Date of Award
Master of Arts (MA)
Dr. Jo Ann Carrigan
Cato Sells became Commissioner of Indian Affairs in 1913 after a successful law career in Iowa, and a prosperous banking business in Texas. Always ambitious and hardworking, he climbed the political ladder of the Democratic Party during the late nineteenth century and received the position of Commissioner of Indian Affairs as a payoff in the Woodrow Wilson administration. While commissioner from 1913 to 1921, he addressed a wide range of issues, and these, in turn, attracted a varied response from Native Americans, white reform groups, and government officials. Throughout his difficult tenure in office, Sells found himself constantly on the defensive as he tried to balance the demands of opposing constituencies and to upgrade the performance of an often lethargic bureaucracy. Land policy dominated much of Sells 1 official attention precisely because the release of restricted land under the 1887 Dawes Severalty Act began just as he took office. He issued land patents quickly, especially after 1917, to make Indians self-sufficient, but this and other actions ultimately resulted in a tremendous loss of land. Sells faced attacks from critics about the poor quality of his employees and about dissolving the Indian Bureau. He tried to correct some of the more severe violations while defending his own position, but failed to offer any wholesale change. In another attempt to make Indians self-sufficient, Sells implemented a new form of education for Native Americans that prepared them for specific jobs. Some Indian groups opposed this change calling it discriminatory because it kept Indians in a cycle of dependency. Tuberculosis and trachoma ravaged Indian populations well before Sells took office. He took steps, especially in schools, to reduce the spread of these diseases. Alcohol and peyote became a special project for Sells. He advocated the elimination of both of these substances from the lives of Indians without considering the larger questions of personal and religious freedoms. As World War I approached, Sells called for fully integrated military units, despite some opposition. Sells favored citizenship for war veterans, but the commissioner did not endorse wholesale citizenship for all Native Americans. Sells approached the Indian Bureau with high-minded ideals, but with little knowledge of Indians or the historical development of policy during that previous century. This political appointment did little to benefit the lot of Indians. Like so many who had preceded him into the office, Sells was a proven administrator and a true "progressive," but this combination did not meet the needs of hundreds of different Indian tribes spread across the United States.
Whisenhunt, William Benton, "Straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel: Progressive Indian policy under Cato Sells, 1913-1921" (1992). Student Work. 497.
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