The Friends of the Indian movement was fueled by rhetoric, religion, and “sympathetic” rich people- the three R’s of relations between the United States and Native American Indians in the latter part of the 1800s. Under the guise of sympathy, the friends of the Indian fought hard for the cultural assimilation and subsequent Americanization of the native peoples. Their logic was simple and absolute: assimilate the Indians or they will be destroyed by The United States of America. With the lens of hindsight, it can be seen that the two concepts are rather identical.
In The Beginning Was War
The battles between the United States of America and the tribes of the native peoples came to a head towards the latter part of the 1800s. Tensions were high as the United States fought through its civil war. Even though a major part of the battles were fought between the North and the South, events such as the Dakota uprising escalated tensions and strained relations between the U.S. and the Natives.
In 1862 the Dakota Indians, in an act of frustration and self-preservation, attacked a small community of white settlers. In response to the 500 American settler deaths, President Lincoln ordered the death penalty on some 300 Dakota. This order resulted in the largest mass execution in U.S. history. 38 Dakota warriors were sent to the gallows on December 26, 1862.
This was not the only transgression between the United States and the multitude of tribes west of the proclamation line. The Snake Wars lasted from 1864-1868. These wars are often caricatured in the old Western movies. The Snake Indians inhabited the Snake River along the Oregon trails. This term was a blanket term used by wagon-trailers as they made their way west. It became a derogatory term to describe the Oregon Trail raiders. From the white settler’s prospective, these Indians were violent and unreasonable. From the Natives’ perspective, the white settler’s just couldn’t take a hint. Eventually volunteer armies pacified the Snake Indians. This made trade and travel glorious for everybody. Everybody, that is, except for the Native Americans.
There were multiple times the U.S. attempted to make amends with the Native American peoples but time and time again the federal government partook in what ignorant children call “Indian giving”—I call them ignorant because up until now, I believed the term to be representative of the Indian culture (being ignorant myself). Perhaps the term should be rebranded to “giving to the Indians,” with the new definition being: ”To make temporary agreements, under the guise of permanence, until the actual value of said agreement is allocated.’ After this assessment of resources is sufficient to withdraw past agreements, use force to change the terms of said agreements.”
To return from digression, this new definition of Indian Giving is directly represented in case of The Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868. This treaty assigned the Black Hills and a large part of what is now the northern mid-west region of the United States to the Lakota people forever. The land was theirs and could never be taken back by the U.S. government. The United States honored this claim until the discovery of gold by private prospectors. In 1877 the Black Hills were seized by the reaching arms of the United States and incorporated into the ever expanding concept of Manifest Destiny. Recently, in the 1980’s, the Lakota people defeated the U.S. government and were granted a cash settlement for the land and interest acquired since 1877. The Lakota people refused, expecting their land, not a mere paper “equivalent.”
Since its inception, the United States had been at war with, well, everybody. If it wasn’t the Indians, it was the Spanish, or the French, or the British, or any other people who laid claim to what is now the continental United States. War is extremely tiring for the people who have to fight it. In the late 1860s and 1870s the U.S. government placed a great deal of emphasis on reversing that idea.
Grant: Indian Friend and Foe
President Grant’s famous slogan “Let Us Have Peace” gave hope for more subtle relations with the Native Americans—this is decidedly less memorable than his other, more aimed, slogan of 1968 “Vote As You Shoot,” which couldn’t have been all that thought out. The latter slogan, though primarily applied to the healing union of North and South, can be viewed as his policy on Indian Affairs.
Grant was a veteran of battles both with and against the Native Americans. He was a man of honor–despite his various presidential scandals– and pride. He respected the Native Americans on paper and went to great lengths to aid in their participation with the civilized United States.
Grant felt for the Indians and helped in several ways. He appointed Ely Parker, a Seneca Indian, to be Commissioner of Indian Affairs. Parker was the first Native American to act as commissioner. Parker and the president worked, with success, to decrease the number of battles with Indians. He sifted through bureaucratic nonsense in order to dissolve the mistreatment of Indians. In doing so, he faced a question that a lot of “civilized” Natives would also encounter:
Whether it has been well that I have sought civilization with its bothersome concomitants and whether it would not be better even now to return to the darkness and most sacred wilds (if any such can be found) of our country and there to vegetate and expire silently, happily, and forgotten as do the birds of the air and the beasts of the field? The thought is a happy one, but perhaps impracticable.
Aside from Grant’s Native American nomination, he also made a point to actively meet with tribal leaders at the White House. Leaders such as the famous Red Cloud called upon the president to work towards peace. As bloody territory battles and enraged meetings with Native figureheads risked becoming mundane in their frequency, it became clear that a new course of action was necessary.
Full Scale Assimilation Begins
The Indian Appropriations act of 1871 put an end to the separation between the United States and the Indians. This act removed the individual sovereignty of native tribes, which effectively made all of the Indians wards of the U.S. Government. The act specifically did not allow (Edited on July 17th) treaties to be made with any individual Indian nation. Initially the act was crafted in an effort to protect those sovereignties from white settlers who were invading past reservation treaties.
In reality this act lay—or perhaps reinforced—the foundation for the assimilation and civilization of the Native peoples. By dealing with all of the Native tribes as a whole, the U.S. removed the individual identities of each nation. They turned thousands of cultures into just one single Indian problem.
Where there’s a problem, there are people to reform it and shape the predicament into something that creates a lot less guilt. The friends of the Indian movement (the friends) believed strongly that they could help alleviate the ”Indian Problem” by putting in place a system so as to help the Indians from facing their ultimate demise. Their solution: Assimilation.
