Points in History of the Forgotten People

“There can be no question of national dignity involved in the treatment of savages by a civilized power. The proudest Anglo-Saxon will climb a tree with a bear behind him and deem not his honor, but his safety, compromised by the situation. With wild men, as with wild beasts, the question whether to fight, coax, or run, is a question merely of what is easiest or safest in the situation given. Points of dignity only arise between those who are or assume to be equals,” as said by the then commissioner of Indian affairs, Francis Amasa Walker concerning the issue of equality and the dramatic question of the decade of what would happen with the native community in the rapidly changing America. Indian policy was based largely on the image of what the Native Americans was/are to us, the remaining Americans. The situation of Native Americans today, I believe, was premeditated. Long before our behavior yesterday our behavior back in the 1860s when the commissioner made his statements, but back in when the Europeans had first made contact with from across the sea and discovered the obvious differences between the ways of life between the two was when their situation was decided. Ronald Takaki, an Asian American historian, in his book “A Different Mirror” goes on to describe what he and other natives at the time had referred to as “the white man’s road,” a process of Americanizing and forceful cleansing that we have read about many times before in American history. In how the U.S. deconstructed the complex cultures and institutions, violently, of various Spanish speaking people, and more famously those of the African American people so much that they would become more “American-like”, the nation has damaged, permanently the lives of many people. From a historical standpoint alone, it is easy to see that the influence of the same stereotype that was held of other peoples, would take its place in Native American communities as well. There was a Super Bowl ad that played in 2014 about a slur used to describe what a typical Native American looked like, that is the name of one of America’s teams in one of its biggest sports.

In the 1850s, reservation camps became a big thing for the relationship between native Americans and white America. Everyone who was a Native American was to be put into some plot of land, among others who looked just like them, away from their homes, and it would be there that the cleansing from their Native American cultural practices that would take place. A girl from Minnesota reflects on “the boarding school era” for the assimilated, in the “We are Young” documentary, where she talks about the type of systems that were in place inside these reservations, a school where kids were required to go to and learn American culture, “the dominant culture.” She then goes on to say that “in these boarding schools, you could not speak your native language…” it was one of the restrictions deemed essential in the reservation camps. All Native Americans were locked into their reservation camps, leaving them would mean entering American territory, and therefore making them “liable to be struck by the military at any time, without warning.” legally. This, of course, is despite the fact that American industrialism was allowed to live beside them, literally through their reservation in the form of railroads, it can be clearly seen that the Native Americans were/are seen with respect, or as equal.

In 1890, Wovoka, a strong proponent of the some of the native’s culture had sent a message to his group, saying that the Native Americans former glory would return, and in the event, they were to dance a ghost dance, they were later arrested for a public display of their religion. White Lance, a respected member of the group details the occurrences of a later event, where  “There were only about a hundred warriors and there were nearly five hundred soldiers” as the troops began to fire off at the Native Americans. The American constitution says that, as a citizen of the United States, that we have the freedom to practice religion, but this apparently did not include those who were Native American because their image was too different to be considered American.

In 1891 alone, the government acquired over 17,000,000 acres of the total land originally allotted to the Native Americans following several years of many attempts of reclaiming and were vague “reasonably well payed” for their losses. They were then, told afterward, to prove how American they were by buying back the land that was taken from them, for the native Americans, this was somehow essential in learning to be American. It is indisputably clear that the treatment of the natives was not equivalent to the treatment of your everyday American, with the reneging of several Indian-government treaties as described in the Wounded Knee Incident of 1973 documentary, blatant Americanizing taking place in reservations, and the seemingly endless instances of disrespect and land taking, it is obvious that government policies were influenced by the construct of the natives that the government had imagined in its head.

Ishmael Brown

Penn State