Bureau of Indian Affairs

Published on January 23, 2011 by John

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Bureau of indian affairs seal n11288Logo of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

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The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) is an agency of the federal government of the United States within the US Department of the Interior. It is responsible for the administration and management of 55,700,000 acres (225,000 km2) of land held in trust by the United States for Native Americans in the United States, Native American Tribes and Alaska Natives. The Bureau of Indian Affairs is one of two Bureaus under the jurisdiction of the Assistant Secretary – Indian Affairs: the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Indian Education, which provides education services to approximately 48,000 Native Americans. Bart Stevens is the current acting director of the Bureau of Indian Education.

The BIA’s responsibilities once included providing health care services to American Indians and Alaska Natives. In 1954, that function was legislatively transferred to the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare, now known as the Department of Health and Human Services, where it has remained to this day as the Indian Health Service (IHS).


Located at 1849 C Street, N.W. in Washington, D.C., the BIA is headed by Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs for the U.S. Department of the Interior Larry EchoHawk, who is an enrolled member of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma, since May 22, 2009.

The BIA carries out its core mission to serve 564 Federally recognized tribes through four offices:

  • The Office of Indian Services – operates the BIA’s general assistance, disaster relief, Indian child welfare, tribal government, Indian Self-Determination, and Indian Reservation Roads Program.
  • The Office of Justice Services – directly operates or funds law enforcement, tribal courts, and detention facilities on Federal Indian lands. OJS funded 208 law enforcement agencies consisting of 43 BIA operated Police and 165 tribally operated under contract, or compact for operation with the OJS. The office has seven areas of activity: Criminal Investigations and Police Services, Detention/Corrections, Inspection/Internal Affairs, Tribal Law Enforcement and Special Initiatives, the Indian Police Academy, Tribal Justice Support, and Program Management. The OJS also provides oversight and technical assistance to tribal law enforcement programs when and where requested. Operates four divisions: Corrections, Drug Enforcement, Indian Police Academy, Law Enforcement.
  • The Office of Trust Services – works with tribes and individual American Indians and Alaska Natives in the management of their trust lands, assets, and resources.
  • The Office of Field Operations – oversees 12 regional offices; Alaska, Great Plains, NorthWest, Southern Plains, Eastern, Navajo, Pacific, Southwest, Eastern Oklahoma, Midwest, Rocky Mountain, and Western, and 83 agencies which carry out the mission of the Bureau at the tribal level.


Although the bureau, which was called the Office of Indian Affairs, was formed in 1824, similar agencies had existed in the U.S. government as far back as 1775, when a trio of Indian agencies were created by the Second Continental Congress. Benjamin Franklin and Patrick Henry were among the early commissioners, who were charged with negotiating treaties with Native Americans and obtaining their neutrality during the American Revolutionary War. In 1789, the United States Congress placed Native American relations within the newly-formed War Department. By 1806, the Congress had created a Superintendent of Indian Trade within the War Department who was charged with maintaining the factory trading network of the fur trade. The post was held by Thomas L. McKenney from 1816 until the abolition of the factory system in 1822. In 1832 Congress established the position of Commissioner of Indian Affairs. In 1869, Ely Samuel Parker became the first commissioner of Indian affairs who was himself an Indian.

The abolition of the factory system left a vacuum within the U.S. government regarding Native American relations. The current Bureau of Indian Affairs was formed on March 11, 1824, by Secretary of War John C. Calhoun, who created the agency without authorization from the United States Congress. McKenney was appointed the first head of the office, which went by several names at first. McKenney preferred to call it the “Indian Office”, whereas the current name was preferred by Calhoun. Like its predecessors, the bureau was originally a division of the United States Department of War. In 1849 it was transferred to the Department of the Interior. The bureau was renamed to Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1947 (from the original Office of Indian Affairs).

The Bureau of Indian Affairs has been involved in many controversial policies. One of the most controversial policies was rounding up native children and sending them to boarding schools to be assimilated, removing their indigenous languages, histories, and cultures. Some were even beaten for praying to their Native creator.

The 1970s were a particularly turbulent period of BIA history. During this time, the rise of vocal activist groups such as American Indian Movement worried the U.S. Government, who reacted both overtly and covertly (through COINTELPRO and other programs) to suppress possible uprisings among native peoples. As a branch of the U.S. government, BIA police were involved in political actions such as: the occupation of Wounded Knee; the Pine Ridge shootout (in which Leonard Peltier was accused of killing two FBI agents); and the occupation of BIA headquarters in Washington, D.C. in 1972. The BIA also assisted intensively in the establishment of infamous tribal authorities such as Dick Wilson, who was seen as a neo-dictator for his use of a violent paramilitary force, the Guardians of the Oglala Nation (or “Goon squad”), open misappropriation of funds, and other controversial actions. Because many of these issues, particularly the continued imprisonment of Peltier, are still seen as unresolved today, the BIA remains a controversial agency among native peoples.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs building takeover occurred from November 3 to November 9, 1972. On November 3, a group of around 500 American Indians with the American Indian Movement (AIM) took over the (BIA) building in Washington, D.C., the culmination of their participation in the Trail of Broken Treaties, intended to bring attention to American Indian issues including living standards and treaty rights. They had arrived at the BIA to negotiate for better housing and other issues; the siege began when a government mishap was interpreted as a doublecross. The incensed protesters then began to vandalize the building in protest. They were not evicted on the first night. After a week, the protesters left, having caused $700,000 in damages. Among the damage caused was lost, destruction, and theft of many records, including treaties, deeds, and water rights records, which some Indian officials said could set them back 50 to 100 years.

