The Native American is one of the key figures in the national historical narrative of the United States of America. However, the character, like most, is almost entirely fictional, designed to move the story along and only loosely based in reality. This essay will examine the mythologization of the Native American and its external impacts on indigenous peoples and cultures. It will begin with a discussion of how the concept of indigeneity came into existence and how it was molded by the colonial misperception of “the savage”, the Enlightenment symbol of “the noble savage,” and the Judeo-Christian otherization of the so-called ‘second family of man.’ This essay will create a timeline of the de-indigenization of the United States through attacks on persons and cultures, delving into genocide, forced migration, forced assimilation, forced sterilization, and racial reassignment. Next it will examine notions of group membership through genetic similarity and the contemporary approach to reservations, illustrating a fundamental disconnect between our imagination of Native American existence and its reality. Indigeneity has been crystallized and otherized through external perception as something sequestered to the past, something prior to civilization and Judeo-Christian modernity; this cloistering has led to the systematic eradication of Native American peoples and culture and the public’s perpetual neglect, imagining that these injustices are something to regret, rather than address.
According to sociologists Michael Omi and Howard Winant, the concept of race came into existence during the colonial era by way of racial formation. Racial formation is “the process by which social, economic, and political forces determine the content and importance of racial categories.” In this formulation, race is treated as a “central axis of social relations.” It plays a universally compelling role in how we move about the world and view others and ourselves in relation to greater society. The notion of identity alone gives rise to kinds of persons, which, today, are defined by race, ethnicity, national origin, sex, gender, sexuality, and religion, as well as class, ideology, interests, and profession. Through the phenomenon of dynamic nominalism, identity categories, and the labels that represent them, we are able to pick out and summarize an individual, rendering their complex identity recognizable, readily intelligible others and themselves. In the context of race, dynamic nominalism manifests as racialization, “the extension of racial meaning to a previously racially unclassified relationship, social practice, or group,” a process that is, by nature, steeped in its historical and ideological context. Since race has little to no genetic bearing, these categories are essentially false; they were simply invented in order to define and justify colonial race relations, extending legitimacy to the dichotomy between the colonizer and the colonized and condoning the exploitation and maltreatment of the latter.
Indigenous racialization is, however, different than other kinds of racial formation. Indigenous identity is specific to the context of the “New World;” the concept does not fully exist in regions with documented histories of ethnic mixing and migration, where there is no real basis for identifying one kind of person as aborigine. The concept of indigeneity emerged in North and South America, the circumpolar regions, Australia, and the Pacific Islands, places that were more or less isolated from Europe, Africa, and Asia prior to 1492. While these regions certainly saw their fair share of ethnic mixing, migration, political conflicts, and cultural development and decline, from the European perspective, these peoples were “discovered” anew and I assert that indigeneity has been crystallized at this moment of discovery ever since. Other racial groups subject to colonization had been known to Europe for much of its history, namely through war, exploration, and trade. African and Asian societies developed alongside Europe and their peoples and cultures existed, perhaps inaccurately or in an exoticized form, in the European consciousness. The ideas of these peoples and cultures were, to a degree, dynamic, shifting over time as they developed and became more familiar to Europeans. Indigenous peoples, on the other hand, were previously unknown to Europeans, Asians, and Africans (with the exception of the Vikings) and did not exist in their conception of the world; they were, thus, met with fear, wonder, and ignorance – and perceptions of these allegedly hostile and crude, yet organic, peoples still persist today.
