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Bureau of Indian Affairs for Indigenous in America

The relationship between the Native Americans and the government of the United States comes through the entire history of the country. In 1824, the federal authorities created the country’s primary agency responsible for the government’s dealings with the Native population – the Bureau of Indian Affairs or BIA (Indian Country Today). First called the Office of Indian Affairs, it originally was a part of the Department of War (DOW), which already demonstrates the attitude toward the Native population embedded in the original organization (Indian Country Today).

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Even after the Bureau became a part of the Department of the Interior (DOI), and, thus, its impact on the Indian population remained negative in many respects. The BIA had only changed its approach in the 1970s when it began championing the cause of “Indian self-determination” (Edwards). However, the activities of the BIA throughout almost 200 years of its history make this self-determination unlikely. In economic terms, the system created under the BIA makes the Indians dependent on the government while the neglect of Indigenous education threatens their identity.

BIA’s Impact on the Indigenous Economy

Historically, the economic approach to the Indigenous population of North America on the part of the federal government amounted to the appropriation of the Native land. By the end of the 19th century, the country already spanned over most of the continent, and the government confined the remaining Indigenous population to reservations. Under these conditions, the federal authorities began entertaining the thought of “assimilating Native Americans into wider society, and to turning them into citizens” (Dippel and Frye 1). To achieve this purpose, the policymakers of the time sought to reshape the economies of Indian tribes by turning them into self-sustaining farming communities (Dippel and Frye 1). It fell to the BIA to oversee these policies.

Two laws laid down the legal framework for the economic relationship between the federal government of the United States and the Indigenous population of the continent. The Dawes Act of 1887 authorized the “land allotment” – the policy of separating tribal land into small parcels assigned to individual families so that they would start farms (Dippel and Frye 1). Nineteen years later, the Burke Act of 1906 put the same policy into action on a grander scale (Dippel and Frye 1). The primary purpose of both laws was to provide a “path towards citizenship coupled with landownership” (Dippel and Frye 1).

The policymakers expected that, once the Native Americas have proven their capability as farmers, they would receive citizenship and full authority over their land. Until then, the federal government held it in trust, meaning it was its legal owner, and the Native Americans themselves remained mere beneficiaries. Managing the Indigenous land held in trust by the government became the function if the BIA (Dippel and Frye 1). Thus, the original task of the agency regarding the Indigenous economies was not to promote their interests but to facilitate their assimilation.

Managing the Native land remained the primary function of the BIA ever since the turn of the 20th century, but its practice attracted sharp criticism for its ineffectiveness. While BIA is theoretically responsible for governing the Indigenous land held in trust for the benefit of the Indigenous population, the application of this principle leaves much to be desired. Throughout the 20th century and even at the beginning of the 21st, BIA demonstrated ineffective management of the “Individual Indian Money (IIM) trust accounts” (US Commission on Civil Rights 17).

In particular, BIA proved “unable to assure trust account holders that their balances were accurate or that their assets were being properly managed” (US Commission on Civil Rights 17). While the trust relationship theoretically presumes the use of assets for the good of the beneficiaries, the actual practice of managing Indigenous assets by the BIA falls short of this goal.

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The most notable occurrence illustration of BIA’s mismanagement of Indigenous assets is the famous Cobell v. Salazar court case. Initiated in 1996 as an attempt to sue the DOI – and BIA in particular – for the mismanagement of Indian trust funds, it became “one of the largest class-action lawsuits against the United States” in history (Wilkins and Stark 161). The suit accused the government agency of “losing, destroying, or not reporting” Indian accounts despite the obligation to do so (US Commission on Civil Rights 17).

The plaintiffs claimed that the overall financial damage from the failure to provide full royalties “on leases covering 90 million acres of land for a century” amounted to as much as $137 billion (US Commission on Civil Rights 17). In 2009, the sides reached a settlement settled for a much more modest sum of $3.4 billion, yet its implementation still does not go according to schedule (Wilkins and Stark 161). If this case is any indication, BIA may not view the economy as a vehicle for Native American assimilation anymore, but it is far from holding the Indigenous people’s best interests and economic self-determination at heart either.

Even when the BIA is not directly involved in governing the Indigenous assets, it still holds a decisive authority over them. Only 5 percent of the land in reservations is fee simple, meaning that it belongs to the members of the tribe as private property (Edwards). Approximately 20 percent of the land is individual trust, meaning that the land is allotted to individual tribal members, but the BIA holds it in trust and manages it directly (Edwards).

Finally, the remaining three-quarters of the land in the reservations is tribal trust, meaning that it is “managed by the tribal bureaucracy and held in trust by the BIA” (Edwards). Technically, passing the management of the land from the BIA to the tribes may look like a step toward Indigenous self-determination. However, trust land – whether individual or tribal – cannot be “leased, mortgaged, or transferred without discretionary approval by the BIA, and land transactions usually need to go through cumbersome environmental reviews” (Edwards). The tribes may perform the everyday management of most of the trust land, but the BIA is still the ultimate authority deciding how it may or may not be used.

