The Plight of Native Americans
Native Americans have certainly suffered since the arrival of European Americans and other immigrants. There were many differences between Europeans and Native Americans, as both cultures were foreign to each other. Native Americans were the first people to inhabit what is now called America. Prior to Europeans discovering the new continent in 1492, Native Americans had lived on the continent for thousands of years. Some scientists believe that Native American ancestors, roughly 10,000 years ago, made their way across a land bridge that spanned the Bering Sea which connected northeastern Asia to North America, while some scientists believe that they originated in the Americas, based on modern Native American oral stories handed down throughout generations.
Native Americans believed in Earth, not only utilizing its natural resources but also by looking at it spiritually, and they excelled at using natural resources and adapting to its harsh environments. The industrial Europeans came to America with an industrial power and purpose which nearly wiped the natural Natives from existence.
Many Native tribes developed all over America over a period of thousands of years. Native Americans were some of the first people to use wood and build houses, canoes and tools. In the Southwest, they grew corn and built multilevel apartment style dwellings from adobe. In the Arctic, they were able to adapt to the harsh environments. Across “Pre New World America” settled hundreds of tribes that were very different from each other. They each had distinctive social and political systems, clothing styles, shelters, foods, arts, languages, education and spiritual beliefs. Even with all these differences, they still all have a common goal of strong ties with the land. Since the 1500s, these natural ties of Natives to their homeland were continually disrupted by the influence and supremacy of the European colonists and other immigrants.
One main difference between Europeans and Native Americans was that Native Americans were spiritual about Earth and European Americans were believers in Christianity. In fact, when Europeans arrived in America, they tried to retrain Indians to believe in Christianity. The following passage gives an honest view about a Native American perception about European religious practices, “Brother! You say there is but one way to worship and serve the Great Spirit. If there is but one religion, why do you white people differ so much about it? Why do not all agree, as you can all read the book? Brother! We do not understand these things. We are told that your religion was given to your forefathers, and has been handed down from father to son. We also have a religion which was giving to our forefathers, and has been handed down to us there children. We worship that way. It teaches us to be thankful for all the favors we receive, to love each other, and to be united. We never quarrel about religion…” (Native American Testimony, 58). Native Americans worshiped the Great Spirit which had four commandments, respect Mother Earth, respect the Great Spirit, respect our fellow man and woman, and respect individual freedom.
It is written that Christopher Columbus discovered America, but it can be said that America was stolen. Part of American history was certainly violent, a people being forced to forget their culture and past and learn new ways of whites, because they had different customs. Native Americans were viewed by Europeans as savages, enslaved and forced by abuse or death to conform. It is a dark chapter of the past. White Europeans from England to the Netherlands began to change Native America in the early 1500s, a culture of explorers and settlers looking to make better lives for themselves. Explorers looking for gold and silver began to impose their beliefs onto Native Americans, such as Christianity during the 1500s and early 1600s. Whites were firmly rooted in Christianity at that time, and a part of the religion is to get others to believe. Europeans had better technology such as metal tools, the gun and the plow made hunting and harvesting easier. Given the time period, all of this was new and astonishing. Natives were used to a primitive form of hunting, using handmade tools, never using a gun where they could kill food quickly from long distances. Whites introduced Native Americans to the horse, a new form of transportation and tool. They also introduced alcohol to Native Americans and encouraged the behavior of Native American substance abuse, “You sell it to our young men and give it to them, many times, they get very drunk with it and this is the very cause that they oftentimes commit those crimes that is offensive to you and us and all through the effect of that drink. It is also very bad for our people, for it rots their guts and causes our men to get very sick and many of our people have lately died by the effects of that strong drink” (Native American Testimony, 41). Whites also brought with them strange diseases. It has been said that more native people died due to foreign diseases than were lost in wars fighting for their homelands. The “New World” was started primarily for the European accumulation of land, food, and dominance.
Treaties were a way for Whites to formally take over Indian Territory. From 1778 to 1871, the U.S. government tried to resolve their relationship with various tribes. Hundreds of treaties were formed for Native American tribes and were all different since each tribe was different. Native Americans would be citizens of their tribe, living within the boundaries of the U.S. which were executed by the President and executive branch and ratified by the U.S. Senate. Native Americans would give up rights to live on massive amounts of land and hunt in exchange for goods, cash, and knowing that there would be no further demands on them. Some Native Americans still live on reserves, as they still have several scattered around the county in today’s modern world. In Jefferson’s confidential letter to Congress in 1803, he explains plans for the expansion of European American territory and the encouragement of Native Americans to move away from hunting and gathering and towards agriculture and domestic stock,
“The Indian tribes residing within the limits of the U.S. have for a considerable time been growing more & more uneasy at the constant diminution of the territory they occupy, altho’ effected by their own voluntary sales… In order peaceably to counteract this policy of theirs, and to provide an extension of territory which the rapid increase of our numbers will call for, two measures are deemed expedient. First, to encourage them to abandon hunting, to apply to the raising stock, to agriculture and domestic manufacture, and thereby prove to themselves that less land and labor will maintain them in this, better than in their former mode of living. The extensive forests necessary in the hunting life will then become useless, and they will see advantage in exchanging them for the means of improving their farms, and of increasing their domestic comforts. Secondly to multiply trading houses among them & place within their reach those things which will contribute more to their domestic comfort then the profession of extensive, but uncultivated wilds, experience & reflection will develop to them the wisdom of exchanging what they can spare & we want, for what we can spare and they want” (Thomas Jefferson Confidential Letter to Congress, 1803).
Orders such as these demonstrate that the Native were viewed as the least deserving and the most oppressed. European desires were of highest priority in the newly formed American government.
There are still problems with the domination of mainstream society over Native American interests. Between the years 1948 and 1957, Indians lost over 3 million acres of land. The remaining reservations were slums and Indians were forced to adapt to cities. Outraged at their situation, Native Americans didn’t turn to actual war, instead protesting, “In 1960, nearly 500 Native Indians representing more than sixty-five tribes converged on the University of Chicago campus in response to an invitation for Indian ideas extended by the Kennedy Administration. The younger generation’s energy and priorities rang throughout the symposium’s “Declaration of Indian Purpose,” which demanded Indian involvement at all levels of government policy-making” (Native American Testimony, 357). Although there is a modern push to implement programs in an attempt to resolve the injustices of the past, there is still much more which needs to be done in order to address the historical oppression of Natives.
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Nabokov, Peter. Native American Testimony. Penguin Books, 1999.
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PBS Online. American Experience. 1999-2003. 8 June 2009 <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/tcrr/sfeature/sf_interview.html#c>.
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