Oral History Interview with
Assistant Secretary of the Interior, 1933-46; Under Secretary
of the Interior, 1946-49; Secretary of the Interior, 1949-53.
Oscar L. Chapman
November 3, 1972
Jerry N. Hess
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Transcript | Additional Chapman Oral History
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Oral History Interview with
Oscar L. Chapman
November 3, 1972
Jerry N. Hess
HESS: All right, Mr. Chapman, a subject of timeliness this morning I
think would be to discuss the Indians that are here in town. And as you
know, there are a number of Indians who have barricaded themselves in
the Bureau of Indian Affairs Building last night. And according to the
paper, they represent .a coalition of 250 of the Nation's Indian tribes,
and they are here in town protesting treatment of Indians over the years.
And they call their operation the "Trail of Broken Treaties."
As I see it, their central contention is that the Indians have been neglected
and unfairly treated ever since the white man landed on these shores.
And as the man who headed the Department of Interior for a number years
and had overall supervision of Indian affairs, what is you view of the
Indian situation and how those matters have been handled over the years?
CHAPMAN: If you look back over the history of the Indian Office itself,
and the management of the Indian tribes as a group, you will begin to
realize that progress that has been made in creating a proper atmosphere
for the Indians. The white man has himself become more sympathetic in
the last 20 years towards his fellow man, the Indians, than at any other
time that I have known in history.
When I first began to work with the Indian office, they were at a very
low relationship with the white people and I have noticed, and have been
able to see, the improvement in their understanding and what is more important,
the white people's understanding of the Indian. This is more noticeable
today than it was when I first started to work in the Department, and
I think it's continuing to improve.
HESS: What seemed to be the general attitude of the population towards
the Indians say in May of 1933?
CHAPMAN: Well, in the beginning along in May of '33, I started into the
program with the Indians having many claims pending before the Department.
Court did not look sympathetically upon several important cases that we
had at that time, and it was not conducive to what the Indians thought
was a fair dealing with them in these court decisions.
I think the present Secretary of Interior is doing as good a job
as money is made available to him. I think he has a very definite sympathetic
feeling towards the Indians and he's a humanitarian.
Now as he gets support from the public--and that's what I am trying to
tell you this morning--they are getting support from the public
generally, today, that they were never getting before. They are getting
more support now than they were getting 10 years or 20 years ago. It is
Now, part of that is caught up in this general civil rights controversy
and strides that were
made in the civil rights minority group controversy,
and in making that fight the Indians were all inclusive--when you talk
about the civil rights of the minority people you invariably include the
Indian now in that idea of thinking of what you do.
Now this is not something that will be done over night after 40 years,
or more, of what I'd consider not so much mistreatment as it has been
a lack of proper understanding and proper effort being made to include
the Indians in the Federal programs to assist people who are not capable
of helping themselves in some cases.
HESS: Let's discuss the historical aspects of the handling of the Indian
situation just a bit. How was the Indian situation handled in the last
century perhaps? At the time of the Indian wars?
CHAPMAN: Let's break it down in time period like this. You go back to
the earlier days of my
childhood and during that period, for say about
20 or 30 years there, there was a very decided neglect, or the lack of
attention, to help the Indian or do anything for him very much. Unless
some Senator would get excited about a particular case, or piece of legislation,
we never got the basic legislative programs through to put Indians on
an overall level with other people. And I'm speaking of the economic situation
more there than anything else. That's in the economic field. They were
not given sufficient opportunity to protect their own holdings, their
You will remember back in those days--some of this is long before you
were born--they would appoint the commissioner of Indian Affairs, some
retired Army colonel or Navy captain, somebody of that nature that was
retired. They naturally lived on a bare retirement salary that was very
low at that time and they were looking to improve their own economic situation,
the white man.
Consequently, during that period the appearance was very bad. If you
really sat back and looked at this and studied it very carefully you would
feel very bad about it; you would see it.
HESS: There were charges of graft and corruption at that time. Were those
charges founded on fact?
CHAPMAN: I would say that in 99 of 100 cases it would not be true, in
fact. But there were some cases; there were quite a few cases where
there was some graft and corruption going on from the operation of the
program in the field. I know I did all I could to have personal contact
with the tribes in the field, at their council meetings.
