“The Impact of the Reservation on Native Culture”
Justifying the reservation system in the United States is really difficult. The stolen lands and lives that resulted in their creation cannot be ignored. Nor can what life is truly made of on them; it is shorter, poorer, and more violent than life off of them (Huyser, et al, 2018). The start of various reservations in the 1830s was strategic in nature, thanks to Andrew Jackson and the Indian Removal Act (Treuer, 220). It was to pen Indians in like livestock, and then creatively thieve all their land from them through not entirely legal methods. On treaties that were presented to tribal leaders, it was very thoroughly obscured what those men were being asked to sign. The reality was that they were often tricked into deeding away their tribal and ancestral lands to the US government in the hundreds of thousands of acreage. In this reasoning that the federal treaties were made, homesteaders were then there to not only think they owned the land, but also to reap the readily available natural resources that native peoples had never taken too much of, though they had been quite eager to make use of (Treuer, 107). The arrival of those trying to treat the land as something to own, use, make money from, and lay waste to must have been unsettling and deeply disturbing to those who had managed the realities of their environment sustainably for thousands of years.
In the United States, the indigenous population finds the homogeneity offered by American society to have really nothing that they want. If we imagine thoughtfully, there is much in native, indigenous, and first nations cultures and governance that can be put to the test against any of our lauded democratic republican principles. That any of those really are preserved at all is due to the peculiar institution known as the reservation system. It was really here that The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee really drove the point home. Without these cultural hearths in place, our government would have succeeded in its campaign to “kill the indian, save the man”.
Thinking about the dreadful conditions that existed on many reservations, it truly therefore meant that warring tribes had to set aside old tribal feuds and try to work together to share their resources and work to survive. There, though, were those who could not momentarily act that way; setting aside differences was too radical a thing to consider. Things took a turn for the worse after many tribes resisted moving to reservations and tried to evade federal mandates to go, but they faced an impossible war against the juggernaut of the US army, about really the worst thing they could have wanted to do. This was a culturally driven choice; to surrender would have meant giving up their freedom, and their warrior ethos to “die in the fight”, rather than live with dishonor.
The reservation system was hindered by the reality that tribes that treated with the heads of the US government thought to have separate terms with the United States as they were deemed sovereign nations. Fearing that choosing to drive those tribes by force would destroy the homesteaders caught in the collision between native warriors and the US army, the more cautious approach had become the practice of moving tribes through manipulation. The thought really was to treat the tribes as though they were bad children and take away their food and things they wanted until obtaining their compliance on whether they would surrender their lands and relocate to a reservation.
The victory of the Union over the Confederacy took the declared intentions of the reunified federal government toward the origins of manifest destiny again. The true reality at that juncture was that the floodgates of westward migration were thrown open. The Indian nations still left free faced an unpalatable set of options: try to remain free, try to assimilate, or relocate. If they struggled to stay free, they truly faced war and extinction. If they assimilated, they would lose their culture and identity, lose their people, lose their lands, and be really no more. The last option was not a great deal better, but there could still be a freedom to look and live somewhat as they had through their past.
With impending disaster heading their way following the Little Bighorn and the massacres at Sand Creek and Wounded Knee, the evidence that the Indians’ way of life was at an end was all too real by the 1890s. The remaining tribes then began their slow, total absorption into the reservation system, the last thing that then could be said was that total survival was more honorable than wartime extinction. Things deteriorated with the turn of the century, as corruption wreaked havoc across the reservations and Native Americans were regarded as small children and never given a say in self-determinism (Treuer, 173). Much more importantly, they were excluded from citizenship until the 1920s and then, there was a movement to remove all the real treaty protections, and tribal status was then dependent on the whims of the reservation agents (Treuer, 104-110).
