The American Indian Federation (AIF) is perhaps one of the lesser-known organizations active in political life during the New Deal period.
Led by Joseph Bruner, it was the main voice of criticism on the Indian New Deal during this time. According to its members, “the American Indian Federation [was] a national, non-partisan, nonsectarian Indian organization, whose members [were] either Indians or intermarried citizens.” While support ranged from all over America, most members were centered around Oklahoma, the state with the highest proportion of native Americans. Even though there were few points the AIF fully agreed on, there was strong consensus over its most important goals: that the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) had to be overthrown, as along with its commissioner John Collier, and that the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA), also known as the Wheeler-Howard Act, had to be overturned.
During the New Deal Era, John Collier [pictured here with tribal leaders of the South Dakota Blackfoot], as commissioner of the BIA, adapted Roosevelt’s reformist mentality to transform federal policy concerning Native Americans. Collier set out goals that he (according to himself) successfully fulfilled. These included “Economic rehabilitation of the Indians, principally on the land; Organization of the Indian tribes for managing their own affairs; Civil and cultural freedom and opportunity for the Indians.” The legislation in order to achieve these goals came to be known as the Indian New Deal. Perhaps most important to Collier’s legislation during the New Deal period was his plan to abolish the Dawes Act of 1887, also known as the Allotment Act, which would grant US citizenship to any Native American who accepted allotments and agreed to live separately from their tribe. While Native Americans were subject to forced assimilation into American society for the previous fifty years, Collier condemned this idea. Instead, Collier sought to restore Native American culture and self-government and even return some of the land that was taken from them through treaties. Collier called this reform the Indian Reorganization Act, and it became the centerpiece of the Indian New Deal.
The American Indian Federation, with its President Joseph Bruner in particular, wanted the exact opposite of Collier’s plan of anti-assimilation. Bruner himself, a wealthy Creek from Oklahoma, was a strong advocate for the assimilation process. Bruner even contended in a letter to President Roosevelt that Collier was “attempting to return the Indian citizen, far beyond your ‘horse and buggy’ days into the dim past of the teepee and the buffalo chase.” The AIF fought the idea that Native Americans should regain their self-government, arguing that this would set them apart from other American citizens, while they wished to be treated equally. They rejected the paternalism inherent in the idea that the federal government needed to protect Native American culture.
Another common theme that runs through the discourse of the AIF and particularly that of Joseph Bruner, are the accusations that Collier and the BIA were promoting un-American activities and ideas such as Communism. Perhaps the most important reason for their accusations was the BIA’s connection to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The ACLU was alleged to have Communist ties, even though these claims had never been proven. However, they were explicitly named in a report by the House Un-American Activities Committee, which permanently damaged their reputation. The AIF argued that the BIA was entirely under the control of the ACLU, which they accused of “establishing communism and destroying Christianity among the Indians of the United States.”
Alice Lee Jemison, who was a Seneca political activist and the most well-known AIF member, also strongly accused the Roosevelt Administration and the Indian New Deal of being Communist. She argued, for example, that under the BIA, Native American children had to read Communist books in school, such as New Russia’s Primer. Due to this, among other reasons, she contended that the Roosevelt Administration had established “the most crack-pot combination of Russian-Mexican Communism and ‘progressive’ education that could be designed.” But not only the education system was turning Communist, according to Jemison; all aspects of Native American life were affected. She argued that “under the ‘reorganization,’ Indians are being regimented into little reservation Soviets” and that all private rights were taken away to the extent that there was even such a thing as “government-maintained birth-control of all sheep and goats.”
Even though their criticism was harsh and their plans were ambitious, the American Indian Federation never achieved any of their most important goals. Collier and the BIA were never overthrown and the IRA was not overturned despite their efforts. The demise of the AIF started in 1939, when the party lost many supporters due to lack of consensus over whether to support the Settlement Bill. This was a bill which would grant $3000 to any Native American if he or she would drop all charges against the American Government. The AIF documents show that about 4668 of its members agreed to the Settlement Bill, even though it eventually never passed. The discord over the bill led many of its initial supporters to reject the AIF, including Alice Lee Jemison. With the absence of the support of important figures such as Jemison, the AIF also lost the interest of many other initial supporters.
While the AIF never achieved the success it aimed for, it is still important to consider its opposition to the Indian New Deal legislation and legislators. Its opposition can be seen as a rejection of white domination and an expression of their wish to be treated as equal US citizens, rather than as an exception in American society. The documents that can be found on the RIAS’ microfilm reels show that anti-Communism was one of the most important vehicles to express their criticism, but also show that the AIF emphasized that their “race is just as capable of being citizens as any other race or nationality within the United States.”
Research for this piece was done using the Native Americans and the New Deal collection at the RIAS Library.