The major archetypes that exist of the Native American are “the savage” and “the noble savage.” The first European settlers’ simplistic and demeaning initial impression of Native Americans consisted of their being uncivilized, violent, and infantile tribes, who worshipped strange animist deities with odd rituals and festivals, fought amongst themselves, and had no capacity for fine art, literature, or cohesive religious or scientific theory. Europeans were unable to evaluate these foreign cultures by way of their own criteria and were incapable of understanding the intricate social, cultural, political, and historical differences between indigenous nations. Additionally, the first explorers who arrived prior to large-scale settlers had brought with them infectious diseases, such as smallpox, to which indigenous peoples had no immunity. Scientist Charles C. Mann claims that, “at the time of Columbus the Western Hemisphere had been thoroughly painted with the human brush.” In the fifteenth century, over 100 million people lived in the Americas (more than Europe at the time) and as much as two-thirds of the continental United States had once been farmed. Furthermore, while there is debate among sociologists about the extent of ancient indigenous societies’ social and technological advancement, there is extensive indication of the existence of large cities, settlements with terraced lands and irrigation systems, and regional trading highways carved through harsh terrain. Evidence demonstrates that, at the arrival of conquistadors in Mexico, indigenous peoples had already cultivated maize, grown sprawling gardens of tomatoes and beans, and developed astronomy, math, and writing with such momentum and sophistication that they rivaled the Sumerians. Many sociologists argue that those inaccurately assumed to be “isolated bands of hunter-gatherers who had roamed the forests from time immemorial, the ‘primitives’ later explorers met, were actually traumatized refugees, remnant groups of smashed societies.” Looking hopefully to these historical stipulations is, admittedly, evaluating the sophistication of indigenous peoples with regard to European criteria for civilization; however, it is interesting and important to remark on the veritable valley of disparity between European perception and Native reality. When combined with a sense of European colonial paternalism, the impression of Native Americans seared into the occidental consciousness was one of, “new-caught, sullen peoples, Half devil and half child,” the unrefined and the sinful who had to be saved from their own nature by the colonialist civilizing mission.
The trope of “the noble savage” was popularized by French Enlightenment philosophers Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Locke. As a deliberate repudiation of the medieval religious state, Enlightenment political theory advocated that the values by which a nation should operate be decided on rational terms, forming a civil order based on natural laws rather than on religious doctrine. Locke and Rousseau each explored the character of “natural laws” in their discussions of the so-called “state of nature.” Rousseau contended that humans were inherently peaceful and that individuals in the state of nature exercised instinctive equality and lived in harmony with the natural world. Locke and Rousseau are thought to have derived much of their conception of the imaginary state of nature from the Native American traditions of personal autonomy and social equality, envisaging indigenous peoples as dignified insomuch as they were prehistoric relics, “untouched by civilization.” The aspirational and imaginary figure of “the noble savage” has persisted throughout occidental consciousness as an unattainably immaculate, yet condescending, image, serving its purpose as the premise for European political philosophy without considering the reality of indigeneity.
The mythical notion of Native American identity created through the colonial process of racial formation, the European encounter with unknown peoples, and the Enlightenment conception of “the noble savage” is erroneous and crystallized in the time at which it was inaccurately formed. Dynamic nominalism erases the diversity of thought, tradition, and way of life of different indigenous tribes and nations, creating a monolithic conception of the Native American that indiscriminately encompass all indigenous peoples from the Arctic regions of Canada to the southern tip of Chile. Additionally, the tension between the archetypes of “the savage” and “the noble savage” has generated an identity for the Native American that is complicated and impossible to recognize -- purported to be barbaric, crude, and hostile, while also dignified, organic, and pure. However, these incongruous stereotypes situate the Native in a time and space before modern civilization, where they remain untouched by both its sins and its blessings. Thus, the Native is crystallized as an occidental imagination. Those images of the Chief in his feathered headdress, suede fringe, and stone-headed spear, chanting while smacking his bell-adorned feet against the earth, are consistent from colonial-era drawings to twentieth century cowboy and Indian flicks to the contemporary pack of American Spirit cigarettes.
