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The Great Confusion in Indian Affairs

The Great Confusion in Indian Affairs
Native Americans and Whites in the Progressive Era

How Native Americans' sense of identity and “peoplehood” helped them resist and ultimately defeat the U.S. government's attempts to assimilate them into white society in the early twentieth century.

September 2005
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264 pages | 6 x 9 |

The United States government thought it could make Indians "vanish." After the Indian Wars ended in the 1880s, the government gave allotments of land to individual Native Americans in order to turn them into farmers and sent their children to boarding schools for indoctrination into the English language, Christianity, and the ways of white people. Federal officials believed that these policies would assimilate Native Americans into white society within a generation or two. But even after decades of governmental efforts to obliterate Indian culture, Native Americans refused to vanish into the mainstream, and tribal identities remained intact.

This revisionist history reveals how Native Americans' sense of identity and "peoplehood" helped them resist and eventually defeat the U.S. government's attempts to assimilate them into white society during the Progressive Era (1890s-1920s). Tom Holm discusses how Native Americans, though effectively colonial subjects without political power, nonetheless maintained their group identity through their native languages, religious practices, works of art, and sense of homeland and sacred history. He also describes how Euro-Americans became increasingly fascinated by and supportive of Native American culture, spirituality, and environmental consciousness. In the face of such Native resiliency and non-Native advocacy, the government's assimilation policy became irrelevant and inevitably collapsed. The great confusion in Indian affairs during the Progressive Era, Holm concludes, ultimately paved the way for Native American tribes to be recognized as nations with certain sovereign rights.

  • Preface
  • Chapter I. The Vanishing Policy
  • Chapter II. Persistent Peoples: Native American Social and Cultural Continuity
  • Chapter III. The New Indians
  • Chapter IV. Symbols of Native American Resiliency: The Indian Art Movement
  • Chapter V. Preserving the "Indian": The Reassessment of the Native American Image
  • Chapter VI. Progressive Ambiguity: The Reassessment of the Vanishing Policy
  • Chapter VII. The "Great Confusion" in Indian Affairs
  • Chapter VIII. Epilogue: John Collier and Indian Reform
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Tom Holm, a Professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Arizona, is a Cherokee and Muskogee Creek (enrolled Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma).


Before dipping a toe into the murky waters of the late nineteenth-century movement to assimilate Native Americans into mainstream American society, it is necessary to explain Indian-white relations in a larger context. First, it must be recognized that the many and various "tribes" in North and South America were autonomous peoples. That is to say, each Native group had a unique language, a defined territory, a distinct and sacred history, and a ceremonial cycle that renewed and explained the group's relationship with the spirits of the land. Peoplehood is the basis of sovereignty, nationalism, culture, and social organization. European colonists, on the other hand, were mere fragments of peoples who came with their languages, religions, and sacred histories but who did not have a particular intimacy with the territory they sought to claim for themselves. Their esteem for the land rested more on a mechanical "cash exchange" basis; the land was worth exactly what it could produce, or what could be extracted from it, or what it could be bartered for. The European sacred lands were still across the seas.

The relationships between indigenous peoples and colonizers usually proceed through a serious of phases. First and foremost, the establishment of colonies disrupts Native societies and displaces people. More often than not, conflict follows, with a concomitant reassessment of the colonial policy of outright conquest. At that point, both colonizers and indigenous peoples begin to agree upon a policy of resetting territorial boundaries in order to maintain a degree of order. Treaty making is a very good example of this stage in Indian-white relations. But perhaps because the acquisition of land is, by definition, the colonizer's main preoccupation, boundaries are continually violated, leading to more, rather than less, disorder and violence. The next stage in colonialism is the attempt on the part of the colonizer to integrate an indigenous group into the colonial socioeconomic structure. Assimilation could mean turning the indigenous population into a labor force or perhaps a marginalized group of "others" who speak the colonizers' language and have internalized the colonizers' versions of their history as being correct. As Albert Memmi has indicated, the internalization of colonialism by indigenous groups may well be the final outcome and goal of colonization.

As soon as it became an independent nation, the United States launched a policy of expanding its territorial limits and colonizing areas ceded by Great Britain in the 1783 Treaty of Paris ending the Revolutionary War. Expansion, however, was a costly enterprise. The United States was relatively poor and had a small, meagerly paid army that was required to maintain order on the frontier. It failed miserably. Warfare between Indians and whites was constant and led to two disastrous American military defeats at the hands of a Native American confederacy in what is now Indiana. Consequently, the new nation took up the British policy of making treaties with Native tribes to regulate trade and purchasing, rather than simply attempting to conquer Indian lands. In short, the United States moved quickly through the first phase of colonialism and into the second in order to define boundaries and quell the violence. American treaty making, at least with Indians, was an expedient measure, intended to make colonization orderly and as inexpensive, in terms of military spending, as possible.

Besides land cessions, treaties, and trade, the Americans also implemented assimilation plans, the third step in colonization from the grab bag of policies that had been formulated under British rule. In 1790 George Washington and Secretary of War Henry Knox urged Congress to pass the first Trade and Intercourse Act to regulate trade with the tribes, formalize the treaty-making process, establish the federal government as the sole agent for the purchase of Indian lands, and promote "civilization" among the Indian people. Along with ceding tribal lands to the United States, tribal societies were to undergo cultural and social change; in short, Indians were to become like whites and be assimilated into the American body politic as farmers, laborers in the fur-and-hide trade and, in some cases, as artisans. In a series of Trade and Intercourse Acts, the federal government set aside funds not only to purchase Indian land, but also to buy farm implements, spinning wheels, and domestic animals as incentives to induce Indians to lead a "civilized" life. Indian men were urged "to give up the hunt," till the fields, and care for livestock; Native women were advised to give up their agricultural pursuits, stay in the home, and spin wool.