Mismanagement of Indian assets is not the only economic problem brought by the existence of the trust relationship managed by the BIA – among other things, it undermines the attempts of Indigenous entrepreneurs to start businesses. The fact that the United States government is the legal owner of the land while the Native Americans are mere beneficial owners means that selling a leasing tribal land requires governmental approval. According to Clarkson and Murphy, this restriction constitutes a critical impediment for the Indigenous entrepreneurs “who want to start up small businesses or pursue entrepreneurial endeavors” in their respective reservations (5).

Because of the restricted access to tribal land managed by the BIA, the Native American entrepreneurs “do not have access to a prime source of capital for business startup” (Clarkson and Murphy 6). Self-reliant and sustained economic development is impossible without entrepreneurship, but the limitations imposed by the federal government as a trust-holder make it less likely. Thus, the BIA’s restrictions on the use of tribal land by the Indigenous population are a direct obstacle to the development of Indigenous businesses.

While the network of limitations and regulations imposed and enforced by the BIA impedes the development of Native American entrepreneurship, it implicitly encourages the tribal members to use other means of supporting their tribes economically. Limited in the use of land, the Indigenous people turn to what they are due in return – the governmental compensation “for what they surrendered to the United States” (US Commission on Civil Rights 17).

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As a result, the government subsidies and not productive economic activity becomes the primary source of tribal wealth under the BIA. A characteristic example would be the Saginaw Chippewa tribe hiring lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who then used his skills to “direct all kinds of subsidies to the tribe” (Edwards). Under the authority of the BIA, this struggle for governmental grants becomes one of the primary ways of achieving economic prosperity for the tribes because their opportunities to engage in productive economic activities are limited.

This situation may have a profound negative effect on the economic situation of the Indigenous people in America in the long run. Restrictions on entrepreneurship and business endeavors combined with the overall dependence on the government subsidies threaten to create an economically passive mentality among those whose assets fall under the jurisdiction of the BIA. If starting one’s business involves numerous impediments raised by the agency, while attracting governmental pay is easier, this discourages tribal members to partake in productive economic activities at all. Some of the Native American advocates already opine that the “tribes should receive subsidies in perpetuity,” thus implicitly agreeing with the role of passive beneficiaries for all eternity (Edwards).

The federal government and the BIA may champion the cause of Native “self-determination” and call the Indigenous people to assume greater control of their lives (Edwards). Yet the current economic framework created by the BIA does not promote productive economic activities and instead encourages reliance on governmental subsidies. This fact means that the BIA’s economic impact on Native Americans is directly opposite to the declared purpose of Indigenous self-determination.

BIA’s Impact on the Indigenous Education

Apart from managing the Native American assets held in trust by the federal government of the United States, the BIA was also historically responsible for the education of the Indigenous people. Just as the economic policies that sought to turn Native Americans into self-sustaining farmers, the educational policies of the BIA historically aimed to change the Indigenous people rather than promote their interests in any way.

From the 19th century, when educational effort came into the BIA’s focus for the first time, its intended goal was “not to protect Indians, but to assimilate them into white society (Indian Country Today). When designing educational policies targeting the Native population, policymakers had this purpose in mind. Regardless of whether the Indigenous people received religious or secular education as a separate group or as the citizens of the United States, under the BIA, it was never an education in being an Indian.

Some of the earliest attempts to organize education for the Indigenous population in America were religious. Before 1851, most of the educators giving lessons to the Indigenous American youth were missionaries, and the instruction they gave had a decidedly religious character (Indian Country Today). Education in scholarly disciplines was merely the by-product of the process, while its main goal always remained “the complete conversion of a race” (Indian Country Today).

Thus, the ultimate aims of the government agency and the missionaries coincided: the BIA sought cultural conversion, and the schools accounted for its religious component, namely, the Christianization of the Indigenous people. Yet the BIA was also unsatisfied with the educational approach of the missionaries, which the agency viewed as too lenient. For instance, it was not uncustomary for the teachers to “allow Natives to speak in their native tongues,” which ran contrary to the assimilation purpose of education as envisaged by the BIA (Indian Country Today). To promote the enculturation of Native Americans into white society, the agency required another approach.

The BIA found this approach in secular education in government boarding schools, which, unlike the missionary schools of an earlier time, did not limit themselves to religious conversion. An example of such a school operating under the patronage of the BIA was the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, founded in 1879 by a former Army officer Richard Henry Pratt. The school’s founder shared an opinion that the Native culture was not worth preservation and openly declared that “all the Indian there is in the race should be dead” (Indian Country Today).

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The BIA policy supported such sentiments and, in particular, encouraged “the abandonment of native languages” by forbidding the students to converse in them (Meza 355). Persistent violation of this rule on the students’ part mandated punishments and, considering that the children in boarding schools were separated from their families, led to the extinction or near-extinction of many Native languages (Meza 355). Thus, the educational policy adopted by the BIA and manifested in the boarding schools aimed to deprive the Indigenous students of their identity and, by extension, their culture.