In reconciling the existence of indigenous peoples with their prepossessed worldview, European settlers faced a religious, as well as ontological, struggle. Colonists encountered peoples on a separate continent who appeared and behaved differently than any other humans they had previously met. The Biblical account of genesis supports the notion that the human race shares a common origin and, thus, belongs to the same “family of man” e.g. monogenesis. The reconciliation of mankind’s supposed Biblical origin with the existence of indigenous peoples raised the possibility of polygenesis, that God had potentially created multiple species of “racially distinct” humans. The distinction generated by this consideration separated “children of God” from “others,” putting into question whether indigenous peoples could achieve salvation and whether their essence was congruent with Judeo-Christian identity. “The effectiveness of a racial formation process is determined by the extent to which the racial order is considered obvious, natural, and common sense, something rooted in ‘nature.’” The religious stratification of humanity contributed to the formation of a comprehensive worldview in which some individuals were purported to be “free” and others enslaved. The racial order was not only seen as natural but also obvious and even divine. God had created multiple unequal families of man with the lucid intention of bringing about a colonial slave state. This religious distinction established a precedent for the seemingly justified otherization and ostracization of indigenous peoples. When coupled with the tropes of “the savage” and “the noble savage,” the Native is not only sequestered to a mythical past prior to the advent of civilization but also resides in a period predating the Judeo-Christian salvation of mankind, unable to adapt to modern enlightenment.
The sense that Native American existence is fundamentally incongruent to the formation of a modern, Judeo-Christian, and occidental United States has manifested in a series of state-sponsored mechanisms and projects for indigenous eradication. Native nations attempted to maintain their sovereignty and culture from expanding European settlement and, later, the homogenizing effect of Americanism, the assortment of values aimed at creating a shared American identity, as these regimes necessarily entail certain exclusive socio-cultural norms. The placelessness for indigeneity within Americanism coupled with Native American political, social, and cultural resistance to occidental encroachment has led to state-sponsored or state-tolerated genocide, forced migration, forced assimilation, forced sterilization, the reassignment of racial identity through botched adoptions and genetic quotas, and negligence toward reservations.
General Philip H. Sheridan, head of the Military Division of the Missouri, was appointed by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1867 to combat the Sioux, Cheyenne, Kiowa, and Comanche at the frontier of American and Native land. Sheridan is famous for his dedication to fighting hostile Natives, orchestrating the extermination of the American Buffalo, and for allegedly claiming, "The only good Indians [he] ever saw were dead," which popular history has remembered as, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” There are two extensive studies that have been done on Native American deaths as a direct result of United States policy. The first, sponsored by the United States government, found that 100,000 to 500,000 Natives died defending their land during the post-1776 American Indian Wars, a series of territorial conflicts that formally came to a close in the 1920s. However, when examining those Natives who were killed for sport by colonists, who were deliberately made to contract deadly diseases from infected blankets and such, or who perished from mistreatment and neglect in forced migrations, like the Removals of 1830s, that number skyrocketed to one million to four million dead. This study is generally unable to withstand scrutiny and is discounted by most Natives and sympathizers for allegedly downplaying the tragedies withstood by the Native American people. The second study, carried out by independent researchers, estimated that over one million Natives were killed during the post-1776 American Indian Wars and that anywhere from 10 to 14 million were slaughtered as a direct result of the actions of the United States government.
