Bureau of Indian Affairs

As one of the oldest agencies within the U.S. government, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) shares a complex and traumatic history with Native Nations. Originally part of the War Department, the BIA was transferred to the Department of the Interior in 1849 by an act of Congress. Since its establishment as a federal agency, the BIA as well as its precursors have been tasked with managing and overseeing most matters relating to Indian affairs and relations between Indian Nations and the U.S. government; examples include educational services, land and other asset management, health care, and economic development.

As the relations between Native Nations and the United States have changed dramatically since colonization, the roles of the BIA have also transformed. The agency’s responsibilities have changed to reflect evolution of the U.S. government’s policies toward Native Nations that have been shaped by treaties, laws, and court rulings. These responsibilities have ranged from enforcing policies of removal, “civilization,” assimilation, and termination of American Indian tribes to implementing policies that support tribal sovereignty, self-determination, and self-government. However, the relationship between the BIA and Native Nations remains complex.

Historical Context

Removal and Reservations

From 1824 to 1849, the BIA was housed within the War Department; the agency was then known as the Office of Indian Affairs. The placement of the agency was reflective of the mostly constant hostile and conflictual nature of U.S. and Native relations. Through warfare, other uses of military force, and the creation of treaties (many of which were fraudulent) with Native Nations, the United States gained control of more than 90% of Indian lands. As part of the removal policy and also the treaty-making process, the government created the reservation system, lands where tribes were permanently removed to or relocated and forced to remain under military sanction. In exchange for ceding their ancestral lands, Native Nations were promised in treaties they would be provided food, education, other goods, and annuities, thereby creating a state of dependency on the U.S. government. However, treaties were chronically violated through official corruption within the government, specifically, the Office of Indian Affairs, and continued hostile acts of European American settlers against Native peoples.

Following the Indian Removal Act of 1830, the Office of Indian Affairs oversaw the removal of southeastern tribes (primarily Cherokee, Muscogee Creek, Seminole, Choctaw, and Chickasaw) to what was then called Indian Territory, today known as the state of Oklahoma. Whereas some citizens of these tribes had relocated to lands west of the Mississippi prior to the removal act, the U.S. military, under the auspices of the Office of Indian Affairs, forcibly removed others to Indian Territory. For example, in 1838, the Cherokees, most of whom had not migrated to Indian Territory, were forcibly removed from their ancestral lands on a thousand-mile march that became known as the Trail of Tears. More than 4,000 people died on the journey. The primary objective of the removal was to open up more than 25 million acres of eastern land to European American settlement.


In 1847, the Office of Indian Affairs was renamed the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and 2 years later the agency was transferred to the Department of the Interior, which had been newly established by Congress. Following the era of removal, relocation, and creation of the reservation system, the official U.S. policy toward American Indians changed to one of assimilation. This policy aimed to extinguish Native culture and “civilize” or “Americanize” Indians; it was enforced mostly through the boarding school system formally administered by the BIA, and it continued governmental control of land also under the auspices of the BIA.

The General Allotment Act, or Dawes Act of 1887, abolished communal title of reservation lands and forced families onto individual allotments typically of 80 to 160 acres to be held in trust by the government. Whatever reservation land was left after allotment was sold. In less than 4 years, more than 12 million acres had been designated as “surplus,” and just 10 years later, nearly 29 million acres had been designated as surplus. One result of the Dawes Act was the fragmentation of reservation land, further disrupting tribes’ communal relationship with the land and placing physical distance between tribes’ citizens and families. For the U.S. government, the primary aim of the act was twofold: to obtain more land, opening it up for European American settlement, and to “civilize” Native Nations into European American society and culture.

