Native Americans from the Mid-Nineteenth Century to the Present
Native Americans from the Mid-Nineteenth Century to the Present
The issues that Native Americans have faced since 1865 are largely related to a struggle for survival and relevance in a modern age. Although scholars present considerable differences in estimate of the number of Native Americans present in North America at the time of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in 1492, ranging anywhere from 100 million (Schapp, 2010, p. 367) to 900,000 (Hoxie, 1996, p. 500) people, scholars agree that there was a great decline in Native American population lasting until the 20th century. Factors influencing the decline of the Native population include disease and government policies directly or indirectly influencing the livelihood of North America’s aboriginal citizens. The period since 1865 includes not only detrimental events and policies, but also more recent developments leading to some important improvements for the Native tribes of North America. The issues surrounding the problems and solutions for Native Americans in the past century and a half are complex, but a major theme running through the facts, events, and policies is that of losing or gaining autonomy and sovereignty for Native tribes.
The Battle of Little Bighorn
The Battle of Little Bighorn is of such renown or notoriety that most Americans today are well aware of the results of this battle, though they may not be as familiar with the reasons it occurred and its ultimate effects. By June of 1876, as Cheyenne and Lakota tribes not under treaty with the U.S. government gathered to defend their summer hunting area from the U.S. Army at Little Bighorn (Hoxie, 1996, p. 340), the forcible removal of Natives from their land was already a straightforward part of U.S. policy. Under President Andrew Jackson, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act in 1830 resulting in “the infamous Trail of Tears” (Hoxie, p. 543). Little Bighorn demonstrated that not all tribes were willing to relocate peacefully out of ancestral homelands to far away locations or to be corralled into reservations.
The reasons for the battle at Little Bighorn appear to be multiple. For example, the refusal of the involved tribes and their allies to sign treaties with the U.S. government and the subsequent raids conducted by these tribes on white settlements caused the U.S. government to declare these “unsettled” tribes “to be ‘hostile’ and subject to military action” (Hoxie, 1996, p. 340). Along with this military policy, there was also Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer’s “overweening ambition to achieve a quick and glorious victory” so that he could ride “in triumph to the Democratic National Convention in July 1876” (Harvey, 2010, p. 41). The Natives’ desire to retain their traditional lands and way of life and the U.S. government’s desire to take action on what appeared to be an unsustainable situation led to the clash on June 25 and 26 of 1876 in which Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and their bands of 2,000 warriors soundly defeated Custer’s troops (Hoxie, p. 340).
The tribes’ resistance represents a particular, war-like approach toward maintaining sovereignty that Native Americans felt compelled to engage in prior to the 20th century. While recent scholarship is critical of Custer’s ambition specifically in regards to Little Big Horn, it is interesting to explore some of the varied reactions of the Natives themselves who were involved in the battle. Scholar Richard Hardoff’s book, Indian Views of the Custer Fight, show conflicting views among the Native participants. For example, Low Dog, an Oglala warrior, said, “No white man or Indian ever fought as bravely” (Collins, 2006, p. 244). Yet, another Oglala warrior, Red Feather, said, “We always thought Custer was either crazy or drunk to attack us without knowing more about our camp. . . . He would have been brave to fight the way he did if we had attacked him, but I don’t know what to call it the way they attacked us” (Collins, p. 244).
In spite of this victory for the Natives at Little Bighorn, any celebration regarding this victory would be short-lived as the U.S. Army began to intensify its policy against these “hostiles” to the point that by the year’s end, the involved groups of Natives had either escaped north to Canada or surrendered (Hoxie, 1996, p, 340). Native American success at Little Bighorn only seemed to guarantee a harsher policy against Native autonomy and sovereignty.
