In 1492 when Columbus first encountered what would later be described as the New World, there were already occupying the two continents millions of people from hundreds of cultures. After 1492, many different ethnic groups from around the world began to flood the continent. While many “full-blooded” native people still exist, there are also a large number of native people with a mixed biological and cultural heritage.
It is difficult to come up with a universally accepted term to apply to the indigenous inhabitants of the two continents and surrounding islands. The term “Indian”, has over time, become to be seen as offensive, as it was misnamed by Columbus (seen as the initiator of a genocide) who thought he was in the East Indies, and that it can be confused with people who have immigrated to the United States from India. Acceptable terms today include aboriginal, First Nations, Native Americans and Native Peoples.
There are 562 federally recognized Indian Nations (variously called tribes, nations, bands, pueblos, communities, rancherias and native villages) in the United States. Approximately 229 of these ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse nations are located in Alaska; the rest are located in 33 other states. The nation’s population of American Indians and Alaska Natives, including those of more than one race was 5.4 million. This total accounted for about 2 percent of the total population of the United States in 2014.
Differences Between Native American and White Cultures
Through the centuries of relations between Native Americans and the Anglo-American community relations have been strained because of a vast difference in culture and values. The following are a short list of differences between Native American culture and Western culture.
1) One difference is in the relationship between human beings and the natural world. Although there is differences between tribes, most Native American cultures believe that the universe is a unity. The goal of many tribes is to live in harmony with nature. This view is in sharp contrast to the western view of using nature for human purposes, such as development, commercial farming, and the destruction of natural habitat.
2) Another difference is in private property. For most Native Americans, the buying, selling, and ownership of goods was not culturally embraced.
3) A third difference was that native American cultures tended to be more orientated towards groups whereas European culture emphasized a focus on the individual.
4) A final difference is that women in Native American cultures held far more important positions in society than was typical for women in European cultures.
The above differences created problems when dealing with Anglo-Americans. For example, the ownership of private property was to a large degree a foreign concept among Native American cultures. Native American cultures had no experience with deeds, titles, and contracts and so when they were forced to accept the European model of private property, many Native Americans were swindled out of ownership of their land.
The Creation of Minority Status for American Indians
With respect to the area that would eventually become the United States, Native Americans were the first group of people that the white colonists had contact with in the new world. When Europeans first began to arrive in the “new world” there were probably anywhere from 1 to 10 million American Indians. By the time of the last Indian War at Wounded Knee in 1890, the Indian population in the United States had been reduced by over 75% to around 250,000. Most of the population loss was the result of warfare and the introduction of new diseases brought over by European settlers. Most Indian deaths were caused by influenza, smallpox, cholera, tuberculosis, and other infectious diseases. In addition, food sources such as buffalo were slaughtered to the point of extinction and traditional lands confiscated.
The competition over land began with the arrival of white colonists. The first English colonies were for the purpose of providing living space for the landless and unemployed citizens of England. They considered the native peoples as an obstacle in the way of additional settlement, and so began pushing out and killing native tribes for their land. Between 1607 and 1783 the British and local native tribes fought many wars, with the result of the British winning and acquiring land.
Because of the many and expensive Indian Wars, the British Crown decreed in 1763 that the various Indian tribes were to be considered “sovereign nations” and treated as nation states, just like France or Spain. This meant that colonists had to negotiate for land and could not just take it away. Through the negotiation process, treaties were established designating tribal lands. This policy was continued, but largely ignored by the new American government. Treaties were often ignored or renegotiated by white society without agreement from affected Indian nations. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 sped up the process of taking Indian lands by requiring all Indian tribes living east of the Mississippi to move to new lands west of the Mississippi. As part of President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Policy of 1830, the Cherokee Nation was forced to give up its lands east of the Mississippi River and migrate to Indian Territory (now present day Oklahoma.) During the forced march of over 1,000 miles (Trail of Tears), over 4,000 of the 15,000 Indians died of hunger, disease, cold, and exhaustion. Some tribes agreed with the new law and moved, some fought, and some fled to Canada.
Through out the 1800’s there were pressures that pushed white citizens to expand westward into conflict with Native American tribes. One pressure was called Manifest Destiny, which was the belief by Europeans that they had a noble, religious mission to tame the wild frontier and bring civilization to its native inhabitants. A second pressure was the constant influx of new immigrants looking for land to settle. Because of the constant conflict over land, the new American government set up a government agency in 1781 called the Indian Department with the purpose of managing native peoples. The name of this department was changed to the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1824. The original goal of this agency was to promote good relations with the various Native American tribes, but as the years rolled by, the mission morphed into pushing Native peoples onto reservations and assimilating them into American society.
