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Bureau of Indian Affairs: BIA Programs

This guide provides an overview of historic documents from the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the U.S. Department of the Interior and discusses terminology and language found in the documents.

Stereotypes and Programs with Active Harm

The literal language of the documents is not the only consideration when evaluating historic and current documents found in the Bureau of Indian Affairs collection. The implications of the documents reflect centuries of stereotypes as well as federally sponsored programs and ideologies that actively harmed people.

BIA Programs

Many of the documents portray dangerous and false stereotypes regarding indigenous people, their values, their beliefs, and their way of life. In a document titled "Indian Babies... How to Keep Them Well" written by Cato Sells, commissioner of the BIA from 1913 to 1921, stated that Indian mothers did not know how to care for their children, advising them to care for them the way that white Americans care for their own. In a letter written to Congress, he spoke of the success of Indian Boarding Schools saying that they were creating " a body of efficient citizens blending their unique poise and powers with the keen and sleepless vigor of the white man." These views that Indigenous people did not know how to properly raise children and were lacking something that the white man had is what led to the establishment of many of these programs that took Indigenous children from their homes and forced them to adopt white culture.

Indian Boarding Schools

The BIA established the first on-reservation Indian boarding school on the Yakima Indian Reservation, Washington, in 1860. These schools instructed Native American children on white American culture and values with the aim that they would integrate into white society. The first off-reservation boarding school was established in 1879 by Richard Henry Pratt with a goal of a much deeper assimilation by sending Native American children far away from their homes and forcing them to cut ties with Native American culture, often giving them a new white name and makeovers to appear white. This school was the model for 25 off-reservation Indian boarding schools that the BIA created by 1902.

While the damage these institutions have done to Indigenous cultures has been long recognized by Indigenous Nations and the children enrolled in the schools, activism in recent years has increased the visibility of the harm these schools caused. In 2021, the Department of the Interior announced the Federal Boarding School Initiative, which is intended to act as a comprehensive review of federal boarding schools and their accompanying federal policies. The Initiative produced the "Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative Investigative Report" in May 2022.

Intermountain Indian School

The Intermountain Indian School in Brigham City, Utah served children from Navajo Nation (Diné students), transporting them from Arizona. This school was modeled with the same assimilation plan as the other schools, however, it holds a much more positive reputation. Many of the alumni recall positive experiences at this school, and even hold annual reunions. However, there are also students who claim to have had much more negative experiences, a group of students filed a lawsuit against the school due to alleged abuse, but the lawsuit was eventually dismissed. 

The school is not only geographically close to USU's main campus in Logan, Utah, but in 2013, USU's Brigham City location purchased the land to build an extension to their campus. As acknowledged, Utah State University is intrinsically tied to the native groups and their land that later became Utah.

While the Government Information Collection has a limited number of documents relating to the Intermountain School, the USU Digital History Collection on the Intermountain Indian School is another avenue for individuals to access information about the program. In addition the "Intermountain Indian School architectural drawings, 1950-1971" can be accessed in USU Libraries' Special Collections and Archives. Dr. Farina King also explored Diné students' experiences in Returning Home: The Art and Poetry of Intermountain Indian School, 1951-1984. 

Other Schools

The experiences of indigenous children in boarding schools are also documented in the Northwestern Band of Shoshone Nation Tribal Library Digital Collection. The collection is the product of a twenty-year effort to collect and digitize materials found in archives across the state. Much of the collection is physically housed at the tribal offices, but through a collaboration between the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation, USU’s Merrill-Cazier Library, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Church History Library, thousands of materials have been made digitally accessible to the tribe and its members and to those interested in their history.

Collection materials include oral histories, manuscripts, and photos that pertain to Intermountain School, Carlisle, Stewart, Santa Fe, and Fort Sill. These search results identify materials related to the search term "Indian school." This collection will continue to grow. 

Indian Placement Program

Many times, the BIA would pay for Native American children to be removed from their homes and placed in non-native homes or religious organizations. One of these programs, first operated in 1958, was created by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS) that removed Native American children from their homes and placed them in LDS foster homes. The children were then forced to baptize and convert to Mormonism in order to "save them" according to the doctrine of the church. It is estimated that about 50,000 children went through this program, most of the children were Diné. In the first years of this program, the BIA received complaints from the Hualapai people in Arizona and held a meeting with representatives of the church, along with the state of Utah and Arizona governments. The meeting ended with the BIA's support of the program and the Bureau taking on a more administrative role in the future of the program. The program was ended in 1998, and in 2015, a lawsuit was filed against the church through the tribal court by previous Diné students in the program, for alleged sexual abuse during their time in the program. While the church agreed to confidential financial settlements with the plaintiffs, they refused to apologize for the program or change their doctrine. 

While the Government Information Collection has no documents referencing the Indian Placement Program, relevant thesis and dissertations on this topic can be found in USU Digital Commons. In addition, the "Jenny M. Smith's Indian Student Placement Program oral histories, 1999" collection can be accessed in USU Libraries' Special Collections and Archives.

Indian Child Welfare Act

The Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) was implemented in 1978 after the disproportionate removal of Native American children from their homes. The placement of Native American children in non-native homes damages the children's connectivity to their culture, and with the loss of their future generations, the future and continuity of indigenous communities are also put at risk. This act doesn't make it impossible for white families to adopt Native American children, it only takes more steps to try to keep them in Indigenous communities before considering non-native families. Under this act, if a Native American child is removed from their home, preference is given to A) Extended family member, B) Tribal group, and C) other Native American family. Only as a last resort are they placed in a non-native home. The enactment of this law was in part due to the actions of the BIA towards Native American children such as the Indian Placement Program and the Indian Boarding Schools. 

