Editor’s note: Voters this year will elect the 45th president of the United States. This is the 32nd in a series of 44 stories exploring past presidents’ attitudes toward Native Americans, challenges and triumphs regarding tribes, and the federal laws and Indian policies enacted during their terms in office.
When Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office in 1933, as many as 2 million sheep grazed on the Navajo Nation.
That was in addition to hundreds of thousands of goats, cattle and horses that foraged on the 27,000-square-mile reservation spanning parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. The Navajo population itself had quintupled since 1870 and, at the onset of the Great Depression in 1929, about 39,000 Navajos lived on the sprawling reservation, embracing a life of pastoralism and moving livestock from winter homes to summer pastures.
But the Navajo, who were almost entirely dependent on income from sheep and wool, were hit hard by the worst economic disaster in American history. The livestock population skyrocketed while revenues plummeted, and the Navajo Agency reported in 1933 that income had “greatly reduced to the vanishing point,” according to Raymond Friday Locke’s “The Book of the Navajo.”
The land was also showing signs of overgrazing and environmental distress, and its deepening gullies and parched vegetation caught the attention of the federal government. Four months after Roosevelt took office, his newly appointed commissioner of Indian Affairs, John Collier, toured the Navajo Nation and proposed an aggressive and often coercive livestock reduction program.
Ignoring cultural ties to land and livestock, government agents purchased and removed half of the livestock, sometimes shooting thousands of animals in place and leaving them to rot. The program, which continued through the mid-1940s, was designed to preserve the land and save the Navajo from a wastage of resources that was moving ahead at an “accelerating, catastrophic speed,” Collier wrote in “The Book of the Navajo.”
“The range must be saved or the Navajos must disperse into the white world,” he wrote. “Dispersal would bring death to the Navajo spirit, the obliteration of the Navajo rainbow forever.”
The Navajo people launched a resistance that was “sometimes sad, sometimes angry and wild,” Collier wrote. During the decade it was in effect, the livestock reduction program devastated the Navajo economy, stripped the tribe of its financial independence and subjected the Navajo people to spiritual and cultural genocide.
The program was part of the Wheeler-Howard Act or the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, a sweeping legislation that proposed comprehensive restructuring of Indian policies while addressing poverty and substandard education on Indian reservations. Under the act, also known as the Indian New Deal, participating tribes could organize their own governments.
The act abolished the Dawes Act of 1887—which had contributed to the loss of two-thirds of all Indian land—and promised better Indian education. It also granted the Interior secretary authority to make rules restricting the number of livestock grazing on Indian land and any other regulations “necessary to protect the range from deterioration, to prevent soil erosion, to assure full utilization of the range, and like purposes.”
Roosevelt encouraged Congress to approve the act, which he believed provided long overdue justice to Indians and signaled a positive change in federal-Indian relations.
“Indians throughout the country have been stirred to a new hope,” he wrote in a letter to Congress. “They say they stand at the end of the old trail. Certainly, the figures of impoverishment and disease point to their impending extinction, as a race, unless basic changes in their conditions of life are effected. I do not think such changes can be devised and carried out without the active cooperation of the Indians themselves.”
Roosevelt signed the act on June 18, 1934, and 174 Native communities organized their own governments. Seventy-eight tribes, including the Navajo, rejected organization, likely suspicious of American-style constitutions and policies.
The Indian Reorganization Act was part of Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” a series of ambitious social programs designed to reform federal policy and help the nation recover from the Great Depression. Among other things, the New Deal established the Civilian Conservation Corps—which included a special Indian division that employed nearly 15,000 Indians. It also created additional work-relief programs with provisions for Indian labor, including the Federal Writers’ Project, which paid individuals to conduct interviews and record oral and transcribed histories.
While the “Indian New Deal” provided relief to some tribes, it devastated others, said Larry Hauptman, emeritus professor of history at the State University of New York. Policies introduced by the New Deal continued to influence federal-Indian relations for several decades.
“This one-model, cookie-cutter Indian policy didn’t allow for diversity in the Indian world,” Hauptman said. “For some tribes, the IRA provided money and benefits. To others, it increased bureaucracy and government control. On the one hand, it was very innovative and it did help in a lot of places. On the other hand, it led Congress to believe that it had the authority, 10 years later, to terminate treaties because the Indians were freed under the New Deal.”
By the beginning of World War II in 1939, Congress was already slashing funds from the Indian New Deal, and in 1941, the Office of Indian Affairs relocated to Chicago.Although the legislation remains Roosevelt’s most important contribution to Indian policy, much of its programs were dwarfed by war efforts and reversed by the early 1950s.
Born in New York in 1882, Roosevelt worked as a journalist and attorney before deciding on a career in politics. A fifth cousin to Theodore Roosevelt, who served as the 26th president of the United States, Roosevelt served as a New York state senator, assistant secretary of the Navy and New York governor before being elected as the 32nd president.
A member of the Democratic Party, Roosevelt was the only president in history to be elected four times. He served an unprecedented 12 years in office, from 1933 until his death in 1945.
Roosevelt inherited a country deep in the throes of the Great Depression and led the United States into World War II—during which about 44,000 Natives served. Roosevelt also cultivated personal ties with Native Americans and visited Indian country three times while he was in office, including a 1934 trip to Montana where Blackfeet delegates presented him with a feathered headdress and tomahawk and called him “Lone Chief.”
Roosevelt died of a cerebral hemorrhage in April 1945, just three months after beginning his fourth term. He was 63.
Roosevelt’s vice president, Harry S. Truman, completed the term.