Eleanor Roosevelt and the Bureau of Indian Affairs
by Julia Jardine
Dated January 23 1951, the then Secretary of the Interior, Oscar L. Chapman (and ongoing correspondent with Eleanor Roosevelt) wrote to Mrs. Roosevelt about her column that was published a month prior.
Without additional context of this letter, it may appear that the language between Eleanor Roosevelt and Oscar L. Chapman is friendly & casual business. However, behind Chapman's words, I realized there was some tension brewing between the two...
As most know, Eleanor Roosevelt drove a hard bargain and it was one of the many reasons why she was able to get so much done. She had a great deal of influence and by 1950, Mrs. Roosevelt had certainly known it. She was not one to let her husband, Franklin Roosevelt, or any others carry out any immoral activity. In addition, when she got involved on a project, she almost always saw it through start to finish, like a delegate to the UN, even before its conception.
On December 30, 1950, Eleanor Roosevelt published one of her daily My Day columns, which she often used tactfully as a way to educate the public on social problems and encourage them to get involved. In this particular column, Eleanor Roosevelt respectfully, but also loudly and skillfully criticized the actions of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs Dillon S. Myer:
"I am quite sure that the new Commissioner of the Indian Bureau, Dillon S. Myer, whom I knew and admired when he was in charge of the relocation camps during the last war, wants to do the best that can be done for the Indians. His experience, however, has not been long with this particular question and he has around him men with whom he has previously worked on other matters. It is possible, therefore, that interested people, wanting to achieve personal objectives, might present Indian affairs to Commissioner Myer in a somewhat misleading manner. In fact, certain bills which already have been presented lead one to feel that this may have been so. The fact that the Indians have been deprived of their right to choose their own counsel, a right which they long enjoyed, is a serious infringement on their liberty." Eleanor Roosevelt, My Day, December 30, 1950.
What she is saying here is that Dillon S. Myer can do better and that Native Americans deserve better. She blatantly points out that Myer is working with people who have no experience, that the Bureau of Indian Affairs' work is incompetent, non-representative and denying representation to Native Americans.
This is the important part:
Eleanor Roosevelt was in correspondence with Dillon S. Myer for a while, and as far as I know, they considered each other dear friends... So clearly, her column was a way of reaching out to him in a way that a simple letter to him would not do. Mrs. Roosevelt was far wittier. She drove a hard bargain. She knew that creating national pressure was the least bureaucratic and most effective way for her to influence change.
And is this really all that surprising?! Just recently, President Obama rejected the Keystone Pipeline. For the past year at least, online petitions and letters addressed to President Obama have been circulating to pressure him to reject the Pipeline, even if it was costly for him or the government to some short term degree.
In addition, Human Rights Watch and most other large scale international human rights organizations are able to function on the very basis that they can reach the public on a large scale, educate them on human rights abuses, and then shame and pressure the targeted governments into fighting the human rights abuses from the top down. Eleanor Roosevelt functioned on the idea that if one reaches out to the masses from a position of power and they listen and agree, they are able to take on that individual's power and use it. HRW's shaming and pressuring tactics exemplify Mrs. Roosevelt's legacy.
Sure, other male and female leaders may have done this before, but nobody did it like Eleanor Roosevelt. Nobody did it on this scale as a woman in the 1950s with so much influence in the name of checking government for the self-determination of a people. That made Mrs. Roosevelt unique. This lady didn't mess around.
So, when I read the above letter to Mrs. Roosevelt from Commissioner Dillon S Myer to Mrs. Roosevelt, while sitting in the Archives, I let out an audible chuckle at Eleanor Roosevelt's wit and her clamorous and public criticism of the Department of the Interior.
And I thought about how carefully he must have constructed this letter... because if he stepped on Mrs. Roosevelt's toes again, the most powerful woman in the world might have more to say about Mr. Myer's experience, the experience of those he chooses to ally himself with, and his level of competence to carry out his job.