Native American Cultural Assimilation

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Native American Cultural Assimilation from the Colonial Period to the Progressive October 2, 2011


Although the first European settlers in America could not have survived without their assistance, it was not long before the Native Americans were viewed as a problem population. They were an obstacle to the expansion plans of the colonial government and the same to the newly formed United States. The Native Americans were dealt with in various ways. During expansion some were outright exterminated through war while others forcibly made to relocate to lands deemed less than ideal. The idea was to make them vanish – out of sight, out of mind. Though their numbers in terms of population and tribal groups dwindled, they persisted and continued to be a problem in the eyes of the federal government. In the latter part of the nineteenth century the United States government instituted a new way to wage war against the Native Americans. This involved assimilating their children through government-run boarding and day schools. Federal policy-makers were sure that by giving the Native American children an American-style education, they would eventually evolve into “Americans” and return to their reservations, but forsaking their previous culture, traditions and way of thinking. The federal government assumed that as the aged died off and, with the children assimilated, within a few generations at most, there would be no need for reservations or Indian policy, thus accomplishing the original goal of making them vanish. There is little doubt that assimilation through education failed on almost all fronts, but through my research I hope to uncover some positives for the Native American children, especially those affected by late nineteenth century Indian policy which removed them from their families and, in some cases, sent them into an alien world hundreds of miles away.

Throughout the history of, especially, European imperialism, “the relationships between indigenous peoples and colonizers usually proceed through a series of phases.” Generally speaking, the first phase involved the establishment of colonies which meant the disruption of Native societies and usually the displacement of people. In most cases, there was some degree of violence and if complete domination was not swift, treaties were drawn up by “resetting territorial boundaries in order to maintain a degree of order.” Because resource and land acquisition was the main goal of the colonizers in the first place, treaties seldom lasted and violence continued. In most cases, the next phase in colonialism to lessen violence and restore order was to try assimilation. “Assimilation could mean turning the indigenous population into a work force or perhaps a marginalized group of ‘others’ who speak the colonizers language…”[1] As colonial expansion kept growing in North America, assimilation was attempted on several levels. Attempts were made at outright Native American removal from their lands and, when that did not work, religion was probably the most widespread “weapon” of the colonizers to subdue the Natives. Priests, Catholic and Protestant, (usually backed by an armed force) were more often than not unsuccessful in their attempts to force civilization on the Natives.[2] Assimilation by this means was further complicated because of competing religions. Natives who embraced Catholicism offered by French or Spanish colonizers further distanced themselves from British colonizers and vice versa. European wars of the 17th and 18th centuries between Catholic and Protestant powers carried over into the North American colonies and the Native Americans were situated in a no-win situation. As a result of victories in these wars, not only did

1. Holm, Tom. The Great Confusion in Indian Affairs. pp. 1-2. 2. Findling and Thackeray, eds. Events that Changed America in the Seventeenth Century. p. 72.

the British...
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