Getting Out the Vote: Indian Reorganization Act Elections on the Rez

Today’s post is by Cody White, Archivist at the National Archives at Denver and Subject Matter Expert for Native American Related Records

It was the day of the election. Debates had gone back and forth over the past year, voting dates had moved around, a parade of folks had stumped the country drumming up support and explaining what was at stake. The first vote one month before had been unanimous; this second one would approve the constitution’s text. The man in charge of the voting at the small reform church stood up and gave one last push. He was ultimately successful. The constitution was ratified by the people, and a new country was born.

No, we’re not talking about the events of the 1780s but rather events of just under 90 years ago. The man talking was Albert Velarde, and that day he spoke to his fellow people in Apache. And while the Jicarilla Apache of the Eastern Apache had lived in the area for hundreds of years, on July 5, 1937, the Constitution and Bylaws of the Jicarilla Apache Nation were ratified, creating under the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) the sovereign nation that exists today.

In five years, from 1934 to 1939, Native Americans from 102 reservations voted to ratify newly written constitutions and bylaws, leading a Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) official to opine, “these constitutions probably are the greatest number ever written in a similar length of time in the history of the world.” Today’s blog, exploring the series of votes that ushered in this great change across Indian Country, is born out of the field jurisdiction records of several BIA reservation agencies all along the continental divide, from border to border, and found in National Archives Record Group 75, Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Jicarilla Tribal Council to BIA Commissioner John Collier, requesting that a ratifying vote on the tribal constitution under the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) be set. The signature of Albert Verlarde, the man whose story was recounted above from a 1970 oral history of his daughter Mary Becenti, can be seen at the bottom. (File 9809-1936-068-Jicarilla, National Archives Identifier 300324)

The IRA, also called the Wheeler–Howard Act or Modified Wheeler–Howard Act in the records due to some last minute changes, was signed into law on June 18, 1934, and represented a major shift in Native government relations in the United States. It was the centerpiece of the “Indian New Deal” ushered in by President Franklin Roosevelt and his Commissioner of Indian Affairs John Collier, and it accomplished several things. First, it immediately stopped the allotment process, which had divvied up reservation land to individuals, placed individual parcels under trust for a certain number of years, and disposed of leftover “surplus” lands to white usurpers. The IRA instead sought to reestablish traditional reservation boundaries by putting remaining land under the overall tribal nation’s ownership and stewardship. Financially, the IRA established a revolving credit fund that tribes could borrow from as well as an education fund. The act also created a civil service system for Natives. One of the biggest things it did, however, is what we’ll talk about today: it set up the framework for tribes to create formal governments and charters that the U.S. government would recognize. The goal was that tribes would now largely run their own affairs, either with tribal councils already in place or by creating new ones, and in the vein of the many 19th century treaties, would finally create Native sovereign governments to negotiate, through the Department of Interior, with the federal government.

Organizing a tribal government under the IRA involved multiple votes. A tribe would first vote on accepting or rejecting the provisions of the IRA. If accepted, the tribe would then vote to ratify a newly written constitution and bylaws. Then, if applicable, the tribe would lastly vote to ratify a tribal charter. The BIA reiterated that a tribe could vote against the IRA without losing existing rights under applicable laws and treaties; the tribe would only lose out on the act’s newly instituted benefits. However, in one heavy-handed text, the BIA noted that tribes that didn’t vote in favor of the IRA or create these new governments “will merely drift to the rear of the great advance open to the Indian race.”

Here are examples of completed ballots for all three types of elections: accepting the provisions of the IRA, ratifying a tribal constitution and bylaws, and ratifying a tribal charter. Some BIA agencies saved none of the ballots while others appear to have saved them all. (National Archives Identifiers 2579509 and 2660849)

On many reservations the initial vote to accept the provisions of the IRA was preceded by a series of visits, lectures, and meetings allowing BIA staff and visiting Washington, DC, officials to explain what the IRA entailed. During the early months of 1934 while the bill was still being debated in Congress, conferences and mock votes were held on reservations nationwide to gauge interest, clarify points, and suggest amendments.

In addition to the emphasis placed on outreach, selecting the date of the election was also greatly debated. On the Jicarilla Apache Reservation, Superintendent C. L. Grave not only moved the date later in the spring out of concern that bad weather might suppress the vote, he also picked the agency’s “ration day” to further bolster turnout. Only one vote could occur; if a tribe voted no, they would not be allowed another vote without a special act of Congress.

BIA officials and tribal leaders conducted outreach prior to each vote in order to explain the process and answer any questions or concerns. In Wyoming the Wind River Agency Superintendent Forrest Stone spoke at large general meetings and at isolated Civilian Conservation Corps Indian Division camps alike, taking notes of attendance that he later typed up and submitted to the commissioner’s office. Here is a handwritten list of Northern Arapaho he spoke with in the spring of 1935. (National Archives Identifier 114635969)
Pre-vote work also included actually writing the constitution, bylaws, and charters, which the BIA said “may be short and simple or they may be long and elaborate according to the needs and wishes of the tribe.” Here is a page from a draft of the Constitution and Bylaws of the Fort Belknap Indian Community of the Fort Belknap Reservation, Montana. (National Archives Identifier 139073724)

Once a tribe requested a vote, the agency superintendent and the BIA commissioner settled on a date that they then submitted to the Secretary of Interior, who formally called for the election. The rules for who could vote in all three elections were the same. All tribal members living on the reservation who were 21 years old or older were allowed to vote. Children and grandchildren of non-members could vote if living on the reservation and were over 21. Men and women alike were allowed to vote, outside at least the Pueblo of Isleta; that Pueblo argued that tribal custom would not allow women to vote. This initially caused a percentage problem, as another rule was that while 50% or more of the vote won the day, 30% of eligible tribal members had to vote in the election to make it valid. In the Pueblo of Isleta’s case, the BIA commissioner adjusted the percentage of eligible voters to allow the vote to stand.

