193rd Anniversary of the Bureau of Indian Affairs

Office of the Secretary

The Bureau of Indian Affairs is a rarity among federal agencies. With roots reaching back to the Continental Congress and the United States Constitution, the Bureau is almost as old as the U.S. itself. Despite its tumultuous 19th century origins, the Bureau of Indian Affairs has evolved into a 21st century agent for Indian Country’s success.

Established by Secretary of War John C. Calhoun on March 11, 1824, to oversee and carry out the federal government’s trade and treaty relations with tribes, the Bureau of Indian Affairs remains the oldest agency in continuous existence within the Interior Department and among the oldest in the federal government. Known for decades as the “Indian office,” the “Indian bureau,” the “Indian department,” and the “Indian service,” the Department formally adopted Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) on September 17, 1947, as the agency’s official name.

Historic black and white photo of John Collier, a white man in a suit, standing in a line with four Native American men from the Blackfoot tribe all wearing ornate traditional clothes.
Members of the Blackfoot Tribe meeting with Commissioner of Indian Affairs John Collier in 1934. Photo from the Library of Congress.

The BIA is just one part of Interior that serves the nation’s federally recognized American Indian and Alaska Native tribes, their reservations, communities, and members. Indian Affairs’ responsibility to the federally recognized tribes is rooted in the Constitution, and has been subsequently defined in treaties, acts of Congress, executive orders and actions, federal court decisions, and federal policies and regulations. Overseeing the BIA, along with the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) and programs within their office, is the Assistant Secretary – Indian Affairs.

Today, Indian Affairs employees work with tribal governments every day to enhance the quality of life in tribal communities. This includes education, schools and social services (including child welfare); transportation and water infrastructure; environmental and wildlife protection; agriculture and range land management; employment and job training; disaster assistance, public safety and justice; economic and business development; tribal governance; natural and energy resources management; and trust lands and assets management.

An Interior employee talks to an older Native American man and woman inside a room.
Bureau of Indians Affairs employee talking to tribal members. Photo by Tami Heilemann, Interior.

Once an instrument of federal policies to break up tribes and assimilate their peoples into American society, the hallmark of the BIA’s mission now is respect and support for tribal cultures, cohesiveness, and sovereignty. The BIA works with tribes to achieve their self-determination goals, while still maintaining its historical responsibilities to them under the federal-tribal trust responsibility and government-to-government relationship. 

Learn more about the BIA and the federal-tribal relationship at www.indianaffairs.gov.

Secretary Ryan Zinke and members of the Blackfeet Nation sit in a circle of chairs inside a conference room.
Secretary Zinke meeting with tribal members in Montana. Photo by Tami Heilemann, Interior.