Situated within the US Department of the Interior, the Bureau of Indian Affairs is the main agency of the federal government that oversees relations with Native Americans. In addition to the BIA Director, the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs oversees the BIA and reports to the Secretary of the Interior. The modern BIA supports tribal autonomy and works to bolster tribal economies. It manages federal programs and implements federal laws and policies affecting Native Americans, based on the trust responsibility of the federal government to tribal nations.
However, the history of the BIA reflects changes in the attitude of the federal government toward Native Americans. The agency dates from the early 19th century, although it was not known by its current name until 1947. Founded by Secretary of War John C. Calhoun, the BIA initially took a hostile position toward tribal nations. Its policies sought to forcibly subject Native Americans to the authority of the federal government and integrate them into European-American society. During the second half of the 20th century, federal policy shifted dramatically to embrace the goals of tribal self-determination and self-governance. This caused the BIA to alter its mission from subjugating Native Americans to serving their interests. The agency now works together with tribal organizations, rather than against them.
Programs and Services Provided by the BIA
The BIA assists tribes with diverse aspects of life in their communities, ranging from land management, law enforcement, and infrastructure to economic development, disaster response, and fiduciary services. For example, the BIA helps administer the trust lands and resources held by the federal government for the benefit of Native American tribes and individuals. In addition to funding tribal law enforcement programs and tribal courts, the BIA operates law enforcement programs and courts for tribes that do not have their own versions of these institutions. Tribes sometimes lack the resources to create and maintain adequate infrastructure on their reservations. In response, the BIA has constructed roads, bridges, and other features that facilitate access to tribal lands and movement around them.
Among other strategies designed to boost tribal economies, the BIA manages an Indian Loan Guarantee and Insurance Program (ILGP) to promote Native American business development. The ILGP helps tribes and individuals get reasonable interest rates from lenders, while reducing the risk to lenders by providing federal backing for these loans. When a natural disaster affects tribal lands, the BIA helps coordinate a multifaceted response with tribal, federal, state, and local authorities. The BIA assists with the probate of Native American trust estates and can serve as a fiduciary in other situations.
Health Care Services for Native Americans
The BIA no longer provides health care for Native Americans. The Indian Health Service managed by the US Department of Health and Human Services now holds this responsibility.
The Bureau of Indian Education
The Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs also supervises the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE), formerly the Office of Indian Education Programs. This agency operates a sprawling school system that serves scores of reservations nationwide. The BIE also runs two post-secondary institutions and supports numerous tribal colleges and universities, in addition to providing scholarship programs for Native Americans pursuing higher education. It seeks to provide educational opportunities for tribal members that account for their distinctive culture.
During the 19th and early 20th centuries, the federal government used education as a weapon in its aggressive effort to assimilate Native Americans. Its boarding school system forcibly removed many Native American children from their families and heritage, causing lasting damage to tribal cultures. Following the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, however, the BIA integrated Native American history and culture into instruction at its schools. Starting in the 1970s, Native American tribes received greater authority to shape the education of their children. Through a process known as "self-determination contracting," tribes formed schools that complied with federal requirements and guidelines, which made them eligible for funding and support. This trend in education mirrored the broader trend toward granting greater autonomy to tribes, who are viewed as partners of federal agencies under current policies.