Wounded Knee 1890
The first event at Wounded Knee Creek, occurring on 29 December, 1890, involved around 500 U.S. troops disarming and attempting the massacre of around 350 Sioux men, women, and children (Warren, 2011, p. 665; Hoxie, 1996, p. 696). Precipitating this event was the great despair and starvation of the Sioux; previously promised by the U.S. government an increase in rations in exchange for a reduction by half of their lands, instead the rations were cut and the people were starving (Hoxie, p. 695). In the midst of this starvation and despair Paiute prophet Wovoka “presented a beautiful alternative” (Hoxie, p. 696) for the suffering people of many nearby tribes. Wovoka “claimed to have visited heaven, where God told him Indians should perform a communal dance and live by a moral code: do not lie, do not steal, love one another, remain at peace, and go to work” (Warren, p. 665). This communal dance was the Ghost Dance in which the participants saw visions of ancestors, the buffalos’ return, and the disappearance of white settlers who had disrupted the Native way of life. Participants wore “Ghost Shirts” that they believed would protect them from their enemies’ bullets.
Unfortunately, this multi-tribe dance for renewal, which grew as drought parched the lands in 1890, frightened white settlers, discomfited Christian missionaries, as well as increased tensions with the U.S. government. Despite the Natives’ intent to use the Ghost Dance as a peaceful renewal, famed Hunkpapa chief Sitting Bull was killed when government officials attempted to arrest him for being an instigator of the Ghost Dance (Warren, 2011, p. 666). Two weeks after Sitting Bull’s death, U.S. Colonel Forsyth led the massacre against the Indians at Wounded Knee, resulting in 146 slaughtered Native men, women, and children being tossed into a grave-pit (Hoxie, 1996, p. 696). Although Forsyth was initially removed from command after the massacre, he was later reinstated and granted the most medals ever awarded “for a single engagement in the history of the U.S. Army” (Hoxie, p. 697). In his own words, Forsyth wrote about “the gallant conduct of my command in an engagement with a band of Indians in a desperate condition, and crazed by religious fanaticism” (Hoxie, p. 697).
The events in 1890 at Wounded Knee were, in some ways, directly connected to Little Bighorn, with surviving veterans of Custer’s defeat viewing Wounded Knee as the time and place to take revenge on Native Americans (Harvey, 2010, p. 41). It was not simply a governmental effort to end raiding on white settlements by non-treaty tribes, but also an attack on a culture and religion that frightened settlers. As Paul M. Robertson of Oglala Lakota College writes, although there are historians that view Wounded Knee as “the end of the Indian Wars,” it is better described as the final “well-known large-scale massacre in the long history of massacres of Indian people in North America” (Hoxie, 1996, p. 697). However, this broad historical categorization as an “end of the Indian Wars” does not account for the changes in self-perception tribes themselves encountered. Although the Ghost Dance was ostensibly performed to return to old ways, the renewal it represented acknowledged the years tribes had already survived without their lands or livelihood they depended upon before the advent of white settlement and anti-Indian government policies. In reality for Native Americans, “most did not anticipate a return of the old ways, and for them the question was how to innovate a means of survival while remaining Lakota,” Sioux, or any of the surviving tribes (Warren, 2011, p. 669). The old ways were not returning, the current ways of defense failing, and the only sensible answer was to find new means and methods of survival and autonomy.
Battles Fought With Science Instead of War: Racial Classification and Eugenics
It would seem that an end to battles such as Little Bighorn and large-scale massacres such as Wounded Knee should represent progress for Native Americans, yet official policies against Native Americans persisted well into the 20th century. By the 20th century, physiognomy, which claimed that its adherents could assess the quality and character of people by their physical features, was viewed as a pseudoscience, but it was replaced by eugenics whose followers saw the alternative as a logical, scientific, and “irrefutable biological basis for race” (Gonzales, Kertész, & Tayac, 2007, p. 55). In the first part of the 20th century, studies by prominent geneticists like Richard L. Dugdale and Harvard zoologist Charles Davenport “reinforced the notion of the immutability of inheritable traits” (Gonzales, Kertész, & Tayac, 2007, p. 58). They formed a basis for state and federal legislation concerning limitations on immigration, restrictions on marriage, forced sterilization, and official classifications of race based on blood quantum. While Native Americans were not the only people affected by this policy and legislation, it had lasting effects on how tribes would be able to function and self-govern into the present day.