Treaties addressed the freedoms and rights of each tribe at the beginning, as though they were foreign and sovereign nation-states. At the same time, they were not granted the right to govern themselves or the freedom to be left alone. Essentially, they were just inmates on an open prison system as they struggled to take treatment that was truly inhumane and paternalistic. Really, though, reservations still turned into a cultural hearth, and each sought to preserve the individual identities of tribes living on them. The weathering changes that these tribes took on is a testament to the strength of the cultural identity of indigenous peoples. Treaties did nothing to protect the population of reservations from cruelty and the savage stripping of that culture away from their most vulnerable demographic; their children.
The treatment of the children demonstrated the true intentions of the government starting in the middle of the twentieth century (Treuer, 132-43). The policies that guided the management of Indian affairs at that time were then guided by the idea of assimilation and of stripping away the “savage” culture of the native population. This was to be accomplished by separating as many children as possible from their parents and elders. Those that were the first to travel away from their homes and families were sent to boarding schools such as the thing in Pennsylvania. At these schools, the children were subjected to military style training, forced labor, christian teachings and forced conversions, as well as a loss of cultural identity. When the children arrived at school for instance, their hair would all be cut off, their traditional dress taken away, their names replaced by English ones, and their native languages forbidden. The result of this was the loss of an entire generation of cultural learning and the real problem of children being abused and the massive life-altering impacts from that.
The thing really that was worse than the boarding schools in some ways was the theft of children from many native families. The Native American family was seen as wastrels, really unfit to raise what white America called productive citizens. These children were stolen and then given to Anglo families. This was all to effect the destruction of native culture. At the same time, the federal government had written legislation decades earlier that was intended to remove previous treaty terms, end sovereignty, and ultimately legislate tribes into not existing anymore. This was called termination, and the logical reason for this is simple greed and desire for land and resources. Eager developers could wash away land claims with little fuss aside from the bribes they gave to politicians (Treuer, 150, 451).
Importantly, at the same time as all of these things were being done to children across many tribes and nations, there was also a move to relocate indians to urban centers for job training. Unfortunately, the work was horribly low-paid, manual labor, and long hours. The policy that drove relocation starting in the 1950s had the same intent as boarding schools, forced adoptions, and termination; to annihilate Indian culture and identity (Walls & Whitbeck; Treuer, 279-80). To top things off, treatment of Black, indigenous, and other people of color truly was the worst it had really ever been, while inner city urban centers were the appointed trash heaps of society’s unwanted minority and ethnic groups. The resulting dislocation and loss of cultural identity still resonates years later in often distressing ways. Incarceration, addiction, abuse, and mental health issues are being traced back to the policies of cultural destruction in the same ways that the policies of the Third Reich did for Jewish Holocaust survivors, especially those who founded the Israeli state. There, we can see a national and cultural identity built on the traumas the population endured, as well as a total rejection of the cultures that harmed or failed to protect them as Jews.
Today, there are lasting traumas that those policies inflicted. This injustice has truly taken a toll on native indigenous peoples, and has never been redressed by us or our government. The reality is that these individuals tried to retain and teach their cultures against great opposition. This must have been hard to oppose the powerful offices of the president, the legislative and judicial branches, as well as the corrupt Bureau of Indian Affairs. There was a great deal of money tied up into the destruction of the indigenous population, after all. Most reservations by the last few decades of the middle twentieth century were on wastelands, dwindling in size, or removed out from under the tribe’s feet, as in the case of the Turtle Mountain Little Shell Ojibwe Band of North Dakota which lost its tribal lands and status through termination that happened as a result of the Dawes Act, in 1892. “Overnight, Little Shell and his band had gone from Indian masters of their own vast territory to landless people, who, according to the treaties and founding documents of Turtle Mountain, weren’t, politically and legally at least, Indian at all. They had been written out of existence by a stroke of the treaty pen.” The Little Shell Band is still homeless over a hundred years later, scattered throughout Montana, with little tribal identity or collective culture (Treuer, 257-60).