After the Indigenous people received American citizenship in 1924, there were some changes to the better, but mostly quantitative rather than qualitative. In general, there were attempts to improve the situation of Native American students in the boarding schools, but these generally addressed material rather than cultural aspects. For instance, the 1928 report titled The Problem of Indian Administration mainly stressed that “the care for Indian children in boarding schools was shockingly inadequate” (Reyhner and Eder 222). This observation was valid, especially since the appropriations for food and closing were cut 25 percent after 1921 (Reyhner and Eder 222).

Yet the cultural aspects of the education that denied Indigenous people even the right to speak their language remained virtually unaddressed. Moreover, some of the BIA functionaries advocated increased financing for schools precisely because better-funded schools would assimilate Native Americans at a faster rate (Reyhner and Eder 219). Thus, even after the Indigenous people became full-fledged citizens of the country, the government’s ultimate goal in their education remained the same: assimilation instead of help.

This focus only changed in 1975, when Congress passed the Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act. This law gave the Indigenous tribes an opportunity they never had before: to contact federal agencies – the BIA in case of education – to “control and operate programs and services formerly administered by those agencies” (Indian Country Today). The Act signaled the beginning of the new period in the tribal-government relationship with the emphasis finally put on the needs of the former rather than the latter. Still, tailoring Indigenous education according to the needs of the Natives and not the government only became possible after removing it from the BIA jurisdiction, and one should keep that in mind when evaluating the agency’s impact.

Yet while the BIA is not directly responsible for delivering education anymore, it does not make its impact negligible in this respect. Since the agency still holds authority over the financing of the Indigenous educational efforts, the tribes have “to deal with the BIA for funding and grant requests” (Indian Country Today). The agency is not necessarily cooperative in this respect. For example, the attempts to secure funding for the seventeen tribal colleges founded between 1968 and 1978 encountered significant opposition in the BIA (Reyhner and Eder 322). The tribes were only able to overcome it after the passage of the Tribally Controlled Community College Assistance Act (Reyhner and Eder 322).

Another example of the agency’s adverse impact on Indigenous education is using outdated information when allocating funds. For instance, in 2000, the agency used demographic data from 1995 to calculate allotments for Native American education in California’s public schools (US Commission on Civil Rights 22). Since the state’s Native population grew by 38 percent in 1995-2000, this practice resulted in severe underfunding (US Commission on Civil Rights 22). Thus, the BIA’s financial authority over Indigenous education continues to impact it negatively.

For the Indigenous people of America, education is more than a matter of only learning facts and skills – instead, it is a way of preserving their identities. As mentioned above, the BIA’s priority during the past decades has been “Indian self-determination” for the tribes (Edwards). Yet self-determination requires self-conscious leadership, and tribal sovereignty is unthinkable without the leaders aware of their people’s culture and history (Meza 353).

Preserving and promoting this knowledge among future generations is pivotal for the Native population. It has to be an integrated part of the education if genuine self-determination is to be achieved. The BIA’s impact in this respect leaves much to be desired. While the agency was responsible for education directly, it promoted assimilation, and even after the federal law restricted its role to funding, it does not satisfy the educational needs of the Indigenous people. Hence, although the BIA may advocate Indian self-determination, its current impact on Native education does not correspond to the proclaimed goal.


The current impact of the BIA on the Indigenous people of America is negative rather than positive in both economic and educational terms. The agency oversees the Native land held in trust by the government but, as evidenced by Cobell v. Salazar, fails to provide the Indigenous people with their due benefits. Additionally, the BIA’s limitations and restrictions impede Native American entrepreneurship and promote passive reliance on government subsidies instead.

During its 150 years of overseeing Indigenous education, the agency’s purpose as to assimilate the Indigenous people into the white society rather than to preserve their identity. Since 1975, the BIA is only responsible for funding the Native education, but the agency’s neglect or outright opposition still impede the tribes’ efforts. As a result, while the BIA declares Indigenous self-determination to be its purpose, the agency’s impact of the Natives in both economic and educational terms is directly opposite to the proclaimed goal.

Works Cited

Clarkson, Gavin, and Alisha Murphy. “Tribal Leakage: How the Curse of Trust Land Impedes Tribal Economic Self-Sustainability.” Journal of Law, Economics and Policy, vol. 12, no. 2, 2016, pp. 1-16.

Dippel, Christian, and Dustin Frye. “The Effect of Land Allotment on Native American Households During the Assimilation Era.” Semantic Scholar. Web.

Edwards, Chris. “Indian Lands, Indian Subsidies, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.Downsizing the Federal Government. 2012. 

Indian Country Today. “BIA’s Impact on Indian Education Is an Education in Bad Education.” News Maven, 2012. Web.

Meza, Nizhone. “Indian Education: Maintaining Tribal Sovereignty through Native American Culture and Language Preservation.” Brigham Young University Education and Law Journal, vol. 2015, no. 1, 2015, pp. 353-356.

Reyhner, John, and Jeanne Eder. American Indian Education: A History, 2nd ed. University of Oklahoma Press, 2017.

US Commission on Civil Rights. A Quiet Crisis: Federal Funding and Unmet Needs in Indian Country

Wilkins, David E., and Heidi Kiiwetinepinesiik Stark. American Indian Politics and the American Political System, 4th ed. Rowman & Littlefield, 2018.

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