Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)




By the late-1870s, the clamor of miners and white settlers demanding access to the tracts of western land reserved for Native Americans had crescendoed, and Eastern humanitarians began the establishment of numerous groups to protect the natives and to reform national Indian policy. Between 1878 and 1889, a pro-Indian rights journal. The Council Fire, was circulated monthly to some 2,000 readers from its headquarters in Washington, D.C. Its originator, Alfred B. Meacham, hoped to initiate a positive and fundamental change in the public's view of Native Americans. Initially, all reform groups expressed similar ideologies regarding the protection of America's "wards," but as pressure to open the western lands increased, the reformers and their organizations split into two factions. One division, whose views were documented in the pages of Council Fire, saw Native Americans as an "exceptional" minority, a group in need of special training and a lengthy timeframe to learn white ways. The other faction wanted to quickly assimilate the Indian minority in the same manner being used to Americanize other immigrant groups, by making the Indian a farmer with a small plot of land from which he could take his sustenance and become part of America's capitalistic "salad bowl." Since most Indian policy changes were legislated, the latter group of reformers, including the Indian Rights Association, united with congressional lawmakers to legislate their ideals. After Meacham's death in 1882, Thomas Bland took over as editor of the journal and led the fight to protect the natives' right to collective ownership of their lands. Bland was also instrumental in the formation of the National Indian Defense Association [NIDA] which believed Indians were an exceptional minority not yet ready for individual land ownership. Council Fire became the organ of the NIDA, as well as a forum for the verbal battles between the two factions of reformers. The history chronicled in Council Fire is an invaluable record of this long-overlooked facet of the reform movement. While the editors took an interest in all issues relating to the Indian question, this paper discusses five of the most critical ones: (l)the exceptional reformers' opposition to the 1878 attempt to transfer the Indian Bureau to the War Department; (2)Meacham's efforts on the 1880 Ute Commission; (3)the battles among reformers over the passage of an allotment bill; (4)the journal's four-year effort to remove abusive Agent V.T. McGillycuddy from the Pine Ridge Agency in Dakota; and (5)NIDA influence on the final draft of the bill to reduce Sioux lands. Although many historians have referred to Council Fire because of its exceptionalist approach to reform, a thorough reading of the journal shows that a substantial segment of the population believed America's natives were an exceptional minority. And a century of adverse effects from the laws enacted by mainstream reformers has demonstrated that Council Fire represented the opinions of the wisest among all the Indian rights activists who sought to defend the civil rights of "Poor Lo."


A Thesis Presented to the Department of History and the Faculty of the Graduate College University of Nebraska In Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree Master of Arts University of Nebraska at Omaha. Copyright 1992, Jo Lea Wetherilt Behrens

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