” (Source: Idaho.gov)
- 1824 – The Office of Indians Affairs was created in the War Department to oversee and carry out federal responsibilities for trade and treaty relations with Tribes.
- 1849 – The Office of Indian Affairs, or BIA, was transferred to the Department of the Interior, responsible for overseeing federal lands and natural resources. The BIA assumed new responsibilities to administer the distribution of supplies to Tribes to address the disease and starvation that resulted from their removal and confinement on reservations.
- 1867 – The Commissioner of Indian Services told Congress that the only way to effectively deal with Indians “was to separate Indian children completely from their tribes.” The era of missionary and federal Indian boarding schools gained more resources. (Source: Idaho.gov)
- 1921 – As a result of the Snyder Act, all federal Indian services became the responsibility of the BIA. “Expenditures were authorized for health, education, social services, law enforcement, irrigation, and for the administration of the BIA.” (Sharon O’Brien, 1989, p. 273)
- 1954 – BIA responsibilities for Indian health were transferred to Indian Health Services, located now in the Department of Health and Human Services.
- 1958-1967 – The Indian Adoption Project, a partnership among the BIA, the Child Welfare League of America, and the U.S. Children’s Bureau, placed almost 400 Native American children from western states with Euro-American families, primarily in Midwestern or eastern states. (Source: University of Oregon)
The BIA website provides an overview of this history.
“Since its inception in 1824, the Bureau of Indian Affairs has been both a witness to and a principal player in the relationship between the Federal Government and Indian tribes and Alaska Native villages. The BIA has changed dramatically over the past 185 years, evolving as Federal policies designed to subjugate and assimilate American Indians and Alaska Natives have changed to policies that promote Indian self-determination.
“For almost 200 years, dating back to the role it played in negotiating treaty agreements between the United States and tribes in the late 18th and 19th centuries, the BIA has embodied the trust and government-to-government relationships between the U.S. and the Federally recognized tribes. Over the years, the BIA has been involved in the implementation of Federal laws that have directly affected all Americans. The General Allotment Act of 1887 opened tribal lands west of the Mississippi to non-Indian settlers, the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 granted American Indians and Alaska Natives U.S. citizenship and the right to vote, and the New Deal and the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 established modern tribal governments. The World War II period of relocation and the post-War termination era of the 1950s led to the activism of the 1960s and 1970s that saw the takeover of the BIA’s headquarters and resulted in the creation of the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975. The Tribal Self-Governance Act of 1994 along with the Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act have fundamentally changed how the Federal Government and the tribes conduct business with each other.” (Source: BIA)
The current mission posted on the BIA website highlights important sentiments.
“The Bureau of Indian Affairs’ mission is to enhance the quality of life, to promote economic opportunity, and to carry out the responsibility to protect and improve the trust assets of American Indians, Indian tribes and Alaska Natives.” (Source: BIA)
Both historically and at present, serious critiques of the BIA come from many sources (e.g., the American Indian Movement occupied BIA Headquarters in 1972). One of the most damning criticisms was penned by Felix Cohen, the lawyer and scholar whose work (1933-1947) cataloged and profoundly shaped Indian law and policy.
“Indian Bureau rhetoric about winding down its supervision of the tribes accompanied a vast expansion of its actual control and its payroll. ‘In long-range terms,’ wrote Cohen, ‘we find that between 1851 and 1951, a century in which the Indian Bureau kept talking about working itself out of a job and turning over responsibility to the Indians, congressional appropriations to Indian tribes decreased by approximately 80 percent, while appropriations to the Indian Bureau (chiefly for salaries) increased by approximately 53,000 percent.’” (Source: Indian County Today Media Network, Staff Reports, 9/6/06)
Nonetheless, the BIA continues to play an important double-edged role as both a tool of continuing colonial oppression and as a constant reminder of “the trust and government-to-government relationships” between the U.S. and the 566 federally recognized tribes (BIA). The range of issues they address include:
- Office of Indian Services – general assistance, Indian child welfare, tribal government, Indian self-determination, and reservation roads program.
- Office of Justice Services – law enforcement, tribal courts, and detention facilities on federal Indian lands.
- Office of Trust Services – management of trust lands, assets and resources.
- Office of Field Operations – oversees 12 regional offices and 83 agencies that carry out the BIA mission at the tribal level. (BIA)
Staff like Theresa are a valuable resource for tribes. She has continued to provide a level of support and technical assistance that would not be available otherwise to the Ojibwe community I studied. Neither the county nor the state understood the importance of preserving tribal sovereignty and tribal cultures. Yet there are no guarantees that the staff person who replaces her when she retires, if she is replaced at all, will be as respectful of people, as committed to inter-tribal collaboration, or as supportive of tribal sovereignty.
Sharon O’Brien (1989). American Indian tribal governments. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.
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