Nichlas Emmons in Native Condition. Discussion »
Last year at Fort Lewis College, some of the students put together a unique program called “The Real History of the Americas” to be presented around Columbus Day. At this event, I spoke for 15 minutes about the need to retool federal policy toward Native peoples. To me, Columbus Day presents a time to reflect on the colonization of indigenous peoples through policy.
Some scholars have identified six policy eras of federal policy toward Native peoples: treaty making, removal, allotment, reorganization, termination, and self-determination. A closer analysis of the defining policies of these eras reveal that a goal of federal policy has been to disconnect how Natives traditionally worked with and perceived the land and other natural resources. Because it was understood by federal officials that the land was an important component of identity, putting forth policies that would necessarily diminish the connection would serve the purpose to assist in the assimilation of Native peoples. To strengthen my argument, I provide a brief discussion over only a couple points of each era.
Treaty making involved the transfer of land from indigenous to colonial hands. This was essential for the development of European, and then American, civilization on indigenous land. This subtle form of conquest manipulated the worldview of Native peoples by a general misunderstanding of land ownership. While treaty making began as a way to benefit both colonists and Natives, it eventually became entwined with duress. Land meant proper development of an emerging nation, the eventual United States, and the Native populations were in the way of progress. Earlier treaty agreements were not viewed as permanent by Native peoples and were based on communal holding of land for the benefit of future generations. The fundamental difference in worldview laid the groundwork for further disconnecting the Native from the land.
While some treaties ensured removal of Native peoples from some lands, removal became official policy of the United States government in 1830 with the passage of the Indian Removal Act. The removals initially targeted the peoples of the American Southeast and the Old Northwest, but the implications also would affect communities west of the Mississippi River where many eastern communities were relocated. The removal of Natives from traditional lands sought to disrupt indigenous cultures. This implicit goal of removal understood that identity has much to do with the land. Taking the Native out of traditional lands meant that he must learn to work new land, thereby creating opportunities for Native peoples to abandon cultural identities and interactions of former lands for more assimilated ones.
In 1887, the General Allotment Act empowered the federal government to divide Native lands into individual parcels. One of the goals of severalty was to end communal ownership of land by Native peoples and promote individual ownership. Explicitly, the goal was to assimilate through instruction of proper land management. It was thought that allotting lands to individuals would promote absorption of the Native into dominant society, which it did not. Instead, this legislation permitted approximately 78 million acres, out of approximately 120 million, of Native lands to be lost to non-Native interests. Removing the culturally centered concept of communal ownership, which meant sustaining an indigenous future, surely would promote loss of indigenous culture. To this date, many of our nations are battling with serious land issues resulting from this legislation.
The United States Congress passed the Indian Reorganization Act in 1934. As a seemingly noble piece of legislation in comparison to previous policies, Reorganization sought to increase tribal autonomy through the creation of new governance, economic, and cultural systems. Some scholars have argued that Reorganization, had it lived up to its purpose, would have worked very well at producing sovereign nations through self-determined decision-making. Unfortunately, the better provisions of Reorganization hinged on the adoption of governance systems endorsed by the United States government. In this way, the revitalization of cultural systems necessarily was limited. The federal government still promoted assimilation through boarding schools, sending back ostensibly assimilated students to Native communities to take roles in governance.
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posted October 22, 2013 7:20 am edt