John Collier (sociologist)

John Collier
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
36°21′15.3642″N 105°36′7.76″W / 36.354267833°N 105.6021556°W / 36.354267833; -105.6021556 (John Collier Burial Site)
Alma mater
  • Columbia University
  • Collège de France
  • Native American Advocate
  • Public Official
  • Social Reformer
  • Sociology Professor

John Collier (May 4, 1884 – May 8, 1968), a sociologist and writer, 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 was chiefly responsible for the "Indian New Deal," especially the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, through which he intended to reverse a long-standing policy of Cultural assimilation of Native Americans.

Collier was instrumental in ending the loss of reservations lands held by Indians, and in enabling many tribal nations to re-institute self-government and preserve their traditional culture. Some Indian tribes rejected the unwarranted outside interference with their own political systems the new approach had brought them.

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 pneumonia and his father died, possibly a 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 (1920–1933)

In 1920, Collier was introduced to American Indians by the artist Mabel Dodge, at the Taos Pueblo in Taos, New Mexico.[4] For much of the year where he studied the history and current life of American Indians. By the time Collier left Taos in 1921 he believed that Indians and their culture were threatened by the encroachment of the dominant white culture and policies directed at their assimilation. Collier's encounter with the Taos Pueblo made a lasting impression on him.[5]

Collier was brought into the forefront of the debate by the General Federation of Women's Clubs (GFWC), when it appointed him the research agent for its Indian Welfare Committee in 1922. The GFWC took a leadership role in opposing assimilation policies, supporting the return of Indian lands, and promoting more religious and economic independence.[6]

Collier rejected the contemporary policies of forced assimilation and Americanization. He worked 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 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 was outraged at the Americanization programs imposed by the federal Office of Indian Affairs, which was the name of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) before 1947, because they suppressed key elements in Indian culture, many of which had deep religious roots. BIA was supported by numerous Protestant organizations, such as the YWCA Indian Department, as well as the Indian Rights Association. They denounced the dances as immoral and pagan. He formed the American Indian Defense Association in 1923 to fight back through legal aid and to lobby for Indian rights. He failed to secure positive legislation to guarantee Indian religious freedom, but his efforts did force the Bureau to curb its program of cultural assimilation and to end its religious persecutions.[7][8]

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 BIA 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, serving as executive secretary until 1933.[9]

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. Collier's efforts, including the publication of the report, raised the visibility of American Indian issues within the federal government. The Great Depression brought a harsher economic environment for most Native Americans. The administration of President Herbert Hoover reorganized the BIA and provided it with major funding increases.

In 1932 a Department of the Interior press release described Collier as a "fanatical Indian enthusiast with good intentions, but so charged with personal bias and the desire to get a victim every so often, that he does much more harm than good ... his statements cannot be depended upon to be either fair, factual or complete".[9] Thus, Collier was attacked from both sides in the challenge he faced to reconcile the two Progressive ideals of "social justice and managerial efficiency".[1]

Commissioner of Indian Affairs (1933–1945)

Left to right: Senator Elmer Thomas; Claude M. Hirst, Director of the Office of Indian affairs in Alaska; and John Collier, U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs

President Franklin D. Roosevelt took the advice of his new Interior Secretary Harold L. Ickes to appoint Collier as Commissioner of Indian Affairs in 1933. Ickes and Collier had previously been quite hostile to each other, but now came to terms and Ickes supported Collier's policies.[10] Collier ran the agency until 1945.

Collier also set up the Indian Division of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). The CCC provided jobs to Native American men (of all ages) in soil erosion control, reforestation, range development, and other public works projects and built infrastructure such as roads and schools on reservations.[11][12]

Education was a high priority for Collier, who focused on ending boarding schools and transitioning to community day schools and public schools. He wanted BIA schools to stress the importance of preserving Indian culture. He emphasized the need to develop vocational training that would lead to good jobs.[13]

Collier's dream was to not only preserve Indian culture but also to hold it up as a model for white society.[14] Historian T. H. Watkins comments that this was "rather a lot to ask of a people struggling merely to live on the fringe of civilization that had overwhelmed them; it was even more to ask acceptance of such notions from a Congress that had demonstrated little faith in the belief that white civilization had anything much to learn from the Indians."[15]

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.[16]

Collier's decision to impose the Navajo Livestock Reduction program resulted in the Navajo losing half their livestock.[17][18] The Indian Rights Association denounced Collier as a 'dictator' and accused him of a "near reign of terror" on the Navajo reservation.[19] The American Indian Federation fought to remove Collier from office from 1934-1940.

