Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. September 2004

5.7. Frontier Metamorphoses: Americanization and Otherness
HerausgeberInnen | Editors | Éditeurs: Albena Bakratcheva (Sofia)

Buch: Das Verbindende der Kulturen | Book: The Unifying Aspects of Cultures | Livre: Les points communs des cultures

Acculturation and "Otherness": Native American Experiences

Roger L. Nichols (University of Arizona)


Throughout most of its history American society has included as wide a variety of differing peoples as any nation in the modern world. Despite that from the early Puritan efforts to enforce conformity to the present efforts to keep the borders closed many Americans have been unable or unwilling to accept people who differed from the English, Protestant norm. During the colonial era the colonists tolerated others only because of the need for their labor or because those groups acted as a buffer between older settlements and potentially hostile Indians. When pacifist German groups in Pennsylvania refused to play that role their actions brought suspicion and bitterness from other colonists. In the decades immediately preceding American Independence the Pennsylvania colonial authorities sent Benjamin Franklin to the German settlements with an offer of twenty-five free schools. Those, of course, would be taught in English. Angered by their rejection he denounced these people as "Palatine Boors". "Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them," he asked?

At first glance one might wonder what Franklin's anti-German complaint had to do with Native American experiences?" Simply put, it represented the core of American thinking about "Others" throughout the nation's history. Most groups fell into one of two categories. They could be assimilated grudgingly into the majority society, which usually happened to non-English Europeans. Others had to remain outside the mainstream hoping for possible future acceptance. African Americans represented the most obvious example. First they endured slavery. Then they faced organized formal segregation. By the 1950s that began to break down, but anti-Black discrimination remained. Only in the last several decades has this begun to fade. Other groups live in Chinatowns or Hispanic barrios to this day. In many cases these people strove for acceptance and entry into American life for decades, even generations. When they failed, some simply withdrew. They formed or reformed their own ethnic, racial, or other organizations that parallel similar institutions in society.

My thesis here today is that the Native American experiences differed substantially from either of these patterns. Rather than being kept out of the general society, they faced continuing pressures to accept and join it. For much of American history most of them rejected becoming red copies of the white man. Through religious syncretism, political and legal actions, and determination to retain their culture, they survived and in some cases have even prospered. Clearly this was no universal pattern. It must be clear that Indian actions varied widely. Some choose to join the growing white society. Others accepted those facets of the American economic or social structures that they thought would improve their lives. In some instances they incorporated new religious, cultural and economic practices grudgingly. At times they resisted militarily or sought defensive alliances with other tribes, the British in the north or the Spanish in the south. Some became refugees as they fled west or into Canada, Spanish Florida, or Mexico.

These few examples should make obvious the vast gulf that separated Indians from other ethnic and racial groups in the United States. For generations scholars and others have recognized this in a variety of settings. Wilcomb Washburn, editor of a multi-volume documentary history of American-Indian relations noted that tribal people "are unique in possessing a special legal status by virtue of their race," because "they are the only racial group having a bureau of government concerned exclusively with them." In making that claim he only echoed the ideas expressed by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall's 1831 ruling in the Cherokee v Georgia decision that "the condition of the Indians in relation to the United States is perhaps unlike that of any other two people in existence...." While considering different issues, the writer Leslie Fiedler noted that "in the language of archetype," the Indian represented an "alien perception."

Ideas like these reflected the fundamental differences that separated Indians from all other minority groups. As the original inhabitants of the US tribal people possessed the continent and its resources. Immigrants of all varieties could offer their labor or even capital when it was needed, but they had nothing to equal the value of the land. Whatever property the expanding white society wanted or thought it needed had to come from the native people. The government recognized this through one of three important pieces of legislation passed before the Constitution went into effect. The 1786 Ordinance for the Regulation of Indian Affairs established the beginnings of a bureaucracy for dealing with the tribes. Throughout American history no other minority had a part of the federal government devoted to it except the temporary Freedmen's Bureau for the former slaves after the Civil War and the War Relocation Authority that incarcerated the Japanese during World War II.

To get land and resources from the Indians the federal government dealt with the tribes through formal treaties as if the tribal leaders represented independent nations. To do this officials began the practice of calling village leaders together whenever land cessions seemed necessary. Then they negotiated or extracted agreements that acquired

the region in question. The resulting treaties then went through formal ratification by the U.S. Senate and the President. This certainly differentiated Indians from all other groups, and presented the strange picture of a government negotiating treaties with its own people. Gradually, in 1824, the bureaucracy for dealing with tribal matters grew into the Office of Indian Affairs and this became the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the twentieth century. To this day it remains the only branch of government to deal exclusively with a single minority group in American society.

