Race and Ethnic Relations
Department of Sociology
University of Nevada, Reno
• The pattern of land seizure, subjugation, assimilation, and resistance to domination has been repeated with indigenous peoples in nations throughout the world. Indigenous peoples on almost every continent are familiar with the patterns of subjugation and the pressure to assimilate.
• The common term American Indians tells us more about the Europeans who explored North America than it does about the native people. The label reflects the initial explorers’ confusion in believing that they had arrived in “the Indies” of the Asian continent. The term “Indian” and most other names of major Native American groups are terms of convenience applied by White Americans. In most history books, not one of the major Native American groups is recorded under its own name. For example, the “Navaho” call themselves Dine, meaning “The People.” The renaming of Native Americans by outsiders is a result of their subordination and suggests one major difference between colonized groups and European immigrants: Colonized peoples have had little control over the naming process.
• Although they were perceived as homogenous and grouped together as “Indians,” Native Americans are a culturally diverse group of over 500 tribes, including the Inuit (Eskimos), Cherokee, Dine (Navaho), Chippewa, and Sioux. Tribes differed substantially in regard to religious beliefs and practices, language, dress, hairstyles, political organization, social structures, gender roles, world view, and living conditions in response to the environment, which varied from forests, deserts, mountains, plains, and coasts to subarctic and arctic areas.
• The 2000 Census showed that there were 2,475,956 Native Americans in the United States—an increase of 32 percent over the 1990s. In 2000, there were an additional 1.6 million people who identified themselves as belonging to two or more races that included American Indian. The states with the largest Native American populations are California, Oklahoma, and Arizona.
Early European Contacts
• The Native Americans have been misunderstood and ill treated by their conquerors for several centuries. The European immigrants who followed Christopher Columbus did not understand the native people any more than the Native Americans comprehended their invaders. But the Europeans had superior weaponry, and the diseases they brought wiped out huge numbers of indigenous people. Thus, it was the mistakes and misunderstandings of the English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese that prevailed.
• The first explorers of the Western Hemisphere came long before Columbus and Leif Eriksson. Native Americans are believed to have migrated to North America from Asia 10,000 to 35,000 years prior to white settlers. The ancestors of today’s Native Americans were hunters in search of wild game, including mammoths and long-horned bison. For thousands of years, these people spread through the Western Hemisphere, adapting to its many physical environments.
• Columbus commented in his diary, “It appears to me that the people [of the New World] are ingenious and would be good servants. . . . These people are very unskilled in arms. . . . With fifty men they could all be subjected to do all that one wishes.” The words of the first European explorer were prophetic. The period between initial European contact and the formation of the United States was characterized by cultural and physical conflict between Native Americans and Whites.
• Although Native Americans did have warfare between tribes, their conflicts differed significantly from those of their conquerors. The Europeans launched large campaigns against the tribes, resulting in mass mortality. In contrast, in the Americans, the tribes limited warfare to specific campaigns designed for very specific purposes, such as recapturing some resource or avenging some loss.
• The number of Native Americans north of the Rio Grande, estimated at about 10 million in 1500, gradually decreased as their food sources disappeared and they fell victim to diseases such as measles, smallpox, and influenza. By 1800, the Native American population was about 600,000 and by 1900 it had been reduced to less than 250,000.
• Not all of the initial contacts led to deliberate loss of life. Some missionaries traveled well in advance of settlement in efforts to Christianize the Native Americans before they came into contact with other, less tolerant Europeans. Fur trappers, vastly outnumbered by Native Americans, were forced to learn their customs, but these trappers established routes of commerce that more and more Whites were to follow.
Treaties and Warfare
• The United States formulated a policy during the nineteenth century toward Native Americans that followed the precedents established during the colonial period. The government policy was not to antagonize the Native Americans unnecessarily. Yet if the needs of tribes interfered with the needs, or even the whims, of Whites, Whites were to have precedence.
• For example, the exploits of the Forty-Niners, the nineteenth-century gold miners in northern California, have long been glorified. However, the areas they entered near Sacramento were inhabited by 150,000 native people. Authorities offered bounties to the settlers for the heads of American Indians, and the state spent about $1 million to reimburse people for the bullets used to shoot them. Within 25 years, the population plummeted to about 30,000.
