Cathleen Cahill on “Not Your Great-Great-Grandmother’s BIA”

Cathleen Cahill, author of Federal Fathers and Mothers: A Social History of the United States Indian Service, 1869-1933, penned a guest blog post at First Peoples New Directions about her recent visit to the National Indian Personnel Training Center’s (NIPTC) fifth anniversary celebration.  Here’s an excerpt from her post where she muses on the changes the Bureau of Indian Affairs has seen:

This event would not have been recognizable to administrators of the Indian Office in the late nineteenth century. They would have been surprised that the Office of Indian Affairs or OIA (as they referred to the BIA) was still around in any form and that Native nations continued to exist in the twenty-first century! After all, their goal in 1881, when the Albuquerque Indian School was opened, was to destroy Native cultures and tribal sovereignty and assimilate Native people into the nation.

Administrators attempted to do this through a coordinated program of land allotment, the removal and education of Indigenous children in boarding schools, and—as I argue in my book—the hiring of Indians to be employees in the Indian Service.

In fact, the one thing that would have been recognizable to those past administrators was the presence of Native people in federal positions. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Indian Office hired thousands of Native women and men. By 1912, Indian employees made up a third of the Indian Office’s workforce, and many more served in temporary positions.

Today, 78 percent of the BIA’s personnel are Native. That is certainly more than white administrators in the past would have been comfortable with, but it gets close to the vision that many Native employees had for an Indian Bureau that was truly working for Indian people. As former Indian Service employee and author Luther Standing Bear (Oglala Lakota) wrote in the 1930s, “Indians should teach Indians…Indians should serve Indians…[E]very reservation could well be supplied with Indian doctors, nurses, and engineers, road- and bridge-builders, draughtsmen, architects, dentists, lawyers, teachers, and instructors in tribal lore, legends, orations, song, dance, and ceremonial ritual.”

To read Cahill’s post, click on over to First Peoples New Directions.