The Friends were not the first U.S. group to actively employ the use of assimilation in regard to the Native peoples. The concept is about as old as the colonies themselves. There is even a Wikipedia page titled “Cultural Assimilation of the Native Americans.”
Composed of various rich white folk such as elected government officials, “reformance artists,” and concerned philanthropists, the Friends met yearly to solve the Indian problem. The group used careful rhetoric, lack of critical thinking skills, and political power to devise a threefold plan.
First, the Indians must be taught to live in a civilized manner. The friends called for Native Americans to learn trade skills and step away from their traditional hunter/gatherer lifestyle. Secondly, the children of the Native Americans were to be educated into proper American lifestyle. The emphasis here was to root out the cultural bad habits— the ones which would not be profitable. Thirdly and most importantly, the U.S. government was to enact an allotment policy to aide in further assimilating the Indians.
Carlisle Industrial Indian School was perhaps the most infamous of the boarding schools for Native American children. It was perhaps best known for its use of before-and-after photographs which displayed the cultural transformation that took place within the Native American Youth. Richard Henry Pratt, founder of Carlisle Industrial, said to
Transfer the savage-born infant to the surroundings of civilization and he will grow to possess a civilized language and habit
The use of planned rhetoric by the Friends of the Indian was profound. On one hand, they openly use terms such as “assimilation” without any fear of disrespecting cultural traditions while simultaneously referring to these people as savages devoid of culture and proper tradition- If only they knew of the great civilizations, such as Cahokia, that existed before the creation of the United stated. Perhaps then they might have appreciated and even learned from these so called “savages”.
Welcome to the Reservation
The Dawes Act of 1887 was a further example of the United States “giving to Indians.” The act called for the redistribution of Reservation lands. The individual tribal members and families were given a portion of the total Reservation lands and any excess was held in a trust for 25 years. After this time period the Reservation’s Tribe could sell the land. This was done in hopes that the land would be sold to white settlers so as to further encourage assimilation.
The curiousness of the Friends of the Indian really knows no bounds. One example of these misguided do-gooders is that of Alice Fletcher or, as referred to by the Nimíipuu (Nez Perce), The Measuring Woman. Alice was fascinated by the American Indians. She worked in museums, worked directly with several tribes, and continuously acted as an ambassador between the federal and tribal governments. She cared for the American Indians. But despite this, even her best-intentioned fulfillment of duty would be highly destructive to the tribes that she worked with.
Consider the case of the Nimíipuu (Nez Perce). After the horrible chase and subsequent surrender by the famous Chief Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt (Chief Joseph), the Nimíipuu people signed treaties with the U.S. government in order to reserve a bit of land for themselves. After the Dawes Act was passed, the measuring woman soon came. Sent on a special task by the U.S. Government, Alice Fletcher was on the scene. She came with the specific purpose of allotting the lands of the Nimíipuu.
In doing this, Alice showed incredible conviction to her beliefs. She, like the rest of the Friends of the Indian Reformers, believed strongly that they were saving the Native population from the grinding wheels of American Society. They believed that the best way to save them was to transform them into something new. What they did not understand was that no matter how hard they tried, they wouldn’t be able to change thousands of years of rich history and culture without severely damaging the intelligence, dignity, and beauty of an entire people.
The idea of an “Indian problem” was itself a problem. Just as the term Indian giving has been reassigned from its proper meaning “giving to the Indians,” the Indian problem really is a problem created by the white majority; “The White Imperialist”—strange how the term has not seen its rounds.
The more I’ve visited and revisited the United States “handling” of the Native Americans the more I believe that the whole situation was completely out of line. In fact, it has been literally out of line on several occasions: Crossing the proclamation lines, branding the numerous tribes as one group of Indians Native American, and making promises, trusts, only to break them when the right amount of raw material rears its golden head.
For those who will say “but what about the blood shed by the Indians,” I would like to remind them of the fact that this was their home. We came in without knocking or taking off our shoes and remodeled their entire existence, not to mention systematically eradicating many of the natives in existence at the time! The only “right” that we had to do such a thing lies in our professional use of refined military equipment.
Perhaps a better solution to the “Indian Problem” can be to investigate with open minds how best to cultivate a better understanding. This is the solution for many of the world’s problems. Though it is a simple policy, when you take a deep breath and learn about the ways of others, it will always amount to a better understanding and perhaps even less bloodshed.
To close I would like to say that any movement in which “friendship” is a tool used to manipulate the minds of others is not, and will never be, true friendship.
Additional Sources and Reading:
Calloway, Colin G. One Vast Winter Count: The Native American West Before Lewis and Clark (University of Nebraska Press, 2003)
Cook-Lynn, Elizabeth. New Indians Old Wars (Urbana-Champaign, Illinois: Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois, 2007)
Fixico, Donald. Daily Life of Native Americans in the 20th Century (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2006)
Prucha, Fancis Paul. Americanizing the American Indians (Cambridge, Massachusetts: President and Fellows of Harvard College, 1973)
Smith, Paul Chaat. Everything You Know About Indians is Wrong (Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2009)
MariJo Moore, ed., Genocide of the Mind: New Native American Writing (New York, New York: Nation Books, 2003)
Eric Garnsworth, ed., Sovereign Bones: New Native American Writing Vollume II (New York, New York: Nation Books, 2003)
Forbes, Jack D. “Blood Quantum: A Relic of Racism and Termination.” The People’s Path, November 20, 2000, http://www.yvwiiusdinvnohii.net/Articles2000/JDForbes001126Blood.htm.