The BIA is one of two bureaus under the jurisdiction of the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs: the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Indian Education, which provides education services to approximately 48,000 Native Americans.
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.
Office of Justice Services (OJS): 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 agencies, and 165 tribally operated agencies under contract, or compact 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. It operates four divisions: Corrections, Drug Enforcement, the Indian Police Academy, and Law Enforcement.
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.
Ely S. Parker was the first Native American to be appointed as Commissioner of Indian affairs (1869–1871).
In 1789, the U.S. Congress placed Native American relations within the newly formed War Department. By 1806 the Congress had created a Superintendent of Indian Trade, or "Office 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.
The government licensed traders to have some control in Indian territories and gain a share of the lucrative trade.
Bureau of Indian Affairs (1824–present)
The abolition of the factory system left a vacuum within the U.S. government regarding Native American relations. The Bureau of Indian Affairs was formed on March 11, 1824, by Secretary of WarJohn C. Calhoun, who created the agency as a division within his department, without authorization from the United States Congress. He appointed McKenney as the first head of the office, which went by several names. McKenney preferred to call it the "Indian Office", whereas the current name was preferred by Calhoun.
In 1832 Congress established the position of Commissioner of Indian Affairs. In 1849 Indian Affairs was transferred to the U.S. Department of the Interior. In 1869, Ely Samuel Parker was the first Native American to be appointed as commissioner of Indian affairs.
One of the most controversial policies of the Bureau of Indian Affairs was the late 19th to early 20th century decision to educate native children in separate boarding schools, with an emphasis on assimilation that prohibited them from using their indigenous languages, practices, and cultures. It emphasized being educated to European-American culture.
1940 Indians at Work magazine, published by the Office of Indian Affairs, predecessor agency to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
The bureau was renamed from Office of Indian Affairs to Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1947.
With the rise of American Indian activism in the 1960s and 1970s and increasing demands for enforcement of treaty rights and sovereignty, the 1970s were a particularly turbulent period of BIA history. The rise of activist groups such as the American Indian Movement (AIM) worried the U.S. government; the FBI responded both overtly and covertly (by creating COINTELPRO and other programs) to suppress possible uprisings among native peoples.
As a branch of the U.S. government with personnel on Indian reservations, BIA police were involved in political actions such as:
Feeling the government was ignoring them, the protesters vandalized the building. After a week, the protesters left, having caused $700,000 in damages. Many records were lost, destroyed or stolen, including irreplaceable treaties, deeds, and water rights records, which some Indian officials said could set the tribes back 50 to 100 years.
The BIA was implicated in supporting controversial tribal presidents, notably Dick Wilson, who was charged with being authoritarian; using tribal funds for a private paramilitary force, the Guardians of the Oglala Nation (or "GOON squad"), which he employed against opponents; intimidation of voters in the 1974 election; misappropriation of funds, and other misdeeds. Many native peoples continue to oppose policies of the BIA. In particular, problems in enforcing treaties, handling records and trust land incomes were disputed.
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 the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of Indian Education, the Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs and the Office of the Special Trustee for Indian Affairs. As of 2012 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 Fair Labor Standards Act and claim tens of millions of dollars in damages.
Cobell vs. Salazar, a major class action case related to trust lands, was settled in December 2009. The suit was filed against the U.S. Department of Interior, of which the BIA is a part. A major responsibility has been the management of the Indian trust accounts. This was a class-action lawsuit regarding the federal government's management and accounting of more than 300,000 individual American Indian and Alaska Native trust accounts. A settlement fund totaling $3.4 billion is to be distributed to class members. This is to compensate for claims that prior U.S. officials had mismanaged the administration of Indian trust assets. In addition, the settlement establishes a $2 billion fund enabling federally recognized tribes to voluntarily buy back and consolidate fractionated land interests.
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 known 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 in accordance with treaties signed by both.
Commissioners and Assistant Secretaries
Commissioners and Assistant Secretaries of Indian Affairs include:
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Schmeckebier, L. F. Office of Indian Affairs: History, Activities,and Organization, Service Monograh 48 (Baltimore 1927)
Sutton, I. "Indian Country and the Law: Land Tenure, Tribal Sovereignty, and the States," ch. 36 in Law in the Western United States, ed. G. M. Bakken (Norman, 2000)