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  • A Crude Replacement: The Indian New Deal, Indirect Colonialism, and Pine Ridge Reservation
  • Akim D. Reinhardt

The United States now stands as the world’s unrivaled super power. And while the end of the Cold War is still a relatively recent event, the global influence and colonial aspirations of the U.S. are now more than a century old, dating back at least to its victory in the Spanish-American War, its first major military engagement outside of what now constitutes its fifty states. But what of within those fifty states? What role has colonialism continued to play there?

The colonial conquest of the peoples indigenous to the modern United States took more than three-hundred years, beginning with Francisco Vasquez de Coronado’s attack on the Rio Grande Valley Pueblos in the name of Spain during the mid-sixteenth century and concluding with the U.S. wars of conquest against Native nations of the West in the decade-plus following the Civil War. But while U.S. ambitions focused abroad in the aftermath of the final Indian wars, the Native peoples themselves, despite the contemporaneous propaganda of The Vanishing Red Man, did not disappear. In fact, while the indigenous population reached its nadir at the turn of the century, it rebounded substantially during the twentieth century, despite more than half-a-century of attempted cultural genocide by the United States through a federal policy called Assimilation. This in turn meant that as the twentieth century wore on, the United States would not be able to avoid the issues and problems associated with the administration and oversight of a conquered minority within its vast settler colony-come-empire.[1]

By the late 1920s, most people associated with Indian affairs (both in and out of government) recognized that the colonial administration of the conquered Indian population, as carried out through the Assimilation policy, had been a gross failure on several levels; critics increasingly questioned the goals of cultural genocide, and advocates of forced acculturation were forced to admit that it was not being achieved despite their staunch efforts. With the advent of Franklin Roosevelt’s presidential administration in 1933 and the sweeping changes of the New Deal, the time was ripe for an overhaul of U.S. Indian policy.

But what political shape would this Indian New Deal take? Would it usher in an end of colonial administration and a restoration of Native sovereignty, or merely a re-structuring of colonial rule? This article will argue the latter; that the implementation of the Indian New Deal marked a shift in federal policy from direct colonial administration to a system of indirect colonial rule, and not a substantial restoration of Native sovereignty. To do so, it will discuss the new federal policy known as the Indian New Deal during the decade leading up to World War II, and focus on Pine Ridge Reservation of South Dakota as a case example. To a large extent, indirect colonial rule over Native Americans stemmed from the vision of the man in charge of the federal Indian policy during the Roosevelt administration: John Collier. And while the development of the Indian New Deal witnessed a variety of manifestations on many different reservations around the country, Pine Ridge Reservation offers a case study wherein its effects on Native sovereignty can be clearly examined: the Indian New Deal was, among other things, a vehicle for replacing the previous policy of direct colonialism with a new policy of indirect colonialism.

The Coming of the Indian Reorganization Act

The Pine Ridge Reservation was established in 1878. It was initially an indelible piece of the larger Great Sioux Reservation, which encompassed the western half of South Dakota and held title to additional territory that covered parts of North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, and Nebraska. But in 1889, the United States federal government unilaterally stripped the Great Sioux Reservation of eleven million acres and broke it up into six smaller reservations[2], including Pine Ridge, which is currently located in the southwestern corner of South Dakota. In 1910, the federal government seized yet more land when it amputated Pine Ridge’s southeastern quadrant, opening it to non-Indian settlement that year and allowing...

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