The Historical Period

Much has been written, both at the time and in retrospect, on this section of the history of the Americas.  It was a time of conquest as well as a time of treaties, expansion and elimination, propaganda and racism.  What is undeniably true is that by the time most of the major wars were over and Europe was here to stay, Portugal got Brazil, Spain got most of Central America and sections of South America, England got the colonies that would become the United States and Canada, and France got a strip from Quebec to Louisiana which they later sold to the British and US respectively, and the Native population got whatever all of the others decided.  

Sometimes the settlers were welcomed as partners, as was the case of the Cherokee and the Moravians or the Iroquois Nation’s dealings with the Second Continental Congress.  Sometimes the Settler were welcomed as liberators, as with the Spanish and the Tlaxcalans against the Aztec.  Sometimes the Settlers just walked in and took what they wanted, as with Columbus and the Caribbean or the Dutch and New Amsterdam (now New York).  And even sometimes the settlers just left back the way they’d come, as with the Chinese in Central America.

There were massacres, there were pox infected blankets given as peace offerings, there was intermarriage and tribal adoptions, there was enslavement, there were tributary taxes, and in the US specifically there were eventually forced mass migrations that lead to the Reservation system.  The Native population did not wish to be moved, according to the Constitution they were independent nations.  In the case of the Cherokee they sued the US Federal Government and won.  But they were outnumbered and out gunned, and so they were transported.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs was created to handle US-Native relations.  They created the Indian Boarding School System.  The boarding schools were the last major effort of the US federal government to eliminate the cultural traditions of the various tribes within the borders of the continental US.  Many were started on Reservations by individual missionary groups, but in 1819 they formalized into a national program of teaching European values to the Native peoples.

As Tom Holm discusses in his book “The Great Confusion In Indian Affairs”, Progressive Era reformers such as Henry Knox proposed a system of “civilizing” Native Americans by educating their children in current American culture, which eventually lead to the Civilization Fund Act of 1819 providing funding specifically to such schools.  The first off-reservation Boarding School, the Carlisle Indian School, made their goal clear by posting over their entry way a quote attributed to Richard Henry Pratt, “Kill The Indian, Save The Man”.  Its model of complete cultural immersion included shaving the heads of the children, giving them Christian names, and requiring them to memorize Bible passages to learn English.

In combination with the Dawes Act of 1887, which allowed the President of the US to survey Native territories and divide the land into allotments to be distributed among individuals, the authority and agency of individual tribes was severely compromised.  Following the Dawes Act was the Curtis of 1908 which allowed the US to no longer recognize tribal governments, and abolished tribal communal jurisdiction completely.  This put many tribes into a kind of ‘survival mode’, communities that practiced traditional lifeways were harder to sustain.  Many Native individuals were economically disadvantaged to the point of leaving their communities in search of work.  The cohesion of tribal groups continued to fracture and some information became lost in the process.

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