At the close of the American Indian Wars, the US government changed course from extermination and forced migration of Native peoples to forced assimilation of peoples and extermination of culture and identity by way of “Americanization policies.” The vast majority of these government initiatives were carried out by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), which was founded in 1824 and is still in operation today. These included laws in 1884 to discredit Native shamans as “imposters [with] . . . deceptive . . . practices” and to outlaw “heathen” and “pagan” religious philosophies and rituals and in 1892 to forbid “openly [advocating] Indian beliefs . . . [performing] religious dances, and . . . [being] involved in religious ceremonies.” Additionally, in 1902, the BIA issued the following statement to reservation agents: “You are . . . directed to induce your male Indians to cut their hair . . . The wearing of short hair by the males will be a great step in advance, and will certainly hasten their progress toward civilization.” Additionally, in 1885, Commissioner of Indian Affairs Hiram Price explained that, “it is cheaper to give [Natives] education than to fight them” and the Bureau established Native American boarding schools, for which attendance was mandatory. At these schools, Native children were separated from their families and communities, forbidden from using their birth names, and prohibited from speaking their language or practicing their culture or religion. Instead, they were given new Anglo-American names and made to speak English, cut their hair, study standard subjects, and attend church. Carlisle Indian Industrial School, founded in 1879 in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, was the first of these institutions and served as a model for hundreds of others. The founder of Carlisle School, Army Captain Richard Pratt, made clear that his approach to Native Americans was different than that of General Sheridan: “A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one . . . In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.” The late-nineteenth century approach to indigenous issues sought to humanize and integrate the Native American, but only under the condition that their archaic and reprehensible Native identity be discarded entirely.
In the mid-twentieth century, however, the approach a certain agency of the United States government took to suppressing indigeneity reverted back to extermination of peoples with the epidemic of forced sterilization. In the 1960s and 70s, the state grew concerned with high Native American birth rates and the Indian Health Service (IHS), an agency under the auspices of the US Department of Health and Human Services, took action, seemingly of its own accord. “Some of [the IHS doctors] did not believe that American Indian and other minority women had the intelligence to use other methods of birth control effectively and that there were already too many minority individuals causing problems in the nation.” Therefore, exploiting lax law enforcement and little government oversight concerning the health and safety of Native women, the agency began a crusade of forced sterilization. Native women who visited hospitals for minor operations for conditions like appendicitis and tonsillitis were often coerced into signing consent forms for sterilization procedures or put under general anesthesia and subjected to non-consensual hysterectomies (removals of the uterus) or tubal ligations (severance of the fallopian tubes). Additionally, women who sought temporary contraceptive procedures were given inaccurate descriptions of medical procedures, improper consent forms, or incomplete information regarding sterilization procedures, oftentimes being misinformed that the operations in question were reversible. IHS forced sterilizations began in the 1960s and, even after legislation was passed in 1974 to protect Native women against this human rights violation, the phenomenon continued at least until 1976. Between 1970 and 1976, 25 to 50 percent of Native women were sterilized and, within less than two decades, one out of every four Native women, including many less than 21 years old, had been sterilized without their knowledge or consent. While forced sterilization was not federal policy, many advocates for indigenous peoples feel strongly that the state endangered Native women through negligence and a lack of oversight and investigation into the practices of the IHS. Additionally, it seems unlikely that a phenomenon with this much reach and impact went totally unnoticed by non-IHS officials for at least 14 years; one can reasonably speculate that those within the government who were aware of or suspected force sterilization was occurring found it more advantageous for themselves, the government, or the country to tolerate it rather than take action.
The first manner in which the state has contributed to the reassignment of Native American racial identity is through fostering the conditions that motivate the alteration of children’s heritage during the adoption process. In the mid-1950s and 1960s, the US government implemented several policies to help Native children get adopted, given that Native children were considered by the American public to be racially less desirable and reservation orphanages were generally underfunded, overcrowded, and rife with neglect and physical, psychological, and sexual abuse. From 1958 to 1967, a join effort by the BIA, the US Children’s Bureau, and the Child Welfare League of America placed 395 Native children in white adoptive homes. The next initiative, the Adoption Resource Exchange of North America, aided hundreds of Native children in being adopted by non-Native families. However, while social scientific studies of non-native transracial adoptions (e.g. black and Asian children adopted into white households) demonstrate that they can work well and are, often times, in the “best interest of the child,” many studies of Native American and (Canadian) First Nations transracial adoptions demonstrate that feelings of cultural displacement or dysphoria are common and can do real psychological harm to indigenous children. This, along with the notion that nothing “is more vital to the continued existence and integrity of Indian tribes than their children,” inspired the passage of the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), designed as a reparatory measure to redress past injustices perpetrated by the federal and state governments. The law created a separate, less stringent set of rules of child-welfare cases involving “Indian children,” who are defined as those “eligible for membership” to a tribe or nation to which their biological parents were members. In a class-action lawsuit, three sets of Native parents, the Oglala Sioux Tribe, and the Rosebud Sioux Tribe challenged the systematic removal of Native children from their biological parents in Pennington County, South Dakota. The plaintiffs argued that removals are based on insufficient evidence and that Native Americans do not have access to timely and proper hearings, which deny them their right to due process under the Constitution. In South Dakota, Alaska, Montana, Oklahoma, and Wyoming, Native children are 11 times more likely to be placed in foster care than the average American child. The ICWA is meant to rectify the phenomenon of Native children being systematically taken from their biological parents.
