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  • Sue Devick

The Plight of American Indigenous People

Updated: Apr 15, 2022

The act of changing an athletic team's Native American name in order to avoid offending indigenous people is ethical and the correct thing to do; realistically, however, this can be compared to tossing a life preserver in the ocean above the sunken Titanic---too little, too late, and ineffective for the task at hand. History cannot be changed, and the scarring events of centuries past require more than a superficial gesture to amend. While considerate acts are always appropriate, a renewed effort to raise the national awareness about the historical difficulties that indigenous people faced could serve as a wake-up call for future generations.

An example of the mistreatment of our Native Americans can be seen when examining laws passed by our government in the early nineteenth century such as the Indian Removal Act, signed by President Andrew Jackson on May 28, 1830. This legislative act allowed the President to "provide for an exchange of lands with the Indians residing in any of the states or territories, and for their removal west of the river Mississippi." Indigenous people were not given a choice to stay in their familiar homelands, which often included the burial sites of their ancestors. Yet, in his message to Congress on December 6, 1830, Jackson told the nation's leaders that "the benevolent policy of the Government, steadily pursued for nearly thirty years, in relation to the removal of the Indians beyond the white settlements is approaching a happy consummation." This "benevolent policy" also included a clause in the Act specifying that upon the extinction of an indigenous group that had been relocated, the ownership of the land reverted to the government.

Another aspect of the inequity relating to Native Americans can be seen in an examination of their right to vote. The 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution adopted in1868 assured voting rights for those who were born in this country; however, the government interpreted the law so that it did not apply to Native Americans, who were considered under the jurisdiction of tribal laws. Michigan politician Jacob Howard (1805-1871) argued against the amendment, stating, "I am not yet prepared to pass a sweeping act of naturalization by which all the Indian savages, wild or tame, belonging to a tribal relation, are to become my fellow-citizens and go to the polls and vote with me." While the subsequent 1924 U.S. Citizenship Act granted citizenship to Native Americans, their voting rights were not enforced. Not until the passage of the Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968 were indigenous people of the U.S. granted complete access to the United States Bill of Rights, although some gray areas still existed.

Immeasurable harm also was inflicted upon indigenous children who were sent to various boarding schools that strove to erase their Native American identity. For example, the educational goal for a student at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School (opened in 1879 by U.S. Cavalry Captain Henry Pratt) was to "kill the Indian in him and save the man." In her book An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz writes of the experience of a Taos Pueblo child named Sun Elk who attended this school for seven years. He was repeatedly told to "'get civilized.'" Books given to him "'told how bad the Indians had been to the white men---burning their towns and killing their women and children.'" Sun Elk stated that he had seen white men do that to Native Americans, and he described his eventual capitulation as he rejected the cultural aspects of his own people.

This historical mistreatment of our indigenous people is not adequately acknowledged or addressed. While sensitivity to issues such as an athletic team's name is important, a broader and more realistic understanding of our country's past is beneficial to our national identity. Author Adrienne Keene suggests several ways to enact change in Notable Native People. In a section of her book entitled Whose Land Are You On?, Keene asks her readers if they know the name of the indigenous tribe who lived on their homesites before them. She writes, "Understanding our own relationship to the people whose land we occupy is an important first step toward the harmful results of ongoing colonization." She feels that even if certain acknowledgments are symbolic in nature, they are useful because they "disrupt the status quo." Changes in the manner in which our country's indigenous people are recognized and treated are overdue. Our collective awareness of the very human elements of our nation's complex history can serve as a guide for a more enlightened future.

Susan Devick, M.A., Fullersburg Historic Foundation

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