Getting American Indians to accept the idea of private property was basic to the concept of assimilation. In 1808, President Thomas Jefferson urged a contingent of southern Indian leaders to advise their people to secure individual family farms out of tribal lands and work the plots in the manner of their white neighbors. Jefferson no doubt believed that if his advice were followed, the tribal members would become Indian versions of the Jeffersonian yeoman farmer, individualized and acculturated, Christian and loyal to the United States. Jefferson's advice amounted to an early attempt to promote the allotment of tribal lands in severalty. As time went on, larger numbers of whites concerned with Indian policy would begin to equate the allotment of tribal lands in severalty with the civilization or assimilation process.

Humanitarian, assimilationist rhetoric cloaked even the most blatant transgressions against American Indian societies and landholdings. In exchange for vast cessions of tribal lands, Indians were sent missionaries, domestic animals, and the services of blacksmiths to make farming tools. Even the forced removal of the eastern tribes to lands west of the Mississippi was carried out to insure their "ultimate security and improvement." The establishment of the Indian Territory and the reservation system, although an overt attempt to restrict Indian movement and to compress tribal territories so that Indians would be forced to take up farming, was instituted according to the American ideology of the period to prepare Native Americans for their entrance into American society. Whites fully believed throughout the nineteenth century that American civilization would spread from coast to coast and that Native cultures—or, depending on the perspective, Native people—were doomed to extinction through the "natural" processes of human progress. "Civilization or death" for American Indians was the white view of the "Indian Problem"; there was no other alternative.

The post-Civil War movement for Indian assimilation, which reached its zenith with the liquidation of the Indian Territory under the Curtis Act of 1898, was based essentially on the same views that prompted the territory's establishment. In an earlier period, certain whites looked upon the reservations and the autonomous tribal states in the Indian Territory, to which thousands of Native Americans were removed in the 1830s and 1840s, as vast tracks of land wherein Indians would reside unmolested and could "advance" toward civilization and the acceptance of Christianity. This "advancement" was more or less considered an evolutionary process, slow and purposeful. But the outbreaks of warfare between whites and Indians in the 1860s pointed out that Indian-white relations had reached the nadir of a four-hundred-year decline. Indians did not go unmolested to pursue "civilized life." The November 29, 1864, massacre of the Cheyenne and Arapaho village at Sand Creek, Colorado Territory, after the Indians had signed a peace treaty and agreed to live on a reservation, finally stirred a government still occupied with the Civil War into a degree of action.

On January 9, 1865, Senator James R. Doolittle of Wisconsin introduced a joint resolution calling for a special committee to be formed to investigate the condition of Indian affairs. Approved in March, the committee set at its arduous and lengthy task. A survey was taken from various sources, for not only did the Doolittle Commission conduct interviews and take testimony, but it sent out questionnaires to Indian agents, missionaries, army officers, and sundry other persons involved in implementing Indian policy. The results of the survey were shocking to some, predictable to others. According to the commission's report, alcoholism was rampant on the reservations and health problems enormous. Not surprisingly, the American Indian population was reported to be in a rapid decline.

The responses to the Doolittle questionnaire typically emphasized the moral side of the Indian question. Those surveyed recommended that Indians should continue in agricultural training, receive Christian educations, and be protected from immoral and avaricious white influences. When Ulysses S. Grant became president in 1869, he established a "Peace Policy" with the tribes by appointing missionaries as Indian agents, negotiating treaties that contained provisions for the establishment of schools on the reservations, and essentially instituted most of the recommendations of the Doolittle Commission.

The Grant administration's Indian policy was a stopgap attempt to quell the stirrings of the more radical wing of the Republican Party. In addition to appointing missionaries to fill agency positions, Grant set up the Board of Indian Commissioners, an unpaid group of zealously Christian, business-minded, Republican reformers. The president also picked a "civilized" Indian to serve as the new commissioner of Indian Affairs, Ely S. Parker. Parker was an old friend of Grant's, a Seneca from New York and former member of the general staff of the Army of the Potomac. It was said that Parker's beautiful and precise penmanship prompted Grant to have the Seneca officer write out the instrument of surrender at Appomattox Courthouse.

The years of Grant's peace policy were hardly peaceful. The widespread corruption among members of the president's cabinet directly affected Native Americans. Rations, which were distributed to prevent Indians from leaving the reservations to hunt and, provisionally, to quell famine until they learned the tricks of civilized farming, were of poor quality and exceptionally high priced. It was later discovered that the secretary of the interior was accepting kickbacks from the ration contractors. Although Parker was found not to have been involved in the scandals, he was nevertheless forced from office in 1871.

