John Collier

Name John Collier
Born May 4 1884
Died May 8 1968
Birth Location Atlanta

John Collier (1884-1968), reformer and longtime director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, was a government official who made various attempts to further fair treatment of Japanese Americans before and during their wartime confinement.


Born in Atlanta, Georgia, John Collier attended college at Columbia University before moving on to the College de France in Paris, France. Following graduation, he specialized in social work, assisting new immigrants in New York. In 1909, he founded the People's Institute. There he attracted widespread attention for his successful campaign to persuade the New York City Board of Education to open afterschool centers for community activities. He also was cofounder of the National Board of Review, a cinema watchdog organization. After a brief stint as director of adult education for the State of California in 1919, Collier moved to the famous Taos art colony at the invitation of writer/salon hostess Mabel Dodge Luhan. There he studied American Indian culture and art, and became dedicated to reform of Native life. In 1922, Collier helped found the American Indian Defense Organization, an educational and lobbying group, and was named its executive secretary. As leader of the organization, he edited its magazine, American Indian Life , and lobbied for greater autonomy and civil rights for Indians.

In 1933, Collier was selected by Harold L. Ickes , secretary of the interior in the new administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt , to be United States Commissioner of Indian Affairs. Once established at the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), Collier launched a series of reforms, dubbed the "Indian New Deal." The centerpiece of his program was the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 (AKA the Wheeler-Howard Bill). The Act provided for greater self-government for Indian nations by encouraging the drafting of tribal constitutions and charters. It curtailed the system of allotments of tribal communal lands to individuals in order to combat the alienation of Indian-owned land, as well as authorizing a revolving credit system to finance communal land purchases for Indian tribes seeking to assign property to landless members. At the same time, the Act provided for improvements in health and education to Indian reservations. Although bitterly opposed by conservatives and by white agricultural and mining interests, the Act served as the basis for contemporary federal policy toward Native Americans. During his tenure, Collier also distinguished himself by his encouragement of native culture and crafts, and his stand against forced assimilation, most notably in limiting proselytizing activities of Christian missionaries on reservations.

BIA and Japanese Americans during World War II

Collier did not have any official connection to Japanese Americans before spring 1942, and it is uncertain whether he had ever met any previously. Nonetheless, in the wake of the signing of Executive Order 9066 , he expressed to Ickes and others his desire to provide support for Issei and Nisei in government custody. In early March 1942, Collier was approached by the War Department about housing Japanese Americans on Indian land supervised by the BIA. He warned the War Department that he wanted nothing to do with the project if it were to be just another concentration camp. In contrast, he agreed to let the government build a center on the Colorado River Indian reservation in Arizona, over which the BIA had jurisdiction, so that he could turn it into a showplace of community planning, complete with experimental farm cooperatives, schools and cultural life. Collier secured WRA Director Milton Eisenhower's promise that the Indian Bureau would be granted full authority over the center, and justified the center's presence to the Native American residents on the grounds that Japanese American farmworkers would irrigate the land and develop the local economy. To help develop his model community, Collier recruited director Wade Head and a staff of expert social scientists, notably Rachel DuBois and the psychiatrist Alexander Leighton, to run the camp and to use it as a study site, adapting methods of conflict resolution to camp life and training Nisei for future service as social analysts. Around the same time, Collier was visited by the famed Nisei sculptor Isamu Noguchi , who was attempting to secure better treatment for Japanese Americans. Collier persuaded Noguchi, who as a New York resident was exempt from Executive Order 9066, to volunteer for confinement at Poston in order to teach arts & crafts and design parks and buildings. Once arrived at Poston, Noguchi sent Collier a stream of letters on conditions. He swiftly became disillusioned with the project after his arrival, and secured his release after a few months.

In June 1942, Milton Eisenhower announced his departure from the WRA. With support from his boss, Ickes, Collier began lobbying to take over the agency. Collier made a strong case for his experience in dealing with marginalized populations and his interest in promoting agriculture. However, with Eisenhower's recommendation, Dillon Myer was appointed the new director of the WRA.

Following his arrival at the WRA, Myer abrogated Eisenhower's "handshake deal" with Collier. Abandoning a humanitarian operation that he feared would lead to administrative problems and permanent dependence on government aid among Japanese Americans (on the model of Native Americans on reservations), Myer insisted that the camps be run in uniform fashion and that emphasis be placed on swift resettlement rather than on permanent residence. There ensued a struggle for power, one that climaxed in fall 1942. In the first week of November, Collier visited Poston for an inspection and made a public address, calling on the inmates to organize themselves and prepare for permanent occupancy. Myer then traveled to Poston a few days later and made an opposite public presentation to the inmates, describing the WRA's policy as one of short-term emergency confinement and eventual relocation. The WRA's policy prevailed, and Poston was ordered run together with the other camps. The WRA took over formal control of the camp at the end of 1943. Ironically, even as the agency rejected Collier's model of organization for Poston, its staffers adapted the system of "social analysts" Collier had set up there to its other camps.


After leaving government service in February 1945, Collier became director of the National Indian Institute, and was named president of the Institute of Ethnic Affairs. In collaboration with historian Saul Padover, Collier called for the formulation of a forthright Federal policy on "minorities" and race problems through the passage of a Fair Racial Practices Act and the establishment of an Institute for Ethnic Democracy to offer a springboard for coordinated action by America's "minorities." Collier was employed as professor of sociology and anthropology at City College in New York until his retirement in 1954. He also authored several books on American Indians, including The Indians of the Americas (1947) and On the Gleaming Way (1949) as well as an autobiography, From Every Zenith (1963). He lived in Taos in later years. In 1964, on his 80th birthday, Collier received the Distinguished Service Award from the Department of the Interior.

Authored by Greg Robinson , Université du Québec À Montréal

For More Information

Collier, John. From Every Zenith: A Memoir; and Some Essays on Life and Thought . Denver:Sage Books, 1963.

Drinnon, Richard. Keeper of Concentration Camps: Dillon S. Myer and American Racism . Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.

Philp, Kenneth R. John Collier's Crusade for Indian Reform, 1920-1954 . Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1977.

Last updated July 15, 2020, 3:41 p.m..