‘too many chiefs and not enough Indians’: meaning and origin

Of American-English origin, the phrase too many chiefs and not enough Indians, also all chiefs and no Indians, is used of a situation in which there are too many people giving orders and not enough to carry them out.

The earliest instances that I have found indicate that this phrase was first used in 1947 to characterise the situation of the U.S. armed forces at that time, after the demobilisation of a large number of soldiers at the end of the Second World War.

The earliest occurrence is from a United-Press news item published in the Nevada State Journal (Reno, Nevada) of Sunday 16th February 1947:

‘Too Many Chiefs—Not Enough Indians’

Washington, Feb. 15. (U.P.) Some officers on duty at the war department say that one trouble with the peacetime army today is “too many chiefs—not enough Indians.”
The figures show there are 6489 colonels in an army of 1,070,000 enlisted men compared with 10,590 colonels when the army enlisted strength was at a wartime peak of 8,000,000 men.
That is a ratio of one colonel to every 165 men. The wartime ratio was one colonel to every 755 men.

The second-earliest instance that I have found is from ‘Enemy’ Collapse Main Hope for Peace: Eaker, published in The Austin Statesman (Austin, Texas) of Thursday 24th April 1947—this article is an account of the address that Lieutenant General Ira Clarence Eaker (1896-1987), then deputy commander of the Army Air Forces, had delivered to the Air Force Association at the University of Texas the previous day:

He said the “greatest air force in the world” had been completely wrecked by demobilization but was rapidly being rebuilt.
Eaker described the Army Air Force’s two main problems as its budget and keeping its 2,000,000 former enlisted men in condition to fight.
“You can’t have all chiefs and no Indians,” said Eaker. “We have a system we think will provide the chiefs, but we’re worried about getting the Indians.”
He said 325,000 men have signed for three-year hitches in the Army Air Forces since the end of the war, but pointed out that about 80 per cent of them are rookies.

The phrase alludes to the fact that, when playing cowboys and Indians, a child would rather impersonate the chief than an average Indian warrior.

This was explained by Channing Cope in Everybody Wants To Be the Chief, about the above-mentioned United-Press news item, published in The Atlanta Constitution (Atlanta, Georgia) of Wednesday 19th February 1947:

Did you read that statement by an Army officer, “The trouble with the peacetime Army today is ‘too many chiefs—not enough Indians.’”? Isn’t it a peacheroo? Anyone can understand it; most everyone can appreciate its significance. Too many generals—not enough privates. Too many leaners—not enough lifters. Too many watchers—not enough doers. Too many staff men—not enough “line” men. Too many carbon copies—not enough originals. We could go on and on, but the soldier states it the best: “too many chiefs—not enough Indians.”
You will recall when you were a kid and you and your buddies played cowboy and Indians that every kid in the game wanted to be Chief Tomahawk. That’s what the man is talking about, now. Everyone wants to be the Chief. The office boy isn’t the slightest bit happy over being the office boy, he wants to be foreman tomorrow, superintendent next week and head of the firm by the time he has been there six months. [&c.]

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