Published on January 23, 2011 by John
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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:
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.
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.
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.
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 of Indian Affairs
Heads of the Bureau of Indian Affairs
Commissioners of Indian Affairs
Assistant Secretaries of the Interior for Indian Affairs