Treating the Little Shell Band as an example of the great loss of cultural identity that takes place as a result of not having that cultural hearth from which ideas, language, tradition, religion, and ceremony derive. Those who are of Turtle Mountain seem only to have held onto their identity in name only. Treating the reservation then as a stronghold of the cultural hearth means, for good or ill, having that refuge from White America and the loud siren song of destructive waste and capitalistic greed. Those things were most to blame for the thievery, murder, rape, and kidnapping of indigenous lands and bodies. It should seem hardly surprising then that many indigenous people turn away from an American way of life to embrace their own native true identity, as in the case of the Tulalip Reservation of Washington State. This might mean breaking down the phases of dealing with traditions but also trying to work and live in two worlds, the same way the Amish do. As in the traditional dwellings of the Acoma Pueblo Mesa of New Mexico, there is no running water or electricity, and they feel they do not want it. These dwellings, through a thousand years of continuous habitation, now only have about fifteen families living there most of the time. “Continuity, connection. These things were possible in Acoma in ways not possible elsewhere in large part because of the continuity of their political and religious traditions.” For many years, they had to hide their traditions from outside influences and authorities. But setting their buffer between themselves and the rest of the society is an important freeing value and choice for the Acoma Pueblo clans (Treuer, 209-17).
An interesting event took place in the twentieth century that impacted modern sovereignty, and opened the door to the assertion of those rights, came to pass with the improbable instance of an unpaid property tax bill totalling one hundred forty-eight dollars. This offered those involved in the legal wrangling a chance to take their arguments all the way to the Supreme Court to work to argue that Indians should truly and finally have determination over their land and practices (Treuer, 366-71). Now, we see there is a bold choice to be made is the idea that we all should support for the justice that is owed to all indigenous peoples. Learning about the truth of the history of our interactions and accepting the role of the government as well as the white citizenry in perpetrating atrocities ought not go undone any further. To those who think that history only is about the long dead past; they dearly hold onto their assumptions of the chivalrous southern gentleman along with his slavery, statues of their rebel soldiers, and a flag put to use to terrorize the Civil Rights movement into retreat. We want to only look toward the history that gives us a sense of our own importance. But we cannot pick and choose history to will events out of existence. These events live in us and among us, and that should tell us that there is no escaping the past.
The essential reality then, is that reservations are what must have been a crucial factor in traditions being preserved through all the destruction that has been done to the tribes and nations of the first Americans – our indigenous brothers and sisters. The reservation system is obviously, terribly, flawed. Many reservations are among the poorest communities in the US, such as the Pine Ridge Sioux reservation in South Dakota. Once the site of a standoff between the federal government and the American Indian Movement (AIM) foot soldiers, it is now overwhelmed by gang activity and a fearful problem with meth (Williams, 2018; Treuer, 318, 375). There things seem to be hopeless, but even in the unrelenting realities of struggling to survive, there are flickers of hope. The assaults perpetrated by the US government and private citizens were not enough to wipe indigenous culture away. They are still here, mostly an inadvertent side effect of the reservation system that was once meant to imprison and rob them of anything that made them culturally unique. The realities of life are tough there on the “rez”; the life expectancy on average is five years less than the national average for all other racial groups. The leading causes of death are diabetes mellitus, suicide, alcohol and drugs, and homocide (Indian Health Service, Disparities Factsheet, 2019). The wasted lives are staggering.
Things aren’t completely terrible, though. The creativity and determination of many various tribes and individuals has fought back against the stereotypes and the impoverishment many Indians face. The reservation became the deep connection not only between members of the same tribe, but also among Native Americans on the whole. Those who break away from life on the reservation often say they return to their home because life really does not suit them in the outside world. The writer and anthropologist David Treuer from the Leech Lake Ojibwe Reservation in northern Minnesota was one of those who left, only to feel the pull to return. “As soon as I was gone, I missed it. I missed what I hadn’t known was my Indian life, our collective Indian life,” (Treuer, 13).
