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A Look at Twentieth Century Native American Identity

Essay by   •  April 3, 2011  •  Essay  •  2,641 Words (11 Pages)  •  1,904 Views

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The forced immersion of Native Americans into American society has been attempted by Euro-Americans for several centuries. As America's quest for expansion strengthened, the indigenous population has seen its share of neglect. As the United States developed into a relatively strong government with the sure fire will to "civilize" American Indians, the goal of assimilation was put at the forefront of Indian policy. Beginning with removal, the federal government not only allotted Indian Territory, an area designated for Native Americans, but allotted their future. This involved educating natives to live as the white man, which resulted in the fading notion of being 'Indian.' However, with the uprising of many leaders in Native America, the Native American identity is an important aspect, not only in individualistic terms, but to Indian people as a whole.

Native American identity was critical during the attempts to force assimilation. Much of the ideologies forced upon Native individuals resulted in the abandonment of family, language, and traditional life on the reservations. Through many a struggle in Native America, from history to present day, the attempts to revitalize traditional ways of life have persevered. There have been "five centuries of survival under the most excruciating pressure of killing diseases, wars, land expropriation, and official government policy." Due to changing events, it is important to note that Native American identity is and has been an evolving topic; both for people who consider themselves Native American, and for people who do not. For some, it may be more, but in many cases, the values of Indian culture involve a spiritual tie to land and community. This is true today as it was in the past.

The second half of the twentieth century was a period of great social upheaval in the United States. During this time, changes drastically altered social fabric; women's rights, and anti-war movements. Perhaps less well-known, but of equally great importance, are the changes brought about by American Indian tribes as they sought to organize their governments, implement and determine their treaty rights, and revitalize their traditional cultures. The mid-century marked an all-time low for tribal existence in America as American Indians faced overbearing and seemingly intractable problems. Tribes were mired in the worst economic and social conditions of any group in America. Indians suffered a relentless political oppression at the hands of government authority and its control of Indian lands and continued to campaign of assimilation through the suppression of tribal religions and traditions and by the "Christianizing" of Native Americans. Indian language, dress, and ceremonies were all labeled as backward and uncivilized.

As a distinguished University Professor and former attorney with the Native American Rights Fund, the author of Blood Struggle: the Rise of Modern Indian Nations, Charles Wilkinson tells the journey of Native Americans as they thrive for tribal self-determination and throw the yoke of the overpowering American government. Blood Struggle looks first and foremost to Indian country and tells the stories of the personalities, crises, and opportunities that led to the profound changes Indian people have wrought. In his rather thematically organized and readable history, Wilkinson provides a very descriptive overview of modern Native America. He begins with the General Allotment of 1887, also known as the Dawes Act, in which Congress provided for the division of reservation lands to individual Indians. The goal of the Dawes Act was to assimilate individuals into broader white society by settling the Indians onto farms in their allotment and selling off the remaining tribal land that had not been allotted. Wilkinson then follows with a discussion of Indian policy during the New Deal, which led to the policy of termination. Termination meant total assimilation. Under termination, a tribe was classified into one of three classes: (1) Ready for Termination, (2) Minimal Supervision, and (3) Termination stopped. Determining how tribes were classified depended on the rate of assimilation in each tribe. The termination policy had the goal of ending Federal supervision of and special relationship to Indian tribes.

Offering an intellectual, legal, and cultural history, Wilkinson provided many stories and anecdotes of tribal people and their leaders. In the last stand, Wilkinson wonders how the Indian way could have survived the long, deadening years from allotment in the 1880s through termination. He believes the answer lies in "sustaining Indian figures:" where in an individual was a rallying point for the tribe. By their respective historic roles or personal abilities and accomplishments, leaders maintained the Indian character in good stead. These sustaining Indian figures, all of whom gave tremendous inspiration to Native people, uplifted them and also engaged non-Indians with the power of their ideas. Their work, which paid due intellectual honor to the Indian way, tribal sovereignty, and their people's homelands, contributed mightily to keeping the central ideas alive during the deadening time. The influence of one Santee Sioux, Charles Eastman, is example of one such sustaining Indian figure.

As a result of the Santee federal boarding school in Nebraska, Charles Eastman gained acceptance in white society. He graduated from Dartmouth and went on to enter medical school at Boston University, where he earned his M.D. Later, as a doctor in the Indian Health Service, he was assigned to Pine Ridge, and was thrown into the ghost dance uprising and Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890. Eastman lived and understood both traditional Indian life and the most cultured side of the larger society in a way that few native people did.

Leadership continued to emerge and strengthen as Indian tribes found themselves in the midst of large-scale projects. "Economic development cranked out a multitude of private initiatives (industrial factories, new consumer products, and residential subdivisions) and public works projects (dams, power plants, and highways). Blood Struggle goes on to disclose Wilkinson's inside perspective, discussing the salmon fishing litigation of the Northwest in which tribes secured their treaty rights, and the story of Indian land claims in the Northeast, in which tribes attempted to retain land unjustly taken from them. The Government's actions on Indian tribes began to formulate many feelings of reprisal among Natives who closely identify themselves as a part of native cultures. A nationalistic sense of Indian activism brought about the American Indian Movement (AIM).

In 1968, AIM began as a counterforce to the ills of

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