In a 1938 speech to the Black Hills Indian Treaty Council Seneca journalist Alice Lee Jemison said: "The Wheeler-Howard Act provides only one form of government for the Indian and that is communal or cooperative form of living. John Collier said he was going to give the Indian self-government. If he was going to give us self-government he would let us set up a form of government we wanted to live under. He would give us the right to continue to live under our old tribal customs if we wanted to." [20] According to historian Brian Dippie, "(Collier) became an object of 'burning hatred' among the very people whose problems so preoccupied him."[19]

World War II speeded up the integration of Indians into the military and the urban labor force. The War Department in 1940 rejected Collier's suggestion for segregated all-Indian units. Indians were drafted into regular units, where they were treated on an equal basis with whites.[21]

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. He wrote several books, including a memoir published in 1963.[22] Collier lived in Taos, New Mexico with his second wife Grace, until his death in 1968 at age 84.[23]


Having described the American society as "physically, religiously, socially, and aesthetically shattered, dismembered, directionless",[24] Collier was later criticized for his romantic views about the moral superiority of traditional society as opposed to modernity.[25] Philp says that after his experience at the Taos Pueblo, Collier "made a lifelong commitment to preserve tribal community life because it offered a cultural alternative to modernity....His romantic stereotyping of Indians often did not fit the reality of contemporary tribal life."[26]

The Indian New Deal, Collier's chief realization, was landmark legislation authorizing tribal self-rule under federal supervision, putting an end to land allotment and generally promoting measures to enhance tribes and encouraging education.[27] Collier was highly regarded by most Indian tribes, although he was vilified by others.[28] He antagonized Navajo people,[19] and some Iroquois,[29] including the Seneca people.[30] For the Oklahoma Indian population, largely exempted from the Indian New Deal, the influence of Collier's efforts was felt in their process of acquiring autonomy in the last decades of the 20th century.[31]

Anthropologists criticized Collier for not recognizing the diversity of Native American lifestyles.[30] Hauptman argues that his emphasis on Northern Pueblo arts and crafts and the uniformity of his approach to all tribes are partly explained by his belief that his tenure as Commissioner would be short, meaning that packaging large, lengthy legislative reforms seemed politically necessary.[32]

Historians have mixed reactions to Collier's achievements. Many praise his energy and his initiative. Philp, although favorable on some points, concludes that the Indian New Deal was unable to stimulate economic progress nor did it provide a usable structure for Indian politics. Philp argues these failures gave momentum to the return to the previous policy of termination that took place after Collier resigned in 1945.[33] In surveying the scholarly literature, Schwartz concludes that there is:

a near consensus among historians of the Indian New Deal that Collier temporarily rescued Indian communities from federal abuses and helped Indian people survive the Depression but also damaged Indian communities by imposing his own social and political ideas on them.[34]

Some of Collier's interests lived on in his sons (by his first wife Lucy): Charles (b. 1909) got engaged in the preservation of Los Luceros in Rio Arriba County, New Mexico, Donald became a prominent anthropologist, and John Jr. (1913–1992), a documentary photographer, significantly contributed to fields like Applied and Visual anthropology.[35][36]


Collier wrote articles and books, mostly on Indian-related themes:


  1. 1 2 Hauptman 1988, p. 25.
  2. Hauptman 1988, pp. 25-26.
  3. John Collier, "The Experiment in Milwaukee," Harper's Weekly LV (August 12, 1911): pp 11+
  4. Hauptman 1988, p. 27.
  5. E. A. Schwartz, "Red Atlantis Revisited: Community and Culture in the Writings of John Collier." American Indian Quarterly (1994). 18#4 pp: 507–531. in JSTOR
  6. Karin L. Huebner, "An Unexpected Alliance: Stella Atwood, the California Clubwomen, John Collier, and the Indians of the Southwest, 1917–1934," Pacific Historical Review (2009) 78#3 pp: 337-366 in JSTOR
  7. Kenneth R. Philp, "John Collier and the Crusade to Protect Indian Religious Freedom, 1920–1926." The Journal of Ethnic Studies 1.1 (1973): 22.
  8. Thomas C. Maroukis, The peyote road: Religious freedom and the Native American Church. (University of Oklahoma Press, 2012)
  9. 1 2 Hauptman 1988, p. 28.
  10. Lawrence C. Kelly, "Choosing the New Deal Indian Commissioner: Ickes vs. Collier," New Mexico Historical Review (1974) 49#4 pp: 269-284
  11. Donald L. Parman, "The Indian and the CCC," Pacific Historical Review 40 (February 1971): pp 54+ in JSTOR
  12. Calvin W. Gower, "The CCC Indian Division: Aid for Depressed Americans, 1933-1942." Minnesota History (1972): 3-13. in JSTOR
  13. John J. Laukaitis, "Indians at Work and John Collier‟ s Campaign for Progressive Educational Reform, 1933-1945." American Educational History Journal (2006) 33#2 pp 97-105
  14. Susan L. Meyn (2001). More Than Curiosities: A Grassroots History of the Indian Arts and Crafts Board and Its Precursors, 1920-1942. Lexington Books. p. 9.
  15. T.H. Watkins, Righteous Pilgrim: The Life and Times of Harold Ickes 1874-1952 (1990) p 544
  16. James Stuart Olson; Raymond Wilson (1986). Native Americans in the Twentieth Century. University of Illinois Press. pp. 113–15.
  17. Iverson 2002, p. 144.
  18. Donald A. Grinde Jr, "Navajo Opposition to the Indian New Deal." Integrated Education (1981) 19#3-6 pp: 79-87.
  19. 1 2 3 Brian W. Dippie, The Vanishing American: White Attitudes and U.S. Indian Policy (1991) pp 333-36, quote p 335
  20. Hauptman 1979, p. 20.
  21. Philp. "Collier, John" (2000)
  22. 1 2 Collier, John. From every zenith: a memoir; and some essays on life and thought (1963) at Google books
  23. Kenneth R. Philp. "Collier, John" American National Biography Online (2000)
  24. John Collier, "Does the Government Welcome the Indian Arts?" The American Magazine of Art. Anniversary Supplement vol. 27, no. 9, Part 2 (1934): 10-13
  25. Stephen J. Kunitz, "The social philosophy of John Collier." Ethnohistory (1971): 213-229. in JSTOR
  26. Kenneth R. Philp. "Collier, John" American National Biography Online Feb. 2000. Access Date: May 05 2015
  27. Graham D. Taylor, The New Deal and American Indian Tribalism: The Administration of the Indian Reorganization Act, 1934-45 (U of Nebraska Press, 1980), ch 1.
  28. Wallis & Parsons 2001, p. 78.
  29. Hauptman 1988, p. xii.
  30. 1 2 Hauptman 1979, pp. 15-22; 60-62.
  31. Blackman 2013, pp. 10 ff.
  32. Hauptman 1988, p. xii, 29.
  33. Kenneth R. Philp, "Termination: A Legacy of the Indian New Deal." Western Historical Quarterly (1983) pp: 165-180.
  34. E. A. Schwartz, "Red Atlantis Revisited: Community and Culture in the Writings of John Collier," American Indian Quarterly (1994) 18#45 p 508.
  35. Wallis & Parsons 2001, pp. 73 ff.
  36. Collier, John Jr., and Malcolm Collier. 1986. Visual Anthropology: Photography as a Research Method. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.
  37. Collier, John. "The Indian in a wartime nation" (1942) in JSTOR
  38. Collier, John. "United States Indian Administration as a laboratory of ethnic relations" (1945) in JSTOR
  39. Collier, John. On the gleaming way: Navajos, Eastern Pueblos, Zunis, Hopis, Apaches, and their land; and their meanings to the world (1949) at Google books


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