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Oscar L. Chapman Oral History Interview, November 3, 1972

Oral History Interview with
Oscar L. Chapman

Assistant Secretary of the Interior, 1933-46; Under Secretary of the Interior, 1946-49; Secretary of the Interior, 1949-53.

Washington, DC
November 3, 1972
Jerry N. Hess

[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | Additional Chapman Oral History Transcripts]

This is a transcript of a tape-recorded interview conducted for the Harry S. Truman Library. A draft of this transcript was edited by the interviewee but only minor emendations were made; therefore, the reader should remember that this is essentially a transcript of the spoken, rather than the written word.

Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. [45]) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.

This oral history transcript may be read, quoted from, cited, and reproduced for purposes of research. It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.

Opened 1980
Harry S. Truman Library
Independence, Missouri

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Oral History Interview with
Oscar L. Chapman

Washington, DC
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 gradually improving.

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 own properties.

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 program more.

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 had, and...

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


has, 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