In addition to the graft, and in part because of it, whites and American Indians became engaged in a series of bloody armed clashes ranging from Texas to Montana to California. Two sanguinary military engagements during the Grant administration shocked Americans even more than the Sand Creek massacre, for they proved that the president's policy of maintaining peace with the tribes while gradually acculturating individual Native Americans to Western values and life was crumbling. In 1873 the Modocs of northern California, although small in number, held off an entire U.S. military force and killed its commanding general, E. R. S. Canby. Canby's death appalled the American public, and the nation eventually revenged itself on the Modocs, but many whites began to question the causes of the war and its meaning within the context of the goals of Grant's Indian policy. The Modocs had been a sparse, peace-loving people who had essentially fitted themselves into northern California's labor force—most worked as ranch hands or in other agricultural pursuits—and had been largely overlooked as even potentially violent. Their sudden outbreak vexed many Americans and created a stir in reform circles. During the final year of the Grant administration, George Armstrong Custer led most of the Seventh Cavalry to its demise at the Little Bighorn. Coming as it did during the celebration of the nation's centennial, Custer's death ride stoked the fire of reform to even greater heights.

Even after Grant left office, Indian outbreaks continued without letup. In 1877 the Nez Percé under the leadership of Chief Joseph and Ollicut broke out of their Oregon reservation in a desperate attempt to escape to Canada. Shortly thereafter the Bannocks followed suit, and less than a year later Dull Knife and Little Wolf led a number of Cheyenne out of their assigned reservation in Indian Territory to their homeland in the north. These attempts to flee reservation life were met with white resistance to be sure, but they also left many whites to question the reasons behind the outbreaks and to ponder the appalling living conditions at the agencies (reservations), which bred the trouble in the first place.

But perhaps no other outbreak provoked as great a public demand for Indian reform as the "Ponca Affair" of 1879. Standing Bear, a Ponca leader, in an attempt to return the body of his dead son to the Ponca homeland, jumped the reservation in Indian Territory and fled to Nebraska. He was arrested there and brought into Omaha to await transportation back to Oklahoma. While the tribal leader was under lock and key, several reform-minded Omaha citizens, including the assistant editor of the Omaha Herald, Thomas Henry Tibbles, took up Standing Bear's cause with great fervor. Tibbles and the other concerned citizens prompted a few of the city's more prominent attorneys to file a writ of habeas corpus in an effort to set the chief free. The decision that United States District Court Judge Elmer S. Dundy rendered set a precedent in American Indian law. The judge granted the writ, ruling that Standing Bear was a "person" under the law and was therefore guaranteed constitutional protection. Before Dundy's decision, American Indians had not been given clear status under the U.S. Constitution. At best, Indians were members of "domestic dependent nations" or viewed by the courts as "wards" of the government.

The aftereffects of the case were even more far-reaching. Standing Bear, Tibbles, and a member of the Omaha tribe, Suzette LaFlesche, toured the eastern United States, speaking out against the government's reservation policies. In the east, they met very receptive audiences and stimulated widespread white reflection on the "Indian Problem." Within weeks of the speaking tour, citizens' groups sprang up in such cities as Boston and Philadelphia to work for Indian policy reform.

Criticism came swift and cut deep. Senator Henry Laurens Dawes of Massachusetts, who was to become the chief spokesman for Indian reform in Congress, openly criticized Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz, a member of his own party and himself a reformer of great repute, for the secretary's lack of resolve in pushing an antireservation agenda. In 1879 in Philadelphia, Mary L. Bonney gathered a group of women together to collect signatures in a campaign to end the reservation system. The following year she collected more than 13,000 signatures on a petition urging Congress to move ahead with legislation concerning Indian affairs. By 1883 Bonney's organization assumed the title of the Women's National Indian Association. The association immediately began to produce newsletters and other materials highly critical of the reservation policy. In 1881, Helen Hunt Jackson published her scathing attack on government Indian policy. The book, entitled A Century of Dishonor, created even greater interest in American Indian problems, confirmed the legitimacy of the reformers' cause, and came shortly to be known as the Uncle Tom's Cabin of Indian reform.

Between 1879 and 1883 the number of people and groups involved in the Indian reform movement burgeoned. The founding of several women's Indian reform organizations led the way, and soon some prominent American males were hopping on the bandwagon. The Indian Rights Association, which became perhaps the most influential of these reform organizations to deal with Indian legal problems, was founded, again in Philadelphia, in 1882. Finally, to coordinate these numerous and various groups and to provide a sounding board for them, the Lake Mohonk Conference of Friends of the Indian began annual meetings in 1883.

The Lake Mohonk Conference was the brainchild and hope of Albert K. Smiley, a member of the Board of Indian Commissioners. He and his brother Alfred owned a hotel situated on Lake Mohonk in New York. Because he had found that the different groups had many of the same goals yet their efforts were uncoordinated, Smiley proposed annual fall meetings to be held at his resort. The meetings were relaxed and, at first, not well attended. But shortly thereafter attendance swelled, and the conference began to exert growing political power. Smiley, as a member of the Board of Indian Commissioners, began to have printed, at government expense, the proceedings of the Lake Mohonk Conference in the Board's annual reports.

From the outset the conferees were completely taken with the idea of assimilating the Indian population into the American body politic. They believed wholeheartedly that Indians should immediately become thoroughly Americanized Christians in a cultural sense and fully indoctrinated in the competitive and individualized model that was, to them, the American way of life. By learning English, as well as to read and write, Native Americans would be better able to compete with their white neighbors. Moreover, the conferees firmly believed that Native ceremonies, healing practices, sacred histories, and "superstitions" were hindrances to Indian advancement. Most importantly, the conferees were in full agreement that the reservations should be broken up into individually held allotments in order to provide Indians with homesteads to serve as their economic base. Allotment would bring with it an end to tribalism and become the method of "Indian Emancipation."