I would go to many of their council meetings, like the Hopi's, down next
to the Navajos, and the Pueblos. There are four or five nice tribes in
there and they are very fine people and they really are calm, stable type
people; they have a very calm mental approach to their problem.
Now, this outward appearance of some abnormal or rough treatment between
themselves and the public last evening here was a very unusual thing.
That's not a usual thing at all, because the Indians have been the most
patient people on earth. I have never known a minority group, of any kind,
that matches the Indian, in calmness and patience in which he has followed
his downward path, as he has seen it go down.
HESS: Do you think their patience may be drawing to an end?
CHAPMAN: It is. It's drawing to an end because they are learning a lot.
They are learning a lot because they see their other friends are now getting
it that didn't get it 20 years ago, getting help.
HESS: Other minority groups?
CHAPMAN: Yes. There are other--well, for instance, they are entitled
to go on Social Security if
they qualify for it, and they need it. Now,
that's a kind of a thing that I was talking about when I said the general
legislation that's been passed in the last ten years has been legislation
that was more--should I say it's stronger in its sympathy and understanding
of the Indians because the people were beginning to support the Indian
Now, a program will not succeed any further than the public will support.
If it will support a program, you can help them and put it through. We
have never had sufficient leadership and support for the Indians as we
should have had all along. We haven't had the support they should have
HESS: What would be a proper program for the Indians? What I'm driving
at, there are some Indians who say they do not want to be assimilated
into our culture, that they have their own heritage; they want to live
by their own heritage.
CHAPMAN: Well, now, you've got a problem there, because they differ among
themselves so strongly on that issue; it's very difficult for you to get
unity of thought on that particular question itself. That's one question
that I had most difficulty with, in trying to solidify the thinking of
those people and working out a plan.
Now, what the Indian needs is some guidance and highly trained, technical
help, people that could set up a plant of some kind for him and help him
finance it. The Government's got to help him finance it, just like we
do General Motors and all the rest of the big companies. We have financed
every last one of those companies from one end to the other.
I don't criticize that; that was supporting your economy to make it thrive
and grow, but you can't support just one segment of the economy and leave
another large segment, as large as the Indian group, leave them behind
and not look out for them. You have a responsibility, the Government
to proceed to help the Indians, help them find a way to do certain things.
You've got to help them until they get some experience. They need to have
more experience in the business field, the economic field. They have to
have that and that's what they need more than anything else today, that
and education, of course. Education is far behind yet for the Indians,
way far behind.
Now, the Government should set up a program on an economic basis and
develop it. Well, give an example of the Navajo, or the Pueblo tribe,
and make a careful study of what could be developed in that area, in which
they could do the work, mostly themselves. The part they can't do, hire
it, but let them run it. Let the Indian man run it himself. It'll
take him time to gain experience, and you've got to have a well-trained
man to step in to work with him, and a man with the kind of sympathy that
he wants to help this Indian get this program going on his own, and for
him to run it, and not you.
Now the Bureau should not attempt to run these things any longer than
necessary. You have to run them and supervise them for a while, even if
you have a good program; even some of our best programs that have come
in under this new phase of Social Security, that have met with many difficulties
and haven't been a success in every respect. However, when you look at
the mass operation that Social Security is under, and the money that's
gone to that, it moved to its higher level financially so fast that no
one expected it to move that fast. I know that.
HESS: I want to go back just a moment to my thought about assimilating
the people who say they don't want to be assimilated. Is it necessary
to have one plan that would fit over all the Indian tribes? Could it,
or wouldn't it be feasible to have a plan where some people, some of the
Indian tribes, who did not want to be assimilated into our white culture,
could live their lives under their old culture? Couldn't that be done
to let certain tribes live that way if they want to, and if another tribe
wants a factory on their land you could go ahead and help them build their
factory? If another one wanted to develop their oil, you could help them
develop their oil, but if that first tribe wanted to live as aboriginal
Indians just let them?
CHAPMAN: There would be no difficulty in the world of their not living
that way if they want to. I see no obstruction in the way of that kind
of a program being worked out where you are operating one kind of a program
over here and another one over there. You've got to put the practical
things that are already embedded in their minds, you've got to put it
to work in the terms of what they know, and what they believe.