There are two major problems with the Indian Child Welfare Act. First, its biological criteria are hardly appropriate for determining tribal membership and, second, it actively endangers Native American children. The only criterion for whether a child will be considered under the ICWA is requisite biological ancestry; religious, cultural, linguistic, and political factors are not taken into account. This has proven to be disruptive in terms of healthy and stable development because many predominantly-nonindigenous children deemed to be Native have actually been removed from foster homes to which they have strong emotional and personal attachments. For example, in 2016, a six-year-old girl from California named Lexi, who had never lived on a reservation and did not speak a Native language or practice a Native religion, was taken from her white foster home and relocated to a Native home in Utah because she was 1.5% Choctaw, a decision that was upheld by the Second District Court of Appeal. Lexi initially could not be found a Native foster home, given that there are few available Native American foster homes, a reality that the ICWA seems to have ignored, and had, therefore, spent the past four years in a foster home with a white family to whom she had been deemed to be “extremely bonded and attached.” Conversely, a child who was fully acculturated to a certain tribe or nation but did not meet the biological criterion would not be eligible under the ICWA and would not be given priority with regard to being placed in a Native home, even if it would be best for the child’s wellbeing. Additionally, if a neglect or abuse case involves a non-Native child, Child Protective Services officers must make “reasonable efforts” to keep the family together, which generally consist in social or rehabilitation services to struggling parents. In cases of “aggravated circumstances,” which are usually limited to physical, psychological, or sexual abuse, children are not sent back to dangerous homes. However, for Native children, the ICWA requires “active efforts” to keep Native families together and it does not include an “aggravated circumstances” provision. The ICWA, thus, prioritizes the integrity of the Native family over child welfare and had made it so Native children are more likely to be returned to abusive households and endure sustained abuse.
Before and after the passage of the ICWA, the United States has witnessed a phenomenon of Native American children’s race being reassigned during the foster and adoption processes. Before the ICWA, many Native children were not adopted or found homes through foster care and were sent to live in orphanages. Many social workers held the reasonable belief that parentless children would have a better chance of success in life if they were recognized as white instead of as Native American and they acted on this assumption. My mother was born on April 4th, 1967, in Seattle, Washington, to a Blackfeet-Cree father, Ken Paul, and a white mother, Judy Caldwell. They had met at a bank in Anacortes, where my grandmother had been working as a teller. The two fell in love and Judy soon became pregnant. However, Ken and Judy did not get married because of personal reasons, so, while she was pregnant, my grandmother moved to Seattle alone. At the hospital, a social worker convinced Judy, given that she was unwed, to put her child up for adoption. The social worker told my grandmother that, if she returned one year later with a husband and a stable job, she would be able to petition to regain custody of her child. Without Judy’s knowledge or consent, the social worker changed my mother’s race from “Native American/Caucasian” to “French/Caucasian” and the hospital put her up for adoption as “Baby Dianne”, instead of “Baby Caldwell.” My mother was soon adopted by John and Carla Fitzgerald, an Irish Catholic couple who had met while serving together in the US Navy. Meanwhile, Judy married another man, a family friend 27 years her senior with whom she was not in love, and began working once again as a bank teller. When my grandmother returned to reclaim her daughter, the hospital lied to her, claiming that her baby had died of smallpox, which my mother had contracted but it had not proven deadly. Shortly after I was born, I fell ill from a mysterious disease, which we never were able to identify. In order to discover whether her family had any congenital diseases, my mother hired a private investigator to locate her birth parents. It was only at this point, at 30 years old, did my mother realize that she was half Blackfeet-Cree Native American. The PI informed her that she was aware of hundreds of cases similar to my mother’s, in which Native children were reassigned “French” identities in particular, and many members of the Blackfeet Nation have similar stories to my mother’s. Unfortunately, no formal research has been done to investigate how many adopted Native American children’s races were re-assigned at birth but, before and after the passing of the ICWA, it has been a commonplace practice. Additionally, those wishing to circumvent the strict and, oftentimes, detrimental ICWA regulations have been prompted to change a child’s race on their documentation. Children like Lexi, with little Native blood and no tribal connections, are oftentimes marked as fully white in order to guarantee them a good foster home as quickly and efficiently as possible. Additionally, due to the unreasonably “active” efforts CPS must make in order to keep Native children with their families, even in cases of “aggravated circumstances,” social workers have additional motivation to reassign a child’s race for more easy adoption.
