Pre-Bureau of Indian Affairs:
Created by Continental Congress, in 1775, the three departments of Indian affairs; northern, central, and southern were responsible for treaties and tribal negotiations with the American Indians. The first commissioners were Benjamin Franklin and Patrick Henry. As commissioners, their job on Indian relations was made drastically more difficult when they were charged with the duty to obtain tribal neutrality in preparation for the Revolutionary War. Six years after the Revolutionary War ended, in 1789, the U. S. Congress created the War Department and placed Indian relations a part of its duties. The office of Superintendent of Indian Trade, held by Thomas L. McKenney, was responsible for the operation of the factory trading system. With the abolition of the factory system in 1822 the management of the Indians by the War Department was shattered and on March 11, 1824 the then current Secretary of War John C. Calhoun established the Office of Indian Affairs and appointed Thomas L. McKenney to head the office. McKenney was further instructed by Secretary Calhoun to manage all Indian financial matters, white and Indian disputes and claims as permitted under the Intercourse Act, and to handle all further issues and communication with the Indians.

Because Secretary Calhoun created the office without Congressional approval, McKenney's office became an off shoot of the War Department that was in essence similar to a waste basket for Indian business that no one else wanted nor cared about. His office handled massive amounts of correspondence and Indian business but lacked the authority to act on matters as the War Department was still "officially" in charge of Indian affairs. McKenney decided that he needed to obtain the proper authority to act on Indian affairs, and created a bill that would create and official Office of Indian Affairs with the authority to act on matters relating to Indians. His bill further stipulated the creation of an office head, to be known as the General Superintendent of Indian Affairs. Through two sessions of Congress, the bill failed to pass and was only able to pass with the urging of the Secretary of War on July 9, 1831. The bill assigned the President authority to appoint a Commissioner of Indian Affairs to serve under the Secretary of War with the authority to respond to all matters of Indian affairs. The creation of the office allowed the creation of advanced methods in conducting Indian relations ending a time of stress and discord in regard to Indian matters.

In 1849, Congress moved the Office of Indian Affairs from the War Department to the newly created Department of the Interior creating a change in policies withing the department. The relocation of tribes to reservations by the War Department had created an abundance of diseases and enhanced starvation forcing the government to create a food and supply subsidy initiative. The Office of Indian Affairs quickly took over the management of the aid distribution. During the late 1850s it started to become apparent that the agency was not responsibly managing the handling and distribution of the supplies when it was discovered that Indian agents were using their influence to control and manipulate Indians which started to create severe hostility on the reservation lands. In 1867, a Congressionally appointed a Peace Commission studied the issues and recommended the appointment of more honest agents and the establishment of a separate agency for Indian affairs. While the separation of Indian Affairs from the Department of the Interior was never completed, the appointment of honest Indian agents for the creation of schools, justice systems, and legal management was completed during the assimilation era, the 1880s. Nearing the end of the assimilation era in the early 1900s the Indian agent had taken over almost all tribal government.

In 1938, a new study created the Meriam Report. The report was a brief describing all of the failures in the operations of the Office of Indian Affairs. Congress had no choice but to look into the allegations and subsequently passed the Indian Reorganization Act. The Act was designed to improve the services offered to reservations and to enhance the influence of the tribes in the management and governing of the reservations. The increase in services was to include not only aid and subsidy but also enhanced education, forestry and agriculture, as well as land expansion and development.

BIA Times:
The increase in duties of the Office of Indian Affairs continued to increase well into the termination era, which is typically earmarked as beginning with the "official" renaming and creation of the "Bureau of Indian Affairs" in late 1947. Under the new Bureau of Indian Affairs, the termination era came to a head as Congress slowly started to reduce the duties of the bureau passing duties such as education, health, roads, and agriculture onto the states and various other agencies better equipped to handle them. The policy of termination and the transfer of services continued until the 1970s when a new policy of self-determination was realized in direct contrast to termination. It is thought in some circles that the policy of termination was put to rest due to the decreasing need for the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The new policy allowed Congress to pass a series of laws, including the Indian Child Welfare Act, the Indian Self-Determination Act, and the Health Care Improvement Act. These acts were specifically designed to create better quality of life for Indians without removing the current tribal government system. These acts were the precursor to the current trend of removing the administrative roles of the bureau and placing the bureau in an advisory capacity to the current Indian Nations and tribal governments. These policies and subsequent acts have given Indians greater control over their future and management of their own affairs.

Interestingly enough, the bureau as we know it has come into its heyday by slowly removing itself from Indian Affairs and stepping into an advisory role for Indian relations to the U.S. Government. While only time will tell if the bureau can live up to its advisory role, the current issues regarding Cobell v Norton show that they still have quite a ways to go.

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