• The tribes were viewed as separate nations to be dealt with by treaties arrived at through negotiations with the federal government. Although this policy seems fair-minded, it was clear from the beginning that the White people’s government would deal harshly with the tribal groups that refused to agree to treaties.
• Federal relations with the Native Americans were the responsibility of the secretary of war; consequently, when the Bureau of Indian Affairs was created in 1824 to coordinate the governments relations with the tribes, it was placed in the War Department.
• White settlers viewed the Native Americans as biologically and morally inferior and labeled them as uncivilized “savages” and “heathens” in order to justify their genocide, forced migration, and forced assimilation.
1) Indian Removal Act
• The Indian Removal Act, passed in 1830, called for the relocation of all Eastern tribes across the Mississippi River. The act was very popular with Whites because it opened more land to settlement through annexation of tribal land. Almost all Whites felt that Native Americans had no right to block progress, defining progress as movement by White society. Among the largest groups relocated were the five tribes of the Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee, and Seminole, who were resettled in what is now Oklahoma. The movement, lasting more that a decade, has been called the Trail of Tears because of the tribes left their ancestral lands under the harshest conditions.
2) Dawes Act
• The federal government tried to limit the functions of tribal leaders. If tribal institutions were weakened, it was felt, the Native Americans would assimilate more rapidly.
• The government’s intention to merge the various tribes into White society was unmistakably demonstrated in the 1887 Dawes Act (or General Allotment Act), which bypassed tribal leaders and proposed to turn tribal members into individual landowners. Each family was given up to 160 acres under the government’s assumption that, with land, they would become more like the White homesteaders who were then flooding the unsettled areas of the West.
• The effect of the Allotment Act on the Native Americans was disastrous. To guarantee that they would remain homesteaders, the act prohibited their selling of the land for 25 years; however, no effort was made to acquaint them with the skills necessary to make the land productive. Many tribes were not accustomed to cultivating land, considered such labor undignified, and they received no assistance in adapting to homesteading.
3) The Reorganization Act
• The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 (also known as the Wheeler-Howard Act) recognized the need to use, rather than ignore, tribal identity. However, the goal was still assimilation, rather than a movement toward a pluralistic society.
• Under the Reorganization Act, tribes could adopt a written constitution and elect a tribal council with a head. This system imposed foreign values and structures. Under it, the elected tribal leader represented an entire reservation, which might include several tribes, some hostile to one another. Further, the leader had to be elected by majority rule, a concept alien to many tribes. Many full-blooded Native Americans resented the provision that mixed-bloods were to have full voting rights.
• Although the Reorganization act recognized the right of Native Americans to approve or reject some actions taken on their behalf, the act still maintained substantial non-Native American control over the reservations. The tribal governments owed their existence not to their people but to the BIA.
4) The Termination Act
• The Termination Act of 1953 originated in ideas that were meant to benefit Native Americans. The BIA commissioner, John Collier, has expressed concern in the 1930s over extensive government control over tribal affairs. In 1947, congressional hearings were held to determine which tribes had the economic resources to be relieved of federal control and assistance. The policy proposed at that time was an admirable attempt to give Native Americans greater autonomy and at the same time to reduce federal expenditures, a goal popular among taxpayers.
• Unfortunately, the Termination Act emphasized reducing costs and ignored individual needs. According to the act, federal services such as medical care, schools, and road equipment were supposed to be withdrawn gradually. Instead, when the Termination Act’s provisions began to go into effect, federal services were stopped immediately, with minimal coordination between local government agencies and the tribes to determine whether the services could be continued by other means.
5) The Employee Assistance Program
• The depressed economic conditions of reservation life might lead one to expect government initiatives to attract business and industry to locate on or near reservations. The government could provide tax incentives that would eventually pay for themselves. However, such proposals have not been advanced. Rather than take jobs to the Native Americans, the federal government decided to lead the more highly motivated away from the reservation. This policy has further devastated the reservations’ economic potential.