Furthermore, racial identity is sometimes changed in child custody cases in order to avoid the ICWA. For example, in Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl (2013), Baby Veronica’s mother, Christina Maldonado, and her lawyer forged her daughter’s paperwork and omitted her and her father’s, Dusten Brown’s, membership to the Cherokee Nation. They did so in order to transfer custody of Veronica to white adoptive parents, even though Brown had not formally relinquished his parental rights. Due to the historical lack of protection for Native children and the problematic nature of the Indian Child Welfare Act, thousands of Native Americans have been stripped of their racial identities and been reassigned as white. In many cases, it is probably best, in terms of basic welfare, for a Native child to be adopted into a white household, whether they are escaping abuse or only slightly genetically Native. However, the stripping away of Native identity has robbed countless individuals and their children of tribal membership, the capacity to connect with their heritage in a personal sense, and the opportunity to contribute to the process of cultural preservation, opportunities that they would be able to pursue on their own terms, regardless of their cultural upbringing, if they are aware of their hereditary identity.
The second way in which the US government has altered the racial identity of Native Americans is through the BIA’s imposing a blood quotient level requirement in granting membership to Native tribes. Native American nations and tribes were offered official status by the United States government throughout the nineteenth century. That status accorded members certain rights to land, wealth, some degree of sovereignty, and, later, the capacity to practice their traditions and religions and design school curricula to teach Native children their tribe or nation’s history and language. In order to justify granting certain individuals within the United States special rights (Natives were not considered American citizens until 1924), the government imposed certain genetic requirements in order to determine tribal membership. While biology can demonstrate Native lineage, this form of determination imposes an occidental understanding of membership in a Native context. When Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) placated President Donald Trump by taking a DNA test to prove her Native American ancestry, it turned out that she had some indigenous ancestor (who could have been from anywhere in the Americas) six to ten generations ago. In response, Cherokee Nation Secretary of State Chuck Hoskin Jr. claimed that, “[Warren’s test] makes a mockery out of DNA tests and its legitimate uses while also dishonoring legitimate tribal governments and their citizens, whose ancestors are well documented and whose heritage is proven . . . Senator Warren is undermining tribal interests with her continued claims of tribal heritage.” For children who are stripped of their Native identities, genetic tests can be useful; however, Native American tradition ultimately accords membership through lineage and cultural identity. PhD candidate in Genomics and Health at Vanderbilt University Krystal Tsosie, a member of the Diné, or Navajo, Nation, argues that, “To ascribe any power to a DNA-test result disempowers those Native Americans who do live according to their traditions. Native American identity is not one of biology, but of culture.” Through granting authority to determine tribal membership to blood quotient levels over heredity or cultural ties, the BIA and the United States government disrespect the manner in which Natives choose to accord membership and discount the importance of culture and community in Native American identity. Indigeneity is reduced to a percentage of DNA whose origin is undetermined and whose existence can be totally arbitrary, in turn, harming those, like Lexi, who are essentially incidentally Native and those individuals who live according to Native tradition, keeping indigeneity alive through their actions rather than simply their existence. In this way, the state is able to essentially continue the Americanization project, nominally recognizing individuals’ indigeneity without according legitimacy to Native culture.
