Native peoples are quick to note how colonization of tribal lands and societies has caused numerous problems. Colonization removed the agency of the original peoples and places it with the colonizers. The Colonizers, normally people of European origin, but really any expansionist nation, take control of vast areas of land and enslave Native peoples, commit genocide to the point that they are kept under control and afraid to revolt, and then The colonizers replace the society and culture with that of the Colonizers.
Colonization occurs in physical and psychological levels. People become physically constrained in what they can do and accomplish, and colonizing practices, like assimilation, work to create cultural change and cultural modification in the children of the native peoples. The next generation are culturally much more integrated with the colonizing society around them.and at some point the descendants become culturally the same as their colonizers.
In Oregon, this change happened over the course of 5 or 6 generations. By the 1950s, most of the descendant Native peoples, many on reservations, were culturally the same as their white American neighbors. The Oregon Natives were subjected to economic change, when they became farmers and ranchers, to educational assimilation by their children being placed in boarding and day schools, political change in modification to a Democratic system of self-governance on reservations in the 1930s, and many of the Native children were forced to dissociated with their original territory and community by estrangement from their lands, and finally termination of their treaties. Termination caused a loss in the legal and political right of the tribes to claim dependent Indian status and to live in tribal communities separate from their white American neighbors.
This system of colonization is well known and well described in numerous texts. The mission of the federal government to completely dissociation Tribal peoples from their lands and rights, took some 100 years in western Oregon. The federal government and the state gained the whole of western Oregon for about 1.5 million in payments to the tribes.
In the 1930s and 40s, many Native people optioned to no longer teach their Tribal languages and cultures to their children and grandchildren. Living as a Native was tough and everywhere they were met with racism and discrimination. Those who chose to stop identifying with their Native past did not have to endure much racism. It was much better to be paid full wages and for everyone in society to treat you like and equal. These fence-sitters would many times destroy their genealogical records and/or completely cut themselves off from their families to maintain their new white identity. Others, taught trades in the Indian boarding school chose to get jobs in the cities and stayed away from their tribes where there were not the jobs that paid for them to practice their skills. many of these people and their descendants are dissociated from the tribes.
We are now living in a generation of resurgence of Native descendants seeking their tribal identities. Many have realized that they can never become a member of a tribe because their parents or grandparents destroyed or lost records, or dissociated themselves from the tribes for a variety of reasons. Its now popular and preferable to become part of a tribe, there are material benefits and much everyone can learn about their culture and history. its a long hard road for many.
These new generations of Native descendants, many Gen-xers, Millennials, or earlier generations, are now seeking to learn through education. Many colleges and universities have classes on Native or Indigenous studies. Many of these curriculums offer opportunities to learn through experiential internships at tribes or embedded volunteers in Native community groups. Many of these new scholars then can become the next generation of educators and Native researchers.
Native life at universities is much different from that at tribes. The Universities teach in broad generalizations. Much of the content is survey courses dealing with tribal issues, history, and generalized tribal cultures. It is in this environment is borne the critique on “all” Native Mascots. native students activate against any such stereotypes as they seek a more-pure characterization for Natives nationally.
While for the most part Tribes do not think the issues of mascots rise to the level of of importance of having a national movement against them. Tribes are much more concerned with feeding their people, lands rights, treaty rights, environmental issues and federal conflicts. There are some native scholars that are also embedded in the Universities and many of these people have brought national interest in the issues of mascots to the fore at universities and at tribes. Mascots now are equated with human rights level issues, and likened too other historic ethical and moral conflicts, like Hitler and the extermination of millions of Jews and other ethnic minorities on Europe, and Black enslavement in the United States.
