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John Collier (reformer)


John Collier (reformer)

John Collier
John Collier (right), with Elmer Thomas (left), and Claude M. Hirst (center)
33rd Commissioner of Indian Affairs
In office
Preceded by Charles J. Rhoads
Succeeded by William A. Brophy
Personal details
Born (1884-05-04)May 4, 1884
Atlanta, Georgia
Died May 8, 1968(1968-05-08) (aged 84)
Resting place El Descanso Cemetery
Alma mater
  • Columbia University
  • Collège de France
  • Native American Advocate
  • Public Official
  • Social Reformer
  • Sociology Professor

John Collier (May 4, 1884 – May 8, 1968) was an American social reformer and Native American advocate. He served as Commissioner for the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the President Franklin D. Roosevelt administration, from 1933 to 1945. He is considered chiefly responsible for the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, in which he intended to correct some of the problems in federal policy toward Native Americans. It was considered to aid in ending the loss of reservations lands held by Indians, and making some progress for enabling tribal nations to re-institute self-government.

Early life and education

John Collier was born in 1884 and grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, where his father Charles Collier was a prominent banker, businessman, civic leader, and mayor of Atlanta (1897–1899). He had a tragic family life: his mother died of drug addiction and his father of suicide before Collier was sixteen.[1]

He was educated at Columbia University and at the Collège de France in Paris. At Columbia, Collier began to develop a social philosophy that would shape his later work on behalf of American Indians. He was concerned with the adverse effects of the industrial age on mankind. He thought society was becoming too individualistic and argued that American culture needed to reestablish a sense of community and responsibility. From 1907 to 1919, he worked as secretary of the People's Institute, where he developed programs for immigrant neighborhoods, emphasizing pride in their traditions, sponsoring lectures and pageants, and political awareness.[2]

Collier centered his career on trying to realize the power of social institutions to make and modify personalities. In 1908, Collier made his first significant contribution to a national magazine; his article describing the socialist municipal government in Milwaukee, Wisconsin was published in Harper's Weekly.[3] Collier moved to California in October 1919.

Indian advocate (1919–1933)

That year Collier first encountered American Indians while visiting a friend, the artist Mabel Dodge, at the Taos Pueblo in Taos, New Mexico. For much of the next two years, he spent time at an art colony near Taos, where he studied the history and current life of American Indians. By the time Collier left Taos in 1921 for a teaching job in San Francisco, he believed that Indians and their culture were threatened by the encroachment of the dominant white culture and policies directed at their assimilation.

He rejected the contemporary policies of forced assimilation and Americanization. He began to work for the acceptance of cultural pluralism to enable Native American tribes to preserve their own cultures. Collier believed Indian survival was based on their retention of their land bases. He lobbied for repeal of what was generally known as the Dawes Act, Indian General Allotment Act of 1887. It had been directed at Indian assimilation by allotting Indian reservation land into individual household parcels of private property. Some communal lands were retained, but the US government declared other lands "surplus" to Indian needs and sold them privately, much reducing reservation holdings.

Collier believed that the general allotments of Indian reservation land was a complete failure that led to the increasing loss of Indian land. He emerged as a federal Indian policy reformer in 1922, and strongly criticized the Bureau of Indian Affairs policies and implementation of the Dawes Act. Prior to Collier, criticism of BIA had been directed at corrupt and incompetent officials rather than the policies. For the next decade, Collier fought against legislation and policies that were detrimental to the well-being of Native Americans and was associated with the American Indian Defense Association.

His work led Congress to commission a study in 1926–1927 of the overall condition of Indians in the United States. The results were called the Meriam Report. Published in 1928 as The Problem of Indian Administration, the Meriam Report revealed the failures of federal Indian policies and how they had contributed to severe problems with Indian education, health, and poverty.

Commissioner of Indian Affairs (1933–1945)

John Collier, May 4, 1884 – May 8, 1968), Commissioner for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, 1933–1945. Collier founded the American Indian Defense Association in 1923.