The allotment of Indian lands in severalty was neither a new idea nor completely the product of post-Civil War reform thought. The Indian reformers simply reached into colonialism's grab bag (or garbage can, as some commentators have suggested) and plucked out a formula that would ostensibly force an indigenous group to abandon its own sense of peoplehood and shift its loyalty to the colonial system, which was, in the final analysis, the protector of property rights, both colonial and indigenous. Thomas Jefferson suggested this policy regarding American Indians as early as 1808. The Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Creek were offered the option of taking allotments during the removal of the southern Indians to what became Indian Territory during the 1830s. All of the Oklahoma territorial bills introduced during the 1870s contained provisions that would allot tribal lands in severalty and allow the surplus to be opened to non-Indian settlement.

During the 1870s there had been numerous attempts to allot Indian lands. Most of these measures were quickly seen exactly for what they were: overt attempts to open Indian lands. The opening of Indian lands was very much a part of the intricate pattern of the take-off period of American industrial growth. To the Indian reformers, attempts to allot lands in particular areas or among certain tribes simply smacked of land speculation. Only a general allotment act, encompassing all Indian people and working for their benefit, would suffice. Without much apparent thought, the Indian reform movement played into the hands of the railroads, land companies, farmers, and ranchers as well as the timber, coal, petroleum, and steel industries.

The year 1879 produced several attempts to press through Congress a general allotment law. In January two such bills were introduced in the House and Senate. Although the Committee on Indian Affairs issued a favorable report on the House measure, it never progressed to a vote. The Senate bill was also eventually tabled. Later, on 21 April, Alfred M. Scales introduced another allotment measure in the House. The Scales bill was referred to the Committee on Indian Affairs and ultimately met the same fate as the previously introduced allotment bills.

The next year the allotment onslaught became even more intense. On 12 January 1880, Alvin Saunders of Nebraska introduced an allotment bill into the Senate. This measure was an exact copy of the Scales bill submitted the year before. During the same month, the House Committee on Indian Affairs issued a favorable report on a somewhat revised version of the Scales legislation. Neither bill, however, reached a vote. On 19 May, Richard Coke of Texas placed before the Senate still another general allotment bill. It was read and referred to the Committee on Indian Affairs, and after a favorable report the bill reached the Senate floor. It was debated in January and February 1881.

The Coke bill was ill fated and brought forth some unexpected opposition. Although the Five Civilized Tribes of the Indian Territory were exempted from the provisions of the bill, their attitudes toward it became a central theme during the debates. One of the first questions raised concerning the Coke measure arose because of the very fact that these tribes were specifically omitted from its provisions. As an answer, Coke reminded his colleagues that one of the stipulations in the bill required tribal consent to allotment and that the "civilized tribes were known to the committee [Indian Affairs] not to desire it." The fact that section seven of the bill excluded not only the Five Tribes but the whole of the Indian Territory particularly irritated the Indian reformers, who were closely watching the ebb and flow of the allotment controversy. George Vest of Missouri requested that the bill be amended in order for tribes other than the Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole of the Indian Territory to accept allotment. Not surprisingly, Coke had intended the bill to pass as written, and led the voting that rejected Vest's proposed amendment.

Henry M. Teller of Colorado led the opposition to the Coke bill on the Senate floor. Teller was apparently in close contact with the governments of the Five Civilized Tribes. As stipulated in several treaties made with the federal government, these tribes sent annual delegations to Washington to keep a close check on Indian policy. Essentially, these delegations became a formidable American Indian lobbying group that kept up the fight against railroad encroachment on Indian lands, bills to organize the Indian Territory, and measures that would have allotted particular Indian reservations. Teller asked to read their formal protest to the Coke bill into the record. When questioned about what possible relevance the memorial of the Five Tribes could have, since they were exempted from the bill, Teller explained that if the "civilized" Indians were against the measure, the "uncivilized" Indians would naturally contest it as well. His position was convincing enough, and the memorial was read into the debate.

Teller's tactics worked well. Under pressure the Coke bill was greatly revised and amended. During the spring of 1882 the Senate finally passed the measure and sent it to the House. Despite a favorable report, the Coke allotment bill never reached the House floor.

In the face of these setbacks to their measures, the Indian reformers stepped up the agitation in favor of allotment and targeted the Five Civilized Tribes as their chief adversaries. In 1883, the Indian Rights Association published S. C. Armstrong's pamphlet on the need to rid the federal government of the reservation system. The monograph was, in effect, a scathing attack on the governments and social structures of the Five Civilized Tribes. Armstrong urged unconditional allotment legislation, which, he claimed, would end the inequities in wealth among the tribes of the Southwest and the Indian Territory. To counteract Armstrong and the Indian Rights Association's charges, the governments of the Five Tribes extended an invitation to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs to visit the Indian Territory.

In 1885, the Senate committee, with Henry Laurens Dawes as its chairman, finally did come to the Indian Territory. Dawes, firmly in the Indian reform camp since 1879, was hardly the open-minded congressional leader the Five Tribes had hoped to see. When he returned from the Indian Territory, Dawes went before the Lake Mohonk Conference and opened an attack on the tribal practice of holding lands in common. He specifically chose the Five Tribes as his target, saying, in effect, that although this system of land tenure had prevented abject poverty, it was nevertheless unprogressive and, in fact, backward. The senator then concluded that holding lands in common prevented "selfishness" and therefore stood as a roadblock to self-improvement. Dawes returned to the Senate and quickly set out to push a general allotment act through Congress.

