From the Archives: The Bureau of Indian Affairs: My Brother’s Keeper


A historian, theologian, lawyer, and activist, Vine Deloria Jr. (1933–2005) was a celebrated Native intellectual, best known for his 1969 manifesto Custer Died for Your Sins. In 1972, he wrote a scathing indictment of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the federal agency charged with managing Indigenous populations, for A.i.A.’s Native American issue.

Bitterly subtitled “My Brother’s Keeper,” the essay chronicles the Bureau’s various crimes over two centuries. While driven by a fiery moral indignation, Deloria offers rational solutions for the troubles that lie ahead. We are publishing an abridged version of his essay here for the historical perspective it offers on the issues addressed in our October 2017 issue—Eds.

No agency is more reviled than the Bureau of Indian Affairs. It is seen, by Indian and white alike, as the last great paternalistic bastion of government interfer­ence with the lives of private citizens. Yet efforts to disband the Bureau and redistribute its functions meet such intense opposition that it takes a hardy politician to suggest cutting back some of its activities, let alone mention its eventual demise.

Few agencies can equal the Bureau’s ability to respond to a direct threat to its existence, and this ability indicates that the agency is more than the stumbling, blundering conglomerate of sterility that a casual exam­ination of it would indicate.

Inside the bureaucratic structure is a curious mix­ture—on the one hand, people devoted to the betterment of the social and economic condition of the American Indians and, on the other, career civil servants who hold the red men in utter contempt. It would be easy to chastise the Bureau in the traditional form of exposé, pointing the finger at its apparent inability to solve small and seemingly unimportant problems. However, that approach has become so commonplace, and has proven so useless and superficial, that it only serves to entrench attitudes and not to change them.

Ineptitude is not a mortal sin, nor is incompetence. A check on performance does not in itself enable us to understand, or change, the Bureau of Indian Affairs. We must look at the Bureau against the background of events that have shaped its worldview, attitudes, meth­od of operation, and vision of itself. Regardless of laws, plans, sincerity or energy, an organization is viable only to the extent that it is self-critical and able to adjust to the requirements of new data thrust upon it.

The Bureau has, unfortunately, shown itself virtually incapable of adjusting to events beyond its doorstep. Its inability to perceive fundamental changes in the American scene is due primarily to the constant attacks on it by well-intentioned people reciting a “we are shocked at the treatment our poor Indians receive” litany of administrative abuses. These accusations concern themselves primarily with procedural failures in the Bureau’s field operations and do not reach the substan­tive issues of philosophy and attitude.


The relationship between American Indians and the federal government has its background in the early days of exploration and colonization. The European powers, by balancing one alliance of tribes against another, and by translating trade relationships with Indian tribes into territorial claims for various monarchs, effectively pre­vented the Indians from creating a united front against a common aggressor. This pattern of divide and conquer was the primary procedural tool for dealing with all problems created by the continual encroachment on Indian lands by European colonists.

With exploration extending over three centuries, time itself worked to deny the aborigines any clear vision of the vast monolith of attitudes threatening them. The pattern of systematic destruction of Indian confederacies never revealed itself to the Indian people until it was virtually impossible to stop.

Revolutionary America badly needed an alliance with the Indians on its frontier. It faced the British Empire, at that time the mightiest on earth, and a wilderness of unimagined depth and solitude. The numerical strength of the individual tribes had little effect on military operations, but when the arena was seen as the vast unknown west of Ohio, the deep South, the western reaches of New York, and uncharted stretches of the Appalachians, the Indian threat seemed much more serious than it actually was.

What was unknown quickly took on connotations of alien treachery; the uncertainty of frontier life was translated into an unconscious fear of Indian reprisal; without expectations of salvation outside of the ability to resort to arms, America learned to see the American Indian as a threat to its existence. Killing Indians became a form of religious justification, proving that Americans were chosen by God to subdue the continent. This ingrained suspicion of Indians became the dominant emotional attitude with which whites learned to ap­proach Indian matters.

Although the Treaty of Ghent, ending the War of 1812, required the restoration of Indian tribes to their political status prior to the outbreak of hostilities, in practical terms Indian tribes were shuffled from their status as independent and limited nations to become mere occupants of the lands they lived on. The original doctrine of Discovery by which European nations estab­lished title to their colonial territories was transformed into a national policy that meant the United States would not recognize the legal right of any Indian tribe to its lands.

Watching the westward thrust of the white settlers and the virtual annihilation of the eastern Indian tribes, humanitarians sought measures to ensure that the natives would not be completely destroyed by the march of civilization. In 1819 a sense of Congress was established that the President take measures to prevent the extinction of tribes on the frontier. This provision was supported by the creation of a fund for the civilization of the Indians. In 1824 a Bureau of Indian Affairs was created in the War Department to administer the fund and to distribute the provisions and annuities due the respective tribes by treaty.

