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Native American Heritage Month and the Implications of History

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Native American Heritage Month and the Implications of History

Script for the citizenship ritual administered by the BIA during the Dawes years.

Dina Gilio-Whitaker

While it’s tempting to think about histories as monolithic, unchanging narratives, in reality they are always subject to change with the emergence of new information and the introduction of new or suppressed perspectives. American history is a perfect example; once the domain of one-sided stories that highlighted the glories of Euro-American conquest, alternative histories uncovering the experience of Native Americans are increasingly being accepted as part of America’s not-always-glorious history. With the recognition of Native American Heritage Month (NAHM) each year, the nation takes a step closer to reckoning with its checkered past and to a fuller, more nuanced understanding about what the building of this nation actually entailed. Native American Heritage Month is not only a celebration of the beauty and ingenuity of indigenous cultures, it is an opportunity for national introspection and self-honesty.

The Background and Context of Native American Heritage Month

The Bureau of Indian Affairs website chronicles the history leading up to the establishment of Native American Heritage Month, connecting it to the early 1900’s and the efforts of Dr. Arthur Caswell Parker, a Seneca Indian (and great-nephew of General Ely S. Parker who had served as Secretary to Ulysses S. Grant during the Civil War), and the first Indian to serve as Commissioner of Indian Affairs in the Department of the Interior. Dr. Parker, a noted anthropologist and historian, like his uncle before him was part of a generation of Native and non-Native people (considered progressives at the time) who believed that the best policy for Indians was the path to assimilation. He was the first to advocate for a date to be set aside to honor Native people. Parker was a staunch supporter of Indian citizenship toward the goal of assimilation at a time when Indians were at their lowest point in history in terms of population and morale. With total military defeat only a couple of decades in the past, many Indian rights advocates like Parker seemed to believe that resistance was futile at a time when the Dawes Act mandate of forced assimilation had a stranglehold on Indian country.

The Implications of Citizenship

Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Indian integration into urban white society often meant the renouncing of tribal ties. For example, in the case of the Five Civilized Tribes, the removal treaties allowed for allotments or land scrip free of federal restrictions for individuals who wished to remain in Georgia, Alabama or Mississippi as long as they were willing to forego their tribal memberships in favor of state citizenship. Other tribes, like the Stockbridge-Munsee, Wyandots, Shawnee and Potawatomie were divided during the mid-1800’s due to disastrous congressional efforts to impose citizenship on them (hence today’s “Citizen” Potawatomie and “Absentee” Shawnee).

In the twentieth century, American citizenship for Indians was also an integral part of alienating them from their lands. The Dawes Act, which allotted communally held reservation lands into individually held parcels, contained a clause that placed a 25-year restriction on selling lands. A later amendment to the law in 1906 lifted the restriction for Indians deemed “competent” to handle their own affairs. With the lifting of the restrictions came the conferral of citizenship, conducted in an elaborate public ceremony in which Indians publicly renounced their Indian identities and names for American aliases. The lifting of the restrictions (with its accompanying “right” to citizenship) also led to extensive land sales as a response to grinding poverty on the reservations. The Dawes years resulted in the loss of two-thirds of Indian treaty lands in what has been called the largest land grab in American history.

The Nature of National Narratives

As scholars of nationalism like Benedict Anderson (author of the classic “Imagined Communities”) point out, the modern nation-state is a very recent innovation in the history of human civilizations. With the advance of technology and an insatiable hunger for wealth, humans have been more migratory since 1492 than ever before. The process of modern nation-building rests on a foundation of colonial expansion which meant the violent displacement of indigenous peoples in almost every corner of the globe, particularly in the Americas, Australia, the Pacific and Africa. Prior to these extensive human movements, civilizations arose out of shared ancestry based on kinship networks and cultures that spanned millennia in a single place (this is as true for the massive civilizations of the Inca or the Celts as it was for the smaller tribes of North America). Now, with ancestral roots in foreign lands, modern nations like the US “imagine” themselves based on different circumstances; they coalesce into historical narratives designed to create a sense of cohesion and national consciousness, spun in ways that emphasize the magnanimity of its founders and instills pride. Examples of those narratives include the Columbus story of “discovery,” the Thanksgiving story of Indians and Pilgrims sharing the bounty of the land, and the Manifest Destiny doctrine in which a divine right to other people’s lands is manufactured.

Alternative Perspectives on NAHM

Patriotic American historical narratives of emigration are perpetuated while the histories of Native peoples’ experience of the violence of that emigration are submerged, resulting in the sanitized historical narratives so familiar to us today. The tenacity of those narratives also serves to undermine Native Americans’ attempts to achieve justice. Ultimately, they compromise the integrity of a nation that prides itself on its commitment to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” and universal democracy.

It is against the backdrop of domination and an imagined national community that Native American History Month is commemorated. Signed into law by President Bush in 1992, the same year the Western world commemorated the Columbus Quincentennial, it is an attempt to allow Native people a nationally sanctioned public platform to tell their own histories. For Native people it is an opportunity to critically examine the nature of American citizenship. For non-Native Americans it is an opportunity to view history in the context of injustice and dishonor. For everyone it is the potential for greater understanding and ideally, greater justice.

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