What the tribes in one area will think of in one way, the tribes in another
area would think of in another way. That has made it very difficult for
us because I think our people, the white people, have invariably tried
to insist on
a unification of all the tribes into one unit for one program.
I don't think you'd ever find a program that's big enough to handle that
kind of situation. You won't get enough support, enough help for it. You've
got to hire a lot of experienced and skilled people to help you run the
mechanical side of the job. The educational side of the program has to
be carried in line with the other part of this program. That's got to
be kept in pace with the other things that we are doing for the
HESS: One of the complaints that the Indians were making last night was
that so much territory has been taken away from them. I think they are
requesting, or they're demanding that over a million acres be returned
to the Indian tribes. It's their contention that if land is worth anything,
or was worth anything, they were moved off of it. If any minerals
are found in or under the land that they were moved on, then they don't
get the benefit of even that; then the
white people get the benefit of
the minerals of the land that they were pushed off onto. Are they right
in those complaints?
CHAPMAN: To some extent that is correct. That has some essence of truth
in it. Where you had someone that did not have the interest of the Indian
at heart but was more interested in the mechanical success of what he
was trying to do so that he could make a showing to the public, "what
I am doing, see," than he was in the Indian himself personally. Now, that
is where we have missed out for a long time, of not doing enough for the
Indians personally. There's some truth in what they say on that; it's
not all true, but a lot of it is true. Enough is true to justify their
complaint and justify arousing the sympathy and understanding of the white
man to help him. Now is the time to help this man attain a standard
of living and an understanding of how to acquire that standard of living
and maintain it. Now that goes back to your economic
culture, goes back
to the economy of your country.
They came out very well in their latest effort in the court when they
won that Alaskan case. That was a fabulous case to win. But what I was
so puzzled about was that here the Government was on the side of the fellow
who is trying to get this land for the white man and there were only a
few white people; the rest of them were Eskimos and other tribal Alaskan
people of Indian blood.
A major decision has been given, that has opened a way to clarify a lot
of these complaints that they have been making about that particular point
that you've just raised, where they complain about their being moved off
of the good land and put into the bad land and sometimes are robbed of
their inheritance, of their rights.
In those earlier days that was done as a matter of regular business and
trade, when they had no experience in dealing with the Government. They
were doing quite a bit of that in the earlier
days; when I was a boy,
that was just coming along. It was just coming on; in the last three decades
it has shown progress, has taken root, and is improving.
Now that protest that they made last night was a very hopeful sign. To
me it was a very fine thing, because they got together on one or
two issues that they could get together on and fight for. They
did arouse opinion, some public opinion about this. They'll have to arouse
public opinion to a much greater degree than they have yet. They haven't
done it sufficiently, and they've got to do that; they have to help guide
it and support it and push it. And then some of our white people that
are friends of the Indians and are trying to help them must
try to be patient and to understand them a little bit, too; because there
are some very fine people in this country that have gone out of their
way really to try to help the Indians. They have really wanted to help
them and they have done everything they could to help them.
You take my old friend, Morris Llewellyn Cooke; oh, he's been in and
out of the Government as an adviser on something, and he was a man of
some means; and he devoted a lot of time to this to help the Indians find
an area, find some direction that they could go, and travel towards the
end of some goal that they could get together on. He never quite succeeded
during his time. He was getting along in years when I first knew him.
I don't know whether Morris is still living or not and I don't know where
he is, but he was a man who gave a great deal of money toward...
Now, I have something that I ought to show you this morning. You know
that there are people who get interested in Indians for all kinds of reasons,
not just straight business reasons, but it has a ring to it that arouses
people strongly in certain things. And you know what one of them is? To
my great surprise, to see how far this fellow carried this thing, he went
out into the
Black Hills and he wanted to honor the Indian with a sculpture
cut from the mountains of the Black Hills up there. He went up there,
oh, he went up there 12, 15 years ago. He didn't have a child when he
went, out there and he's got 11 now.
HESS: The climate did him good, didn't it?