Additionally, Tsosie reminds us that, “Crucially, ‘Native American’ is a political designation that confers rights. If that designation becomes tied to a DNA test, it could threaten those rights . . . most tribal groups refuse to deposit their DNA in public databases. They are concerned that genomic information might be used to cast doubt on and threaten the sovereign status that allows members to access resources - such as water, education, or health care - as stipulated by treaties with the federal government. They want to make sure that tribal communities, not scientists and statistics, remain in control of the system.” Between genocide, forced sterilization, and the facts that most tribes are extremely genetically homogenous, Native American tradition forbids marrying those who are more biologically close to oneself than a fourth cousin, and as many individuals are not registered as Native American, either by way of race reassignment or choosing not to engage in reservation life, the number of those with predominantly-Native blood quotient levels is stipulated to be dwindling. My mother claims that these phenomena are part of a larger operation that she refers to as “the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ long game”. By way of natural ethnic mixing and artificial factors, the number of individuals who will satisfy BIA blood quotient criteria will decrease over time. Allegedly, the federal government regrets many of its territorial treaties with Native Nations, given that much of the protected land encompasses fresh water, vast forests, and oil reserves that have yet to be exploited or consumed for profit. Additionally, many Natives hold the notion that indigeneity has always been approached by the United States as a problem to conquer, either by way of extermination of persons or eradication of culture. The “long game” thus consists in the systematic de-indigenization of the United States in terms of peoples and land, fulfilling the goals heroes of Americanization, like General Philip H. Sheridan and Captain Richard Pratt, initially set out to achieve.
The way in which reservations are seen by the state and by the average American and reality of reservation life only exacerbates the systematic disenfranchisement of Native peoples and the slow death of Native identity. The term “reservation” has two problematic connotations that play into the American myth of indigeneity. The idea of a “reserve” for Native American life echoes that of a nature reserve and it also connotes that the territory and the people that inhabit it are an outlier from or fortress against the rest of the United States. In a certain sense, reservations exist to allow safe spaces for the practice of Native traditions and ways of life, environments not encroached upon by the threats of Americanization or cultural or racial insult. Simultaneously, the term mythologizes and otherizes the reservation itself and those who inhabit it; it becomes an imaginary reserve for the fantastic pre-civilization state of nature, separate and impenetrable from the outside. One friend of mine once described the reservation near his home as “[Natives’] space to do whatever they do.” The idea of the reservation allows for the spatial sequestering of the Native American to a separate and unreal place within the general American consciousness. The temporal and spatial sequestering of indigeneity can be subconsciously justified by the near total lack of education we receive regarding Native peoples and their histories and cultures. This sequestering has also contributed to the attitude of the American government toward reservations, which toes the line between respecting sovereignty and willful abandonment. For example, education on reservations, which is guaranteed to Native Americans by treaty as a right, is culturally and basically inadequate; in fact, experts refer to the state of Native education as nothing less than a “crisis.” Across the country, Native American students face higher rates of discipline than most other racial groups and their dropout rate is twice the national average. Native students face commonplace discrimination, there are few Native teachers in schools to provide them support and act as role models, and, even on reservations, there are limited lessons of Native history, language, and culture. For decades, the United States Congress has allocated funds to Native American education; however, the amount has been steadily decreasing on a per-pupil basis and there is little oversight of how the money is actually spent. Additionally, many reservations are food and healthcare deserts and there are few support structures for addiction, mental health, or socio-economic mobility. Therefore, in addition to a lack of quality education, Native reservations face abnormally high rates of poverty, drug abuse, alcoholism, and diabetes.
