Race and Ethnicity: Government Policy Toward Native Americans

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Race and Ethnicity: Government Policy Toward Native Americans


Indian Wars. With more and more whites moving west, Indians had little hope of stopping the invasion of their lands. Despite great odds, however, many tribes fought back. During the 1860s and 1870s, Indian wars were almost constant, and they continued intermittently in the 1880s. The deaths of Gen. George A. Custer and more than two hundred of his men in a battle with Sioux and Cheyenne warriors at Little Bighorn in 1876, the resistance and flight of the Nez Percé in 1877, and the long fight with Chiricahua Apaches led by Geronimo, whose capture in 1886 brought the Indian wars to a virtual end, vividly demonstrated to white Americans that the subjugation of Native Americans would not be easy.

Indian Policy. Racism against Native Americans continued to shape government policy toward them during the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s, just as it had since the early days of the republic. The Indian Appropriation Act of 1871 made all Native Americans wards of the federal government and nullified all treaties with them. By declaring that the government would no longer sign treaties with Indian tribes, Congress effectively erased the remaining traces of the Native Americans national sovereignty. Beginning in the 1850s and intensifying efforts in the West after the Civil War, the government created reservations, tracts of land on which tribes agreed to settle in return for a restricted amount of cultural and legal freedom. Yet even the reservation system started to crumble as white settlers eagerly pressed against the borders of reservations in Oklahoma, Arizona, South Dakota, and Idaho. Many Native Americans worked in good faith with the government to secure their lands and homes within the reservation structure. Yet many states believed that the Indians had more land than they needed, and Arizona was the only state that actually added to reservation lands during the period.

The Dawes Act. The Dawes Act of 1887 decreed that reservation lands, previously held in common by a tribe, should be divided into 160-acre plots for families, 80-acre parcels for single men, and 40-acre pieces for orphans. Any land left over was defined as surplus, and tribes were required to sell all surplus land to the government for resale to non-Indians. Sen. Henry M. Dawes of Massachusetts, who sponsored the bill, intended the legislation as a reform measure to introduce Native Americans to the concepts of individual ownership and agricultural lifewhite beliefs about the proper way for Indians to live. The new policy proved devastating to the Native Americans, many of whom did not live in traditional family units or fully understand the concept of private property.

Repercussions. For every three acres owned by Native Americans in the 1880s, two were no longer under their control by the 1920s as a result of the Dawes Act. Socially, the act encouraged individualism over traditional ideas of communalism. It upheld the sanctity of the family rather than emphasizing the importance of community. The land allotments were rarely large enough to sustain a family, and divisions of the parcels among heirs created smaller and smaller sections. Such situations encouraged Native Americans to lease or sell their land to whites and increased their displacement.

Indian Schools. Another component of the Indian policy during this period was the establishment of Indian boarding schools, which brought children from many nations together and discouraged them from speaking anything but English. The language of the white man and the black man ought to be good enough for the red man, a commissioner of Indian affairs announced in 1887. Schools established in Kansas, Oklahoma, Oregon, and California emphasized vocational and technical training and taught their pupils that future success lay in blending into white society. In such settings Indian youths suffered. Many caught diseases for which they had no immunity, and all were deprived of education in their nations traditions and ceremonies. The schools encouraged youths to embrace Christianity and to leave behind the old religion of their people. Many resisted enrollment or ran away.

Chief Josephs War. The consequences of the Indian policy were dramatically demonstrated by the plight of the Nez Percé tribe of the Northwest, a tribe with a long history of friendship to whites. The Nez Percé homeland was located in northern Idaho, southeastern Washington, and northeastern Oregon. Numbering about thirty-six hundred, the Nez Percé had a reputation for breeding superior horses. Their society considered all tribesmen equal, with villages in close proximity loosely organized into separate bands, each directed in peacetime by a civil chief and in battle by a war leader. While white Americans singled out Chief Joseph as the head chief of the Nez Percé, he was one of many tribal leaders. In 1876 the federal government sent Gen. Oliver Otis Howard and four other commissioners to convince the Nez Percé of the Wallowa Valley in eastern Oregon to sell their ancestral land and move to the Lapwai Reservation in Idaho, where other Nez Percé had relocated.

The Long Flight. Realizing that resistance would be futile Chief Joseph convinced his people to yield, but in June 1877, days before they were going to enter the reservation, three young warriors avenged the death of a friend by killing four whites who were known to have mistreated Indians. Inspired by this act of defiance, other warriors formed a raiding party that killed more than a dozen more whites. Hoping to avoid war, Chief Joseph led his people into the hills for protection. Government troops pursued the retreating Nez Percé. In the battle that followed on 17 June, some seventy Nez Percé warriors armed with bows and arrows gave the ninety-nine cavalrymen one of the worst defeats of the Indian wars: thirty-four whites and not a single Nez Percé were killed. News of the massacre spread across the country. Looking Glass, chief of another Nez Percé band, had urged his people to remain neutral, but after white soldiers destroyed his village on 1 July in the mistaken belief that he planned to take up arms as well, he and his band joined with Chief Joseph, increasing the number of warriors to about three hundred. Nearly eight hundred Nez Percé men, women, and children fled through Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana, doing battle with government troops along the way. Their defeat was assured when rival tribes, the Bannock and Crow, joined the government. From 30 September to 5 October the Nez Percé fought their last battle at the Milk River in Montana, some forty miles from the Canadian border. With Chiefs Toohoolzote, Looking Glass, and other leaders killed, Joseph surrendered, saying: It is cold, and we have no blankets.... My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more, forever. Some four hundred Nez Percé, less than one hundred of them warriors, surrendered with him. Some three hundred, roughly a third of them warriors, slipped into Canada, where they joined the Lakotas led by Sitting Bull, who had fled there in spring 1877, after the end of the Sioux Wars the previous year.