There truly is a growing feeling of the tribal community and culture today that fully embraces cultural identity, and self-love that derives from the community and shared experience of life on the rez. Through shared pain and trauma, there is the feeling of being together and growth through that survival. The truth is that having the real sense of yourself through the understanding of someone else’s pain when that pain is far greater than your own is especially powerful. Writing and researching this essay had a positive impact on my own sense of identity, both as an autistic person and as the true meaning of culture became clear to me. The reservation system may be flawed but it continues to play a vital and critical role in preserving indigenous culture, tradition and really a sense of belonging and protection.
“This is Tulalip. This could also be America if only the country would pay attention. It seems antithetical, even nonsensical, to consider that in order to find America, you need to look at Indian communities and reservations. But it’s true…How to preserve, protect, and foster the middle class? – are answered by looking at Indians, at our communities, and our history,” (Treuer, 405).
Gilio-Whitaker, Dina. “Reservation Formation, Socioeconomics, and Culture.” ThoughtCo, 4 Nov. 2020, http://www.thoughtco.com/facts-about-native-american-reservations-4082436.
Huyser, Kimberly R., et al. “Reservation Lands as a Protective Social Factor: An Analysis of Psychological Distress among Two American Indian Tribes.” Socius: Sociological Research for a Dynamic World, vol. 4, no. 1, ser. 13, 2018, p. 237802311880702. 13, doi:10.1177/2378023118807022.
Staff. “Disparities: Fact Sheets.” Newsroom, Indian Health Service, U.S. Government, Oct. 2019, http://www.ihs.gov/newsroom/factsheets/disparities/.
Treuer, David. The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present. Corsair, 2020.
W. Adamowicz, M. Luckert, et al. “The Existence Value of a Distinctive Native American Culture: Survival of the Hopi Reservation.” Environmental and Resource Economics, Springer Netherlands, 1 Jan. 1997, link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10640-020-00412-5.
Walls, Melissa L, and Les B Whitbeck. “The Intergenerational Effects of Relocation Policies on Indigenous Families.” Journal of Family Issues, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 27 July 2012, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3457652/.Williams, Matthew. “What Life on a Native American Reservation Really Looks Like.” Huck Magazine, TCO London Publishing, 12 Sept. 2016, http://www.huckmag.com/art-and-culture/photography-2/native-american-reservation-pine-ridge-photography/.
We had just finished David Treuer’s deeply moving The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee. We listen to books as we run, and spent much of 2020 listening to marginalized voices, from Anne Frank to Ijeoma Iluo, Ibram X. Kendi to Bell Hooks…but this resonated differently. Treuer is from northern Minnesota, a stone’s throw from where Mackie’s dad (my husband) grew up. Treuer is Ojibwe, and grew up on the Leech Lake reservation. My husband’s family ancestry has a direct lineage of Indigenous people – I had been told they were Ojibwe as well, but it appears to be a little more complex than that. Ancestry research has led to census and other records that designated these ancestors as Cree, and often “metis” at that (mixed). The family doesn’t claim to be Indigenous. My husband’s grandmother did live out the end of her life on a reservation in Canada, but they know nothing about the heritage or culture – they simply were not raised in it or exposed to it.
This essay was, I suspect, Mackie’s way of trying to explore some of this, to make some sense of a world that is only a stone’s throw away in the genealogical realm, but hundreds of miles away in the cultural one. Again, a complex question and legacy. There are factors at work that we know about, and ones that were overlarge, prompting Indigenous people to be forced away from their cultural heritage, to assimilate, to become “civilized”. It is the same pressures that closed in on most immigrants, and still do, to melt away that which is unique and different and become part of the homogeneity of the U.S. standard culture. We talk about being a nation of rebels and independent thinkers, but it’s not particularly true. If you look, talk, act, or in any other way appear Other, you are immediately noted and tagged, if you will. Perhaps this is the true resonance Mackie felt across this distance – that he fully understands what it was like to be constantly pressured to assimilate into a neurotypical world, to look, act, and speak “normally”. I remember getting angry at his elementary school case manager for telling me that her goal was to get him to “pass as normal”. That moment more than anything was when we said, enough is enough. He gets to make those choices, not us.