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Indian Reorganization Act in Minnesota

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Nathan Whitefeather and family

Nathan Whitefeather and family (Red Lake Ojibwe), ca. 1934. Box 62, Ruth Landes Papers, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian.

In 1934, the US Bureau of Indian Affairs set up a new organizational model to transform Native American tribal governments. The articulation of that model, the Indian Reorganization Act, influenced the governance systems of Native people, including Minnesota’s Ojibwe and Dakota. They now work to customize the government forms imposed upon them.

In the 1930s, Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) Commissioner John Collier sought to overturn federal policies that had led to tribal land losses—particularly the Dawes Act of 1887. The resulting Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 (IRA) ended land allotment, prohibited non-consensual land seizure, recognized tribal governments, encouraged the writing of tribal constitutions, and empowered Native people to manage their own resources.

The Ojibwe and Dakota in Minnesota stood to benefit from Collier's reforms. Like many tribes, they were struggling to make a living off their lands. They also wanted to govern themselves, and many rejected assimilation into white society.

Although Congress interfered with Collier’s plans, enough of the original bill survived to give tribes a start. Between 1934 and 1945, Native American nations across the United States voted to decide whether to restructure their governments according to the IRA. Ninety-two tribes accepted the model, and seventy-two rejected it.

In Minnesota, the Red Lake Nation of Ojibwe walked away from most of the IRA. Their constitution dated to 1918; their governance included hereditary chiefs, while their lands were owned communally. They did find one part of the law useful: the guarantee of more power to manage their own land.

The five remaining Ojibwe bands in Minnesota—White Earth, Leech Lake, Bois Forte (or Nett Lake), Grand Portage, and Fond du Lac—voted as well. Out of 6,351 individuals, 1,966 voters accepted and 346 rejected the IRA. Each of these, together with the Mille Lacs band, joined together as the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe on June 18, 1934, and later voted to accept one IRA constitution.

In 2018, the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe focuses as a governing body on three issues: land trusts (lands with special protections on taxation and development); elections within bands; and citizenship rules. The Ojibwe communities of Sandy Lake, Lake Lena, Isle Royale, and East Lake joined the Mille Lacs Band due to a BIA decision. Each of the six bands wrote its own constitution.

Minnesota’s Dakota communities also reorganized under the IRA. Lower Sioux and Prairie Island voted for constitutions in 1936 and for business charters in 1937. Upper Sioux formed as a community in 1938, created a board of trustees in 1942, and wrote a constitution in 1995. The Shakopee Mdewakanton officially formed an IRA government in 1969.

The original standardized IRA constitutions centralized power in the Tribal Councils or a similar governing body; different branches of government did not double-check their decisions and courses of action. The templates also failed to accommodate traditional leadership structures and other community lifeways. Some of these features evolved. For example, in 1981 the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe incorporated a separation of powers, forming executive, legislative and judicial branches.

Tribal governments could qualify for business loans under the IRA. They also had a say in renting out their land to companies who wanted to take natural resources, which led to economic development. The late Amos Owen, a former chairperson of the Mdewakanton Dakota at Prairie Island, pointed out in 1970 that some families accessed loans for farming through the IRA’s revolving credit fund. He admitted, however, that the community faced difficulties with buying back land. Albert Prescott, chairperson of Lower Sioux, said in 1979 that the federal government still made the “real decisions.”

In general, tribes had little choice but to fall in line with what the BIA allowed. It regularly reviewed constitutions and approved business dealings. Still, Native American nations were able to purchase more land with BIA go-ahead. By the end of 1936, tribes in Minnesota held about 16,000 more acres of land than they had owned before the IRA.

Native Americans and scholars debate the impacts of the IRA today. Some say the IRA was the beginning of modern tribal governments; others argue that it isolated Native American nations as “problems” and discouraged their independent, creative thought.

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“Chippewas Approve Constitution and By-Laws.” Indians at Work 3, no. 23 (July 15, 1936): 35.

Buffalohead, W. Roger. “The Indian New Deal: A Review Essay.” Minnesota History 48, no. 8 (Winter 1983): 339‒341.

Graves, Kathy Davis, Elizabeth Ebbott, and League of Women Voters of Minnesota. Indians in Minnesota. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007.

Grogan Maura, Rebecca Morse, and April Youpee-Roll. Native American Lands and Natural Resource Development. Revenue Watch Institute, 2011.