It appears that reservation agencies handled the mechanics of the actual voting differently. While the text of voting instructions was exactly the same, some agencies, like Montana’s Rocky Boy’s Agency, conducted the entire election by mail, sending out the instructions with a ballot and two envelopes—one envelope that voters would sign and use for their ballot, and another envelope addressed to the agency office in which voters would place the first envelope. The ballots, outside absentee ones, were to be completely anonymous, so in the case of the Rocky Boy’s Agency if an envelope was signed correctly and the name matched the voter list, officials placed the ballot into a box without looking at it. On other reservations the voting was done in person and poll times left up to the agencies. At some Pueblos, for example, voters were still coming in at 9:30 PM. After the polls closed, votes were then tallied and certifications of the results made and submitted.

As noted above, tribes would request a vote on the IRA from the BIA commissioner. He would then report to the Secretary of Interior, who would reply affirming the election. Here Secretary Harold Ickes wrote Fort Belknap Agency Jasper Elliot, formally setting the Fort Belknap Reservation’s vote on a constitution and bylaws for October 19, 1935. (National Archives Identifier 139073724)

Those living off the reservation for whatever reason—Civilian Conservation Corps Indian Division enrollees, students, and others “whose duties compel them to be absent”—were allowed to vote via absentee ballots if they certified that they intended to return to the reservation. Special cases involving adoptions, abandonment of tribal relations, and changes of residence were to be addressed by the BIA commissioner on a case-by-case basis.

The Department of Interior Solicitor General determined that absentee ballots could be used by tribal members living off the reservation, as long as they also certified via another form that they intended to return to the reservation. This example of an absentee ballot was sent in to the Jicarilla Agency. (National Archives Identifier 139073724)
Not all absentee ballots were accepted. Some agencies like Fort Peck saved the disqualified ballots and indicated the reasons they were rejected. Absentee voters’ failure to include the certificate noting that they intended to return to the reservation was a common factor, along with non-residence. (National Archives Identifier 7385843)
On some reservations the IRA elections were conducted by mail, so the ballot was marked, placed in an envelope like this and signed, and then mailed to the reservation agency office for counting. (National Archives Identifier 1681705)

Prior to the second vote to approve the constitution and bylaws, a constitution had to be written. The BIA noted that constitutions could be “short and simple or they may be long and elaborate according to the needs and wishes of the tribe.” In the same vein, the tribe also needed to prepare a corporate charter, if needed, before the final vote. These charters dealt with tribal assets and funds, both of which were newly created by the end of the allotment era. An approved charter gave the tribe the authority to organize for business purposes to buy land and receive credit funds. The charters were also in part an attempt to fix the heirship problem of fractionalized land interests, or the compounding of smaller and smaller sections of land being passed down to multiple heirs that allotment policies had created. A charter giving the tribe business rights meant they would then have the ability to buy land and issue certificates of interest in tribal property.

On the massive Navajo Nation, which at over 27,000 square miles is larger than ten US states, the network of BIA day schools provided convenient polling stations for the elections. Here are the handwritten results from the June 15, 1935, vote at the Sanostee Day School. (National Archives Identifier 2058448)
In this telegram, Southern Pueblos Agency Superintendent Lemuel Towers reports to Commissioner Collier the results of IRA votes at various Pueblos. (National Archives Identifier 566512)
This document from May 18, 1935, shows precinct election results from the Crow Reservation, where voters ultimately rejected the IRA. (National Archives Identifier 1135936)
This summary shows the total results of the three IRA elections held by the Flathead Agency. (National Archives Identifier 583581)

Some tribal nations wholeheartedly embraced the votes; the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes were reported as the first to accept the IRA and then adopt their constitution on October 4, 1935, as well as the first to get their charter soon after. Others initially voted it down. For example, in early interest-gauging efforts in 1934, the BIA noted that the Nez Perce Tribe was not in favor of the IRA because they were “suspicious of the government”; the tribe did not put an IRA constitution in place until 1948. During that same round of interest gauging, the Rincon Band of Luiseño Indians were said to feel that the “current law was adequate” for themselves.

The BIA’s Billings Area Office saved published copies of various tribal constitutions, bylaws, and corporate charters. (National Archives Identifier 7265719)

Much like the US Constitution, the final versions of tribal constitutions were not set in stone and were often amended over the years as conditions arose. For records of a particular tribe’s efforts to approve the IRA, constitution and bylaws, and charter, locate the applicable agency records at National Archives field locations nationwide. More information on the Indian Reorganization Act overall and related BIA headquarters records at our Washington, DC, facility can be found here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *