OKLAHOMA INDIAN WELFARE ACT (1936)
The Oklahoma Indian Welfare Act of 1936 (also known as the Thomas-Rogers Act) was an alternative to the 1934 Wheeler-Howard or Indian Reorganization Act. John Collier, commissioner of Indian affairs from 1933 to 1945, wanted to change federal Indian policy from the "twin evils" of allotment and assimilation. His plan sought to rebuild Indian tribal societies, return land to the tribes, rejuvenate Indian governments, and emphasize Native culture. In an attempt to accomplish what Collier called "the New Deal for Indians," Rep. Edgar Howard of Nebraska and Sen. Burton K. Wheeler of Montana introduced the Wheeler-Howard Act into the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate in winter 1934.
The Wheeler-Howard Act contained forty-eight pages divided into four sections dealing with the issues of tribal self-government, education, lands, and courts. To gain passage of the proposal, which included a clause giving Indians the right to accept or reject the bill, officials held public hearings and conducted publicity campaigns among the tribes. Opposition to the measure was seen among Indians and whites. Despite the fact that Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt strongly endorsed it, Indians were leery of white politicians, based on a history of betrayal. Many whites, particularly in Oklahoma, were against the idea of reservations, believing it would lead to Indian soviets organized along the lines of Russian soviets.
Sen. Elmer Thomas of Oklahoma opposed forcing Indians from their allotments and back to reservations, which, he believed, would consist of the poorest lands. In his opinion, Oklahoma was "the Siberia of the Indian race." He and the others of Oklahoma's congressional delegation believed that the Wheeler-Howard Act was not beneficial for the state. They cited the need to carefully regulate methods of land purchase and the need to extend credit to Indians to buy property. They also noted the protests from whites who wanted to acquire Indian acreage.
In 1935 Oklahoma's delegation captured three committee chairs: Wilburn Cartwright, House Roads Committee; Representative-at-large William C. Rogers, House Indian Affairs Committee; and Elmer Thomas, Senate Indian Affairs Committee. They all agreed that the Wheeler-Howard Bill was for reservation Indians and did not relate to Oklahoma's situation. Representative Rogers, speaking to the Oklahoma Education Association, suggested that the Oklahoma delegation would write a new bill offering a more up-to-date New Deal for the state's Indians. The Thomas-Rogers Bill (Oklahoma Indian Welfare Bill) was introduced by Senator Thomas on February 26, 1935, as S. 2047 and by Representative Rogers on February 27, 1935, as H. R. 6234.
The original Thomas-Rogers Bill had eighteen sections dealing with the perceived fears of whites regarding assimilation of Indians, exempting reservation mineral deposits from state taxation, and preventing Indians from selling their individual land allotments. Parts of northeastern Oklahoma were strongly opposed to the bill. Osage County particularly objected to removing probate control of Indian land, property, and money from Oklahoma courts and giving control to the secretary of the interior.
Due to strong opposition to the Thomas-Rogers Bill in its original form, the Oklahoma congressional delegation knew the measure could not pass without significant changes satisfactory to everyone. A new bill was drawn up, eight sections were added, and Osage County was eliminated from the language. The new legislation dealt with how individual Indians could obtain land and how tribes could adopt constitutions and obtain credit and lands, yet it left issues regarding probate and inheritance to the state courts. The Oklahoma Indian Welfare Bill became law on June 26, 1936, a result of politics and compromise.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Vine Deloria, ed., The Indian Reorganization Act: Congress and Bills (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002). James S. Olson, ed., Encyclopedia of American Indian Civil Rights (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997). Michael T. Smith, "The Wheeler-Howard Act of 1934: The Indian New Deal," Journal of the West 10 (July 1971). Elmer R. Rusco, A Fateful Time: The Background and Legislative History of the Indian Reorganization Act (Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2000). Peter M. Wright, "John Collier and the Oklahoma Indian Welfare Act of 1936," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 50 (Autumn 1972).
Brian F. Rader
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