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[The National Tombstone Epitaph, March, 1988]

For the past several months, this column/feature has presented a continuing series of comments, official and otherwise, concerning Indian Affairs during the 19th century. I thought it might be appropriate to conclude the series with statements from four individuals -- three Senators and a Director of the Smithsonian Institution. In their own way, these statements summarize the policy debate, and the level of expectation which existed, among whites during the 19th century.

John Sherman, Republican Senator from Ohio, spoke for a group that perceived themselves as the moderates on questions of Indian Policy. On July 13, 1867, he called putting for Indians "on small reservations. . .but the very moment the wave of settlement comes to these reservations, let them be absorbed in the general population, with the right to vote, to hold office, and do whatever a man can do." "The only way", he went on, "that you can educate the Indians is first by inoculating them with all the vices as well as all the virtues of Christian civilization. In that process one half of them will disappear, and the other half may possibly make pretty good citizens of the United States." Of one thing, Senator Sherman was quite certain -- permanently segregating Indians on reservations and thus keeping (or attempting to keep) them separated from the white population "will always fail to succeed, and in the end will lead to war and the extirpation of the Indian tribes."

"Absorption" as a policy conveys a certain feeling of gentleness as well as inevitability. But what does the term really mean? That is precisely the question raised by Sherman's fellow-Republican in the Senate, Lot Morrill of Maine. It is one thing to say that Indians "must be absorbed", Morrill pointed out; but Sherman "did not explain what he mean't by absorption; but the inferences from what he did say are clear enough; it means extinction." Whether Senator Morrill was referring to physical or to cultural extinction is not clear. But the questions he raised went unanswered: "How are they to be absorbed/ By what communities absorbed? Have they not been ejected from every civil and political community organized? From all the old States? Is not the great struggle here to-day, by every State that we have recently organized, to eject them?"

The propositions and questions from that 1867 debate are, in a sense, still with us today. What is the status of Indian reservations? What is their relationship to the legal/ constitutional authority of the States of the Union in which they are located? It is perhaps ironical that political conservatives in the 19th century were all in favor of putting Indians on reservations and using the military to keep them there; for the past three decades, substantial elements of the conservative community have periodically called for the elimination of the reservations and, in words remarkably similar to those of Senator Sherman, the "absorption" of Indians into the general population. In this connection, the questions raised by Senator Morrill still have a haunting applicability!

James Henderson represented Oregon in the Senate in the same debate alluded to above. His speech almost perfectly summarizes the ambiguity, the unease, indeed the anguish which marked at least the more sophisticated as they grappled with the problems arising from ever-increasing contact between the two races. Loud voices cried that Indians savages had to give way to the forces of civilization. To this argument, Senator Henderson responded, "then we ought to make the savage give way to civilization in such a manner as that we shall show a decent respect for ourselves and something like a regard to our own honor. Civilization ought to be civil." Even so, as a member of the dominant white society, whose values he in no way rejected, Senator Henderson, too, accepted the desirability of "civilizing" Indians -- and he felt strongly about it! "If nothing else but extermination will do, we cannot permit the Indian to stand in the way of civilization, and his termination must come. But I desire to try everything before I come to that, to see if it is possible to settle this unfortunate difficulty of races." Henderson then moved to a position very similar to that of Senator Sherman. "My idea is to civilize the Indian. Let him fall back into civilization instead of pressing him out of it. I think wherever we can make citizens of the Indians it ought to be done. They ought to be mixed up with the whites as far as possible in order to prevent complaint, and in order to save our own credit and our own honor."

The noted explorer, John Wesley Powell, subsequently became Director of the Smithsonian Institution. In a letter, dated January 24, 1881, sent to Senator John Morgan of Alabama, he noted that "There are three prerequisites to the ultimate civilization of the North American Indians"; Mr. Powell then described the prerequisites: (1) "they must adopt the civilized family"; (2) "they must recognize individual property rights including property in land as they are recognized under the institutions of civilization"; and (3) they must abandon the industries of savagery and engage in the industries of civilization".

It is clear that the term "civilized" as used by Director Powell was synonymous with "white Anglo-American". That 19th century Indian society recognized the family is not open to dispute; the tribes and bands themselves were forms of an extended family. The easy equation of English common law/American concepts of property ownership with that of "the institutions of civilization" is simply a universalization of particular values which, in turn, justifies presumptions of cultural superiority. The ancient Greeks called such arrogance "hubris"; Americans might have been well advised to have paid more attention to their schooling in Greek!

Hunting, fishing, "the chase" -- these were "the industries of savagery. "The industries of civilization" to which Indians were supposed to become attached were, in the white view, easily translated into one word -- "farming". There is perhaps a bitter irony in the fact that it was white buffalo hunters, not productive farmers, who destroyed the economic base upon which the Indian culture had been constructed.

From "extermination" to "assimilation", 19th century white attitudes uniformly reflected the policy goal of eliminating all vestiges of the Indian cultures (if not, indeed, the Indian population itself!). It was not until the 1930's that a policy which might be termed "accommodation" was adopted. "Accommodation", which requires some "give" on both sides, is, perhaps, not a solution to the problems of federal Indian policy, but it at least represents a positive approach.

Copyright Robert Munkres 1981-2009 All Rights Reserved