Dawes quickly introduced his own general allotment bill on 8 December 1885. The Senate, however, was unable to pass the measure until February of the following year. In the House, the bill was set aside until the autumn of 1886. Finally debated and amended, it was not passed out of the House until 15 December of that year.

On 8 February 1887, President Grover Cleveland signed the Dawes General Allotment Act into law. The act provided for American Indian landholdings to be surveyed and then parceled out to individual tribal members. An allottee would receive full rights of U.S. citizenship along with a parcel of land. The new law also placed a trust period on allotments, guaranteeing that the land would be inalienable for a period of twenty-five years.

For a number of reasons, the majority of those Americans with an interest in Indian policy considered the Dawes Act a triumph in every way. To corporate interests, in particular the railroads, it provided a means to deal with American Indians individually and without an exceptional amount of interference from the government. Surplus land—that which was left over after allotment—would become part of the U.S. public domain and would be easily obtained by purchase or lease. The law was also hailed as a triumph of nineteenth-century liberalism because it stressed individualism and the notion that the ownership of private property conferred on the owner a true sense of freedom. According to the reformers of American Indian policy, the individual ownership of property would force American Indians to abandon their cultural heritages, enter mainstream American society, and shift their allegiances to the federal government as the ultimate protector of the right to private property. To others of a more pessimistic bent, the Dawes Act was a generous offering to a doomed people.

Some tribes were specifically exempted from the provisions of the Dawes Act. The Five Civilized Tribes and the Osage of Indian Territory were, surprisingly, left alone. These tribes, or their representatives, had after all become the bugbears of the allotment movement. As early as 1877, Alfred Riggs, a missionary to the Santee Dakota, urged that the Santee lands in Nebraska and South Dakota be allotted. Riggs specifically proposed that allotment be done piecemeal in order, he said, "to avoid raising that hornet's nest in the Indian Territory." Leaving them out of the Dawes Act was not the fault of the reformers; there was nothing more hoped for than the liquidation of the Indian Territory. They were stymied in their attempts to include the Five Tribes and the Osage in the Dawes Act because all these tribes held a fee-simple title to their lands. These titles, however, did not deter the reformers or the corporate interests from the conviction that allotment in severalty was the panacea for all Indian ills. In fact, the reformers and the whites who coveted land in the Indian Territory kept up the pressure on Congress and fought hard to include the territory under the provisions of the General Allotment Act.

In less than six years Congress succumbed to the pressure from reformers, non-Indian intruders living in the Indian Territory illegally, and the railroad lobbyists. Under the provisions of the 1893 Indian Appropriation Act, Congress established a commission to seek agreements with the Five Tribes that would extinguish their fee-simple titles and allot their lands in severalty. The new commission, named for its chairman, none other than Henry Laurens Dawes, set out almost immediately on its mission to the Indian Territory.

For nearly five years the Dawes Commission and the leaders from the Five Tribes struggled with the allotment question. At first the tribal leaders flatly refused to discuss the subject, leaving the commission with little to report during its first year of operation. During this period the Five Tribes actually picked up some support for their contention that forcing them to allot their land was directly in violation of the U.S. Constitution. Their treaties had guaranteed their titles, and any transgression of treaty rights essentially violated Article VI of the Constitution. Ever mindful of these potential legal problems, the Indian Rights Association sent Charles F. Meserve, president of Shaw College in Raleigh, North Carolina, to investigate the conditions in the Indian Territory. Meserve's report, entitled The Dawes Commission and the Five Civilized Tribes of Indian Territory, was nothing more than a condemnation of the governments of the Five Tribes and a highly laudatory appraisal of the Dawes Commission's work. Meserve openly accused the tribal leaders of committing high crimes against their people, of becoming spokesmen for business monopolies, and of condoning corruption in government. Meserve's ridiculously biased and prejudicial pamphlet nevertheless demonstrated that the reformers were more than willing to violate the Constitution to accomplish their goals.

Congress was equally ready to violate the supremacy clause as well, and time began to run short for the Indian Territory. In 1895 the federal government established two new United States district courts in the Indian Territory to undermine and dissolve the established tribal judicial systems and to erode the power of the tribal governments. The next year Congress authorized the Dawes Commission to prepare tribal rolls for the implementation of allotment. Finally, on 28 June 1898, President William McKinley signed the Curtis Act into law. The Curtis Act directed the Dawes Commission to proceed with allotment and ordered the tribal governments dissolved after the business of allotment had been concluded. The Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole had already reached an agreement with the Dawes Commission on allotment prior to the signing of the new statute. The Creek and Cherokee held out until after the act became law, but all recognized the futility of further argument.

To the reformers, the Curtis Act was a giant step toward the ultimate resolution of the "Indian Problem." Indeed, the destruction of a separate territory for American Indians could be considered the capstone of the entire movement for Indian reform. To the reformers, the Curtis Act brought justice to a corrupt and backward part of the United States. Allotment was, according to one writer,

a marvelous expansion for the ignorant full-blood, who has hitherto controlled only his little sweet potato patch in the woods, and it is a pretty severe contraction for the shrewd mixed-blood, whose audacious fences have been enclosing thousands of acres of the tribal lands. Equality was not even a theory in the bygone days, when the tribe held all things in common.