In 1879, the Carlisle Indian Industrial School was founded by Captain Richard Pratt in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and operated until 1918. Pratt is infamous for saying, “Kill the Indian and save the man.” The Carlisle School was the model upon which all other governmental boarding schools were based and operated, most under regimented military-style rules. Indian children were forced to attend boarding schools that were generally located very far away from their tribes and families; separations from family members would often last for years. Everything from clothing, haircuts, language use, food, and lifestyle in the schools were “American” and were meant to “civilize” the children mandated to attend those schools. In addition to the subjects of arithmetic and U.S. history, children were taught to read, write, and speak English. Speaking their Native languages or practicing any cultural activities or traditions was prohibited and typically met with severe physical punishment. Less than 10 years after the founding of the Carlisle School, 41 boarding schools operated under the BIA’s management, most of which were administered through Christian religious organizations.

When tribes and parents refused to allow their children to be taken away to boarding schools, BIA agents would incarcerate parents and withhold rations of food, clothing, blankets, and other necessities from the tribe, forcing them to submit to the government’s will. Indian boarding schools, rather than being institutions that fostered healthy child and adolescent development, were institutions that allowed perpetration and perpetuation of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse of the children who attended them. The boarding school system operated in much the same way into the 1960s. The abuse that occurred in the schools, as well as the resulting disastrous and traumatic effects on Native Nations and cultures, are felt in nearly every aspect of life and have been well documented. Loss of language, religious and spiritual practices, cultural knowledge, traditional parenting practices, and cultural identity and heritage have profoundly damaged Native Nations, communities, families, and individuals. This damage is evident in the high incidence of suicide, alcoholism and other substance abuse/dependence, child abuse and neglect, domestic violence, and other social and behavioral problems within many Native communities.


Beginning in the early 1950s, in an effort to permanently cut federal funding of Native Nations and further assimilate American Indians into American society, federal Indian policy was that of termination. This referred to the U.S. government terminating federal relations with Native Nations. The government withdrew federal recognition of many tribes during this time, which effectively disallowed federal benefits and services to such Nations. For affected Nations, this policy was economically and politically crippling.

Another aspect of federal termination policy included relocation programs. These programs, administered via the BIA, relocated American Indian families to urban areas for perceived job training and economic opportunities, again perpetuating the belief that assimilation was a means to a better life. One major effect of relocation programs was further dilution in Native community strength, as relocated members were seldom able to travel back home because of economic reasons. The descendants of this relocated generation experienced even further disconnection from their cultures and communities.

Contemporary Policies

Self-Determination and Self-Governance

The late 1960s and into the 1970s saw passage of several congressional acts that seemed to support Native self-determination, for example, the 1968 Indian Civil Rights Act, the 1975 Indian Self-Determination Act, the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act, and the 1978 Indian Religious Freedom Act. Each act reaffirmed tribal sovereignty and the special trust relationship between Native Nations and the United States. Additionally, they provided Native Nations greater jurisdiction over their affairs in each of these important areas.

This policy has transformed today to one of self-governance in which the United States recognizes Native Nations’ governments; Nations are able to directly address and negotiate with the U.S. government for their own interests. In terms of the BIA, the policy of self-governance provides Native Nations much more autonomy over administration of federal monies and economic and social programs. However, conflicts of interest still arise, for example, protection of water and land rights. Oftentimes the BIA, whose task is to protect such rights on behalf of Native Nations, is confronted with competing interests from other Department of Interior agencies (e.g., Bureau of Land Management). Such conflicts of interest may result in poor outcomes for Native interests, thereby maintaining tension in an already complex relationship.

Future Readings

  1. Henson, C. L. (1995). From war to self-determination: A history of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. American Studies Today Online. Retrieved from http://www.americansc.org.uk/Online/indians.htm
  2. Reyhner, J., & Eder, J. (1989). A history of Indian education. Billings: Eastern Montana College, Bilingual Education Program.
  3. Smith, A. (2005). Conquest: Sexual violence and American Indian genocide. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.
  4. Wilkins, D. E. (2007). American Indian politics and the American political system (2nd ed.). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
  5. Wilson, J. (1998). The earth shall weep: A history of Native America. New York: Grove Press.
  6. Witko, T. M. (2006). Mental health care for urban Indians: Clinical insights from Native practitioners. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

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