Brackeen V. Haaland 

As of March 2023, the continuity of the ICWA and the protection of Native American children is currently challenged by the Brackeen V. Haaland court case. Brackeen seeks to deem ICWA unconstitutional and as going against the Administrative Procedures Act, which regulates federal courts and agency action, claiming that it goes against the best interest of Native American children. If Brackeen wins the case and the ICWA is overturned, the state would have control over Native American children again, and their own individual identity is at risk along with the longevity of indigenous communities. Despite the BIA's long history of funding harmful programs that required the ICWA to be enacted in the first place, the Bureau is one of the defendants of secretary of interior, Debbie Haaland in this court case against Brackeen. 

The Government Information Collection contains both physical and online documents relating to the The Indian Child Welfare Act. The BIA also has a dedicated webpage for more information on the ICWA and additional resources. 

BIA Accountibility

The BIA created many harmful programs, perpetuating harmful stereotypes that resulted in the death of millions of indigenous people. Nearly 200 years later, the BIA changed their mission and entered into a time of apologies and accountability. On September 8, 2000, Assistant Secretary Kevin Grover, issued an apology on behalf of the BIA for many of the harmful programs and initiatives that the BIA had created. They acknowledged the pain and generational trauma that they have caused in order to move forward. This apology focused on Indian boarding schools and other programs that directly harmed Native American children, stating " Never again will we seize your children, nor teach them to be ashamed of who they are." This reformation is what has led to their support of the ICWA. 

Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women

Indigenous women have been missing and murdered in overwhelming numbers. 4 in 5 Indigenous women experience a violent crime in their lifetime. They are twice as likely to be victims of violent crimes more than any other demographic, and 3 times more likely to be murdered than white women. With this epidemic of violence towards Indigenous women, came the rise of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women movement to bring awareness to these cases. This awareness has resulted in the creation of databases for the missing; local community, city council, and tribal council meetings; and domestic violence trainings and other informational sessions for police.

Forced Sterilization

Many Indigenous women were forcibly sterilized with the establishment of eugenics legislation in 1907, that aimed to use genetics to improve the human race. To do this, they forced the sterilization of women who were seen to have unfavorable genetics such as mental deficiencies, or had a family history of alcohol abuse or prostitution. This was done to prevent future generations of children with undesirable traits. Many marginalized groups were thought to have undesirable traits due to false stereotypes and were forcibly sterilized in this time. This practice extended into the early 1970's. 

Family Planning Services and Population Research Act of 1970

Even after the end of eugenics movement, Indian Health Centers were still coercively sterilizing indigenous women. With this act, often called the Title X Family Planning Program, the government began subsidizing sterilization for Indian Health Service patients, and with this, sterilization rates doubled for indigenous women. The health centers sterilized girls as young as 11. This sterilization was often done with falsified consent forms and in the form of hysterectomies and tubal ligations. It is estimated that physicians sterilized around 25% of Native American women of childbearing age, and there is evidence suggesting that the numbers were actually even higher. In 1977, Marie Sanchez, chief tribal judge on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, led a fight against involuntary sterilization, arguing that these sterilizations were a modern form of genocide. 

Violent Crimes

84.3% of indigenous women have been the victim of a violent crime in their lifetime. This includes 56.1% who have experienced sexual violence, 55.5% who have experienced physical violence by an intimate partner, 48.8% who have experienced stalking, and 66.4% who have experienced psychological aggression by an intimate partner. The biggest disparity in violent crimes is seen with stalking. Indigenous women experience stalking nearly twice as much as than any other demographic. Of their perpetrators, 97% of them are non-indigenous men.

Savanna’s Act

This act became law in 2020, named after Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, who was murdered while she was eight months pregnant in August 2017. This law was enacted to increase communication between Federal, State, Tribal, and local law enforcement agencies to increase the collection of data related to missing or murdered Indian men, women, and children. In addition, this act allocated resources and information tribal governments in order to respond to Missing and Murdered Indigenous People (MMIP) cases. 

BIA Accountability

In 2021, Secretary of Interior, Debbie Haaland, created the "Missing and Murdered Unit" within the Office of Justice Services division of the BIA. Secretary Haaland also established the Not Invisible Act Commission with the Not Invisible Act of 2019 whose purpose is to make recommendations to the Departments of the Interior and Justice to improve intergovernmental coordination and establish best practices for state, Tribal, and federal law enforcement, to strengthen resources for survivors and victim’s families, and to combat the epidemic of missing persons, murder, and trafficking of Indigenous people. 

The Government Information Collection contains both physical and online documents relating to the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW). The BIA also has a dedicated webpage for more information on the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Peoples (MMIP) and additional resources. 

Guide Author

Nicole Hurst has undergraduate degrees in English, with an emphasis in Technical Communications and Rhetoric, and Economics from Utah State University. During her time at USU, she was a student staff member of the Government Information Collection, part of Special Collections & Archives at the Merrill-Cazier Library. 

Vanessa Garcia Vazquez has undergraduate degrees in English, with an emphasis in Technical Communications and Rhetoric, and Criminal Justice from Utah State University. During her time at USU, she was a student staff member of the Government Information Collection, part of Special Collections & Archives at the Merrill-Cazier Library.