CHAPMAN: Yes. This man was a sculptor from the old country, from over
there, and he's a real artist. He drew his maps and his sketches and he
got an angel up in Connecticut that was very much interested in seeing
the Indians get interested in sculpture, making things, and doing things
with their hands. In the meantime, he had a two-edged sword with that;
he wanted them to understand what these things were and what they stood
for in terms of the recognition of the Indian. And that was a recognition
of the Indians. He sculptured Crazy Horse, council chief of the--I can't
think of that tribe right there at Rosebud
in South Dakota. He drew up
his sketches for this place, and--understand what I'm talking to you about
is telling you a story of how one little thing can develop into so much
for these people if one man will devote his time to it.
This man devoted his time to trying to raise a statute of the Indian
in his own mind, for the first thing, and he did everything he could to
create a better understanding of themselves, an appreciation of themselves.
He was teaching them; he was teaching them sculpture work in a little
class, a school sculpture class; he didn't have many students, but he
had a few. And it got started and that man has gotten contributions enough
that he could finish that sculpture in another 10 years, about 10 years,
10 to 12 years. He's going to finish it. "This is my life's work; I intend
to finish here." And he's got the whole thing laid out on his maps, drawn
out, laid out on his maps; and Crazy Horse was the Indian selected by
the Indians themselves, a man they wanted to honor.
HESS: He does a good deal of that sculpting by blasting does he not?
CHAPMAN: Oh, yes.
HESS: Drilling the holes and blast it off with dynamite.
CHAPMAN: Oh, yes, he will blast off tons at a time and blast it down
until he gets it down to the size that he has to work on, and always keeping
the view in perspective.
HESS: Mr. Chapman, how closely did Mr. Truman watch Indian Affairs matters?
CHAPMAN: As I was talking to you and telling you about the public attitudes
and public support becoming more and more helpful to the Indian program,
this is a proper place to say to you that one of the things I had in mind,
was having people like President Truman take the personal interest
he did in the Indian programs. He helped me with--and did it personally--he
me with so many cases in which he would help these people get their
titles cleared to their lands. You'd say, "Well, how did he help?" He'd
let me bring the tribal council in. One of the tribes out there in Oklahoma
was having a lot of trouble and difficulty about their lands, because
they had hit oil and the people were trying to get the titles to it by
phony leases and I was trying to block it. I told the President what I
wanted to do, that they should not sell that land; they shouldn't be encouraged
to sell it. They should be encouraged to keep it and draw an income from
it, and let the income be put into a trust fund with the council as the
trustees. They are elected by the Indians, by the way, those council members;
and when they are elected they automatically become a trustee of this
fund. And that bunch of trustees would have to report every so often,
I've forgot how often they reported, but they'd have to make an annual
report to the whole tribe.
They'd have a big party some place out there out on the range where someone
was living; they'd have a big party and one of the trustees, usually the
chairman, would give a report on what the status of their trust was, how
much money they had in that trust, how much land they had in that trust,
and what they were doing with it and what they were planning to do with
it in order to improve the trust. They had to report, and did report that.
They began to do it in really a business-like way.
Well, I'll tell you, one of the people who has done so much on this and
he's never tried to get any credit for it at all, is Bill [W.W.] Keeler.
Bill Keeler is a full-fledged Cherokee; he's a full-blooded Cherokee.
His wife is a full-blooded Cherokee. They both speak Cherokee language.
There's only about five tribes that have a language at all and the Cherokees
are one of them; and the Choctaws have a little language. It's one they've
developed over the years; it's expanded and expanded over the years and
there are about five tribes altogether that
have a decided language now.
Now, Mr. Truman would say to me, "Well, now, give me a memorandum that
gives me the background of how and why these Indians got into this position."
Well, I had to do a lot of research, a lot of research, to go
back to find out who was making the decisions during such and such a period.
I'd take a period of time and research it, then take another period and
research it, and sometimes I'd take a different area and have a research
job done on it. And I could show him where the Indian was being cheated.
I could show him how the Indian was absolutely being robbed. I said, "Mr.
President, this Indian here has just come into his inheritance, his headrights."
They've got what you call headrights, established by law. When they became
members of a tribe and they were transferred to a given reservation they
were established a headright, which means an equity part in the
of this tribe; depending on how much land they had, each Indian got his
headright. It may be a valuable headright, or it may be a poor headright,
depending upon the holdings; but all the Osage and most of the Cheyennes
got valuable headrights, very valuable headrights. It helped them get
There is this board of trustees, which is the council. Twice in the last
four years Bill Keeler has been elected as chairman of the trustees. He
is the president of the council; the position is elective.
