Historical Perspective

A The Postwar Reservation

As with many other minority groups in America, Native American populations became more connected with the mainstream culture as a result of World War II. Prejudice and discriminatory policies did not disappear overnight, but the fact that people from ethnic subcultures were thrown together in barracks in the war led to some softening social boundaries. Many whites met real Indians for the first time, and many Indians met their first whites.

Like Abel in House Made of Dawn, many Native Americans came back to the reservations they had lived on with conflicted views, having been forced to align their own beliefs with American culture. Unfortunately, what little progress was made in human understanding was very quickly overruled by developers, who soon tried to exploit reservation land for their own profit.

Historically, the U.S. government dealt with the problem of taking land from indigenous peoples by providing land and services at limited locations: the reservations. From the start, the concept of reservations was divided between two general schools of thought. Some people considered them as sanctuaries, where the Indians could relax, free from persecution. Others, however, viewed them as prisons where Indians were left isolated, cut off from progress, and dependent on government charity.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Roosevelt administration, and particularly his Commissioner of Indian Affairs John Collier, determined that it would be best for Native American groups to take control of their own situations. The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 included many provisions leading toward this end: it set up reservation schools that ended the practice of shipping Indian children out to boarding schools; created tribal governing organizations that would deal with the federal government and control order; and encouraged economic development.

After World War II, the resources on Native American reservations became economic assets. Some politicians in the government argued that it was wasteful to allow Indians to keep such valuable property when they were not using it. Support grew for a plan to move Indians off of the reservations, to assimilate them into society. Some Native Americans supported this idea, lured by quick profits to be made from selling the reservations. Yet most recognized this as a blatant attempt by the U.S. government to exploit the Native American population once again.

After Collier resigned in 1945, the Senate pressured his successor, William F. Zimmerman, to devise a plan for moving Indians off of the reservations. In 1947 the Relocation Service Program, with field offices in Los Angeles, Denver, and Salt Lake City, was established. In 1953 Congress passed HCR 108, a bill that removed all special status for Native Americans. Whereas they had previously been exempt from federal, state, and local taxes, HCR 108 made them liable. Reservations became accountable to the jurisdictions of local law enforcement instead of tribal or federal laws, which allowed racial tensions to dominate control issues.

Healthcare facilities on reservations, which had been run by federal agencies, were abruptly turned over to Native American groups. When they were unable to manage, they were shut down, leaving Indians to travel off reservations when they needed medical care. HCR 108, presented as a step toward Indian freedom, has gone down in history as one of the greatest follies in U.S./Indian relations. In 1970 President Richard Nixon pushed Congress to overturn HCR 108.

B Indian Activism in the 1960s

As the Civil Rights movement raised America’s consciousness about the oppression of African Americans, it also raised awareness about the treatment of other groups. For example, the Indian Reform Movement became a popular cause for many American people. Probably the best known activist group, the American Indian Movement (AIM), formed in Minneapolis in 1968 to protest against police brutality. After that, the group went on to lead several high-profile protests. In 1970 they occupied a portion of the land at the base of the Mount Rushmore Memorial.

At the same time, other Native American groups were drawing attention to the government’s neglect of Native American people. One hundred Native Americans took over Alcatraz Island in 1969, offering to buy the former federal prison back from the government for 24 dollars in glass beads (the price allegedly paid to Indians for Manhattan Island in 1626).

The most infamous protest was the siege at Wounded Knee, South Dakota. The site of a famous massacre of 300 Indian men, women, and children in 1890, members of AIM and the Sioux nation took hostages in a small hilltop church in Wounded Knee, on the Oglala Reservation, in 1973. The siege attracted international press attention. Two Native Americans were killed during the resulting gunfire, and 100 were arrested; but as a result, the government promised to hold hearings on Indian rights. After one meeting with representatives from the White House, no further government action regarding Native American rights took place.

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