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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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 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 Indians.

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 helped


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


holdings 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 money.

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 and sisters.


I would add to that, the continuation of the discussion of the Indian problem.

HESS: All right. This will be the continuation of the discussion of the Indian problem.

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


this area 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


that 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 Department.

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 times.

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