And who is Bill Keeler? Bill Keeler speaks Spanish as well as you speak
English; and he has worked in the Department for us, as a dollar-a-year
man a dozen times or more, helping us with a specific program. He is chairman
of the board of the Phillips Petroleum Company; that's who he is.
HESS: A man who is quite well-off, well placed?
CHAPMAN: Oh, yes, Bill had his full education. His mother and father
were far enough along in the education field to appreciate the value of
what it means to be an educated person, and what it means to get his education.
Well, he went straight on through until he got his geology training; he's
a geologist, a complete...
HESS: Well, he could understand Indian matters.
CHAPMAN: He could understand Indian matters so well that...
HESS: Bartlesville is 40 miles from my home town and it's about 20 to
25 miles, I believe, from Pawhuska.
CHAPMAN: That's right.
HESS: It's straight east of Pawhuska, and of course, Pawhuska is the
center of the Osage nation.
CHAPMAN: Well, Bill Keeler is the leader, quietly, and you'll
never see his name in print about
this. Now, if he was trying to gyp them
or get something out of them, get their lands transferred and the titles,
you'd never see his name anywhere anyhow; they would be very careful about
it. But Bill, for totally modest reasons, had a sense of modesty about
it that he would not try to get any publicity for his help that he gave us.
Now, he would come in and I'd get him into the White House to see Truman,
let him talk to Truman. I fixed a little memorandum on Mr. Keeler once
as to who he was, where he was born, his mother and father being Cherokees
and full blood; and then I showed where he went to college, where he graduated
and got his degree in geology. He had a full educational background with
a college degree. He gave all the time he could to help.
And whenever I called on him and said, "Look Bill, I'm having so much
trouble with these two tribes over there that I can't get them together
and I can't get them to do anything together.
They won't agree. Can you
get them together or suggest a way that we can work out a program for
them in which they can have some degree of control over their stuff and
operate it? And I'm thinking of moving over now, Bill, from the old idea
of the Indian office having to run everything they had from right in Washington,
out to the tribal council as much as possible; move it out there as fast
as we can get personnel that can manage this kind of a program that we
have." We moved in the educational field first, and we got down among
the Osage and the Navajos and the Pueblos, and then the whole five civilized
tribes were in that category. Bill was the principal adviser to any of
them on all their land. I would show him how much land this tribe had
according to the books of the Government.
I'd have Bill go out and file a private suit. He'd never want to file
it in his name because it would get his company involved in an unnecessary
suit. So, what he would do, he would file it in
the name of his father,
or mother, when they were living, or some other good Indian friend that
knew what he was doing, knew how to do it, and he would, in turn, help
them get that thing started. He'd get a piece of land put together in
a joint venture; there were so many hundred thousand acres of land, and
in Oklahoma that's a very, very fine gamble that you would get something
out of there; you'd hit somewhere. The point was that we didn't want one
Indian to get real rich and the other one, because he had to make a squatter's
right over here, two miles further, he didn't get any. And the man right
across the creek over here would hit oil on his place. So, we set up the
joint venture where everybody collected according to the number of acres
they would own by the headright law. The headright would establish the
number of acres they would really have, and that headright would come
to them through their mother, or their father, or sometimes their brothers
I would add to that, the continuation of the discussion of the Indian
HESS: All right. This will be the continuation of the discussion of the
CHAPMAN: Sort of carry the continuity.
HESS: That's right.
CHAPMAN: The winning of this law suit in Alaska was primarily because
public opinion had developed so strongly in favor of the Indians having
a right to that land and not just a bunch of gold mining hunters who went
up there looking for gold, and many of them lost their lives looking for
it. They had this land; they could trace it so clearly that you couldn't
dispute their word on it. They had a complete record of the ownership
and what we call a clear title; so we'd have a title drawn, title developed,
by a lawyer who knows what goes into the record and makes...
HESS: Knows how to search for land titles.
CHAPMAN: That's right and how to search for the record and clarify it.
