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UBC Theses and Dissertations

John Collier and the Protestant churches Stacey, Susan Carol LeCompte

Abstract

In 1933 President Franklin Roosevelt appointed John Collier to the post of United States Indian Commissioner. Collier had been a social worker in New York City and California during the early twentieth century, but the effects of the industrial mode of life that he constantly witnessed made him extremely pessimistic about the ability of the modern world to foster and sustain any type of healthy social system. In the early 1920's he was the guest of the Taos Pueblos Indian tribe for several months, and during his stay with these native Americans he was deeply impressed by their genius at maintaining, in the face of nearly overwhelming pressure, a culture whose primary function was the creation and sustenance of well-balanced individual and group personalities. Throughout the 1920's: he incessantly battled against any legislation, executive order, or social or economic pressure that was endangering what he saw to be one of the last truly humane civilizations on earth. When he became Commissioner, he instituted a program designed to revive the tribal structures, their power and status systems, their languages, their religions, and all other vital aspects of their existence. He backed this up with a comprehensive plan for economic, educational, and health improvement so that the natives would be able to solidly entrench themselves in the type of life they desired. One group who opposed this policy of Collier's were the Protestant missionaries who labored among the aborigines. From the earliest days of their missions they had set themselves to the task of "civilizing" the Indian and helping him to assimilate into the larger American society where he could more easily and more effectively function as a Christian. They were therefore dismayed by Collier's attempt to promote segregation, isolation, and a return to the original lifestyles, although they did come to approve of the other aspects of his work. This thesis examines Collier's philosophy and program of Indian administration through his own writings and through executive reports, explores the depth and importance of their Indian missions to the Protestant churches, and then sets forth and analyzes the negative Protestant reaction to Collier's Commissionership. It attempts to explore the nature of a confrontation between two powerful forces in American life. The general conclusion that emerges from this work is that Collier's appointment marks the first real break in the cooperation of church and state in Indian affairs. Collier began a secularization of the office that has continued to the present day. The missionaries recognized the implication of this secularization for their own future and responded accordingly. Both-sides had rallied around ideological standards (the church was committed to its theology, Collier to his sociological beliefs) and neither could nor would give way. Thus the missionaries tended to work themselves out of a major role in the management of Indian affairs.

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