If the Curtis Act was the capstone of the Indian reform movement, it rested solidly on other reform policies and programs. Already Indian children were being sent off the reservations to be educated; missionaries were well situated at most Indian agencies; and a commission had been formed in order to give American Indians new, Anglicized names. In sum, the reformers believed that the complete Americanization and Christianization of the Indians was in sight. In early 1902, Charles Moreau Harger, in an article for Outlook magazine, pronounced the Indian reform movement successful and complete. Everything was in place that would give Native Americans the chance to be "uplifted" from savagery to civilization. It was now time, proclaimed Harger, for the individual Indian to prove himself, and if he could not, "the world owes him nothing." The "Indian Problem" would be a lesson in history because the Indian would vanish.

The reformers held great faith in measures such as the Dawes and Curtis Acts. The policies of assimilation—or "shrinkage," as many of them called it, in the belief that the Indian population would melt into the dominant society and cease to be visible—were well within the parameters of American social thought during the period. The key word was competition. Through the Indian schools, allotment in severalty, and the abandonment of tribal cultures, American Indians would be placed on a level playing field with whites. Once there, Indians would have to ascribe to the same rules of "civilized society" and cut themselves free from tribal bonds as well as from their dependence on the United States government. Those who became independent and who fitted well into American culture "will be a contingent worth saving."

The Indian reformers, however, were not necessarily egalitarian in outlook, nor did they wish to restructure American society. They believed that "progress" was a natural process and that the United States was moving steadily toward the zenith of civilized culture. Culture was not a relative term. Richard Henry Pratt, one of the most prominent Indian reformers and head of the Indian boarding school at Carlisle, Pennsylvania, stated flatly that Indian cultures should not be "even dignified with the term." Attitudes such as Pratt's were not ordinary ethnocentrism. Rather, they reflected a very American understanding of history. Americans had made a revolution, established the world's first constitutional democracy, fought a bloody civil war, and finally abolished slavery. Industrialization was rapidly growing, and with it, great wealth. Inventions such as the telegraph, the telephone, and the electric light gave Americans the sense that their country was, at minimum, an enlightened, a scientific, and in that sense a thoroughly modern nation. Their ancestors had gone through a primitive stage in history, but the current generation had progressed to new heights in technology and refined culture. Christianity was not just another religion, but the only true belief of free, modern men. Indian cultures were simply the remnants of a bygone age and were doomed to extinction.

The policy of assimilating Indians attracted numerous advocates, among them, according to the delegates of the Cherokee Nation in Washington, "thousands of the best men and women in the United States." The Cherokee were not necessarily referring only to those persons of intense morality or kindness, although "the best men and women" certainly believed they possessed these virtues. Rather, the delegates singled out those persons who were then considered among America's intellectual elite, the liberal reformers of the Gilded Age.

"Reformer" was something of a misnomer for these activists. They believed in economic orthodoxy, limited government in the Jeffersonian mold, and laissez-faire capitalism. They were individualistic to the core, leaned toward the evangelical side of Protestant theology, and held an all-consuming optimism concerning the future of mankind. Men such as Carl Schurz, Edwin L. Godkin, Lyman Abbott, Henry Laurens Dawes, Henry M. Teller, Samuel Bowles, Henry Ward Beecher, Henry Adams, and others provided much of liberal reform's theoretical and rhetorical base. Although many of them differed in opinion on some matters in the life of the nation, they were basically uniform in their attitudes concerning America's progress, its moral fiber, and its confirmation of personal liberty. They interested themselves in all of the predominant questions of the period, including reconstruction of the South, civil service reform, the gold standard, and Indian affairs.

Their attitudes toward competition and individualism were confirmed in the classical economics of Smith, Malthus, Ricardo, and Say and in the most advanced scientific thought of the day. Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection and the ever-growing interest and research in the social sciences tended to reaffirm their already held beliefs about linear history, natural law, and man's progress. William Graham Sumner put an academic stamp on social Darwinism during his long career at Yale University. When the "father of American anthropology," Lewis Henry Morgan, expounded his theory, based on his studies of American Indians, that mankind's cultural evolution went through stages of savagery, barbarism, and, finally, civilization, his words were readily accepted, for they exactly fitted white America's preconceived ideas about the "natural" superiority of Western civilization.

The new scientific understanding of the world, of course, directly confronted Christian dogma. But the liberal reformers of the Gilded Age seemed to have been able to embrace both creeds. Christian compassion and charity could temper "nature red in tooth and claw." Within the confines of these notions, most of the reformers sought to "uplift" Indians from what they commonly referred to as "savagery" to "civilization." And the word "civilization" was never questioned. It meant white American society. To a liberal reformer, forcing Indians to progress according to the scientific version of "natural law" was an act of Christian compassion. Even Samuel Bowles, editor of the Springfield, Massachusetts, Republican, who believed that American Indians were doomed anyway, advocated an Indian policy that would smooth the path of extinction and at the same time treat Indians as humanely as possible. E. L. Godkin, editor of the influential periodical The Nation, looked upon American Indian policy as an open field for humanitarian, liberal reform.

Most of the humanitarian, Christian rhetoric centered on the destruction of Native cultures and religions. "Savage habits" were to be done away with, for they prevented entrance into modern society. The notion of "peoplehood" was basic to the assimilationist mentality. Native American tribes drew their distinct identities from an interlocking matrix of a distinct language, a particular relationship with a particular place, the understanding of a specific history that was considered sacred, and a ceremonial cycle or religion that fixed the group's place in the world, utilized its language in a liturgical sense, and drew upon the group's understanding of sacred history to maintain its relationship with the spirit world. The reformers must have understood the basics of peoplehood because they focused their attacks specifically on the four elements of the peoplehood matrix. Private property would defeat the notion of Native territoriality and even spatial identity; Christianity would do to death the ceremonies that tied a tribe to the land, the cosmos, and the spirit world; science would rout tribal sacred histories; and, finally, an English education would destroy Indian liturgical and colloquial languages.

