President Franklin D. Roosevelt
President Franklin D. Roosevelt

The ‘Meriam Report’ published in 1928 was a government study which described the poverty and poor living conditions on the reservations, terrible disease and death rates, grossly inadequate care of the Indian children in the boarding schools, and destructive effects of the erosion of Indian land caused by the General Allotment Act. The Great Depression began shortly after this report was issued, causing living conditions and employment opportunities to fall everywhere in the country. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’ policies were designed as a response and focused on relief, recovery and reform. It was in this atmosphere that Congress passed the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) in 1934, also known as the ‘Wheeler-Howard Act’ or the ‘Indian New Deal.’ The IRA began a new era of federal government and tribal relations.

The most important thing the IRA accomplished is said to be the promotion of the exercise of tribal self-governing powers. Whether tribes organized under the IRA or not, they were influenced by it to formalize their governmental authorities in new ways including adopting tribal constitutions. In a nutshell, the main things the Indian Reorganization Act accomplished include the following:

  • Stopped the erosion of the tribal land base by ending the allotment of tribal land, extended the trust period for existing allotments, prohibited lands to be taken away from tribes without their consent, and authorized the Secretary of the Interior to accept additional tribal lands in trust and to proclaim new reservations on those lands.
  • Recognized tribal governments and sought to promote tribal self-government by encouraging tribes to adopt constitutions under Section 16 of the Act
  • Established a revolving loan program for tribal development and set up specific tribal business charters under Section 17 of the Act
  • Established a Native preference hire for jobs in the Bureau of Indian Affairs

The Act of 1934 was not fully applicable to Alaska tribes, but in 1936 Congress corrected this oversight with an amendment to the IRA that allowed all Alaska Native villages to organize their tribal governments under it. The Act reclassified the prior “reserves” set up for Alaska Natives as “Indian reservations.” The Alaska Act also allowed the Secretary of the Interior to establish new reservations in Alaska and several were created, including Venetie, Karluk, Akutan, Diomede, Unalakleet, St. Lawrence Island and Whales. 

Today, around 1/3 of the 229 Alaska tribes are ‘organized under the IRA.’ The tribes that are organized under the IRA and the rest of the Alaska tribes are equally recognized by the federal government and have the same powers. The IRA tribes in Alaska have constitutions that went through a special federal election process through the Secretary of Interior, and must go through that same process in order to amend them. Most all of the remaining federally recognized tribes in Alaska also have constitutions, which went through their own internal tribal processes to adopt.


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