As trade and western expansion became larger items on the national agenda the Bureau expanded its function, and in 1832 the office of Commissioner of Indian Affairs was created. The agency, however, was still oriented by its niche in the War Department. An army officer might spend the first years of his career fighting a tribe and his later years acting as its agent, administering the reservation and attempting to preserve the very treaty he had forced them to accept years before.

The situation was not healthy, but it was practical. If provisions due the Indians could only be delivered at army posts, it was natural that army officers should provide the administrative services to fulfill this func­tion. Remembering the former grandeur of their oppo­nents, and seeing them mired in defeat and poverty, the army officers were convinced that the red men were destined for eventual extinction. And as the old soldiers gamely limped around the reservation offices, they could never accept the fact that the Indians were not still their enemies. A sense of the Bureau as having a clientele, like other government agencies, never developed.

In 1849 the Bureau was transferred to the newly established Department of the Interior. The public lands of the United States had become so vast, natural re­sources so varied, and the functions of the General Land Office so important, that a separate government depart­ment was needed to supervise the development of the interior of the continent. The attitude of the Interior Department, from the very beginning, was that the animals, minerals, timber, water, and other resources existed for exploitation and that reasonable supervision of commerce in the West would increase the govern­ment’s return on its property.

The old attitudes of the War Department days and the new worldview of Interior combined to produce within the Bureau of Indian Affairs a broad conception of its mission. It was to regard Indians as increments upon the land without any ultimate right to existence. Indians were hardly to be trusted, and were generally considered hostile.


If these attitudes had been left undisturbed the subse­quent development of Indian Affairs might have been radically different from what we have inherited today. The tribes would have been left alone on their reserva­tions to live according to the old customs, adapting to modern American civilization only when and where they desired to relate to it. The Interior Department would have simply avoided anything that would have indicated a belief in cultural change, leaving a fairly homogeneous community to face the outside world.

However, once the tribes were settled on their re­maining lands, a variety of social reformers arrived to undertake the task of changing red men into white men. The unfortunate situation of the period 1860–1900, when social engineering was combined with a legal stranglehold on landed resources, helped create the confusion we find in Indian Affairs today.

The treaties contained numerous restrictions on the powers of the bureaucratic machine. Unfortunately, treaty rights have been viewed by people in the Bureau of Indian Affairs as handicaps in their undisturbed management of the Indian lands, and not as legal rights outlining their responsibility to the tribes. Laws protecting Indians and rights contained in treaties became something to be undermined, ignored, and misinterpreted, instead of limits within which the Bureau employees might understand their administrative mission. Such an attitude quickly made a farce of Indian legal rights. The procedural mission of the Bureau of Indian Affairs became one of dubious interpretation, double-talk, avoiding the obvious meaning of words in an effort to accomplish an obscure goal.

Although treaties were now forbidden, tribes did not feel that they should give up their rights as sovereign nations, rights which in their eyes had not diminished in the slightest. So a form of contractual relationship known as the “agreement” was instituted. Congress would authorize a commission to go to a certain tribe to negotiate for cession of lands. When the agreement was reached and ready for ratification by the appropriate congressional committees, then Interior officials, land-hungry citizens, and Senators and Congressmen would conspire to change the agreement before it was approved by the two houses of the legislative branch.

Through this method of legislative-administrative conspiracy, millions of acres were taken from the tribes in the West. In the first decade of this century Congress gave up all pretensions of bargaining with the tribes and simply began to pass laws regulating all aspects of Indian life. The final breakthrough came as a result of a Supreme Court decision in which the allotment of the Kiowa tribe of Oklahoma, under the provision of the 1887 General Allotment Act, was upheld as illus­trating a plenary power of Congress over Indian tribes and property. The court suggested that Congress had always such power, but this was plainly contradicted by the historical facts.

With allotment, however, the Bureau regarded its role as having radically changed. Social reformers consid­ered the introduction of individual tenure of lands a magical potion which would convert individual Indians to the white man’s society in an acceptable manner. If the Indians are made greedy, as one stalwart Christian remarked, they will come to see the reality of the Christian faith where every man is responsible for his own soul. And greed had to be inculcated by means of private property—hence allotments of tribal lands into individual holdings.

In order to ensure that this magic worked, the Bureau of Indian Affairs had to check the operation of private land on the psyche of each Indian. It abandoned its role as arbiter between red and white legal structures and took up a new role as innovator and motivator of cultural change. Indian people came to be regarded as the individual wards of each agency headquarters and by definition legally incompetent. Bureau policies for each Indian became a projection of white cultural values, and decisions made in the administrative field were guided not by legal criteria but by what each bureaucrat would do with the Indian’s property if given a chance.

The accumulated wisdom of the Bureau of Indian Affairs was probably best summarized by Commissioner Francis Leupp in his book, The Indian and His Problem (1910), where he indicated that the problem required simply a more efficient manner of administering the property of individual Indians until such time as they had become accustomed to dealing with white society. The vast differences between Indian and white, the complicated legal backgrounds of the various tribes and the increasingly complex condition of the Indian lands apparently made no impact on Leupp. Nor have these problems impressed themselves on employees of the Bureau of Indian Affairs since.