However, legislation regarding race existed even prior to the eugenics movement. A declaration by the state of Virginia in 1866 defined individuals as either “Negro” or “Indian” if they possessed one-fourth or more blood of either race by descent (Gonzales, Kertész, & Tayac, 2007, p. 56). Additionally, if an individual possessed both “Negro” and “Indian” blood, Virginia viewed the “Indian” blood as cancelled out. This kind of categorization allowed the state to justify slavery for blacks and the removal of local Native tribes from land in favor of white citizens. From 1924 through 1946, Walter Plecker, who served as the first registrar of Virginia's Bureau of Vital Statistics, used Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act (RIA) to systematically categorize all Native American families of Virginia as “negro,” effectively making any claim the tribes had toward “Indianness” to be completely nullified (Gonzales, Kertész, & Tayac, 2007, p. 63). His efforts reached such extremes that claiming Native ancestry became a “racial fraud” felony punishable by a year in the penitentiary (Gonzales, Kertész, & Tayac, 2007, p. 64). After all, if there was no such thing as an “Indian” and this could be “proved” by law and verified on paper, there remained no reason to acknowledge local tribes as viable political groups, to apologize or to compensate for stolen lands, resources, and possible crimes based on race.
Though Virginia repealed its RIA in 1967, the long-term effect is that the tribes of Virginia were so disenfranchised that they are still in many cases unable to claim “official” status to be recognized by the federal U.S. government. Unlike past attempts at genocide via massacre such as at Wounded Knee, Plecker’s efforts equate to genocide by erasure of documentation and misclassification. Even today, though the tribes still fight for federal recognition, because of Plecker’s efforts, the public perception is that Natives are long gone from states like Virginia or the Carolinas, when in fact that is not true at all. Twentieth-Century lawyer Felix S. Cohen who helped shape much of the U.S.’s policies regarding its Native people said, “It is a pity that so many Americans today think of the Indian as a romantic or comic figure in American history without contemporary significance” (Gonzales, Kertész, & Tayac, 2007, p. 66). Policies such as Virginia’s RIA have a direct and continuing deterring effect on many tribes’ efforts toward autonomy and self-governance as the battle continues to attempt to prove their rich and varied heritages in spite of the destruction or falsification of records by people who felt it was in their best interest to see Native Americans eradicated.
Native Americans as U.S. Citizens and the Civil Rights Movement
While the importance of U.S. citizenship and gaining the right to vote for African Americans is discussed often in grade school and college history courses, few cover the importance gaining citizenship and the right to vote has for Native Americans. In 1887, the U.S. government was still trying to barter for Native lands and identities by claiming they could become U.S. citizens if they would abandon their tribal affiliations (Alio, n.d.). Although by 1924, the U.S. government granted citizenship to Native Americans without the caveat that they must give up land or tribal affiliations, the right to fully participate as U.S. citizens by being able to engage in local politics or by voting is has remained problematic to the present day.
Native Americans were subjected to the same kinds of discriminatory acts as were blacks when it came to the suppression of their voting rights. U.S. citizenship should include the right to vote and be represented by elected officials, yet Natives and blacks both were disenfranchised through methods such as county redistricting that limited the effect of minority voting, literacy tests, and so forth (Collins, 2013, p. 118). The results of the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890 may have demonstrated to tribes that new, peaceful, political methods were essential for maintaining tribal survival, but the attitudes of federal, state, and local governments often did not support the idea of the dual nature of Native American citizenship, as members of sovereign tribes as well as the more encompassing United States. In Kim Cary Warren’s book, The Quest for Citizenship: African American and Native American Education in Kansas, 1880-1935, there is the important question, “How have Native Americans thought of themselves as Americans? This question is central because it further illuminates the duality of native American existence within the United States; being citizens of sovereign tribal governments and belonging to the larger citizen population of the U.S. nation state” (Collins, p. 199). The answer that Warren provides suggests that the new technique adopted by Natives was to become educated and to use that education to defend against forced social roles and to preserve or forge Native identities (Collins, 2013, p. 119). The early and middle part of the 20th century, with Native Americans using “their education to analyze, give relevance and importance, and ultimately revitalize the same nations and traditional life ways that their educators sought to degrade and educate” would set the stage for the civil rights movements in the latter third of the century (Collins, p. 120).