Exile. Chief Joseph believed that he and his people would be allowed to settle on the Lapwai Reservation in Idaho, but instead he and his people were sent into exile on reservations in Kansas and then Oklahoma, where many died in the unfamiliar and inhospitable climate. Conditions were terrible, with little fresh water or food. The climate was harsh and dry, a far cry from their green homeland. Chief Josephs pleas for better treatment won him national celebrity but little in the form of relief.

The Indian Napoleon. During the summer of 1877 the nation had read about the plight the Nez Percé with rapt attention, and many Americans felt sympathy and respect for the heroism of the Nez Percé and their commitment to freedom. Even in defeat Chief Joseph came to symbolize all that was brave and good in the Native American tradition. Heralded as the Indian Napoleon, he became a spokesman not only for the Nez Percé but for all Native Americans who had been pushed off their lands. In January 1879 he traveled to Washington, D.C., where he met with President Rutherford B. Hayes and addressed a group of cabinet members, congressmen, and businessmen, imploring for better treatment and asking that his people be allowed to return home. By the 1880s Chief Joseph and the Nez Percé had become a national cause célèbre. Despite Chief Josephs fame, securing reservation lands in the Northwest for the Nez Percé proved difficult. The government dragged its feet on granting his request because of resistance from many of the white residents of the Northwest, but in May 1885 he and his followers were allowed to return to that region but not to the Wallowa Valley. Instead they were placed on the Colville Reservation in Washington, while other Nez Percé peoples who had taken part in the long flight were allowed to settle at Lapwai. After the passage of the I Dawes Act, Chief Joseph agreed to take an allotment but only if it was located on his ancestral land in the Wallowa Valley. His request was refused. In 1897 he returned to Washington, D.C., to plead his case. While he was invited to participate in the dedication of Grants Tomb in New York City and enjoyed the attention of press and politicians, his requests were again denied. He never returned to the Wallowa Valley, dying at the Colville Reservation in 1904, and his people were increasingly at the mercy of an uncaring government. In 1895, after the Nez Percé reservation land in Idaho was allotted to tribe members, some half million acres were declared surplus and eagerly claimed by white settlers. By 1910 there were thirty thousand whites and only fifteen hundred Nez Percé on what was once a Nez Percé reservation.

The Rise of the Ghost Dancers. In 1890, as Native Americans all over the West experienced the loss of their lands and traditions, a religious revival spread across the Plains, led by a Paiute prophet named Wovoka, who preached a religion combining traditional and Christian elements:

I bring you the promise of a day in which there will be no white man to lay his hand on the bridle of the Indians horse, when the red men of the prairie will rule the world. . . . I bring you word from your fathers the ghosts, that they are marching now to join you, led by the Messiah who came once to live on earth with the white man but was killed by them.

He called on his followers to give up alcohol and violence and to dance in a circle calling on the spirits of their ancestors to grant them a vision of this new world to come, where they would rejoin the ancestors who had died before them.


A survey of 1,348 Italian families living in Chicago in 1896 listed the occupations most frequently followed:

Under the general industry heading of agriculture, fisheries and mining, 28 worked as quarrymen; under professional, musicians and organ grinders numbered 62; under domestic and personal service were found 797 laborers, 126 street sweepers, 73 bootblacks, 45 barbers, 32 sewer diggers, 23 pavers, 22 saloon keepers, and 18 scissors grinders; under trade and transportation, 186 worked as rag and paper pickers, 154 as small peddlers, 119 as railroad laborers, 78 as newspaper boys, news dealers, 32 as small merchants or dealers in various lines, 20 as salesmen, 15 as teamsters, and 14 wood pickers; under manufacturers were found 60 hod carriers, 38 candy makers and candy factory employees, 26 pant makers and finishers, 22 mosaic layers, 19 tailors and 16 shoemakers and 14 tinkers.

The Wounded Knee Massacre. Among the participants in the Ghost Dance were the Lakotas of South Dakota, whose lands were the only Indian lands left to be allotted, thanks to a unified, peaceful resistance led by Sitting Bull. The Lakota Ghost Dancers interpreted Wo-vokas message as meaning the Indians dominance of the Plains could come in this world rather than the next, and they wore shirts painted with symbols that they believed would protect them from the white mans bullets. As more and more Lakotas joined the Ghost Dance, some Indian agents became frightened, and in November one of them wired the army for help. On 15 December 1890 Sitting Bull and eight of his followers were killed in a scuffle that occurred when tribal policemen attempted to arrest him. Other followers, led by Chief Big Foot, joined a group of Ghost Dancers at the Cheyenne River reservation. Believing that the Indians were getting ready to provide armed resistance, the cavalry followed. Big Foot surrendered, and soldiers led his band to Wounded Knee Creek to camp for the night. There, frightened by the dancing of a medicine man and a scuffle with a deaf Indian over a rifle, troops opened fire on the Lakotas, who fought back as best they could. Some I 250 Lakota men, women, and children and twenty-five

soldiers were killed. Many others were wounded. Fighting continued sporadically until 15 January 1891, when the last of the Lakota Ghost Dancers surrendered. The final Indian War was over.


John Carroll, The Indian Removals (New York: AMS Press, 1974);

Alvin M. Josephy Jr., The Nez Percé Indians and the Opening of the Northwest (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1965);

Robert M. Utley, Frontier Regulars: The United States Army and the Indian, 1866-1891 (New York: Macmillan I London: Collier Macmillan, 1973);

Geoffrey C. Ward and others, The West: An Illustrated History (Boston, New York, Toronto & London: Little, Brown, 1996);

Murray Lionel Wax, Indian Americans: Unity and Diversity (Engle-wood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1971).

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