Native American lives have long been depicted in a positive light. Images of cowboy battles, bow and arrows, teepees, and totem poles come to mind. Behind these hackneyed images and ideals there stands a darker reality. Throughout the history of the United States, Native American’s have been on the receiving end of unequal treatment. Whether it was loss of lands, forced assimilation, or unequal rights the Native American people have a long history of oppression and discrimination. One of the most detrimental aspects of this unequal treatment was the assimilation that Native Americans faced in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
This essay will focus on the assimilation of Native American’s during the Progressive Era. Specifically, it will focus on the assimilation of students in Native Indian schools. Through close examination of Document 13.6, Document 13.7, and other sources, this essay will show that a common theme seen throughout is the assimilation of Native American students into American society and the struggles associated with this change.
A major struggle that Native American students faced when assimilating into American society was a loss of cultural identity. This cultural loss was a product of Indian pupils being instructed by American teachers who were not educated in the cultures and traditions of the very students they taught. Due to the American teachers lack of cultural awareness, Native American students were not taught the important values and traditions of their cultures. However, the biggest reason that Native American students lost their cultural identity was because of the policies that the schools used to
force assimilation. “From the policymakers’ point of view, the civilization process required a twofold assault on Indian children’s identity. On the one hand, the school needed to strip away all outward signs of the children’s identification with tribal life, that is to say, their savage ways. On the other, the children needed to be instructed in the ideas, values, and behaviors of white civilization.”1 The policymakers’ goal was to strip away all aspects of tribal life and to instruct the students with the ideals of white civilization. These policies, some drastic, were enforced specifically to eliminate different aspects of Native American culture. One way that schools attempted to change the cultural identity of Native American students was by requiring all pupils to have short hair. This directly conflicts with Native American culture where men and woman of all ages have always had long, unkempt hair. The reason this policy was said to be enacted was to help with the control of lice and disease in schools. However, the real reason that this policy was enacted was due to the “belief that the children’s long hair was symbolic of savagism and removing it was central to the new identification with civilization.”2 The policymakers and administrators in Native American schools held these radical beliefs about assimilation. It is due to these flawed ideas of assimilation that led to the loss of cultural identity among Native Americans during the Progressive Era. Students who were forced to cut their hair felt an immediate loss of culture and spirit. In
David Wallace Adams, Education for Extinction: American Indians and the Boarding School Experience, 1875-1928 (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1995), 100.
Document 13.6 the author, Zitkala-Ka, recounts the experience of having her hair forcibly cut. “I cried aloud, shaking my head all the while until I felt the cold blades of the scissor against my neck, and heard them gnaw off one of my thick braids. Then I lost my spirit.”3 This first hand account shows just how the Native Americans were mistreated during this period of assimilation. Not only were the Native American students forced to cut their hair, but also it was done in an attempt to rid the children of all cultural heritages....
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