Native Americans were the first people living in the United States until Europeans arrived, sought to colonize and take over. During this time, Native Americans were subjugated to warfare, new government and losing their lands. Forced to submit to White settlers, many Native Americans have had to choose between assimilating into a White culture or preserving their heritage and ancestry. This essay will discuss public policy regarding Native Americans and provide some examples pertaining to ethnocentrism and cultural relativity.
Public Policy and Ethnocentrism
From early on, Native American culture has been on a collision with White society. During the colonial period, the government did not want to have any issues with settlers and Native Americans. Schaefer mentions that Whites were to take precedence regardless of the needs or interference by tribes (150). The secretary of war was put in charge of the Native Americans with regard to any Federal communications. Later in 1824 the Bureau of Indian Affairs was created as an intermediary between the Native Americans and the government (Schaefer 150). As White settlers started to move west, they had felt that Native Americans were blocking their progress. This led to the Indian Removal Act that was passed in 1824 which forced several tribes to leave their ancestral lands. Schaefer also mentions, “the federal government enacted legislation that affected them with minimal consultation” (151). The government’s goal was to weaken tribal institutions so that Native Americans would assimilate.
The government still tried to make Native Americans become more like White homesteaders. In 1887 the government passed the Allotment Act which would turn tribal members into land owners. While each family was given 160 acres, there were some stipulations. Schaefer mentions that “the act prohibited Native Americans from selling the land for 25 years” (153). The other issue was with the Native Americans not knowing how to farm or utilize the land. They also did not receive assistance or training from the government and as a result, did not do well with homesteading. Since the land could not be legally sold, the Bureau of Indian Affairs ended up leasing the land to White landowners (Schaefer 153). During this time, it was believed that Native Americans should put aside tribal identities and assimilate into White culture.
As time progressed, the Indian Reorganization Act which was also known as the Wheeler-Howard Act was passed in 1934 (Schaefer 153). This act was supposed to recognize tribal identity but still pushed for assimilation. Tribes would be allowed to create a constitution and elect leaders within reservations. The Reorganization Act did allow Native Americans to have more control over actions taken on their behalf. Schaefer mentions that this act had tried to unite government agencies with tribal dealings by immersing Native Americans in procedures common to White society (153). However, the act still allowed for non-Native Americans to control issues regarding reservations. Schaefer states that, “The Reorganization Act sought to assimilate Native Americans into the dominant society on the dominant group’s terms” (153).
Moving Towards Cultural Relativity
After years of the United States government trying to force Native Americans to Assimilate, they have started to realize that their efforts were not facilitating pluralism. Schaefer mentions the Termination Act of 1953 “which was considered a controversial government policy towards Native Americans” (156). This act cancelled federal services such as medical care, schools, and road equipment that took effect immediately. There was no coordination between tribes or government agencies which affected the tribes in a disastrous manner. They were not able to perform some basic services such as road repair or fire protection without the government. While this policy was supposed to give Native Americans the ability to self-govern it was viewed as a way to reduce services and save money.
With life on an Indian reservation being economically depressed, the government decided to try to lure Native Americans away from the reservations. In 1952 the Bureau of Indian Affairs had started programs to relocate Native Americans to urban areas. In 1962 one of the programs was called the Employment Assistance Program. Schaefer states, “the purpose was to relocate individuals or families at the government’s expense to urban areas where the job opportunities were” (157). This program was not successful as many Native Americans returned back to their reservations. Schaefer also mentions that this program had some unintended consequences where the Native Americans who left were better educated and created a brain-drain (157). This also caused many of them to understand the predicament that they were faced with in both the city and federal reservations.
Through all that they have been through, Native Americans have managed to work collectively through Pan-Indianism intertribal social movements. It has caused them to unite within a common identity because of political goals. In 1944 The National Congress of American Indians was formed in Denver, Colorado and registered itself as a lobby in Washington, D.C. (Schaefer 157). Their goal was to raise issues with regard to the Native American perspective as it operated similar to the NAACP. This group was able to create the Indian Claims Commission and force the Bureau of Indian Affairs to stop the practice of termination. In 1968 the American Indian Movement was created to monitor police actions and document charges of police brutality (Schaefer 157).
Schaefer states that “sovereignty which refers to tribal self-rule is supported by every U.S. president since the 1960’s” (160). This is a very complex legal relationship since there are numerous legal cases where the Supreme Court has to rule which tribes may rule themselves and where they might be subject to state and federal laws. Tribal members pay federal income, social security, unemployment and property taxes but do not pay state income tax if they live and work on reservations (Schaefer 160). Sovereignty links the actions of the federal government with individual American Indians. Schaefer argues that the government acts as a gatekeeper in determining which tribes are recognized (161). In 1978 the Department of the Interior established the “acknowledgement process” to decide if more tribes could qualify for a government to government relationship.
With all that the Native Americans have been through over the years it would seem that many of the early policies were not effective because they did not produce the desired results of forced and immediate assimilation. The only thing that the government was able to do was drive these people off their lands, relocate them and create a sense of distrust. I do feel that the Employment Assistance program did contribute to having some Native Americans move out of their comfort zone and seek out other opportunities.
It did cause many Native Americans to take collective action and form groups to lobby for their rights. With regard to sovereignty, it seems that Native Americans are trying to assimilate themselves by working with the government to gain recognition and reap the economic benefits. Today it seems that Native Americans are slowly assimilating into White society because of their involvement in protests, lobbying, politics and business. While Native Americans might not have achieved complete pluralism, they are still trying to adapt to contemporary society.
Schaefer, R. (2012). Native Americans: The First Americans (13th ed), Chapter 6 (pp. 147-171). Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson.
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