Indian Rights Association

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The Indian Rights Association (IRA) was an American social activist group dedicated to the well being and acculturation of Native Americans. Founded in Philadelphia in 1882, the Indian Rights Associations (IRA) was highly influential in American Indian policy through the 1930s and remained involved as an organization until 1994.

The organization's initial stated objective was to "bring about the complete civilization of the Indians and their admission to citizenship." 19th and 20th Century groups such as the Indian Rights Association considered themselves the "friends of the Indian" but, by modern standards, had little understanding of the cultural patterns and needs of Native Americans. Although the IRA and related groups were well-intentioned and some of their activities were beneficial, many policies they helped enact were destructive to Indian people in the long term.

In 1884, the organization's founders, Herbert Welsh and Henry Spackman Pancoast, opened an additional office in Washington D.C. to act as a legislative lobby and liaison with the Board of Indian Commissioners and the Board of Indian Affairs. The IRA also opened an early office in Boston, Massachusetts. The management of early Indian Rights Association's programs fell almost entirely to five men, all of whom had lengthy careers with the IRA: Herbert Welsh, Matthew Sniffen, and Lawrence E. Lindley, active in Philadelphia; and Charles C. Painter and Samuel M. Brosius, agents and lobbyists in Washington D.C.

In addition to efforts on policy development and congressional lobbying, the Indian Rights Association monitored the actions of Indian Bureau agents and observed Native American living conditions and health care needs through correspondence and trips to reservations and settlements. They also sponsored speaking tours for activists and Native American representatives as a means of informing the public about native issues. The Unitarian minister and journalist Jonathan Baxter Harrison was an especially influential observer, publishing several books and articles detailing his findings in the late 1880s.


  • Harrison, Jonathan Baxter. The latest studies on Indian reservations. Philadelphia: The Indian Rights Association. 1887.
  • Harrison, Jonathan Baxter. The colleges and the Indians, and the Indian Rights Association. Philadelphia: The Indian Rights Association. 1888.
  • Pancoast, Henry Spackman. The Indian Before the Law. Philadelphia: The Indian Rights Association, 1884.

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