Module 3. Our Story: Native Americans
THE 20th CENTURY
In the next phase of Native American history, the government took yet another approach to relations with Native Americans. This shift was likely a response to Native participation during World War I (Treuer, 2019). First came the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 which officially recognized Native Americans as citizens, even though legally, under the 14th amendment, Natives already had birthright citizenship. Next was the Meriam Report, a comprehensive evaluation of Native reservation conditions, hospitals, schools, and other agencies. The push for the report came from Native American advocates that identified the failures of Native American policies and possibilities for progress. Men such as Peter Graves and John Collier called out the policy issues of the Dawes Act as well as the denial of religious freedoms that Natives endured.
Progress during the 1930s was difficult, especially during the economic crisis of the Great Depression. Nevertheless, Collier was able to negotiate the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) of 1934, sometimes also called the Indian New Deal, because it was passed under President Roosevelt and his New Deal agenda. This act allowed for Native American lands to remain in their control and distributed amongst tribal members as well as the ability to self-govern. Although this was a step towards granting of freedoms, the IRA was problematic within Indian reservations for ambiguities.
Along with the IRA came the reintroduction of a colonial practice called blood quantum. This was known as the process of determining the fraction of Indian blood or ancestry. For instance, if one of your grandparents was full blood Choctaw, that made you ¼ Choctaw. This practice was reintroduced to verify access to tribal land ownership under the IRA. Blood quantum is still used today to determine tribal membership, although the requirements vary depending on the tribe.
Then, in 1956, the government took a different tactic in the implementation of the Indian Relocation Act. This legislation was passed to encourage young American Indians to leave reservations for urban areas to further the assimilation into American society. Financial assistance, vocational training, and other support was guaranteed for those that took up the opportunity. The result was often disastrous because the support that was guaranteed under this legislation was not consistently fulfilled. Many suffered from culture shock, homelessness, and poverty due to the failures of the policy.
While the IRA improved the lives of Native Americans to some degree, Native Americans still endured racial discrimination and hardships due to decades of mistreatment in America. The civil rights movements of the 1960s inspired many groups to push for equality and among those rose the Red Power movement. The movement was led by mostly young American Indians that sought policies to bring aid to Native American communities, maintain and protect land ownership, and reverse the termination of tribal recognition. Taking the cue of the African American protests of the time, participants of the Red Power movement engaged in non-violent protests and demonstrations to bring attention to their cause.
SHIFTING PERSPECTIVE: ALCATRAZ PROCLAMATION
To examine a Native American protest statement during the 1960s.
Read the Alcatraz Proclamation. Answer the following questions:
- What is the tone of the Proclamation?
- How does the speaker define “Indian Reservation”?
- Were the actions of the Native American occupiers illegal, or justified?
Additionally, the American Indian Movement (AIM) was founded in 1968. The supporters of this movement were largely the results of the failures of relocation. These Native Americans banned together in cities to create pan-Indian groups, this one growing into AIM. In November of 1969, AIM and other supporters carried out a 19-month long Occupation of Alcatraz. The federal facility lay dormant since 1963, and in a symbolic protest, Native American protesters made landfall on the island, claiming the land theirs for the taking, much like the European colonizers of the distant past. Occupants and supporters felt that reclaiming federal land from the government sent a clear message to the American public. For months, numerous Natives occupied the island, contacting the mainland primarily through a supply ship that would ferry people and supplies back and forth during occupation. Eventually the occupation ended due to the government forcing their removal, but the movement caught the brief attention of the media lending sympathy towards their cause. To this day, the graffiti on walls and structures painted by the occupants is still present.
By the 1970s and 80s, some real changes were on the horizon. This began with the Indian Education Act of 1972 that granted funds to increase graduation rates, curricular issues, and support services of Native Americans. These policies continued to expand, exemplified in the establishment of the first tribal college in the nation, the Navajo Community College. Some schools even began to implement lessons on Native American culture and history. Additionally, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act was passed in 1978 under the Carter administration. For so long, Native Americans were compelled to suppress their culture and assimilate into American society. Those that chose to hold on to religious traditions had to do so in secret (Treuer, 2019). After this act was passed, Native Americans not only practiced their beliefs in the open but were able to pass their traditions down to the youth who never experienced them.
OUR FIRES STILL BURN
To develop knowledge and appreciation for indigenous people and the intrinsic relationship between social movements and social change.
- Read the film review of Our Fires Still Burn: The Native American Experience.
- Watch the film Our Fire Still Burn: The Native American Experience: The Native American Experience Dance Performance, Film Screening, and Panel Discussion.
In preparation for class discussion, answer the following questions:
- In what ways do you think the loss of Native American culture has directly or indirectly contributed to the current social issues and conditions in Native Nations (ex. diabetes, heart disease, suicide rates, and addiction)? Discuss actions Native people are taking today to reverse the effects of this cultural loss?
- A section of the film examines the economic changes that were brought to the Isabella Indian Reservation by introducing casinos and Indian Gaming. The pros and cons of this subject are debated across Native Nations. Explore and discuss what you think the pros and cons are.
- Levi Rickert says it is important for Native Americans to tell their own stories since their history and stories are important to all individuals. As a class we will conduct our own oral history project. Use their phone recorder or computer to interview a family member and gather a story. Then write a short response paper on what you learned and how it your own understanding or perspective about your family, culture, community, or racial-ethnic group.
Adapted from Lee, J. (2014). Our fires still burn: The Native American experience viewer discussion guide. Vision Maker Media funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. https://visionmakermedia.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/edu_vdg_ofsb.pdf target=”_blank”