The reservation system was created not for the benefit of the native peoples but for the benefit of the government and the white community. Many of the reservations were formed in undesirable territory such as Oklahoma. The government attempted to provide for the native peoples on the reservations but much of the money and supplies meant to help Native Americans never was delivered because of the corruption of government agents. This poor treatment often led to “uprisings” that were put down through bloodshed. It took until 1970 for the first Native American to be appointed to lead the Bureau of Indian Affairs. By 1890, all remaining Indian tribes had been forced to accept the reservation system.
According to the Noel Hypothesis (which will be discussed in more detail in the next unit), American Indians were a colonized minority group which was controlled, like African-Americans, by a paternalistic system (the reservations). Indian tribes were for the most part, impoverished, powerless, and in a subordinate position to white society and the federal government.
Life on the Reservation
The last Indian war was fought in 1890. Most Native Americans were forced to live on reservations. Most reservations were in remote areas and so the chances for achieving economic prosperity were slim. Because of racial prejudice and discrimination, economic opportunities were limited off the reservation as well.
The reservation system was designed to keep Native American tribes powerless. The reservations were managed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The agents of the Bureau of Indian Affairs controlled virtually all aspects of life, from budget considerations, to the criminal justice system, to the schools, to tribal membership. The BIA ignored tribal leadership and carried out its duties independently and with no input from Native American tribes.
The process of assimilating American cultural values was intense. Native Americans were forbidden from speaking their native languages or practicing their religion. To help the assimilation process along, the Dawes Act of 1887 was passed. This act was designed to encourage the breakup of the tribes and promote the assimilation of Indians into American Society. It will be the major Indian policy until the 1930s. The goal was to create independent farmers out of Indians — give them land and the tools for citizenship. The Dawes Act provided for each head of an Indian family to be given 160 acres of farmland or 320 acres of grazing land. The remaining tribal lands were to be declared “surplus” and opened up for whites. Tribal ownership, and tribes themselves, were simply to disappear. The story would be much the same across much of the West. Before the Dawes Act, some 150 million acres remained in Indian hands. Within twenty years, two-thirds of their land was gone. The reservation system was nearly destroyed. From the viewpoint of Native Americans, the Dawes Act was a disaster.
Another method of assimilation was the boarding school. Hundreds of Indian boarding schools dotted the United States from the 1880s through the 1960s. The program was spearheaded by a zealous Army officer named Richard H. Pratt, who embraced the idea after working with Apache prisoners in St. Augustine, Fla. Pratt believed that removing Indian children from their culture and subjecting them to strict discipline and hard work would force their assimilation into mainstream society. Congress agreed, and in 1897 it gave Pratt roughly 18 students and the drafty barracks at a deserted Army college in Carlisle. Cynical politics—and simple math—played into Pratt’s plan. The government hoped to save millions of dollars, “because it cost anywhere from six to ten thousand [dollars] for the Army to kill an Indian,” Bates says. “But if Indian children were put in schools and forced to change into ‘Americans,’ it would only cost a couple of hundred dollars per child.” Pratt’s famous dictum was straightforward: “Kill the Indian and save the man.” School officials prohibited children from speaking native languages, and punished transgressors. “Every school had a disciplinary jail cell,” Bates says. Some even offered bounties for returned children. Contagious diseases often swept through the schools, and exposure to the elements took the lives of many runaways. Students spent about half their day in school. The remaining part of the day was spent between religious and vocational training. The first picture below shows Apache children on arrival at the Carlisle Indian School (Pennsylvania) wearing traditional clothing. The second picture shows the same children four months later.
1.The Indian Boarding School (video)
The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934
By the 1930’s the failure of the reservation system was becoming apparent to anyone who would look. The Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) of 1934 represented a shift in U.S. Indian policy away from forced acculturation and assimilation. The IRA ended the provisions of the Dawes Act. The IRA returned local self-government to the tribes. The act barred further land division, and set aside funds to consolidate and restore tribal landholdings. The Act also phased out the boarding schools that were used to force assimilation upon Native Americans. The IRA gave Indians the power to manage their internal affairs and established a revolving credit fund for tribal land purchases and educational assistance. It remains the basic legislation concerning Indian affairs. Although the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 was an improvement over the Dawes Act, there were still some shortcomings. There was still forced assimilation through such things as adoption of political reforms (written constitutions, secret ballots, majority rule), and some tribes being victimized by a group of westernized Indians who made deals with interests off the reservation.
