John Collier (1884-1968) was a proponent of American Indian culture. His appointment as Commisioner of Indian Affairs helped shape federal policy toward Native Americans, especially through the Indian Reorganization Act.
A lifelong proponent of social reform, John Collier first became involved in the fight to preserve American Indian culture in the early 1920s, after spending time among the Pueblo of New Mexico. His work led to his appointment as commissioner of Indian Affairs in 1933. In this position he played a vital role in reshaping federal policy toward Indians, primarily through the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. Rather than forcing Indians to assimilate, the new policy encouraged self-sufficiency among tribes and provided them with the land rights, religious and educational freedom, and organization to achieve it.
Collier was born in Atlanta, Georgia, on May 4, 1884. He was educated at Columbia University and at the College de France in Paris. During his years at Columbia, Collier began to form the social philosophy that would shape his later work on behalf of the American Indians. Under the guidance of teacher Lucy Crozier, Collier began to worry about the adverse effects of the industrial age on mankind. He felt that it made people too materialistic and individualistic, and he argued that American culture needed to reestablish a sense of community and responsibility. "He believed that dignity and power for the average person, the future of leisure and of realized life, could be ensured only by revitalizing and enriching the primary social group until it was adequate to human nature, and that, to this end, the preservation and nurture of ethnic values was essential," Kenneth R. Philp wrote in his essay "John Collier and the American Indian."
Collier's philosophy led him to enter the field of social work in 1905, and to concentrate his efforts on assisting immigrants. For ten years, beginning in 1909, he worked at the People's Institute, an organization which tried to build a sense of community in the immigrant neighborhoods of New York City. One of Collier's successes in this role was to convince the city's board of education to keep public schools open after class hours for community activities. From 1915 to 1919 Collier acted as director of the National Training School for Community Workers created by the People's Institute.
Collier moved to California in 1919 to run the state's adult education program. Since this was the era of the red scare, however, he was soon placed under surveillance by the Department of Justice for his "communistic" beliefs. As a result, Collier resigned his post within a year and accepted the invitation of bohemian artist Mabel Dodge to visit the Indian Pueblo at Taos, New Mexico. He spent much of the next two years at an art colony near Taos, where he studied the history and current life of American Indians. He soon came to view the communal and cooperative existence of the tribes as a possible solution to the problems he saw in white culture. "He believed that Pueblo culture offered a model for the redemption of American society because it concerned itself very little with the material aspects of life," Philp explained. "Instead, its goals were beauty, adventure, joy, comradeship, and the relationship of man to God." From that point on Collier dedicated himself to preserving Indian culture and securing reforms in the federal administration of Indian affairs.
Collier led the opposition to the Bursum Bill of 1922, which would have taken 60,000 acres of treaty-guaranteed New Mexico lands away from the Pueblos. After successfully defeating the bill, Collier helped form the American Indian Defense Association and became its executive secretary. One of his duties was to serve as editor of the organization's magazine, American Indian Life. Through this publication, and through his work as a lobbyist in Washington, D.C., Collier fought for a liberalization of government policy toward the Indians. The trend until this time was toward confiscating Indian lands and suppressing tribal customs and self-government. Collier and his group instead promoted placing increased land and other resources into Indian hands and allowing greater religious and educational freedom.
In recognition of Collier's work, Harold Ickes, Secretary of the Interior under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, appointed Collier commissioner of Indian Affairs in 1933. According to Philp, Ickes chose Collier to lead the beleaguered federal agency because he believed the activist would be "the best equipped man who ever held this office." In the early years of his tenure, Collier initiated reforms at a rapid pace under the Indian New Deal. For example, he issued two executive orders limiting the influence of Christian missionaries on the tribes by prohibiting coercion and restricting religious education at reservation schools. Though his orders met with protests among clergymen of several denominations—and led some to call him an "infidel" and an "atheist"—Collier insisted that "liberty of conscience in America was never meant to be liberty only for those who professed Christianity," Philp noted.
Collier's "most spectacular attempt to preserve Indian heritage," in the view of Philp, occurred in June 1934, when he secured passage in Congress of the Indian Reorganization Act. In its overall effect, this act radically changed the government's official policy on American Indians from one of forced assimilation to one of cultural pluralism. Some of the specific provisions of the act replaced a complex system of individual land allotments with a simpler system of communal lands belonging to tribes; established a fund to buy more land for the reservations; encouraged the tribes to organize their own governments and services; and removed the bans on traditional languages and religions. The act was also used to create an Arts and Crafts board to expand the markets for handmade goods and to provide funds for the college education of qualified Indians.
Collier resigned from his post in 1945 after serving longer than any previous Indian commissioner. Throughout his tenure he was known for his vigorous defense of American Indian rights and culture. Though Collier's successors retreated somewhat from his positions, young American Indians raised under his Indian New Deal often demonstrated a new militancy in dealing with the government and seemed better prepared to secure their own rights. Collier remained active in the following years, serving as director of the National Indian Institute, as a professor of sociology at the College of the City of New York, and as president of the Institute of Ethnic Affairs. He was also the author of several books, including Indians of the Americas (1947), Patterns and Ceremonials of the Indians of the Southwest (1949), and From Every Zenith (1963). He died in Taos, New Mexico, on May 8, 1968.