Civil Rights activism was at the forefront in the minds of many Americans in the 1960s and 1970s, with leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. speaking eloquently to demand peaceful but decisive means to right the wrongs against minority people of the United States. Many people are familiar with the famed 1960s black power group the Black Panthers, but in 1968 the American Indian Movement (AIM) was founded by Dennis Banks, Clyde Bellecourt, Eddie Benton-Banai, and George Mitchell (Hoxie, 1996, p. 23). According to AIM’s official website,
The philosophy of self-determination upon which the movement is built is deeply rooted in traditional spirituality, culture, language and history. AIM develops partnerships to address the common needs of the people. Its first mandate is to ensure the fulfillment of treaties made with the United States. This is the clear and unwavering vision of The American Indian Movement (Wittstock & Salinas, n.d.).
However peaceful civil rights activists may desire their quest toward equality to be, AIM and the nation found history nearly repeating itself at Wounded Knee in February of 1973. On this date, AIM activists took over a trading post, church, and museum in the vicinity of the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890, prompted by the murder of Lakota man Wesley Bad Heart Bull and a variety of other injustices (Hoxie, p. 697). The number of AIM activists at the modern Wounded Knee totaled 2000 over time, but the number within the village was never over 200 at a time, while federal forces closed in on the AIM occupants with trip-wire flares, military dogs, sharp-shooters with night vision scopes, armored personnel carriers, helicopters, and plenty of resources (Hoxie, p. 699). The standoff ended when the AIM occupants signed a truce agreement with the government asking for fair treatment of all activists involved in the occupation as well as a new, fair assessment of existing treaties and Indian affairs (Hoxie, p. 699). The importance of AIM and Wounded Knee 1973 shows that in spite of enlightenment on both sides, without caution, history can repeat itself. It demonstrates that despite the advances made by Native Americans in gaining voting rights, federal recognition for tribes, education, there is still a continual need to address the variety of problems commonly experienced by tribes even today. The list AIM provided following Wounded Knee 1973 includes demands such as “Restoration of treaty making (ended by Congress in 1871) . . . Federal protection for offenses against Indians . . . Relief for Native Nations for treaty rights violations . . . Indian religious freedom and cultural integrity protected,” and more (Wittstock & Salinas, n.d.).
The Indian Child Welfare Act
While it is not the only pro-Native legislation passed in the wake of the civil rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s, the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) of 1978 is an example of lawmaking that bears relevance into the present day. Civil rights issues were responsible for bringing about a new era of self-determination and sovereignty for Native American tribes. With the ICWA, Congress stated:
. . . it is the policy of this Nation to protect the best interests of Indian children and to promote the stability and security of Indian tribes and families by the establishment of minimum Federal standards for the removal of Indian children from their families and the placement if such children in foster or adoptive homes which will reflect the unique value of Indian culture (MacEachron, Gustavsson, Cross, & Lewis, 1996, pp. 451-52).
The necessity for the ICWA came about because testimony before Congress by social advocate William Byler demonstrated that culturally biased judges and social workers were using discriminatory placement standards for Native American children, removing them “wholesale” into non-Indian foster homes, adoptive homes, and institutions (MacEachron, Gustavsson, Cross, & Lewis, pp. 453).
A 1996 study by MacEachron, Gustavsson, Cross, & Lewis presented in Social Service Review, found that the ICWA is effective for the Native American community it serves because it provides “the context of commitment, values, and beliefs to make [it] work well for Indian children, their families, their tribes and thus preserve their unique cultures” (p. 460). According to these authors, the ICWA’s success is an integral part of the modern ability of Native tribes to strengthen and maintain sovereignty.