Termination and Relocation
There were many Americans who believed that the new Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 which stressed tribal identity and deemphasized assimilation was “un-American”. In 1953 the assimilation forces won a partial victory when Congress passed a resolution calling for an end to the reservation system and the special relationship between tribes and the federal government. The policy was called “termination“, and was intended to get the government out of “the Indian business”. About 100 tribes were terminated or disbanded. The policy was designed to absorb Indians into non-Indian culture. In most cases, however, termination took place too quickly and with too little preparation for independence. Also, Native Americans faced discrimination within the mainstream culture. Trying to urbanize Native Americans had mixed results. Those who moved to the cities to work were economically better off than those who remained on the reservations where unemployment was high. But Native Americans remain the least urbanized minority group. Native American tribes and others forcefully opposed the legislation. Eventually, opposition to the termination policy caused the government to abandon it. Many of the tribes that had been “terminated” under the policy then campaigned to regain their official tribal status. The policy of termination was finally repealed in 1975 and replaced with the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975. This act increased aid to reservation schools and increase tribal control over the administration of the reservations, from police forces to the schools.
Protest and Resistance
The first organized Native American protests began at the turn of the 20th century. With the “termination” policy of the 1950’s organized protest increased. By the 1960’s, the “Red Power” movement was born. The Red Power movement used many of the strategies of the Civil Rights Movement. The goals of the movement were for more civil rights for Native Americans and for more enforcement of treaty provisions. The American Indian Movement (AIM) was founded in 1968. The AIM was a more militant protest group. In 1969 they occupied Alcatraz, an abandoned federal prison. The prison was occupied for almost four years. Although the goal of reclaiming Alcatraz as Native American territory failed, the occupation generated a great deal of publicity for the Red Power movement. AIM’s leaders spoke out against high unemployment, slum housing, and racist treatment, fought for treaty rights and the reclamation of tribal land, and advocated on behalf of urban Indians whose situation bred illness and poverty. In 1972 AIM helped to organize the “Trail of Broken Treaties” march on Washington D.C. The marches briefly occupied the Bureau of Indian Affairs office. They made demands for the abolition of the BIA and the return of confiscated lands. Their demands were not met. In 1973 AIM members occupied the village of Wounded Knee, South Dakota. The occupation lasted over two months and resulted in the deaths of two Native Americans by FBI gunfire. The confrontation ended with the government making nearly 1200 arrests. But this would only mark the beginning of what was known as the “Reign of Terror” instigated by the FBI and the BIA. During the three years following Wounded Knee, 64 tribal members were unsolved murder victims, 300 harassed and beaten, and 562 arrests were made, and of these arrests only 15 people were convicted of any crime. As with all of the ethnic movements of the 1960’s and 1970’s, the level of protest activity within the Red Power movement has declined.
- Map of Indian Reservations in the United States
- Debate Over the Phrase “redskin”
- Redskins: What’s In a Name The Daily Show
- Native American Suicide Rates At Crisis Level
- Song of Survival- Red Eagle (music video)
The State of Native Americans Today
There are still a number of issues facing Native Americans today. Native peoples suffer from high rates of poverty and unemployment. Seventeen percent of Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders and 27 percent of all self-identified Native Americans and Alaska Natives live in poverty, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. There are also environmental, land and natural resource issues. Throughout 2016 Native Peoples were in the media spotlight for their protest against the Dakota Pipeline Project, where thousands of protestors from all around the country came to Standing Rock South Dakota to stop the construction of a pipeline that could put the water supply of Native peoples in jeopardy.
Forty percent of Native Americans who live on reservations are in substandard housing. One-third of homes are overcrowded, and less than 16 percent have indoor plumbing. Indian nations do not own their reservation lands. Rather, the lands are held in trust by the federal government. This prevents Native Americans who live on reservations from leveraging their assets for loans, making it difficult for them to start businesses or promote economic growth in the area. Suicide is the second most common cause of death for Native youth ages 15 to 24 — two and a half times the national rate for that age group. Alcohol abuse an domestic violence are also major problems.
