John Collier was born in Atlanta 1884. He lost both his father and his mother before he was 16. While at Columbia University, he developed a social philosophy focusing on the need to build a sense of community in society.
When traveling in New Mexico, John spent a year studying the culture of Pueblo tribes. He became concerned about the threat to Native American culture by white encroachment and policies directed at assimilation of Native Americans into white culture.
John directed his career to opposing assimilation policies. He spoke out against federal policies to move Native Americans from their communal lands. He was also opposed to efforts to suppress Native American religious beliefs. The U.S. Department of Interior denounced him as a “fanatical Indian enthusiast.”
In 1993, President Roosevelt appointed John to be the Commissioner of Indian Affairs. As Commissioner, John created a Native American Civilian Conservation Corps helping Native American men obtain jobs in public works on reservations. He ended boarding schools and established public schools where Native American culture was preserved.
In 1934, he helped shepherd through Congress the Indian Reorganization Act. This act ended efforts of assimilation. Not all Native Americans agreed with the purpose of the act because it didn’t provide for the self-government that was promised.
Other efforts of John were also hotly debated. When he wanted to reduce the over population of livestock on Navajo lands, John was denounced as a dictator. The American Indian Federation tried to get John fired from his job as commissioner.
With his experience working with Native Americans, he advocated for maintaining Japanese social structures in War Relocation Centers. He also wanted to protect the Japanese-Americans for integration back into U.S. society when the war was over. His efforts were largely unsuccessful because of differences with the leadership of the War Relocation Authority.
Just imagine how John Collier will be viewed by history. Will he be viewed as an advocate who tried to maintain cultures of marginalized people? Or will he be viewed as naïve and wedded to the past? Will he be viewed as someone who wanted to do good for others? Or will he be viewed as being someone whose interference was intended to do good but led to hard? Will he be viewed as someone who worked to expand rights? Or would he be viewed as someone who worked to enforce his own beliefs on others? The life of John Collier is a conflicted one, but one that many people will find similar to their own.
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“You can buy history, but you can’t buy a culture.” – Nathan Mirts (Author)