The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), now a branch of the US government, was established in 1824 as an unofficial division of the US War Department. The primary purpose of the BIA is to manage and serve as administrator of the 87,000 square miles (55.7 million acres) of land now held in trust as Indian reservations. Education is also a goal of the BIA, which now provides education services to more than 48,000 Native American Indians.
Originally, the BIA was comprised of three agencies created to negotiate treaties with Native American Indians in order to secure their neutrality during the time of the Revolutionary War. Perhaps it’s the events of this time that led the to the BIA falling under the jurisdiction of the War Department. The bureau was known as the Office of Indian Affairs at that time.
The Native American Indians were, of course, highly skilled hunters who were intimately familiar with the geography and wildlife of the country. Their expertise was put to use by the Office of Indian Affairs, which used the Native American Indians as instrumental guides and hunters during the days of the fur trade.
The fur trade was operated as a network of factories, actually outposts, situated throughout the country where fur traders and hunters could meet to conduct business. Each factory was outfitted with a blacksmith to maintain weapons and tools needed for processing the animals into tradable commodities – leather, fur, bone, antlers, hooves, etc., which were used for clothing and its ornamentation.
The factory system of fur trading was abolished in 1822, leaving no provision for governmental oversight of the affairs of the Native American Indians. It was at this time the BIA was established by US Secretary of War John C. Calhoun. Calhoun established the BIA without authorization from the US Congress and it seems he is the only person who referred to the agency as the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Others still called it the Office of Indian Affairs.
In 1849, federal jurisdiction over the Native American Indians was transferred from the War Department to the US Department of the Interior, where it is administered today. Almost 100 years later, in 1947, the agency became officially the Bureau of Indian Affairs, operating on behalf of the Native American Indians in the scope with which we are familiar today.
Always a source of friction between Native American Indians and the US government, legal disputes continue today. Today’s operating budget for the BIA is in excess of $2 billion and the bureau employs almost 10,000 people.