The white community in the United States has a difficult time thinking of itself as a distinct race. And yet, if you look around the United States today, it would be difficult to argue that something called “whiteness” does not exist. Members of white supremacy groups have long held the belief that a white race exists. But most mainstream white people have chosen not to view the white community as a distinct race or ethnic group. As was mentioned in the first unit, the white community is the dominant group in the United States. This means they have the ability to discriminate against minority groups, as well as to gain benefits from the existence of prejudice and discrimination of minority groups.
Today, genetically, there is no evidence that something called “whiteness” exists. This is a different position from the Eugentics Movement of the early twentieth century. Whiteness is a social construction as discussed in unit one.
Not all white people have benefitted from being part of the dominant group. Many poor whites have through the centuries have experienced the same hardships as minority groups. The promotion of white identity has been used by the ruling class to build a cross-class alliance and use poor whites to enforce an economic order to the detriment of Black slaves and poor whites. The social, political, and economic dominance of white Americans means that it can be challenging to separate what it means to be American from what it means to be white.
Between 1820 and 1920, over 40 million people made the trip from Europe to the United States. “Old Immigration” refers to immigrants who came from northern and western Europe beginning in the 1820’s. “New Immigration” refers to a second wave of immigrants who came from southern and eastern Europe beginning in the 1880’s. What is important to note is that for most of the descendants of these European immigrants they have completed the assimilation process. When these groups first arrived (Irish, Polish, Italians, Jews) they were discriminated against. Since their first arrival, they have integrated and intermarried.
Brief Summary of the European Immigration Experience
The first large wave of immigrants that came from northern and western Europe to the United States faced less discrimination and were more easily assimilated. They shared many values with the WASP culture they encountered- they looked similar, where largely Protestant, were individualistic, and were able to buy land and settle in some of the new territories in the Midwest. Immigrants from the second wave (southern and eastern Europe) faced a different situation. When they started to arrive in the 1880’s the United States was in the process of industrialization. Most immigrants from southern and eastern Europe settled in the new large cities and worked in factories. They often looked different than those from northern and western Europe. Most of those who came from southern and eastern Europe were also not Protestant, they were primarily Catholic and Jewish. They competed for jobs with the first wave of immigrants, which created hostility. Because of this, many of the immigrants from southern and eastern Europe formed ethnic enclaves (Little Italy). Anti-Semitism and hostility towards Catholics increased. In the 1920’s the Ku Klux Klan saw their membership swell in response to Catholic and Jewish immigrants, and blacks moving North looking for jobs. The Klan’s numbers were so large that they could even conduct a march past our nation’s capitol. The anti-immigrant sentiment culminated in the passage of the first immigration act that will be discussed in more detail in unit 11.
It must be remembered that white people throughout the nation’s history have also been discriminated against. There were many white groups that came to the United States and were the objects of discrimination. As a reminder from unit one, when the Irish first came to the United States they were deeply disliked by the White Anglo Saxon Protestant (WASP) culture that was already here. But over time European groups were allowed to assimilate into the larger dominant white culture. They were then in a position to realize privileges and to be able to benefit from the discrimination faced by new, or different minority groups. Today, if whites in the United States face discrimination from the power structure in American society, it is not due to their perceived race or ethnicity, but rather due their social class. Poor whites struggle with many of the same issues that ethnic minority groups do, such as high unemployment, poverty, and negative health outcomes. These issues have led some white people to embrace one of the groups discussed below.
When sociologists talk about white identity, they’re not referring to the white nationalist movement or others who espouse racist beliefs. Rather, they’re talking about everyday white Americans who are racially conscious. In recent decades as whites have increasingly sensed that their status in society is falling, there has been an awakening among whites to viewing themselves as a distinct group. Some social observers believe that one reason for the popularity of Donald Trump was his appeal to white identity and white struggles at a time when the United States is becoming more ethnically diverse. Many whites are angry over the coming loss of a white majority (predicted for 2043 by the Census Bureau), the declining economic conditions (income, employment) of the white working class, worsening income inequality, the rise of left-wing movements like Black Lives Matter, major advances for LGBT people, growing numbers of refugees and undocumented workers, and terrorism.1
There are two meanings to the term white supremacy. The first meaning describes the actions of the leaders of our social institutions since the beginning of the American experiment to maintain the white community as the dominant group. This would include the constitutionality of slavery, Supreme Court decisions like Plessy v. Ferguson which legalized “separate but equal” public facilities, and the racial gerrymandering of congressional districts. This academic definition is best described by Frances Lee Ansley where he states: “By “white supremacy” I do not mean to allude only to the self-conscious racism of white supremacist hate groups. I refer instead to a political, economic and cultural system in which whites overwhelmingly control power and material resources, conscious and unconscious ideas of white superiority and entitlement are widespread, and relations of white dominance and non-white subordination are daily reenacted across a broad array of institutions and social settings.” The focus for this definition in the present age is to maintain the benefits of being the dominant group.