Furthermore, law enforcement on reservations is particularly lax, which has contributed to an epidemic of violence against of Native American women. 84% of Native women will experience violence in their lifetimes, as opposed to 71% of white women, and the number of missing and murdered Native women is disproportionately large. “It’s not safe to be a Native woman,” says Rep. Rae Peppers, a four-term Montana legislator and member of the Crow tribe, “And it’s not taken seriously. This is an epidemic.” In response, the campaign for #MMIW (Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women) was launched as a part of #MeToo, which has brought national attention to the issue. The FBI reported 5,711 Indigenous women missing nationwide in 2016 and, in 2017, they counted 5,646 missing Indigenous women; however, as of June 30, 2018, the number has decreased to 2,758 thanks to public pressure to investigate these cases. Additionally, as of last week, the US Senate passed Savanna’s Act, a bill designed to combat violence against Native women, spearheaded by Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND). That said, on some reservations, Native women are still murdered at ten times the rate of the national average, they are subject to rampant domestic violence and sexual assault, and their claims and disappearances are more likely to go uninvestigated than women of most other racial groups.
Indigeneity has been subject to religious and cultural otherization and temporal and spatial sequestering, which has rendered it prior, separate, and incongruent with Americanism. Thus, the history of the United States is marred with the systematic de-indigenization of persons and land and, yet, Native Americans are continuously omitted from American educational curricula and racial debate. The colonial misconception of the indigenous savage and the Enlightenment trope of “the noble savage” crystallized the image and identity of the Native American, limiting their existence to one preceding the advent of civilization. The religious justification for colonial racial exploitation and subjugation further ostracized the Native from modernity, making them not only prior but also inconvertible to Judeo-Christian enlightenment. These notions have given rise to continual efforts at indigenous erasure, oscillating between extermination of persons, by way of genocide, forced migration, and forced sterilization, and eradication of culture and identity, through forced assimilation and racial reassignment. Additionally, the occidental conception of the reservation has further sequestered the Native to a mythological space, which allows the American government and people to neglect Native American existence and the degradation of indigenous quality of life. As a result of crystallization and mythologicalization, combined with widespread ignorance regarding Native American history, culture, and experience, the destruction of American indigeneity has become, in the American consciousness, something that happened, rather than an ongoing process that is still happening. However, as Americanism expands, we are starting to become more aware of the issues facing Native Americans, as they fit, at least as addenda, to our present social justice and environmental movements. #MeToo provided a platform for #MMIW; a discussion around cultural appropriation and suppression has stopped white Americans from dressing as Indians for Halloween and has allowed for Native teenagers to wear cultural dress at their high school graduations; a call for more diversity in government propped up the campaigns of the first two Native women ever elected to Congress, Ho-Chunk Sharice Davids and Laguna Pueblo Deb Haaland; and our focus on climate change has highlighted the work of indigenous activists, like the Standing Rock Sioux. As American identity opens itself up to a wider range of values, ideologies, and manifestations of self and as we move away from the myth of infallibility previously ingrained in our national story, we can, perhaps, re-examine the place of indigeneity in the American consciousness and step aside for Native voices to decide their place in a this new space.
Alter, Charlotte. “Lexi: ICWA Adoption, Custody Fight Over Choctaw Girl.” Time, Time, 28 Mar. 2016, time.com/4269542/inside-the-agonizing-custody-fight-over-lexi-page/.
Appiah, Kwame Anthony. “Race, Biology and the New Genomics.” unpublished lecture.
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