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Before the first slave ship arrived on the shores of the American continents, the original residents of these lands presented European explorers with an unspoken challenge. Their existence caused cherished beliefs about a single origin for all humanity to be examined and challenged (Omi & Winant, 1986, p. 11). What emerged from this debate was the certitude that these natives were not civilized and by extension not fully human. This led to their being subjected to many acts of oppression and genocide. Even today, while some advancements have been made in civil rights provisions, many American Indians cannot share in them. Their experiences stand as both a template and reminder of what whites have done to them and others over the course of this country’s post-colonization history.
The basis for my essay is the United States (US) Commission on Human Rights’ report on American Indians titled, “Indian Tribes: A Continuing Quest for Survival” (1981, p. 477). While it is not a thorough examination of their history since the start of colonization, it provides an overview of what has happened to them from a sympathetic perspective. We receive very little education as to their side of the story of the creation of our country. This makes any attempt to see things their way a worthy document to examine and discuss. It focuses heavily on the racism within the actions of the Federal government and associated parties that led to their current state of being. Any examination of cultural diversity and the burdens placed on non-whites in our history must therefore include American Indian issues and concerns. I also consulted the primary source of the case of Elk v. Wilkins (1884, p. 514), as it provides a direct example of the thinking that was used in American courts to deny Natives any rights under the Constitution. Its blending of citation of the Constitution’s stance on negotiation with Indian tribes and bald-faced racist opinion makes it an excellent example of biased jurisprudence as standard operating procedure.
To be sure, the Indian experience is unique when compared to that of the other non-white racial and ethnic groups within our borders. They were independent and self-governing before colonization and lost their land and rights to foreign invaders (“Indian Tribes,” 1981, p. 477). So, too, their desire for political independence is significantly different, as the vast majority of other non-white groups have greatly preferred to work to change the laws and social mores to better include them (“Indian Tribes,” 1981, p. 477). However, due to being forced to assimilate and conform to white American culture and law, they have had to battle for their rights under our government as well as seeking greater autonomy for their own. The case of Elk v. Wilkins, decided in 1884, is an example of an early attempt to claim rights under the American government that failed. The plaintiff, John Elk, sought the right to vote alongside his white neighbors in Oklahoma under the protection of the 14th Amendment (“Elk v. Wilkins,” 1884, p. 514). He was ruled against by the US Supreme Court because the populations of the various states were specifically described in said amendment as excluding “Indians not taxed” (“Elk v. Wilkins,” 1884, p. 515). As Elk was an Indian, he could not be a citizen as he was not taxed, even though he abandoned the reservation and moved in with whites to live as they did.
Drawing lines around an ethnic group and declaring them ineligible to participate fully in the system is a common thread to racial experiences in the US. Asians faced similar treatment many times. One such example occurred a few decades after Elk v. Wilkins when Bhagat Singh Thind, a high-caste Hindu from India, sought to become a naturalized citizen. The Supreme Court declined his petition because he did not fit the common definition of white people that existed at the time to denote who was allowed to do so (Sutherland, 1932, p. 522). Chinese immigrants and their native-born descendants were classified as Indian absent other possible labels to deny them the right to testify in criminal cases against whites, credited to a presumption of shared ancestry (“People vs. Hall,” 1854, p. 494).
Both of the above decisions have a firm basis in the origins of whiteness, as merging different cultures into a homogeneous mass and writing them out of access to power is older than the Declaration of Independence. It was seen as critical to maintaining social order, since in the late 17th century, landless and indentured whites were joining forces with indentured and free blacks to fight against the poor treatment they were receiving (Buck, 2001, p. 21). The response to these revolts included stripping non-white property holders of the right to vote, harsh anti-intermarriage laws, and separate treatment of indentured servants based on race to give the white ones less cause to fight their situation (Buck, 2001, p. 21). Previous attempts at keeping track of which nation an Indian came from were also abandoned in the course of this re-writing of law and social order (Buck, 2001, p. 21). The merging of all American Indian cultures into one lumpen mass is common in American consciousness even now. White preschoolers asked to draw Indians uniformly rely on the feathers and beads used to denote them in Disney’s Peter Pan minus awareness of actual Natives’ appearances (Tatum, 1997, p. 105-6). White adults often do no better. Sports followers whose favorite teams use American Indians’ tribe names or mockeries of same follow the feathers and warpaint approach for everything from costuming to rallying cries (Zirin, 2014, p. 596). Ironically, even an article written to break apart white privilege and examine its components commits this act, as the author of “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” credits Native Americans as a whole with a saying that likely originated from only one of the cultures within that classification (McIntosh, 1989, p. 179).
The US Commission on Human Rights’ report on American Indians also refers to the practice of forcing children into boarding schools that were designed to strip them of their original culture and religion so they might better conform to the white ideal (“Indian Tribes,” 1981, p. 480). The insistence that only white people know how to live properly as Americans predates the schools by a couple of centuries and has carried forward into modern times. “English only” sentiments not only affect immigrants who are not fluent in the language. They also have a chilling effect on Indians who speak their native tongues. In 2000, the owner of an Arizona diner attempted to forbid his Navajo employees from using their language with each other during work hours (Teicher, 2004, p. 286). Forced assimilation also applies to the land the tribes have called their own into antiquity as well as the reservations they were forced onto during America’s Western expansion. Tribes who are in need of revenue will sometimes turn to contracts with mining companies to accept their waste products for storage, assuming they are given the opportunity to do so in the first place (Bienkowski, 2017, p. 317). Corporate claims on Indian land has echoes of the period when the US government’s policy was to break up tribal holdings and force deeds of individual ownership onto members so they could follow an allegedly more civilized approach (“Indian Tribes,” 1981, p. 478-9). The practice of forcing Indians onto reservations has led to extremely high poverty rates in that population, standing at the rate of 50% according to a recent census (Zirin, 2014, p. 597).
The drive to integrate Indians into the white way of life plays out for other races as well, albeit in different ways. For non-native black people who arrive here from the Caribbean or Africa, their desire to assimilate is thwarted by their visual similarity to the slave descendants who make up the majority of black Americans (Greer, 2013, p. 226). This contributes to alienation between said immigrants and the native black population, sowing resentment and discord where unity would be more desirable due to shared issues (Greer, 2013, p. 227). Black Americans with slave origins remain on the outside more often than not thanks to discriminatory policies ranging from the Black Codes written after Emancipation was declared in 1865 (Du Bois, 1962, p. 503) to Federally approved redlining after World War II (Brodkin, 1998, p. 34) and the “smiling discrimination” that still routes black would-be homeowners into poorer neighborhoods (Bonilla-Silva, 2001, p. 114). One could describe redlining as setting up black reservations by bureaucratic fiat instead of force of arms. Latinos face the issue far differently, especially since they can often agree to being of Hispanic cultural origin but differ widely on their racial makeup due to the multiple groups that contribute to their ancestries (Navarro, 2012, p. 220). Thus the question of integration and assimilation becomes almost individualized within that group while the pressure to do so remains. Asian-Americans are far too often seen as foreign even if their ancestors arrived in the US several generations ago (Ancheta, 2017, p. 126), making assimilation an impossible task under current conditions.
Surveying the material, it seems clear that all of the forces at play in the mistreatment and oppression of American Indians are similar to that faced by other non-whites in the US. They are forced to conform while still being seen as source material for jokes and merchandising. The diversity of the manifestations of these forces demonstrates the extremes to which whiteness is defended to maintain the status quo. This is also why fixing the damage caused by this defense will not be simple or easy. It is, however, vital if we are to live up to our stated ideals.
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