There is now emerging a new level of native scholarship which is not well informed by the true histories and cultures of the tribes. Much of the movement is emerging to fill an intellectual void. Native scholars and individuals are now working to teach mis-information of Native peoples to their ethnic kindred. We see this all that time on social media, when we see memes of some ultra-native statement about the injustices of the Native historic past. One meme in particular addresses the “fact” that all Tribes lost their cultures, languages, history and land. While the fact is most tribes sold their lands, perhaps forced to sell would be more accurate, and many tribes still have their culture, history and parts of their lands intact. It is a fact that many tribes did loss all of their lands, but many others did not, they sold a good portion and maintain some under treaties. Tribes are engaged in writing and researching their histories, so while for many their history is not well known, it really is the responsibility of the individual to learn their tribal history. Tribal cultures are now being revitalized like has not happened in 100 years. Many cultures are being taught and relearned, tribal languages are a huge focus of tribal scholars.
The lack of such knowledge or information today is a part of how tribes were colonized. Their cultures and languages were suppressed. Many of their histories were poorly written and tribes are trying to rectify that with now work. But for the “tribe” to learn the culture, history and language, takes the work of everyone concerned about this issue. If people are not inspired to do this work, there is not much the Tribal government can do. All tribal peoples need to understand the depth of colonization of their tribe and work to overcome that with educating themselves about the true cultures and histories. They should not wait for someone else to step up, but instead undertake their own study as soon as they can.
In another example a Native company is working to sell an educational aid to the Tribes. This scholar has created a Tribal territorial map and they are working to sell it through social media. I have examined this map on numerous occasions and there are many tribal names on the map. The colors of the map are very attractive. When i look closely at the placement of the tribal names, most of them are out of place, and many important tribes are missing. I applaud the effort to create such a product. tribes and educational organization could use it to help educate everyone about the diversity of the tribes throughout North America. However, the placement of the tribal names in irregular locations is worrisome. Children learning from this map would be subjected to mis-education.
Finally, even university professors are not immune to the publication and dissemination of mis-education. The new book “An Indigenous Peoples History of the United States” by Ortiz (2015) contains a number of problems. For one example the author states that there was corn use in all areas by all tribes in the Americas. This may be an exciting idea to state, but it is completely not true. The Tribes of Oregon, or the Northwest Coast, did not use corn. The tribes of the arctic and most or the Plains did not use or grow corn. The tribes of California did not grow or use corn. Corn was used from about the Mississippi to the east, in the Southwest, and down into Meso-america. I am unclear if corn was used in the amazon or in much of the South American rain forests at all. Once I noted that problem, I began critically analyzing the remainder of the book and what the author was stating. The author was very good at addressing 20th century themes in Indian affairs, but when they addressed tribal cultures and made broad generalizations about them, many were inaccurate. Many of the general statements were not well referenced and so the student cannot know where to verify the information presented. The book amounts to another form of stereotyping of Native peoples.
It is exceedingly important for Native scholars to make sure they are accurately representing tribal histories and cultures. Native studies as a discipline in colleges and universities is only about 30 years old. Many of the Native studies programs are poorly funded or supported by their host universities. And while there is a void in information about the tribes, just any information, however exciting, is not the answer. Mis-information about the tribes was a problem with many of the histories about the tribes written by non-native scholars into the 1970s. Native scholars disseminating information must be better than that. Mistakes are common with all scholarship, and we all learn from them. It is important to maintain a critical eye and offer positive feedback to scholars so that they can correct their information. Its also necessary for scholars to admit their mistakes and move forward. In this manner we can all contribute to decolonizing our collective histories.
Ethnohistory Research, LLC | David G. Lewis, PhD
PhD Anthropology (UO 2009) and Native history researcher. Member of the Grand Ronde Tribe, Takelma, Chinook, Molalla, and Santiam Kalapuya ancestry. Owner of Ethnohistory Research LCC, professional consultant and project researcher.
I teach at local universities and colleges and take contracts with tribes, local governments and nonprofits. I have experience in archival organization, museum development, exhibit curation, traditional cultural property nomination, tribal ethnohistoric research, tribal maps, traditional ecological knowledge, and presentations to large and small gatherings. Contact me for consultation about any of these projects.