In spite of this report of success, the ICWA still makes headlines today with national news stories such as the case of “Baby Veronica,” in which Melanie and Matt Capobianco, a non-Native American couple, were “caught in a years-long custody battle” (Bewley 2013) with Veronica’s biological father. James Anaya, a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council, believe that the ICWA as it stands should “be a major factor” (Bewley 2013) in determining Veronica’s custody, others such as Jessica Mundy of the recently founded Coalition for the Protection of Indian Children and Families (CPICF) believe that the ICWA needs to be amended. While the public’s heartstrings are pulled by the media and groups like CPICF to believe that cases like Jessica’s are common abuses of a child’s welfare by today’s Native tribes, “An Oregon-based organization called the National Indian Child Welfare Association said Munday's coalition is a repackaged group that has always been against tribal sovereignty” (Bewley 2013). The uncertain and continually embattled ICWA is an example of the difficulties today’s tribes face in maintaining force, focus, and forward motion in retaining sovereignty and autonomy even in an age that considers itself to have already accomplished the tasks battled for by civil rights activists of the 20th century.
The latter part of the 20th Century brought a new innovation resulting from tribal sovereignty. With the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) passed in 1988, which specified that tribes could maintain gambling and casinos on reservations provided that the revenue is used to enhance tribal economic development and welfare of the tribe as a whole (Schapp, 2010, p. 366). In some cases, the advent of the IGRA has not only provided a way out for tribes from federal dependence, but also been a boon to surrounding communities.
The Foxwoods Casino Resort, which is under the auspices of the Mashantucket Pequot tribe of Connecticut (d'Hauteserre, 1998, p. 112), is today the largest casino in North America and the third largest casino in the world behind the Venetian Macao and the City of Dreams Resort in Macao, China (Baigorri, 2007). Although more than one tribal casino has met with success, none have had the success that the Pequot’s Foxwoods has, which “yields a return on sales that is three times the country’s average for this activity” (d'Hauteserre, p. 116). So successful is Foxwoods, that as of 1996, the casino had 11,300 employees, provided the resources for the Pequot tribal leaders to influence state and federal decisions regarding Native policy, and provided the revenue for fire, police, health, and education services not only for tribal members but also for the surrounding community (d'Hauteserre, pp. 116-118).
Not unexpectedly, there is backlash against the idea of Indian casinos in spite of the evidence that in many cases, these businesses free taxpayers from a greater federal or state burden of providing for disenfranchised, impoverished tribes. Arguing against Native casinos, a U.S. Representative from Virginia, Republican Frank R. Wolf, made a press release in June of 2001 describing the inevitability of a rise in “crime, suicide, and bankruptcy in a community . . . when a casino opens its doors” (Schapp, 2010, p. 378). However, research shows to the contrary that “the positive economic and social impact of Indian casinos is measurably greater on surrounding communities than the impact of non-Indian casinos” (Schapp, p. 374). This positive influence of Indian casinos is certainly linked to the strict requirements of the IGRA, which specifies that the revenue must be used for the greater good of tribe and community versus lining the pockets of a few individuals. These important requirements of the IGRA serve to disprove the idea that those tribes still unrecognized by the federal government only desire official recognition in order to build casinos, because in spite of Foxwoods’s success, for most tribes a casino is no “get rich quick” scheme.
Some researchers conclude that in spite of the positive outcome provided by Indian casinos and surrounding communities, the remaining backlash “makes clear that the American public is uneasy with tribal self-assertion and Indian self-determination” (Schapp, 2010, p. 382). Additionally, “the window of opportunity that enabled the founding of Foxwoods seems to be closing” because of continuing backlash and a process of tribal recognition encumbered by an “increasingly rigid bureaucracy” (d'Hauteserre , 1998, pp. 118-119). Nevertheless, Native casinos continue to operate, provide benefits for tribes, and allow the Native fight for sovereignty and autonomy to continue on the modern political stage.
For Native Americans, the wars and massacres prior to the 20th century have largely been replaced with legal and political battlegrounds. As the Native population increases, the question that continues to persist for today’s tribes is one of legacy and relevancy. Tribes still struggle not only with federal, state, and local governments for recognition and fair treatment, but also with existential questions regarding what it means to be a Native American of a specific tribe and a United States citizen simultaneously today. However, if the past is indicative of the future, evidence points toward the idea that today’s tribes are indeed capable of maintaining their identities while evolving and growing in positive ways for members especially through education and increasing power in the political arena. This future depends on Native sovereignty, autonomy, self-determinism, and Native voices speaking for themselves rather than the continuance of policies that let non-Natives determine what it means to be a Native American today.
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