• In 1952, the BIA began programs to relocate young Native Americans. One of these programs, after 1962, was called the Employment Assistance Program (EAP). Assistance centers were created in Chicago, Cleveland, Dallas, Denver, Los Angeles, Oakland, San Jose, Oklahoma City, Tulsa, and Seattle; in some cities, the Native American population increased as much as fivefold in the 1950s, primarily because of the EAP.
• The EAP’s primary provision was for the relocation, individually or in families, at government expense, to urban areas where job opportunities were greater than those on the reservations. Although the BIA stressed that the EAP was voluntary, it was imposed as a consequence of economic pressures.
• The program was not a success for many Native Americans, who found urban experience unsuitable or unbearable. Although more than 100,000 people had participated in the program and 200,000 (one-fourth of the Native American population) had moved to urban areas, numerous Native Americans returned to their home reservations.
• The movement of Native Americans into urban areas has had many unintended consequences (e.g., brain drain, pan-Indianism, continued assistance to nonreservation Native Americans).
• Pan-Indianism refers to intertribal social movements in which several tribes, joined by political goals but not by kinship, unite in a common identity. Today, these pan-Indian efforts are most vividly seen in cultural efforts and political protests of government policies.
• Proponents of this movement see the tribes as captive nations or internal colonies. They generally see the enemy as the federal government. Until recently, pan-Indian efforts usually failed to overcome the cultural differences and distrust between tribal groups. Although there are some exceptions (e.g., the Ghost Dance), it took nearly a century and a half of BIA policies to accomplish a significant level of unification.
• A recent and the most visible pan-Indian group is the American Indian Movement (AIM), which initially created a patrol to monitor police actions and document charges of police brutality. Eventually, it promoted programs for alcohol rehabilitation and school reform. By 1972, AIM was nationally known not for its neighborhood-based reforms but for its aggressive confrontations with the BIA and law enforcement agencies.
Native Americans Today
1) Religious and Spiritual Expression
• Like other aspects of Native American culture, the expression of religion is diverse, reflecting the variety of tribal traditions and the assimilationist pressure of the Europeans. Initially, missionaries and settlers expected Native Americans simply to forsake their traditions for European Christianity, and, as in the case of the Ghost Dance, sometimes force was used to do so.
• Today’s Native Americans are asking that their cultural traditions be recognized as an expression of pluralist rather than assimilationist coexistence.
• Today, many Protestant churches and Roman Catholic parishes with large tribal congregations incorporate customs such as the sacred pipe ceremony, native incenses, ceremonies affirming care for the earth, and services and hymns in native languages. After generations of formal and informal pressure to adopt Christian faiths and their rituals, in 1978 Congress enacted the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, which declares that it is the government’s policy to “protect and preserve the inherent right of American Indians to believe, express, and practice their traditional religions.” This act was amended in 1994 to allow Native Americans the right to use, transport, and possess peyote for religious purposes.
• Another area of spiritual concern is the stockpiling of Native American relics, including burial remains. Contemporary Native Americans are increasingly seeking the return of their ancestors’ remains and artifacts, a demand that alarms museum and archeologists. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 requires an inventory of such collections and provides for the return of materials if a claim can be substantiated.
• Many scholars believe the ancient bones and burial artifacts are valuable clues to humanity’s past, and understanding that reflects a difference in cultural traditions. Although Western scientists have been dissecting cadavers for hundreds of years, many tribes believe that disturbing the graves of ancestors will bring spiritual sickness to the living.
2) Economic Development
• The Native Americans are an impoverished people. Compared to Whites, Native Americans are dismally behind on all standards of income and occupational status. A 1995 national survey showed that overall unemployment is more than 30 percent. Among those who have jobs, a third earned less than $10,000. Those who are employed are less likely to be managers, professionals, technicians, salespeople, or administrators.
• Native Americans generally find work in one of three areas: tourism, casino gambling, and government employment.
• Tourism is an important source of employment for many reservation residents, who either serve the needs of visitors directly or sell souvenirs and crafts. This area of work faces a number of challenges:
1) Craft work rarely realizes the profits most Native Americans desire and need. Most Whites are interested in trinkets, not the more expensive and profitable items.
