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Published: April 3, 2011

Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA)

A controversial agency in the U.S. Department of Interior charged with helping AMERICAN INDIANS and Native Alaskans govern themselves and develop their resources. To that end, the bureau funds more than 200 educational facilities for about 50,000 Indian children who live in areas where public schools are not available. These include more than 100 BIA-run, on-reservation day and boarding schools; about five dozen tribally contracted schools; and more than a dozen BIA-operated dormitories to permit Indian children to enroll at public schools too far from their homes for them to attend as day students. The Bureau of Indian Affairs also provides college and graduate school scholarships to more than 25,000 Indian students.
Originally a part of the U.S. War Department, the BIA was founded in 1834 as part of the Indian Act, to regulate trade with the new Indian territories that had been formed west of the Mississippi. It assumed a more patriarchal role after it was transferred to the Department of the Interior in 1849. As whites emigrated westward after the Civil War, they came into increasing conflict with Indians over rights to farm, hunt, mine for gold and otherwise exploit natural resources. In 1871, Congress ended the fiction of Indian nationhood and ceased dealing with tribes as if they were foreign nations. Twenty years later, Congress mandated compulsory education for all Indian children, with the Bureau of Indian Affairs in charge. The results were less than noteworthy. Of more than 560,000 Indian children, only about 60% were enrolled in schools in 2002. They scored between 17% and 18% lower than white students in reading and mathematics proficiency and about 11% lower than white students on the verbal and mathematics college admissions tests. Passage of the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975 and the Indian Education Act of 1978 transferred some of the BIA’s decision-making powers to Indian school boards and encouraged local hiring of teachers and staff. Since then, academic proficiency has improved dramatically, with scores in reading and mathematics proficiency tests now only 11% below those of white students and 6.5% below the national average. Scores on college admissions tests were only 9% below those of white students and only 5% below the national average.
Headquartered in Washington, the Bureau of Indian Affairs operates about 100 offices across the United States, the majority of them in the West. In addition to education, it is responsible for collecting and managing royalties from oil and gas on Indian lands, cattle and sheep grazing fees and other income not directly distributed to tribes or individuals under 19th-century laws that made the federal government “trustee” over all Indian lands and resources. Under pressure from Indians, who demanded more control over their own lives and resources, and equally fierce pressure from whites to cut government spending, the secretary of interior began an experimental project in 1988 that transferred almost all the bureau’s power to the members of 30 tribes. The experiment has led to demands for passage of a new federal law to grant all tribes autonomy and, in effect, deactivate the Bureau of Indian Affairs. (See ROUGH ROCK DEMONSTRATION SCHOOL.)