The second definition of white supremacy is the one that is more commonly known. This definition focuses on the belief that there exists a racial hierarchy where whites occupy the top position because they possess superior traits. This type of white supremacy is usually found outside the political and economic institutions that make up the social structure. There are many white supremacy groups that exist in the United States. The main ones are given short descriptions below.
Ku Klux Klan. Perhaps the oldest white supremacy group in the United States. The Klan was created in 1866 in response to Republican Reconstruction policies following the Civil War. Since its founding, the Klan has had periods when it saw its membership increase ( 1920’s, 1960’s) and times when it saw its membership decline (1930’s, 1990’s). The Southern Poverty Law Center stated that there seems to be an apparent comeback of Klan groups, going from 72 in 2014 to 190 in 2015.
Neo-Nazis. Neo-Nazi groups appeared in the United States in the 1950s and more or less share the same ideology as the Klan, plus the added factor that they revere the Third Reich. Some prominent neo-Nazi organizations include the National Socialist Movement, Aryan Nation, and the National Alliance.
Racist Skinheads. These groups tend to align closely with neo-Nazis. Their membership tends to skew younger than those of the KKK or neo-Nazis.
Aryan Nation prison gangs and Christian Identity. Most of the membership of the Aryan Nation is found within the nation’s prison system. Their membership has dramatically declined from 2004 – 2014. Many Aryan Nation members join the Christian Identity movement upon release from prison. The Christian Identity movement has an estimated 25,000 to 50,000 followers in North America. Though there’s no centralized church, adherents generally believe that white Europeans are the descendants of the tribes of Israel and are therefore God’s true—and only—chosen people.
Alt-Right. The Southern Poverty Law Center describes the Alt-Right Movement as: The Alternative Right, commonly known as the Alt-Right, is a set of far-right ideologies, groups and individuals whose core belief is that “white identity” is under attack by multicultural forces using “political correctness” and “social justice” to undermine white people and “their” civilization. Characterized by heavy use of social media and online memes, Alt-Righters disagree with “establishment” conservatism, tend to be young, and embrace white ethno-nationalism as a fundamental value. Members prefer the phrase “white nationalist” instead of white supremacist.
The above description of white identity and white nationalist groups should not leave the impression that all whites today support these ideas. Most social scientists would label these groups as being on the “fringe”. There are more whites in the United States who support a continued movement towards a multicultural society than there are white people who support the ideas of white identity and white supremacy. However, not all white people believe they experience the benefits of white privilege. This is due to the effects of social class, where poorer whites in lower income groups have been seeing their standard of living decline because of deindustrialization, stagnation of wages, and international trade agreements.
Movies Relevant to This Unit
Below are a list of movies that exhibit sociological concepts learned in this unit.
- Last of the Mohicans. A look at life during the French and Indian War in the United States in the mid 1700’s.
- Dances With Wolves. A soldier, exiled to a remote western Civil War outpost, befriends wolves and Indians, making him an intolerable aberration in the military.
- Into the West. An epic tale of two figures during the American colonization of the west, one white and the other Native American. Jacob Wheeler leaves his dull life behind to strike out west, while Loved By the Buffalo faces his destiny to try to fight a prophecy that his people will be wiped out by the settlers. Jacob marries Loved By the Buffalo’s sister Thunder Heart Woman, uniting the two families while around them relations between the two races crumble.
- American History X. A former neo-nazi skinhead tries to prevent his younger brother from going down the same wrong path that he did.
Books Relevant to This Unit
Below are a list of books that exhibit sociological concepts learned in this unit.
- Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Dee Brown
- The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America by Andreas Resendez
- History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter
- Savages and Scoundrels: the Untold Story of America’s Road to Empire Through Indian Territory by Paul VanDevelder
Farley, John E. 2005 Majority-Minority Relations (5th Edition) Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education
Healey, Joseph F. 1998 Race, Ethnicity, Gender, and Class (2nd Edition) Thousand Oaks, California: Pine Forge Press
1 Southern Poverty Law Center, The Year of Hate by Mark Potok, February 17th, 2016.
Copyright ©2006, 2014 Glenn Hoffarth All Rights Reserved