Having valuable land that pioneers wanted Indians became seen as an impediment to successful western settlement. This strained relations between the tribes and other Americans repeatedly, encouraged officials to develop policies to enable them to get the land. These procedures shifted as the nation grew and thinking about the native people changed. Through these policies the federal government set Indians aside from all other Americans. By George Washington's first term as President vicious border wars had erupted in the Ohio River Valley. So the first efforts focused on pacifying tribes in that region. Then to appease pioneer settlers the government began to reduce Indian landholdings by treaty or threat of force. This led directly to increased efforts at acculturation. Planners assumed that as tribal lands shrank and hunting became less successful the native people would turn to farming. Once that happened they would need even less land so government agents swept west negotiating land cessions with anyone they could persuade to sign the treaty papers.

To the Indians this process appeared to be unending. No sooner had village leaders signed a land agreement than a new set of negotiators appeared hoping to garner more. When the treaty makers failed to keep pace with the pioneers' demands for more land violence broke out. Usually that resulted in renewed demands for another surrender of territory. From the 1789-80s until the 1840s almost all of the "wars" resulted from this process. Once the nation expanded to the Pacific Ocean the process continued among the Western tribes. There the larger and better-armed tribes fought the pioneers, the frontier militias and the U.S. army to a standstill for several decades. When the smoke of battle cleared the most obvious result was that Indians had "enjoyed" the distinction of being the only ethnic group to have the victims of warfare by the federal government. The army had defeated them and then occupied their homeland permanently.

At the same time that the government negotiated for land and resources or fought against the tribes, it also used the treaty agreements to affect cultural changes among the villagers. Officials reasoned that once Indians turned from hunting and trade to full-time agriculture they would need less space and would agree to cede more land to the government. To make certain this happened treaty-makers began to insert clauses in the agreements calling for the villagers to accept teachers, missionaries, mechanics, and model farmers to help them reshape their societies. If these plans succeeded the tribal people would need less land, would be able to get along better with their white neighbors, and the government might avoid costly wars. In 1819 Congress established an annual appropriation for what it labeled as the Indian Civilization Fund. Most of this money went to church and missionary societies that pledged to operate schools among the tribes. By the 1830s missions and schools dotted the eastern Indian country as farming and commerce began to push aside hunting.

Just when it appeared that the so-called "Civilization" program was working political and economic currents swept it aside. In 1827, when acculturated Cherokee leaders tried to establish their own republic opponents of the policy cried foul. If federal authorities recognized the tribal government Georgia officials muttered about secession. President Andrew Jackson saw little reason to back the tribe. Instead he pushed a bill to remove the Eastern Indians west beyond the Mississippi River where they could live at a distance from the pioneers. The bitter debates over this proposal wracked the Congress, but in the end the Indian Removal bill of 1830 became law. Cherokee leaders and their supporters immediately launched a legal challenge the resulted in the 1831 Cherokee v Georgia and the 1832 Worster v Georgia decisions. In these rulings the Supreme Court labeled Indian tribes as "domestic, dependent nations," placing them in a position as wards of the government. For the next 150 years Indians suffered from this doctrine. During the middle decades of the nineteenth century the government forced dozens of tribes beyond the Mississippi, and then even farther west. Again, except for the temporary dislocation of the Japanese during WWII, no other ethnic group ever faced government-enforced migration across the country.

At the end of the 1840s the U.S. surged west to the Pacific Ocean, annexing Texas, the Oregon Country, and California and the Southwest. This brought the government and pioneers into painful confrontations with the tribal peoples of the West.

Sporadic warfare swept through the West until the 1886 surrender of Geronimo and his Apache followers. During the last half of the nineteenth century federal officials began an all-out effort to destroy Indian tribal cultures. Certainly all immigrants faced pressures to conform, to drop their "Old Country" customs and languages, and to become "good Americans." For example the Common School movement, begun by Horace Mann during the 1830s had focused on the Americanization of Irish immigrants. As other immigrants flooded into the country they too encountered anti-foreign prejudice. However, only Indians received the direct and continuing attention of the federal government.

Earlier efforts at acculturation had continued as the Indian Office and the army combined their efforts to force tribal people onto reservations. There, on these out-of-the-way, segregated areas they faced the full effort to destroy their societies. Reservation agents kidnapped children who they then sent off to distant boarding schools. There, hundreds of miles from home, they had to speak English, wear white man's clothing, and remain separated from their families for years at a time. The children fortunate enough to attend reservation day schools experienced a similar curriculum, but at least they went home each evening. Within a generation large numbers of teen-agers and young adults could no longer speak their own languages to their non-English speaking grandparents. While the teachers attacked the family solidarity, reservation agents and missionaries sought to undermine tribal religious ideas and practices. By the 1880s government actions had outlawed cultural and spiritual ceremonies such as the Sun Dance and the Potlatch. Except for the Mormon practice of plural marriage, no other large group faced attacks on their customs by federal officers.

© Roger L. Nichols (University of Arizona)

5.7. Frontier Metamorphoses: Americanization and Otherness

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For quotation purposes:
Roger L. Nichols (University of Arizona): Acculturation and "Otherness": Native American Experiences. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 15/2003. WWW:

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