Publication of the Merriam Report in 1928 and Collier's efforts raised the visibility of American Indian issues within the federal government. As a result of the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the onset of the Great Depression, economic and social conditions worsened for most Americans, including Native Americans. The administration of President Herbert Hoover reorganized the BIA and provided it with major funding increases.

At the urging of Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, who knew Collier personally, President Franklin D. Roosevelt nominated John Collier as Commissioner of Indian Affairs in 1933. Collier set up the Indian Division of the CCC. The CCC provided jobs to Native American men in soil erosion control, reforestation, range development, and other public works projects and built infrastructure such as roads and schools on reservations.[4]

Collier introduced what became known as the Indian New Deal with Congress' passage of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. It was one of the most influential and lasting pieces of legislation relating to federal Indian policy. Also known as the Wheeler–Howard Act, this legislation reversed fifty years of assimilation policies by emphasizing Indian self-determination and a return of communal Indian land, which was in direct contrast with the objectives of the Indian General Allotment Act of 1887. Collier was also responsible for getting the Johnson–O'Malley Act passed in 1934, which allowed the Secretary of the Interior to sign contracts with state governments to subsidize public schooling, medical care, and other services for Indians who did not live on reservations. The act was effective only in Minnesota.[5]

Post-government career

Collier remained active as the director of the National Indian Institute and as a sociology professor at the College of the City of New York. John Collier died in 1968 in Taos, New Mexico, at age 84.[6]


John Collier married. He and his wife had a son John Collier, Jr. (1913—1992). He became an anthropologist and photographer. John Collier married his second wife, Grace. Grace lived with John on the Taos Pueblo and took care of him until his death, in 1968. Grace moved to Tucson, AZ, where she spent the remainder of her life.


  • Collier, John (1963). From Every Zenith: A Memoir; and Some Essays on Life and Thought (NY: Sage books)
  • Collier, John (1962). On the Gleaming Way: Navajos, Eastern Pueblos, Zunis, Hopis, Apaches, and Their Land; and … (NY: Swallow Press)
  • Collier, John (1947). Indians Of The Americas (NY: Mentor Books)

See also


  1. ^ The Iroquois and the New DealLawrence C. Hauptman, , Syracuse University Press, 1988, p. 25
  2. ^ Hauptman (1988), The Iroquois and the New Deal, pp. 25-26
  3. ^ John Collier, "The Experiment in Milwaukee," Harper's Weekly LV (August 12, 1911): pp 11+
  4. ^ Donald L. Parman, "The Indian and the CCC," Pacific Historical Review 40 (February 1971): pp 54+
  5. ^ James Stuart Olson; Raymond Wilson (1986). Native Americans in the Twentieth Century. University of Illinois Press. pp. 113–15. 
  6. ^ Kenneth R. Philp. "Collier, John" American National Biography Online (2000)


  • Kelly, L. C. (1963) The Assault on Assimilation: John Collier and the Origins of Indian Policy Reform (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press).
  • Parman, Donald L. (1994). Indians and the American West in the Twentieth Century. Indiana University Press.
  • Philp, Kenneth R. "Collier, John"; Feb. 2000American National Biography Online
  • Philp, K. R.(1968) John Collier and the American Indian, 1920–1945 (Lansing: Michigan State University Press)
  • Philp, K. R. (1977). John Collier's crusade for Indian reform, 1920–1954 (Tucson: University of Arizona Press)
  • Prucha, Francis Paul. (1986). The Great Father. ISBN 978-0-8032-8712-9 University of Nebraska Press.
  • Rusco, E. R. (1991)."John Collier, Architect of Sovereignty or Assimilation?" American Indian Quarterly, 15(1):49–55.
  • Schwartz, E. A. (1994). "Red Atlantis Revisited: Community and Culture in the Writings of John Collier." American Indian Quarterly. 18(4), 507–531.
  • Encyclopedia of World Biography

External links

  • "John Collier". Commissioner of Indian Affairs. Find a Grave. November 22, 2009. Retrieved February 2, 2013. 
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