When one says American Indian, what comes to mind? Is it the fierce-looking warrior on horseback or perhaps the individual in war paint holding a repeating rifle, ever ready for battle? We have so many political and societal issues being discussed regarding 21st century American citizens, yet it is truly rare to hear any issues relating to present-day American Indians—present day being the key phrase. Isn’t it unfortunate that a people who were forced to accept a European-based society are today left to be their own advocates in the U.S., typically having little voice at all? If asked to picture a person of indigenous ancestry, I would argue a much more realistic depiction would be one living a modern American life, much like you and me. But many also continue to see the negative effects of the past that have yet to be corrected.
Poverty is a huge issue in American Indian communities. Of course, not every person of North American indigenous ancestry is poverty-stricken, yet the numbers are sobering. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, American Indian poverty rates peaked at 27 percent, compared to a national U.S. average of 14.3 percent. My question: How does the U.S. justify such misfortune among a people when it has exerted so much influence over them the past 250 years? Is the country so far removed from the immoral actions of its own ancestors that its responsibilities to the well being of Native communities is ignored? In a time where recognition of past wrongs is vital, it is certainly not the sole solution either. The phrase talk is cheap did not originate because it was false statement. Real advocacy, as well as action, is needed for the status quo to see a positive change in favor of the various American Indian heritages.
A loss of culture, if not the worst atrocity, is truly one not to be overlooked in terms of collateral damage done to native societies. Just research the Carlisle Indian School, opened in the late 19th century, in an effort to “convert” Indian children to an American way of life. Youth were not allowed to speak their own language, practice their faith, or wear non-European clothing. The hope was for them to grow up and be able to assimilate into white society, essentially wiping out Indian culture.
One thing that history proves is that public opinion is uncontrollable. The chances of successful Indian assimilation in that time period, despite a few individuals' best intentions, is minimal at best. Although the Carlisle School had a devastating effect, it was only on a relatively small group. According to an insightful work called “Revitalizing Native Culture," a part of PBS's Indian Country Diaries, in the 1990s there were 175 native languages spoken compared to the many hundreds in pre-European contact. Once again, staggering numbers that are very telling of the degeneration of indigenous populations and their heritage.
I always begin my first day of the semester teaching U.S. History classes for college freshman with a picture of candidate Barack Obama visiting the Crow Tribal Reservation. I ask them why this is significant. Typically they answer correctly, even if not realizing the significance of the larger context: We don’t see politicians giving American Indian groups a voice in American politics. Do Indians come to mind when picturing the American electorate? While we continue to argue over healthcare laws and asking What can we do to help me, I can’t help but think of the story of the Indian students from the Carlisle Indian School, getting off the train to greet their parents after being separated for so long. Perhaps it is time to right the wrongs.
Dale Schlundt holds a Master's Degree in Adult Education with a concentration in American History from the University of Texas at San Antonio. He is currently an Adjunct Professor for Palo Alto College and Our Lady of the Lake University. Dale has two new books available, Tracking Life's Lessons: Through Experiences, History, and a Little Interpretation and Education Decoded (A Collection of My Writings) now available on Amazon.