2) Many craft workers have been manipulated by other Native Americans and Whites to produce what the tourists want; creativity and authenticity often are replaced by mechanical duplication of “genuine Indian” curios.
3) There is a growing concern and controversy surrounding art such as paintings and pottery that may not be produced by real Native Americans but nonetheless fetches high prices.
• A more recent source of significant income and some employment has been the introduction of gambling on reservations. Forms of gambling, originally part of tribal ceremonies or celebrations, existed long before Europeans arrived in the Western Hemisphere. Today, however, commercial gambling is the only viable source of employment and revenue available to some tribes.
• The economic impact on some reservations has been enormous, and nationwide receipts amounted to $10.6 billion in 2000 from reservation casino operations. However, the wealth is uneven: about two-thirds of the recognized Indian tribes have no gambling ventures. The tribes that make substantial revenue from gambling include less than 1 percent of the total Native American people. The most typical picture is of moderately successful gambling operations associated with tribes whose social and economic needs are overwhelming.
• Another major source of employment for Native Americans is the government, principally the BIA but also other federal agencies, the military, and state and local governments. In 1970, one of every four employed Native Americans worked for the federal government.
• More than half the BIA’s employees have tribal ancestry. In fact, since 1854, the BIA has had a policy of giving employment preference to Native Americans over Whites. Although this policy has been questioned, the U.S. Supreme Court (Morton v. Mancari) upheld it in 1974.
• The dominant feature of reservation life is unemployment. A government report issued by Full Employment Action Council opened with the statement that that such words as “severe,” “massive,” and “horrendous” are appropriate to describe unemployment among Native Americans.
• Official unemployment figures for reservations range from 23 percent to 90 percent. The 1990 Census showed that the poorest county in the nation was wholly on tribal lands: Shannon County, South Dakota, of the Pine Ridge Reservation, had a 63 percent poverty rate.
• Unemployment rates for urban-based Indians are also very high; Los Angeles reports more than 40 percent and Minneapolis 49 percent.
• Federal control of the education of Native American children has had mixed results from the beginning. Several tribes started their own school systems at the beginning of the nineteenth century, financing the schools themselves. The Cherokee tribe developed an extensive school system that taught both English and Cherokee, the latter using an alphabet developed by the famed leader Sequoyah. Literacy for the Cherokees was estimated at 90 percent by the mid-1800s, and they even produced a bilingual newspaper. The Creek, Chickasaw, and Seminole also maintained school systems, but by the end of the nineteenth century, all these schools had been closed by federal order.
• Not until the 1930s did the federal government become committed to ensuring an education for Native American children. Despite this push for education, numerous problems face Native American students:
1) A serious problem in Native American education has been the unusually high level of underenrollment. Many children never attend school, or they leave while in elementary school and never return. Enrollment rates are as low as 30 percent for Alaska Eskimos. This dropout rate is nearly three times that of Whites. The term “dropout” is misleading because many tribal American schoolchildren have found their educational experience so hostile that they had no choice but to leave.
2) There is little consensus regarding how to measure to quality of Native American education, and whether the focus of education should be in terms of White society, tribal life, or both. Studies of reservation children, using tests of intelligence that do not require a knowledge of English, consistently show scores at or above the level of middle-class urban children. However, in the upper grades, a crossover effect appears when tests used assume lifelong familiarity with English: Native American students drop behind their White peers and so would be classified by the dominant society as underachievers.
- A 1991 Department of Education report titled “Indian Nations at Risk” found that Native American curriculum was presented from a European perspective. A 1990 national survey revealed that at 48 percent of the schools that Native Americans attend, there is not a single Native American teacher.
3) At higher levels of education, Native Americans largely disappear from the educational scene. In 1998, of the 45,394 doctorates awarded to U.S. citizens, 187 went to Native Americans, compared with more than 11,000 that went to citizens from foreign countries.
- Native American students may soon feel isolated and discouraged upon entering a predominantly White college, especially if the college does not help them understand the alien world of American-style higher education. Even at campuses with large numbers of Native Americans in their student bodies, few Native American faculty or advisors are present to serve as role models. About 53 percent of the students leave at the end of their first year.