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Indigenous Peoples of North America, Part II

Last Updated: Dec 20, 2023 10:40 AM

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Founded in 1882, The Indian Rights Association became one of the best-known nongovernmental organizations in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century to support American Indians. Founded by White philanthropists, the Indian Rights Association exemplifies the troubling history and the transformation over time of White-Indian alliances over the course of the twentieth century. Like other White-led organizations, the Indian Rights Association adopted the paternalistic, assimilationist views current at the turn of the century, advocating for detribalization as the most effective means of improving the economic and social status of American Indians in the United States. At the same time, the Association also served as one of the first watch-dog organizations to report on and expose the abuses of civil servants assigned by the federal government to work with American Indian communities. In time, the Indian Rights Association would relinquish its assimilationist vie  ws, ally itself with new, sometimes Indian-run, organizations such as the Society of American Indians, the National Indian Defense Association, and the Association on American Indian Affairs.

The Indian Rights Association would gain recognition among non-Indian audiences and legislators in Washington, D.C., as a key source of information on American Indians affairs. Although the organization in its early years advocated policies that ultimately had adverse impacts on American Indian communities, it also regularly combated myths and half-truths that regularly formed the basis of legislation and policy affecting American Indians. The Indian Rights Association sought to remedy this lack of reliable information among U.S. government officials and the general population through pamphlets, newsletters, reports, and much else.

The organization began by employing its own agents to tour Indian reservations, where they record information on local conditions that served as background material for legislation as well as a source of the independent evaluation of the work of employees of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Over the century of its existence, the activities of the Indian Rights Association included:

  • monitoring congressional legislation and the policies and actions of the Board of Indian Commissioners, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), and the Department of the Interior

  • lobbying on behalf of Indian tribes and nations

  • supporting the emergence of multiple organizations, both Indian and non-Indian, devoted to helping and supporting Native communities

  • cooperating with other pro-Indian social organizations in order to consolidate legal efforts in state and federal courts

  • supporting efforts to raise awareness of Indian issues through the development of curriculum for schools and universities

  • assisting tribes and reservations in the building of health clinics

  • formulating guidelines for tribes to operate under federal policy effectively

  • mediating on behalf of tribes with the federal government to restore recognition statutes

  • providing testimony and position papers defending the right of American Indians to hold their own political processes

  • enlisting experts to produce authoritative documentation on specific issues affecting American Indians

  • collecting subject files, legal briefs, literature, and material related to issues in which the association took a specific interest, from representing land claims by Seneca, Wampanoag, Narragansett and other regional tribes to mediating Navajo-Hopi land disputes.

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