Allotment was intended to break the "tribal bond" and end the practice of holding lands in common. In 1883, Commissioner of Indian Affairs Hiram Price issued an order to establish Indian Courts of Offences on the reservations to "put a stop to the demoralizing influence of heathenish rites," which were, he wrote, "repugnant to common decency." Former associate justice of the Supreme Court, William Strong, an advocate of Indian assimilation, stated that if Indians were to be incorporated into American society, it was the duty of the government agents and Indian educators not to allow Indians to "maintain their own language and habits." The reformers were steadfast in the belief that nothing from tribal societies could possibly be of value to American society. Although the phrase "kill the Indian and save the man" could not be attributed to any one person, it fully expressed the sentiment of the "vanishing" policy.

If there was one person who made the vanishing policy into a career and personal crusade, however, it was Richard Henry Pratt. He was easily the most ardent spokesman for Indian assimilation and the leading philosophical exponent of Indian education in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Pratt was a career army officer who had been called to the colors during the Civil War. During the conflict he rose from private to captain. Army life, or perhaps combat, must have suited him because he remained in the army and served in the grueling and bloody campaigns against the tribes on the southern plains during the late 1860s and early 1870s. In 1875, however, he traded in his Indian fighter hat for that of an Indian educator. In that year Pratt was assigned to Fort Marion, Florida, to serve as warden over the American Indian prisoners of war who had been incarcerated for fighting in wars against whites.

Pratt's tenure at Fort Marion brought out a reformist urge. He worked with the prisoners in trying to teach them English and urged them to take up the trappings of American society. He felt sure that society would accept any and all Indian people once they had given up their cultural heritage. To this end he devoted his life's work, eventually establishing an Indian branch at Hampton Institute and founding the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. He firmly believed that an Indian youth should be removed from the reservation influence, for "left in the surroundings of savagery, he grows to possess a savage language, superstition, and life." The goals of Pratt, and therefore of Carlisle, were to remove American Indians from their families and heritage and make them able to enter the public schools. Once out of Carlisle, the Indian youth, he stated, "should be forwarded into these other schools, there to temper, test and stimulate his brain and muscle into the capacity he needs for his struggle for life, in competition with us."

The "outing system" was another Pratt innovation and perhaps the method of Indian education of which he was most proud. Pratt insisted that "savagery was only a habit" and that Indian people should "get into the swim of citizenship." In order to get his students "into the swim," Pratt placed Indian children with white families during the summer months and even during the school year so that they could learn the white way of life firsthand and "become saturated with the spirit of it, and thus become equal to it." Reformers praised the system and often referred to it as the hope of the Indian people. Elaine Goodale Eastman, a former director of the schools at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota used the following words to express her view of Pratt's method:

The word "outing" is used in a new sense by Major Pratt, of the Carlisle Indian School. "Out" of the tribal bond; out of Indian narrowness and clannishness; out into the broad life of the Nation. The Carlisle outing is by no means a summer holiday; it has become a fundamental part of the Carlisle training a definite method—perhaps the method—of Americanizing Indians.

Too often Pratt's military experience has been overlooked in explaining his and Carlisle's goals for Native American children. Carlisle was, and is, a military post. The children who were sent to the institution were uniformed, drilled, and marched to classes. Additionally, they were subjected to frequent military-type inspections and punishments such as whippings, mess duty, and cleaning, painting, and shining trivial pieces of equipment, furniture, and the exteriors and interiors of buildings. Over the years I have heard a number of Native American veterans of U.S. military service who had attended Indian boarding schools categorically state that after boarding school, recruit training in the army, marine corps, navy, and air force was easy. In any case, Carlisle Indian School can be compared very easily with Prussian regimental "improving" schools of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The Prussian "improving" regiment was a feature of the militarization of many Western nations. In the nineteenth century, Europe was dotted with regimental garrisons in or close to a provincial town. In Prussia, the regiments recruited or conscripted local peasants for military service and relied on the local aristocracy for leadership. According to military historian John Keegan:

At their best ...such regiments became "schools of the nation," which encouraged temperance, physical fitness and proficiency in the three Rs.... [The] commander set up regimental schools to educate the young officers, to teach the soldiers to read and write and to train their wives in spinning and lace-making.

The regimental schools also taught discipline and, most importantly, loyalty to regiment and nation. "There are," according to Keegan, "pathetic descriptions of Prussian veterans, too old and infirm to take the field, hobbling after their regiments as they departed on campaign."

Although military spending was minimal and the military itself was remarkably small in the United States during the nineteenth century—with the exception of the Civil War years—in many ways America was just as militarized as any Western European nation, Prussia included. Americans had a long tradition, inherited from Great Britain, of frontier militias that fought on American soil. As the Civil War loomed on the horizon, local militias were formed in many American villages and towns. In California, vigilante groups took the form of militias and were utilized to exterminate Indians. The famous Texas Rangers were formed for the same reason. Responding to the fear of slave uprisings and abolitionist invasions, militias sprang up all over the South. The Civil War introduced more Americans to military life, and many of them, despite the horrors they encountered, formed strong bonds with their fellow soldiers and gained status and honor as veterans of a great crusade. Reunions of Civil War veterans became commonplace during the latter half of the nineteenth century, and hardly a man could be elected to public office without going on the stump and mentioning his service record and his specific regiment.