Legal issues

Employee Overtime

The Bureau of Indian Affairs has been sued four times in class action overtime lawsuits brought by the Federation of Indian Service Employees , a union which represents the federal civilian employees of BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs), BIE (Bureau of Indian Education), AS-IA (Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs) and OST (Office of the Special Trustee for Indian Affairs). The Union is represented by the Law Offices of Snider & Associates, LLC , which concentrates in FLSA overtime class actions against the Federal Government and other large employers. The Grievances allege widespread violations of the FLSA and claims tens of millions of dollars in damages.

Trust Assets

The Bureau of Indian Affairs is currently involved in a class-action lawsuit brought by Native American representatives against the United States government; see Cobell v. Kempthorne. The plaintiffs claim that the U.S. government has incorrectly accounted for Indian trust assets, which belong to individual Native Americans (as beneficial owners) but are managed by the Department of the Interior as the fiduciary trustee. The status of this case remains open.

Current mission evolution

The Bureau is currently trying to evolve from a supervisory to an advisory role; however, this has been a difficult task as the BIA is remembered by many Native Americans as playing a police role in which the U.S. government historically dictated to tribes and their members what they could and could not do.

Commissioners and Assistant Secretaries

Commissioners of Indian Affairs
Heads of the Bureau of Indian Affairs

  • 11.03.1824–30.09.1830 Thomas L. McKenney
  • 30.09.1830–08.1831 Samuel S. Hamilton

Commissioners of Indian Affairs

  • 10.07.1832–4.07.1836 Elbert Herring
  • 4.07.1836–22.10.1838 Carey A. Harris
  • 22.10.1838–28.10.1845 Thomas Hartley Crawford
  • 28.10.1845–30.06.1849 William Medill
  • 30.06.1849–1.07.1850 Orlando Brown (Commissioners of Indian Affairs)
  • 1.07.1850–24.03.1853 Luke Lea
  • 24.03.1853–17.04.1857 George W. Manypenny
  • 17.04.1857–14.06.1858 James W. Denver
  • 14.06.1858–8.11.1858 Charles E. Mix
  • 8.11.1858–4.05.1859 James W. Denver
  • 4.05.1859–13.05.1861 Alfred B. Greenwood
  • 13.05.1861–10.07.1865 William P. Dole
  • 10.07.1865–1.11.1866 Dennis N. Cooley
  • 1.11.1866–29.03.1867 Lewis V. Bogley
  • 29.03.1867–21.04.1869 Nathaniel G. Taylor
  • 21.04.1869–1871 Ely S. Parker
  • 1871–21.11.1871 H.R. Clum (acting)
  • 21.11.1871–1872 Francis A. Walker
  • 1872–20.03.1873 H.R. Clum (acting)
  • 20.03.1873–11.12.1875 Edward Parmelee Smith
  • 11.12.1875–27.09.1877 John Q. Smith
  • 27.09.1877–1880 Ezra A. Hayt
  • 1879-1887 John Q. Tufts
  • 1880–1880 E.M. Marble
  • 1880–1881 R.E. Trowbridge
  • 1881–21.03.1885 Hiram Price
  • 21.03.1885–13.06.1888 John D.C. Atkins
  • 13.06.1888–07.1889 John H. Oberly
  • 07.1889–1893 Thomas Jefferson Morgan
  • 1893–1897 Daniel M. Browning
  • 1897–1905 William A. Jones
  • 1905–1909 Francis E. Leupp
  • 1909–1913 Robert G. Valentine
  • 1913–1921 Cato Sells (1859–1948)
  • 1921–1929 Charles H. Burke
  • 1929–1933 Charles J. Rhoads
  • 1933–1945 John Collier
  • 1945–1948 William A. Brophy
  • 1948–1949 William R. Zimmerman (acting)
  • 1949–1950 John R. Nichols
  • 1950–1953 Dillon S. Myer
  • 1953–1961 Glenn L. Emmons
  • 1961–1966 Philleo Nash
  • 1966–1969 Robert L. Bennett
  • 1969–1972 Louis R. Bruce
  • 1973–1976 Morris Thompson
  • 1976–1977 Dr. Benjamin Reifel

Assistant Secretaries of the Interior for Indian Affairs

  • 1977–1981 Forrest Gerard
  • 1981–1984 Kenneth L. Smith
  • 1985–1989 Ross Swimmer
  • 1989–1993 Eddie Frank Brown
  • 1993–1997 Ada E. Deer
  • 1997–2001 Kevin Gover
  • 2001–2001 James H. McDivitt (acting)
  • 2001–2003 Neal A. McCaleb
  • 2003–2004 Aurene M. Martin (acting)
  • 2004–2005 Dave Anderson
  • 2005–2007 Jim Cason (acting)
  • 2007–2008 Carl J. Artman
  • 2008–2009 George Skibine (acting)
  • 2009–present Larry EchoHawk

Source: Wikipedia

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