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Native American History Summary & Analysis

Indian Mascots/Indian Stereotypes

In 1972, Stanford's president ordered the retirement of the university's Indian mascot. Responding to student complaints that the mascot perpetuated offensive stereotypes, and that his halftime dances at football games made a mockery of Indian religious rituals, President Richard Lyman ordered that the "use of the Indian Symbol should be immediately disavowed and permanently stopped."8

Other colleges and high schools have since followed Stanford's example. Embracing the argument made by one Stanford official that "sensitivity and awareness do not come easily when childish misrepresentations in games, history books and motion pictures make up a large part of our experience," they moved to abandon the controversial imagery.9 But not every school or sports team followed suit. Many dug in their heels and refused to submit to what they labeled "political correctness." Some claimed that their mascots actually honored Native Americans; others, like Florida State University, pointed out that they had the blessings of the local Seminole nation. Still others asked what mascot would be next to be deemed too offensive for modern sensibilities: the "Fighting Irish," the "Demon Deacons," the "Vikings"?

Whether or not you think these mascots are appropriate, there is little denying the fact that "the Indian" has been recklessly portrayed throughout American history. The gross caricatures of Native Americans in Hollywood westerns are only the most familiar example. During the nineteenth century, dime novels painted a similarly unreal and stereotypic portrait of the Indian as a bloodthirsty savage. More serious writers, like James Fenimore Cooper, sometimes portrayed the Indian as a "noble savage" rather than a barbaric warrior. But, perhaps not unlike those schools claiming to honor Native Americans with their mascots, even these more positive portrayals were just as crude in their reduction of complex people to a simple and romantic image.

Chief Seattle

Some more recent attempts to construct more favorable representations of Indians have proven similarly flawed. During the 1970s, environmental organizations identified Native Americans as prototypical environmentalists. According to these celebrants, Indians lived in intimate and respectful sympathy with the land. They took from nature only what they needed and could use; they paid homage to every animal that they killed. This characterization of Native Americans was typified in the canonization of Chief Seattle; his 1854 speech became a manifesto for many environmentalists.

"Every part of this earth is sacred to my people. . . . The rivers are our brothers, they quench our thirst. . . . The air is precious to the red man for all things share the same breath, the beast, the tree, the man, they all share the same breath. . . . the white man must treat the beasts of this land as his brothers. . . . What is man without the beasts? If all the beasts were gone, man would die from a great loneliness of the spirit. For whatever happens to the beasts, soon happens to man. All things are connected."10

Eventually, however, it was revealed that this speech never actually happened; it was the fabrication of a twentieth-century filmmaker, not the authentic plea of a nineteenth-century Indian. And the more elaborate image of the "ecological Indian" was challenged by anthropologists and historians who argued that the hunting and farming techniques of Native Americans were less environmentally sensitive than portrayed.11

In short, "the Indian" is still poorly understood. Native American people and Native American history are still frequently subjected to crude stereotypes and simplistic narratives. The polar simplicities of bloodthirsty warrior versus noble savage do not begin to capture the complexity and variety among Indian nations, and their interactions with European immigrants cannot be reduced to simple narratives of inevitable and unthinking conquest.

A More Complicated Narrative

A more accurate historical narrative begins with the fact that two centuries after the first English settlers reached Virginia in 1607, the fate of the North American continent was still undetermined. In 1763, the British drew a line confining Anglo-American expansion to the east side of the Appalachian Mountains. They acknowledged Indian rights to the land as the continent's first occupants and they mandated that Indian lands only be obtained by treaty and purchase. (That story is explored in full here.)

After the American Revolution, though, Britain ceded all of its North American holdings south of Canada to the United States. The territorial claims of Native Americans were implicitly repudiated by this action. And for a few years, the newly founded United States operated under the premise that the Indians were a defeated people, and thus a people with no rights. But during George Washington's presidency, Secretary of War Henry Knox tried to place US-Indian relations on a more just footing. He believed that treating America's Indians with justice was the young republic's first test; he therefore attempted to negotiate treaties rooted in the premise that the Indians possessed rights under natural law as the original occupants of the land. (That story is told here.)

Knox's policies were not implemented with complete success, nor were they followed by other administrations. President Andrew Jackson resolved during the 1830s to remove all eastern Indians to land west of the Mississippi River. The efforts of this "Indian-hating" president have been contrasted with the more humane attempts of judges, congressmen, missionaries, and philanthropists to defend Native Americans and their claims to the land. But the truth is more complex. (That story is told here.) Similarly, the debate within the Cherokee nation over how to respond to Jackson's removal plans is usually cast as a story about heroes and villains, principled resistance versus cowardice and opportunism. In truth, this story was also more complicated. (You can read about it here.)

For two decades following removal, US-Indian relations were comparatively calm. But as western expansion accelerated after 1860, frontier violence increased. Homesteaders flocking west in pursuit of cheap public lands and railroad companies laying tracks across the hunting grounds of the Plains Indians incited a series of wars that lasted almost twenty years. (You can read about all these wars here, here, and here.)

By the end of the nineteenth century, the Indian "threat" against America's frontier had been eliminated, mainly through violence. Defeated in war and confined to reservations, the Indian nations that had once filled the continent had been reduced to about 250,000 people.12 But even within these distressed conditions, the complexity of Native Americans' condition defied oversimplification. For starters, the Indians that filled these reservations in 1900 were not exactly the same as those of 1800—a century of Anglo-American contact had left its mark. Within the Ghost Dance, western Indians combined traditional Indian spirituality with Christian beliefs to forge a powerful religious-political movement that revitalized communities and terrified white authorities. (Read about this here.) And the "civilizing" ambitions of educational reformers like Richard Henry Pratt led to the formation of a Pan-Indian identity that would prove crucial during later twentieth-century efforts to protect Indian nations from disruptive federal policies.

In short, the real history of Native Americans through the United States' first century is a complicated one. It cannot be reduced to a simple tale of conquerors and victims, bad presidents and greedy cowards, or the march of progress versus unbending cultures. Ultimately, though, the real history is no less tragic.

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