Without doubt Pratt viewed his Indian students in the same way that Prussian regimental colonels saw their peasant conscripts: brutish, backward, and uncultured. He very likely developed a kind of warriorhood camaraderie with those he fought on the southern plains and for whom he acted as jailer and teacher. At Carlisle he would take the children of these warriors and teach them military discipline, reading, writing, arithmetic, and, above all, loyalty to the nation and to Carlisle.

Many Indian educators also placed great value on industrial training. They were convinced that "the Indians have not been brought up to believe in the dignity of labor." To teach those Indians who were too old to be packed off to boarding schools such as Carlisle the "habits of labor," the federal government initiated programs that sent field matrons to the agencies to teach homemaking, obtained the aid of farmers to teach agriculture, provided industrial training at local schools, and spent money establishing "factories" where Native American women were put to work making lace (also reminiscent of the Prussian regimental schools). The Lake Mohonk Conference consistently advocated the policy of home manufacturing and on several occasions promised to help find markets for Indian-produced goods.

Like every other aspect of the vanishing policy, the campaign to educate American Indians amounted to an assault on Native American customs and beliefs, and the reformers did not overlook a single aspect of Indian life in their vigorous attempt to stamp it out. Any and all American Indian ceremonies were frowned upon and in most cases forbidden. Native Americans were given Anglicized names, and Indian children were taken—in some cases, kidnapped—and shipped off to the boarding schools. At one point in the early 1890s, the U.S. Army was allowed to form a few all-Indian companies of infantry and cavalry over the already established Indian Scouting Service, in the hope that, according to Secretary of War Redfield Proctor,

the habits of obedience, cleanliness, and punctuality, as well as of steady labor in the performance of both military and industrial work inculcated by service in the Army, would have a good effect on those who might enlist, and also furnish an object lesson of some value and exert a healthy influence upon other of their tribes.

Indian agents were to encourage enlistment in the army as well as discourage tribal ceremonies and even dress. The reformers even rebuked showmen such as Buffalo Bill for allowing the "public exhibition of Indians in their savage costumes." Clearly, the vanishing policy had suffused the institutions and philosophies of the entire nation.

The assault on Native American cultures could be looked upon not only as a clash of cultures, but also as an intellectual duel. Although American Indian peoples differed from tribe to tribe in matters of dress, language, dwellings, ceremonials, and material culture, many philosophies and spiritual beliefs cut across tribal lines. For the most part, Native American worldviews were based on the premise that human beings were a part of, instead of being over and above, the forces of nature. In Native American beliefs, there was an order to the universe, linking all things together. In Western beliefs, civilization stemmed from the human effort to control the environment so as to take best advantage of natural resources, whether human, animal, vegetable, or mineral. Western cultures essentially viewed this effort as being completely within the framework of "natural law." Native American cultures viewed these resources as gifts for which "natural law" demanded reciprocity and spiritual care in the form of ceremonies, offerings, and prayers. This idea stems from the understanding that all things—corporeal and spiritual—are bound together, and that should this linkage be broken or the universal balance tipped one way or the other, catastrophe would surely ensue.

The idea of territoriality was fundamental to the incongruity between the Western and the Native American understanding of the world. In most Western traditions, land is seen as a valuable asset, to be utilized for the benefit, indeed for the survival, of whoever possesses it. This notion is particularly true of the colonial mentality, and in the Americas it was instituted in the development of a particularly mechanistic relationship with the land. If worked, the land would produce wealth and status for the colonizer. If the colonizer had spiritual ties to any piece of land, it would be to his ancestral homeland or, because of his religious beliefs, to the Holy Land in the Middle East. For American Indians, holy lands and homelands were combined, and could not be owned by an individual person. Land was for subsistence and not for profit.

Holding land in common on a subsistence level was not impractical or in any way "backward." In 1887 the agent to the Five Civilized Tribes, R. L. Owen, reported that there were no paupers within his jurisdiction and that each American Indian had a home. Even Henry L. Dawes was forced to admit that the system in Indian Territory precluded poverty. Holding lands in common was simply anathema to Americans where land use and individualism were concerned. And American individualism directly countered the tribal outlook, which based life experiences on shared relationships. From a tribal view, the notion of American individualism was contradictory because it stressed a basic conformity, whereas an inherent part of Native American tribalism was the recognition of cultural plurality linked to the lands in which various peoples lived.

The Indian reformers of the latter half of the nineteenth century, however, believed firmly that Native American cultures and beliefs were dying or, in effect, dead, according to the "natural law" of progress and civilization. They looked confidently toward the twentieth century, feeling that their Christian compassion and philanthropy would cure all American Indian ills and thus relieve the United States of the burden of the "Indian Problem." Indians would vanish as separate, distinct peoples and would blend into the nation as Americans. The United States would truly become one nation, and all Americans would share a sense of peoplehood. But even as the new century dawned, it became readily apparent that Native American philosophies, spirituality, and cultures would not vanish. Indeed, they would survive and eventually bring about a reformation of American Indian policy.


“In the end, this is a valuable study because Holm offers a new approach to a period that deserves further analysis.”
Journal of the West

The Great Confusion is essential to understanding Indian affairs during and since the Progressive period.”


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