History Matters: The US Survey Course on the Web. “It Didn’t Pan Out as We Thought It Was Going To.” Amos Owen on the Indian Reorganization Act, 1970.

Indian Tribes, Bands and Communities Which Voted to Accept or Reject the Terms of the Indian Reorganization Act, the Dates when Elections were Held and the Votes Cast.

Johnson, Tadd. “Impacts on Inherent Tribal Sovereignty and Tribal Governments.” March 7, 2018.

Kelly, Lawrence C. “The Indian Reorganization Act: The Dream and the Reality.” Pacific Historical Review 44, no. 3 (August 1975): 291–312.

Larson, Brett. Separation of Powers Provides Checks and Balances. Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, December 8, 2014.

Lower Sioux Constitution.

Meyer, Roy W. History of the Santee Sioux: United States Indian Policy on Trial (revised edition). Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press, 1993.

Michigan Law Review Association. Tribal Self-Government and the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. Michigan Law Review 70, no. 5 (April 1972): 955–986.

Moore, Shirelle. “Red Lake Celebrates 100th Anniversary of Constitution.” Lakeland PBS, April 16, 2018.

O’Brien, Sharon. American Indian Tribal Governments. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989.

Red Lake Nation News. 100 Year Anniversary of the Red Lake Constitution 1918-2018, April 14, 2018.

Treuer, Anton. Telephone conversation with the authors, October 2, 2018.

—— . Ojibwe in Minnesota. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press. 2010.

—— . Warrior Nation: A History of the Red Lake Ojibwe. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2015.

Thorstad, David. “White Earth Nation Adopts New Constitution.” MROnline, November 21, 2013.

University of Arizona American Indian Film Gallery. Lower Sioux 1, 1979.

“Votes by Tribes on the Indian Reorganization Act as Shown by the October 27 Referendum.” Indians at Work 2, no. 7 (November 15, 1934): 6.

Wheat, T. W. “New Land—A Lasting Indian Inheritance.” Indians at Work 4, no. 8 (December 1, 1936): 17-19

Why Treaties Matter. Origins of Modern Tribal Government.

Zaagibagaang: Anishinaabe Values in Action. Frequently Asked Questions.

Zaagibagaang: Anishinaabe Values in Action. History of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe.

Related Images

Nathan Whitefeather and family
Nathan Whitefeather and family
A house on the Red Lake Indian Reservation, 1934
A house on the Red Lake Indian Reservation, 1934
Ojibwe boys at Mille Lacs Indian Reservation
Ojibwe boys at Mille Lacs Indian Reservation
Children at Lower Sioux Indian Community, Minnesota, 1940
Children at Lower Sioux Indian Community, Minnesota, 1940
Powwow at Red Lake Reservation, 1949.
Powwow at Red Lake Reservation, 1949.
Relatives and friends of Solomon Wells (Tatanka Maza) and Mary Wells (Iha Ho Waste Win), Prairie Island. Minnesota, 1950.
Relatives and friends of Solomon Wells (Tatanka Maza) and Mary Wells (Iha Ho Waste Win), Prairie Island. Minnesota, 1950.

Turning Point

In 1934, Congress drastically scales back the IRA’s provisions and changes its funding priorities. As a result, changes are not as massive in scope as Bureau of Indian Affairs Commissioner John Collier had planned.



The US Congress passes the Dawes Act. In part because of the act’s call for allotment, Native Americans would lose two-thirds of their 1887 land base over the next forty-seven years.


The Red Lake Ojibwe write and ratify a constitution.


“The Problem of Indian Administration,” also called the Meriam Report, outlines key problems with living conditions in Native American schools, healthcare facilities, and communities. The report holds the US government responsible for these problems.


As part of the “Indian New Deal,” President Franklin Roosevelt signs the Indian Reorganization Act into law. Its goals include land development; business formation; a credit system; home rule; and vocational education.


In the summer, delegates from the six Ojibwe bands forming the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe travel to Cass Lake to discuss a constitution.


The Lower Sioux IRA corporate charter is ratified and approved by the BIA.


The Indian Mineral Leasing Act forbids companies from leasing Native land without tribal consent. It fails, however, to offer tribes a way to specify extraction methods, rectify breaches of contract, or receive royalties without BIA involvement.


The Red Lake Ojibwe revise their constitution to resemble the IRA-influenced model.


The Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe develops a government with a separation of powers among an executive, legislative, and judicial branch.


Diverse tribal governments in Minnesota continue their work. Red Lake celebrates the 100-year anniversary of its nation’s constitution.