By 1910 the Bureau had become so set in its mold that it was impossible to hope for any renewal of outlook or to expect it to formulate any alternative theory of mission and purpose. It had completely accepted its role as agent of forced cultural and religious change and had completely abandoned any notion that its role was to act as the representative of the federal government in carrying out the provisions of the treaties and statutes by which the United States had been able to purchase the lands of the continental reaches of America.


The Bureau’s habit, since the first decade of this century, has been a confession of sins, followed by another tightening of administrative rules and regula­tions to stifle any creativity that might have slipped into the system since it last suffered attack from the outside. Stirring messages of reformation, issued periodically from the first days of the Bureau’s creation to the current comedy of errors conducted by the present Commissioner Louis R. Bruce, have only meant that high officials have felt impelled to find the person or persons who alerted the outside world to conditions on the reservations and to isolate them from any further contact with that world.

Thus the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 was proposed to reorganize Indian tribes as federal corpora­tions. With the passage of the act the Bureau of Indian Affairs field employees promptly negated the law by setting up such rigid regulations for its administration that it became a deterrent to community development in most areas. Tribes for whom the legislation was designed were deliberately excluded from the operations of the law.

A few years after the passage of the Indian Reorgan­ization Act, Bureau employees began to act as if the law were null and void. They adopted the attitude that because the law was several years old tribes could no longer use its provisions. Whenever it was mentioned they would smile, and sigh, “Yes, that was some time ago, wasn’t it?” One could almost see the IBM cards clicking in their minds—”Our old enemies the Indians are trying to get away with something by bringing that old law up.”

A few years back I asked an Area Director why he couldn’t help a tribe to organize itself under the provi­sions of the I.R.A. He replied that if I could find anything in federal law requiring him to do so, he would consider it. Consider it! He felt no obligation to follow the law simply because it was the law and still part of the federal statutory rights of American Indian people. He wanted me to find another law that would force him to act in a way that the Reorganization Act enabled him to act.

The situation is even more bizarre when we look at other instances of the same attitude. The Quinault reservation in western Washington is one of the few remain­ing stands of virgin cedar on the West Coast. The reservation was allotted for farming purposes when the lumber companies wanted to gain access to Indian timber cheaply. A quick lawsuit to force allotment was resolved in favor of dividing the massive forest into individual tracts, allegedly for farming purposes, and the timber companies moved in, with the assistance of the Bureau, and began a profitable exploitation of the reservation by rigged bidding on allotments and control of access roads through the forest. Strangely, farming was never again made an issue on this reservation.

In recent years the Quinaults have received federal funds to establish a fish hatchery on their rivers. They soon discovered that the lumber companies were cutting timber upstream and that their bulldozers were ruining the streams and gravel beds in which the salmon spawned. When the Indian complained the lumber com­panies responded by clear-cutting the timber in such a wasteful manner as to obliterate the reservation. The tribe blockaded the roads leading into the reservation last fall in an effort to stop the clear-cutting which threatened to destroy the reservation forever.

The Bureau employees, who had been working with the lumber companies for years, all ran for cover and refused to do anything to support the tribe or to police the cutting of timber on the reservation. What makes the situation particularly galling is that clear-cutting of timber on tribal reservations is specifically forbidden by federal law. When the Quinaults pointed out this section of the Code of Federal Regulations to the Bureau’s forestry people, they were told, “It depends on what you call clear-cutting.” When the issue hit the newspa­pers, the Bureau admitted that they had a moral respon­sibility but denied they had a legal responsibility to the tribe.

What can be done with an agency that can look at a paragraph in a book of federal regulations and say that its prohibitions are merely moral guidelines and not legal responsibilities at all? And while looking first at the book and then at the assembled Indians holding the book, bureaucrats stand thoroughly convinced that the Indians are trying something sneaky. Why else would they be pointing out that paragraph in the book? Who the devil let them get a copy of the Code of Federal Regulations anyway?

In 1872 the Commissioner of Indian Affairs stated in his annual report what has since become the crystal­lized attitude of the Bureau concerning its relationship with, Indian tribes. “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 suppliants for charity. This is, indeed, the only hope of salvation for the aborigines of the continent. If they stand up against the progress of civilization and industry, they must be relentlessly crushed.”

The task of the Bureau, therefore, has not been to act as an agent of the United States government on behalf of the Indians, but to act as an instrument of industrial society in reducing the tribes to the condition of suppliants for the nation’s charity. Is it a wonder that conservatives scram about welfare rolls?

The current Indian joke is that when Custer was leaving for Montana he stopped by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and left instructions not to do anything until he got back. And they haven’t. They haven’t done anything constructive. But in nearly every way possible they have undertaken to deliver the American Indian into the clutches of the people they were supposed to protect him from.