Ivan Star Comes Out: The Indian Reorganization Act at 80 years

The following opinion was written by Ivan F. Star Comes Out. All content © Native Sun News.

The flag of the Oglala Sioux Tribe.

80 years later Indian Re-organization Act still open discussion
By Ivan F. Star Comes Out

Here on the Pine Ridge we encounter daily a controversy regarding the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) of 1934.

Essentially, among the growing younger generations, the IRA is readily accepted. Among the decreasing older populations though, the system is viewed as immoral and corrupt. This oppositional state or disorder originates from the long-standing lack of formal schooling on this congressional law.

I am referring to the absence of appropriate and relevant history and government science data in social studies classes during our junior and high school years. It was rather adolescent of the federal government to implement the “out of sight, out of mind,” theory, but it seems to be working. In other words, if the old ways are removed from our youthful presence, we will eventually “forget.”

Every single one of us living today should have been schooled on the essentials and specifics of the ancient Lakota tiospaye system also. Instead our own government system and history were kept hidden. Keeping the specifics of both IRA and the ancient tiospaye from us only served to create this enervation of our lives today.

My presentation here is not absolute. In other words, an interested person must do his or her own research. I do encourage people to maintain integrity throughout their search. In other words, remain truthful and factual. Stretching the truth or bending facts to serve one’s personal aspirations or needs is exactly what the European has been doing with “Indian” history since 1492.

What I present here are documented specifics regarding this particular piece of legislation. However, some are obviously the expressions of individuals who may have been influenced by their own personal agendas. My only purpose is to entice Lakota people to learn about this IRA. Perhaps it will help us, collectively, to see this government system for what it truly is.

Proponents of the IRA contend that the IRA attempted to: 1) reverse the forced assimilation of “Indians” into mainstream society by establishing tribal self-government; 2) encourage “Indians” to give up their land claims; 3) reinforce the Dawes Act of 1887; 4) pressure “Indians” to renounce tribal (traditional) government; 5) define clearly which tribes were federally recognized.

In a very basic historical sense, the Dawes Act, also known as the Allotment Act or the Dawes Severalty Act, authorized the President of the United States to survey Native treaty lands and divide it into allotments for assignment to individual “Indians.” It purportedly set the stage for protecting “Indian” lands during the land rushes in the 1890s. However, much of these lands were of poor quality.

The Homestead Act of 1862 allowed any American, including freed slaves, to put in a claim for up to 160 free acres of federal land. The Lakota were counted and their treaty territory surveyed and allotted individually. Their remaining treaty lands comprising all of western South Dakota were deemed “surplus” lands and opened up for European settlement.

The IRA did retard the “checker boarding” effect of original treaty lands resulting from land sales to non-“Indians.” As a result, more than two million acres of land were returned to various federally recognized tribes in the first 20 years of this act.

Some have said that the IRA’s intent was to obliterate traditional methods of self-government and set up federally-sanctioned constitutional governments for its new congressionally sanctioned tribes. Others have said that it is another feature of the government’s genocidal policies. I leave that to your discretion but remind you not to be influenced by your emotions and to stay focused on the integrity of the facts.

The IRA did not require the new federal tribes to adopt a constitution. However, if a tribe chose to do so, the constitution had to allow the tribal council (TC) to: 1) employ legal counsel; 2) prohibit the TC from engaging in any land transactions without approval of the tribe (membership); 3) authorize the TC to negotiate with federal, state, and local governments.

Congress enacted the IRA on June 18, 1934. However, the voting requirement was drastically altered just three days prior. This amendment (H.R. 7781, 49 Stat., 378) dated June 15, 1934 lowered the overall voting bloc from “majority of all eligible voters” to “30 per centum of all eligible voters.” In other words, a majority of a mere one-third of all voters was required to pass the act.

It appears this was a desperate measure to get the IRA “accepted.” Majority Rule, a major principle of democracy, is applied but requires only one-third of the whole. Today’s elections on the Pine Ridge adhere to this law. Although similar voting laws have been voided by the Supreme Court (Baker v. Carr), but according to the federal government, this reduced voting requirement is legal.

Anyway, the IRA was put to a public vote here on the Pine Ridge on October 27, 1934 with only 28.7 percent participating. Actually, government documents indicate six out of ten reservations did not meet the 30 percent voting requirement. Two reservations in eastern South Dakota and one in Montana rejected the IRA, namely Crow Creek, Sisseton, and Fort Peck.

Regardless, IRA proponents pushed the IRA through congress. The current Constitution and By-laws of the Oglala Sioux Tribe was accepted by the members of the new Oglala Sioux Tribe via referendum vote on January 15, 1936.

Although the IRA was coerced on the Lakota, it is ironic that the absence of formal education counteracted the intent of establishing tribal self-government. We continue to struggle with the same level of poverty that was here in the 1930s. The Bureau of Indian Affairs’ bungling has been documented repeatedly since 1849 and this is simply another example.

Anyway, as we anticipate another election on the Pine Ridge, I know it is too late at this point in time to “educate” yourselves about this system under which we have survived for 80 years, but I encourage our youth to learn all there is to this IRA. Don’t take the first piece of information you uncover and run with it. Look into all possibilities of that piece of data.

Collectively, you will be empowering yourselves with knowledge that was actually denied to older generations.

Ivan F. Star Comes Out, POB 147, Oglala, SD 57764; (605) 867-2448; mato_nasula2@outlook.com

(Editor’s Note: On the 50th anniversary of the IRA a meeting was held in Sun Valley, Idaho with tribal leaders across the West to discuss the pros and cons of the Act. That was 30 years ago and Native Sun News Publisher Tim Giago was present. His newspaper, the original Lakota Times, reported on the discussions held at that meeting and came out with editorials criticizing the Act and the damage it had done to Indian Country)

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