They had some good lawyers to help them, and--oh, I want to say that at
this point a young man by the name of Jebby Davidson shows up from Louisiana,
and he was appointed Assistant Secretary by Ickes and to my great pleasant
surprise--not surprise necessarily, because I knew something about
him. But to my great pleasure I found that he had a decided interest in
the human side of the Indian, and he set about to clarify the lands and
titles and their wooded areas, timberland, for these Indians of the various
tribes up in the northwest.
You see, you have wealth of one nature up in this area of the country,
and down in the middle areas of the country you have another kind of wealth.
You have oil down in Oklahoma; you had timber up in Oregon, and Washington
and up through there.
Well, Mr. Davidson showed a deep sense of
appreciation of the right of
the individuals. He was very much devoted to that, and I give him credit
for it. We may not have agreed on everything as we went, but I wanted
to give him credit for it. The white people have to take a--not try to
take over the Indians--the white people have to take an interest in their
program, to help. That has been established pretty well now; it's fairly
well established, and the Indians have many white people that are devoting
their time to it.
HESS: One point on that, Mr. Davidson told me last summer when I spoke
with him that he wanted to move the Bureau of Indian Affairs out of the
Department of Interior into Health, Education and Welfare, because the
Department of the Interior was land oriented and the Indians should be
treated as a human problem, which would come more under the Health, Education
and Welfare frame of reference. What would be your view on that?
CHAPMAN: Well, he argued that view back and forth and he had, I thought,
a considerable amount of credit due him for the effort of trying to do
that. There was a question of whether the idea of getting the whites and
all the Indians together more as a community could be better done by having
the white people help them as much as possible and help through the economic
field, and having a credit union set up, or a credit organization set
up, to loan them money to pay for what they wanted to do. There's where
you needed a good man like Bill Keeler to sit down with the tribe for
a couple of evenings and tell them, "Now fellows, you don't know whether
this land has oil or not, and if you haven't got money in your council
sufficient to drill and test this area, you don't know what you've
got. You may be giving away the greatest wealth of your lifetime. You
may not, but the chances are you might be, because you've got to look
at the facts in the case and say, 'Where's the closest well to
of land; what is the geology of that area? And if oil comes we'll give
it to you; they've surveyed it all, they know, and we can get that from
them."' And he could; he got that from the man who had it to give to them.
Now, the opposition to that position was that the Indian was land-oriented,
too, more than he was anything else. He had a few horses; his number of
horses was an indication of his wealth, and he was very strong on that.
Most of the Indians are; even now they are. So, the Indian was so strongly
oriented to the land that Jebby was right on that point, and I supported
him strongly on that feeling that this ought to be dealt as just a plain
human problem and deal in the office of education and welfare departments;
that's two together now, those agencies were put together. And during
that transition period you had men like Paul McNutt being made the Administrator
for what is now HEW--Health, Education and Welfare. Paul was playing
for political reasons since he thought he was going to run for the Presidency
against Truman in the following year; so he was playing it for all it
was worth. He thought that was a ten strike to him; that he would play
that. So, Paul came forward with that Indian stuff, to give it some support
and become a leader in this thing.
HESS: Oscar Ewing headed the Federal Security Agency also at this time.
CHAPMAN: That's right.
HESS: What was his view? You knew him quite well; what were his views?
Did he think that the Bureau of Indian Affairs should come under the Federal
Security Agency? Now we ought to add, the Federal Security Agency is what
later became HEW, in part anyway.
CHAPMAN: Well, in part it did. The Security Administration was still
more of a bond and banker business than it was a social aspect of--nevertheless,
that would have been a ten strike had you got the two together. And then
you would have had control of the very factors that I wanted under control.
HESS: Do you think that Mr. Ewing would have liked to have had the Bureau
of Indian Affairs under him?
CHAPMAN: I think he would.
HESS: Did you ever talk to him about that?
CHAPMAN: I have discussed that with him; we talked about it years ago,
and we talked then about the idea of putting the Indian office over in
the Federal Security Agency, but we had to be very careful that Ickes
didn't think that I was trying to get something taken away from Interior
HESS: Mr. Ickes would not have liked that?
CHAPMAN: Oh, no. No, he wouldn't like anything that
took a tree away
from him, or a bush; he wanted that with the Interior Department at all
HESS: Do you think he could be described as an empire builder?
CHAPMAN: Well, he was an empire builder, but, frequently, he always tied
that with the interest of the people that would be benefited by thi