From the 1830’s (Indian Removal Act) to 1900 most of the Tribal Reservations were established in the United States holding a population of over 350,000 people. The people were moved from their original homelands to make way for white American settlement. For most tribes there was no choice but to remove. Most signed treaties selling all of their lands in exchange for money and a permanent reservation and basic services. Most funding supporting reservations came from the treaties. The tribes signed these treaties because they knew that if they tried to remain in their lands, they would be exterminated by Americans. Many had already fought wars over territory, some had helped, and even welcomed settlement, only to be rebuffed, but all had no choice but to make way for White Americans who could make “better” use of the land.
Conditions on the reservations were severe. In the 19th century racist American society, Native peoples were treated badly, preyed upon by Indian agents, settlers, smugglers, and merchants. Federal funding, even that promised under treaties, and ratified into law by Congress and the president, was uncertain and inconsistent. Most payments for food and supplies were late, most aid was minuscule, and many white employees took advantage of their positions to embezzle funds and supplies from the federal agencies. Indians were normally not hired for the key staff positions because it was assumed that they were lazy and could not do the work. Indians who did not act appropriately on the reservation were subject to be murdered in many ways. Women were made to be prostitutes to staff and military detachments of soldiers. Women who were married would be kidnapped and raped by white employees. Some Indian people went “crazy” and were subject to being placed in the state hospitals for the insane, for life.
The treatment of Native peoples was nothing less than criminal by Interior department and Indian agency employees. Many people died of starvation and malnutrition. Many people were not allowed weapons and so could not hunt for their food. They could not leave the reservations to gather foods kin the appropriate seasons. most reservations were on land with poor soils and so they could not grow food. Many people did not have proper housing or clothing and they had no industry for wage labor, so could not buy what they needed. Tribal trade off reservation was not allowed except under special Congressional bills aimed at allowing economic activities and trade across the reservation borders (Trade and Intercourse acts). Many people resorted to cottage underground industries; Basket weaving, rug weaving, pottery, moonshine, fur trade, selling artifacts and antiquities, and day labor to make a little money to get by. In the West, many people were allowed to leave the reservations for a limited time, a few weeks, in the summers to harvest vegetables and fruits, for a little money. They became the first indigenous immigrant migrant farm workers.
Indian children were also subjected to extreme hardships. Most treaties included provisions for schools. These the tribes wanted, as they saw schools and education as necessary to learn the American culture and find a way to make a living. Education was power to the tribes. But when the tribal people were neglected on the reservations they needed the children to pitch in and help gather foods or make money. They wanted their children to attend the early reservation day schools but the attendance of the children was inconsistent. It did not help that the schools were inconsistently open as well. It took a lot of organization to open a school and inconsistent funding from the government, or lack of funding kept schools closed for years. The day schools, the earliest, were funded by the government, but operated by religious orders. Many times the priest or reverend of the reservation was in charge and the schools were operated by orders of sisters, or men and women of the faith.
The schools were seen as a vital part of the federal programs because they were one of the avenues for cultural change and assimilation to take place. The United States wanted the tribes to stop being tribal and become Americans. Many tribal people were forced to take wage labor, normally on farms, and through this they became assimilated in American agriculture. In addition, missionaries came among the tribes and worked to convert the people to one of many forms of Christianity. These programs were only partially successful outside of the houses, while Indian culture continued in the households. So, the government hatched a plan to remove the children from their houses and immerse them in American culture.
To solve part of the problem of Indian culture, the federal government initiated off-reservation boarding schools programs. They worked to establish a network of boarding schools which could receive students from several reservations. By 1899 there were over one hundred schools in the network of boarding and day schools. This year alone there were over 5,040 students in 21 boarding schools in the United States. These schools were removed from the reservations, were compulsory, and many children were thousands of miles from their parents. Many students did not even go to a school in the same region as their reservation. This was implemented to be an impediment to Indian children escaping and returning home.
Parents were forced to give their children up, from the age of 6 years old. Students would remain at the school for the whole school year for up to 12 years. Children were subjected to punishment for speaking their language or practicing their cultures. They were made to where uniforms, and cut their hair and take American names. They could only speak English and boy were taught mostly rural trades, farming, ranching and the like. Girls learned stereotypical “household” skills. Most would return home only in the summers and to their parents and community they were like strangers, unable to speak their languages or fully participate in their culture.
Parental rights did not exist,and until 1924, Indian people were as a population not considered Americans. They had few or no rights in American society, and so it was difficult to challenge the compulsory education policy. Federal officials did not help them at all.
“The late performer and Indian activist Floyd Red Crow Westerman was haunted by his memories of boarding school. As a child, he left his reservation in South Dakota for the Wahpeton Indian Boarding School in North Dakota. Sixty years later, he still remembers watching his mother through the window as he left. At first, he thought he was on the bus because his mother didn’t want him anymore. But then he noticed she was crying. “It was hurting her, too. It was hurting me to see that,” Westerman says. “I’ll never forget. All the mothers were crying” (NPR, https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=16516865).
The Children subjected to compulsory education were traumatized by being removed from the parents, and the parents were traumatized by their children’s removal, a situation which they had no power to stop. Many people were scarred, traumatized, for the rest of their lives. Some of the children never returned home, feeling after they graduated that there was no place from them on the reservation. Boarding schools did solve some of the assimilation issues for the federal government; they created generations of people who felt like they lost their cultures, contributing to an overall loss of native culture and languages which we all feel today.
Later in the 20th century, conditions on reservations were so bad that many Congressmen likened them to fourth world countries, with no plumbing in houses, no paved road, no electricity and abject poverty. These “Indian Problems” were a stain on the United States. In this period, 1920-1950, sending your children to a boarding school meant one less mouth to feed and that they might survive. In some ways this feeling that boarding school save children from the reservations is still a subject today with many reservations still in abject poverty, with alcoholism and drug and sexual abuse rampant. Many of today’s “Indian problems” can be tracked instead to failed federal programs for self-determination, and federal trade and intercourse laws that do not allow new industries to trade across the reservation borders without Congressional approval. This is one reason why Casinos are the number one industry for tribal reservations, because the Indian Gaming Act of 1988 allows for all tribes to have a casino after state approval.
It was not until the 1970’s when Congress passed laws that allowed Tribal Nations to manage their own children, to administer their education and manage their foster care, that forced removal education really ended.
Native American tribal nations have a long history of internment on reservations. There is also a long history of forcefully removal of Indian children from their parents. It is remarkable that in 2018 we see a very similar practice of removing children from their parents for immigrant families who offer no demonstrative threat to the United States. They are political prisoners of an administration off the rails and sideways with some of the founding tenets of the United States, to be a free nation were people who are in need of freedom and opportunity may come and live in freedom.
It cannot be said that Native peoples have been treated in any way by the American government as if we deserved freedom and basic human rights, but we now know better. Native peoples of tribal nations have lived through and survived one of the worst histories of internment in the history of the world. We cannot stand by and watch the same things happen to people of our brethren indigenous peoples from cultures south of the border. They too have seen long-term historic abuse and trauma from the Spanish colonization of over 500 years ago, and now with repression in their home countries. They deserve our help, security, and freedom, not further torture and human rights abuses.
Categories: Native Issues
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.