By Madeline LaMee
What will the Future Hold?
The Past, Present and Future of Native American Reservations in the United States
When people from the Americas hear the term “Indian,” we often associate it with the Old West stereotype of medicine men and horseback warriors. This association however, is not so widespread as one might think. To the rest of the word, an Indian is someone from the Indian Subcontinent, halfway across the world from the arid plains of the Old West flicks.
Many do not know that the term “Indian” was coined by Columbus himself, who, upon his first voyage to the Americas, was convinced that he was correct about the earth’s circumference, and that, by sailing West from Spain, he had found an alternate route to India. Although the West Indies where soon discovered to be part of a new Continent entirely, the term Indian is still widely used despite it’s incorrect and somewhat offensive background.
This ironic historical detail resonates deeply in the light of current debates surrounding Native American rights. Although to an outsider, the use of the current politically correct term might seem like an inconvenient overreaction, to many, stopping the incorrect usage of the word Indian is an important step in the reputing of common stereotypes surrounding the Native American people.
Europeans, and later Americans, have an unfortunately long history of forcing their own image upon their subjugated cultures; one must only look at how the great Aztec civilization is portrayed by the Spanish, or how the Celtic tribespeople were detested by the Roman Catholic church to see this fact. In the present-day United States, the process of subjugation has been no different, though this part of history is only now beginning to surface in the eyes of the general public.
The conquest and colonization of the Americas, which began in 1492, did not end entirely until the mid 19th century, when the last of the European Colonies gained political independence. Europeans came for many different reasons: but most came in the name of the Crown, the Church, or personal escape from the poverty and religious persecution common in their home countries. This vast movement of European culture and people to the Americas was accompanied by the mass killing of Native Americans by European disease and violence. In some places, especially in new Spain, the population fell by as much as 90 percent.
At the time, the present day Eastern and Midwestern United States was claimed by the English, Dutch and French as the dregs of the New World (by which they meant that it had less natural resources than New Spain or Portugal). The present South-West was considered the northern corner of the Spanish conquests. Here, the lands were used primarily to support the excess population of the European countries, and not as major food sources as seen in South and Central America.
In the beginning, only a small amount of Europeans came to North America. Some lived in harmony with the natives, but most tried to impose their culture on them and convert them to Christianity. Many times, they would negotiate with the natives for lands and resources. Because many native tribes had not developed a system or concept of land ownership, they were often exploited by the Europeans. One example of this is Peter Minuit, who is said to have purchased Long Island for only 60 Dutch guilders, the equivalent of 24 dollars. Today, it is some of the most expensive real estate in the world.
After the United States fought for it’s independence, it quickly expanded to many times it’s original size. As the colonists pushed out from the east coast, the Native Americans were forced to migrate into the lands to the west, a change in tribal boundaries that caused many ongoing conflicts. Americans soon developed an ideal called Manifest Destiny, the idea that it was their god-given right and duty to spread democracy (and their European culture) from “sea to shining sea.”
By 1853, most of the continental US was part of the new American empire; there was no longer any land for the Natives to escape to. Instead, they lived in small pockets between the growing American settlements. In such close proximity, the tribes and settlers fought constantly, though the settlers won more often than the natives. In one well known example, officially called the Battle at Wounded Knee, American troops shot down Lakota civilians with little to no provocation. Needless to say, they call it the Wounded Knee Massacre.
Around this time, it was a federal goal to assimilate Native Americans into our society. At the time, Native Americans were viewed with the same racist assumptions as African Americans. It was commonly held that they were uncivilized and dangerous.
In 1851, the first Indian Reservation was made in Oklahoma. Soon, there were over 300 pieces of land allotted to various tribes. Instead of being able to stay in their own lands, most tribes were relocated to lands that were unwanted by the US government. Many were relocated forcibly, and had to walk to their new homes under the drilling of US troops. The relocation of the Eastern Tribes is often termed the Trail of Tears because the Cherokee, Muskogee, Seminole, Chickasaw and Choctaw people who participated in the walks died in huge numbers, living in conditions comparable to the Death Walks during WWII.
Although the borders have changed, these reservations have remained intact into the 21st century. Since then, various laws have been passed to ensure the security of the reservations. For instance, tribal governments or “Indian Nations” began forming early on in reservations, but it wasn’t until the Self- Determination act in 1970, that they were acknowledged officially by the US government. Native Americans achieved sovereignty in US elections in 1925. Nowadays, Native Americans enjoy dual citizenship and public education.
I saw the effects -good and bad- of these past centuries of history firsthand when I visited Crownpoint, New Mexico with my church youth group. Crownpoint, a small town in the North-East corner of the Navajo Nation, is to my knowledge, a fairly typical example of what life is like today on a reservation. The people there wear Western cloths and speak English. Most live on a plot of desert were they raise horses or sheep and sleep in a small house or trailer. They were incredibly grateful for the help that our church gave to them, but I wondered often if any of the old men and women remembered the years not so long ago in which missionaries came not to rebuild their houses, but to force their religion onto them.
Still, thanks to the National Indian Education Association, the town has an elementary school, middle school, high school and even a community college. Children all over the area attend school in Crownpoint, but only 60 percent make it all the way through high school. The pastor of the church we stayed at said that the low graduation rate was mostly due to a broad disillusionment in the value of education. There were so little jobs available around the reservation, he said, that even high school graduates could scarcely find jobs. He was also worried about the number of kids that were turning to gang membership and drug abuse.
Despite these worrisome realities, the Navajo are actually relatively lucky in terms of history; unlike many tribes, they retained their ancestral lands, which they consider sacred to their people. Still, they are among the many tribes of Native Americans that are still struggling to reconcile their tribal heritage and modern influences, negotiate with the United States Government for greater autonomy, and ultimately provide a more stable future out of a troubled past. When people make judgements about the modern issues regarding Native Americans, whether it is about Native American Civil Rights or something as seemingly trivial as the newest PC term, I hope that they will take into account not only the present conditions, but the past and future of the Tribal Nations. Nothing in history happens in a vacuum, so it’s up to us to use history to aid our understanding of the world around us.
“Next Step: Your Mission Starts Here” packet Ways of the World by Robert Strayer
Guns, Germs, and Steal by Jared Diamond Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown Encyclopedia Britannica http://www.navajo-nsn.gov
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