Thursday, March 2, 2017

Studying Native American & White Relations and Policy

Sarah Molasses. Daughter of Governor John Neptune of the Penobscots. Copy of painting by Jeremiah P. Hardy of Bangor, Maine, ca. 1825

Native Americans and American History 
by Francis Flavin US National Park Service

Indian-White Relations and Policy

One of the leading authorities in the field of Indian-White relations is Francis Paul Prucha. His
masterful two-volume The Great Father: The United States Government and the American
Indians (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984) examines the relationship between the
United States government and Native Americans from the colonial era through the Carter
administration. Anyone interested in U.S. Indian policy should begin with it. It is also available
in an abridged edition. Prucha has also written a short, astute, easy-to-read book entitled The
Indians in American Society: From the Revolutionary War to the Present (Berkeley: University
of California Press, 1985) that uses the concepts of paternalism, dependency, Indian rights, and
self-determination to survey United States Indian policy.

Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, reformers, philanthropists, and
government officials wrestled with “the Indian question”—the question of what was to be done
with the Indians after they had been confined to reservations. Thomas Jefferson was the first
president to give this question significant thought. He wanted to “civilize” the Indians and
incorporate them into Anglo-American society. The best book on Jefferson’s Indian program is
Bernard Sheehan’s The Seeds of Extinction: Jeffersonian Philanthropy and the American Indian
(Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1973). It argues that Jefferson’s well-intended
reform program proved destructive of native culture—and that ultimately, “the white man’s
sympathy was more deadly than his animosity.” Anthony F. C. Wallace’s Jefferson and the
Indians: The Tragic Fate of the First Americans (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press
of Harvard University Press, 1999) concludes that Jeffersonian Indian policy produced “ethnic
cleansing” and laments that Jefferson and Madison did not work harder to “orchestrate diversity”
in the Early Republic.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century the government—believing it was
rescuing Indians from irrelevance and marginalization—again attempted to replace native
cultures with White American values. In the words of one reformer, the goal was to “kill the
Indian and save the man.” Frederick E. Hoxie’s A Final Promise: The Campaign to Assimilate
the Indians, 1880-1920 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984) provides a thoughtful
overview of this phase of Indian policy, examining the reformers’ evolving motives as well as
the challenges they faced.

Reformers frequently sent Indian youths to boarding schools to immerse them in
American culture while stripping away their own native culture. Several books have explored
the boarding school experience, like Devon A. Mihesuah’s Cultivating the Rosebuds: The
Education of Women at the Cherokee Female Seminary, 1851-1909 (Urbana: University of
Illinois Press, 1993). K. Tsianina Lomawaima’s prize-winning They Called It Prairie Light: The
Story of Chilocco Indian School (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994) examines the
history of a coeducational Indian boarding school in Oklahoma, making effective use of
interviews with the school’s alumni. Lomawaima’s book explores an often-overlooked aspect of
the native response to American conquest and does so from an Indian perspective.

Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration abandoned the policy of forced assimilation in
favor of cultural pluralism; however, as Alison R. Bernstein demonstrates in American Indians
and World War II: Toward a New Era in Indian Affairs (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press,
1991),World War II was a profoundly integrating force for many Indians. After the war, the
government once again decided to forcibly assimilate native peoples into mainstream society by
terminating the special legal status of tribes and the federal government’s accompanying
obligations to them, and also by relocating native people from rural reservation communities to
urban areas. The standard work on the subject is Donald Lee Fixico’s Termination and
Relocation: Federal Indian Policy, 1945-1960 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press,
1986). Also of interest is Alvin M. Josephy Jr., et. al., eds., Red Power: The American Indians’
Fight for Freedom, 2d ed. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999), a collection of
government documents and Native American statements from the 1960s through the 1990s
dealing with a variety of social, political, and economic points of contention.