Denial of Humanity: Pseudo-Science and Native Culture


Douglas McKay Secretary of the Interior during Termination, Former Governor Of Oregon.
Douglas McKay, Secretary of the Interior during Termination, Former Governor Of Oregon, Car Salesman, Salem, OR.

Denial of Humanity: Pseudo-Science and Native Culture

Expansion of an October 2005 essay, written originally in preparation for a dissertation about termination.

“Denial of humanity” is a quote from Rennard Strickland in reference to the actions and in-actions of the US government with regards to termination and treaties, ie: the rights of Indians to maintain their culture and history and sovereignty.

Termination – what is it? – from the Federal POV they assume the right to manage sovereign tribes, they assume the right to stop managing tribes under their own terms. They assume the right to claim Indian lands through conquest, they make treaties with tribes (in a sovereign relationship) and then they assume they can simply stop abiding by the treaties. Their assumptions comes from the creation of ‘evidence’ that suggests that a tribe is no longer a tribe. Their evidence is based on religious and scientific definitions of what constitutes a tribe, whether they are a tribe without maintaining some of the visual and cultural trappings of the past traditions. Clearly the Senate has a right to abrogate treaties under its plenary powers. But they did not invoke that right, instead the BIA appears to have directed its agents to make it happen. And the agent for Oregon, E. Morgan Pryse, lied and manipulated the available information and the tribes to make termination occur. Congress was assured the tribes had agreed, but they had not. So even though Congress and President Eisenhower stipulated that the tribes had to agree, the Oregon tribes were still terminated without their agreement.

Philosophical argument:
It is an identity issue. Some sub-issues are blood quantum, culture, acculturation/assimilation, and traditionality. Can a tribe be a tribe in the United States when they are acculturated/assimilated into American civilization. Can a sovereign group maintain sovereignty from within a sovereign nation? If this is possible, and it is supported in law, how can the federal government terminate the tribe? In an institutionalized bureaucracy, if the sovereign group exists within that environment, it is possible to arrange the termination of any supported program through the creation of an overwhelming assumption that the persons of that program no longer adhere to the policies and rules of the program and actually have acculturated into different programs. The assumption within the bureaucracy is that each individual group does not cross boundaries between groups and when they do they become a member of another group with no ties to the previous. Essentially their culture has changed.

But we know that people maintain multi-cultural identities. When does the preponderance of evidence suggest that people have acculturated into another culture? Who gets to draw that line. That is not science, its politics.

Yes, this was all made possible through politics. The people who wanted and needed termination to occur went to the media who wrote numerous stories about the benefits of termination. They sold this notion of freedom to the public and the politicians. They said that the tribes would be freed from further government oppression, which was creating the “Indian Problems” and would be free to become Americans. They would get their full benefits as US citizens and be first class citizens.

And what source of investigation and research does the government rely upon to manipulate the acculturation/assimilation line? Anthropology clearly has the major research agenda focused on Native peoples and anthropologists staff many departments in the federal government that manage Indian peoples. Much of the government management of Native peoples, in the 1940s and 50s,  is therefore from a trained anthropological perspective and anthropological theory of native identity is actually practiced in policy.

Anthropology is part and parcel of the problem with the federal government choosing the most acceptable arguments to use again the tribes. The notion of the assimilated Indian is no longer an Indian, no longer culturally Indian, so no longer deserving of the rights of their tribe. But do anthropologists really have the right to decide who is assimilated? That was not even a question, in that time, they took that right without much ethical discussion. Its really with John Collier in the 1920s to 1940s where the morality of the situation becomes apparent. He did try to change the politics for the better. And other anthropologists did not really begin working on behalf of the tribes until the 1950s. This was perhaps too late.

Does assimilation really mean people are no longer deserving of their rights? The treaties do not make this distinction. There is nothing in treaties that address a notion that people must be culturally “Indian” as defined by anthropologists, to get the rights of the treaty. This idea was invented by American politicians.

Similarly, the treaties do not stipulate people have to be one half Indian blood or better to be Indians. That is a policy decision that is aimed at eliminating Indian people through statistics. A certain percentage of each generation of people will marry and have children with non-native people, in time that percentage will grow and there will at some point be no more people who fit conservative definitions of being Indian. Its a political tool by the federal government to eliminate all Indians. And yet today many tribes accept that as part of the definition of what is a tribal member. There is no part of a person’s blood that will provide a measure of a person’s culture or nationality. It is pseudo-science. It is a remnant of our colonization, a remnant that has been institutionalized. We are recolonizing ourselves if we do not address this problem. If tribes do not take control of their definitions of who they are, take that right from the United States,  they will cease to exist.

There is much to be done in addressing tribal colonization. Termination and Indian management needs to be taken apart and reanalyzed. Treaties need to be reanalyzed along with tribal homelands. Tribal histories need to be rethought and rewritten, as its been proven that unless tribal people do this, Native Nations will be written out of history.

Tribes have fought too long and hard to exist, can tribes accept being “defined” out of existence?

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