American Indians

Alternative Names: Various Indian nations and clan names
Location: throughout USA, especially west and south-west
Population: approximately 1.5 million
% of Population: 0.63%
Religion: various
Language: English and various Indian dialects

There are approximately one-and-a-half million Indians living in the USA today. They are descendants of the original inhabitants of North America and do not represent a homogenous group but have different social, cultural, economic, and linguistic characteristics. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), which supervises all Indian affairs in the United States, recognizes 283 tribes in the mainland United States. These tribes receive special federal services, and trusteeships for their lands and assets based on treaties signed in the nineteenth century. Tribes range in size and character with reservations of more than 22,000 square miles and populations of more than 130,000 to tiny bands of less than 100 with a few acres, to those who on outward appearance are almost indistinguishable from their white neighbours. Some Indians live in cities and towns and therefore cease to be eligible for BIA services. Additionally there are some groups who identify themselves as Indian but are not officially recognized as such. These are tribes who had their status terminated in the 1950s and 1960s or those groups that never had federal status at all.

Background and history

Before European discovery and settlement there were perhaps three million Indians in present-day USA, with 600 distinct societies ranging from tiny hunting and gathering bands to sophisticated agricultural nations. Indian societies were generally small communities of only a few hundred people, divided by distance and traditional hostilities. Even at their zenith the larger nations numbered only approximately 60,000 individuals. Each group adapted to their own environments, and had distinct cultures, economies, beliefs and customs.

The Atlantic and Pacific seaboards were the most densely populated. The west coast and northwest had an abundance of fish, game, and wild plants, so the groups in these areas had prosperous, settled communities with rich cultures. The eastern seaboard was populated by farming nations whose people lived in permanent well ordered towns, and were usually organized into confederacies for mutual defence. Westward, across the Appalachian mountains, lived smaller more scattered migratory groups who usually depended on hunting, supplemented by a small amount of agriculture. Further west in the great plains region lived societies that depended primarily on hunting, while in the south-west between the southern plains and present day California lived the Pueblo peoples whose civilizations were influenced by the great indigenous civilizations of Central America and Mexico. They had adobe towns and cultivated the earth. This region was also home to the wandering bands of Navajos and Apaches. The Great Basin region, in what is now present day Utah and Nevada, was the poorest area. It was populated by tiny migratory bands of 15-20 people.

In the larger societies there were hereditary hierarchies and elementary policing systems but in general decisions were reached by consensus and individuals who disagreed with the decisions of the group could leave to join another tribe or form a society of their own. Religion played a very important part in the life of the Indians. They believed in influential spirit forces as well as a cosmic unity, that embraced man, animals, plants, and the elements. They had a reverence for the land and adapted their cultures to the peculiarities of their environments. The notion that the earth was their mother was a literal belief. They had an immense knowledge of nature and the resources of their own areas and their diet was more varied and plentiful than in Europe.

European conquest and settlement

The first European conquerors were the Spanish who in 1598 declared the territory of the Pueblos in the south-west to be part of the Spanish empire, established the capital of Santa Fe and forced the Pueblos to work as slaves. The Pueblos later rebelled and were successful but 12 years later all the Pueblo tribes except the Hopi were again subdued. By 1656 the Spanish had also established settlements in Florida. Meanwhile the Dutch established a trading colony in Manhattan and the French established Port Royal in modern Nova Scotia.

By the end of the seventeenth century the French, who enjoyed relatively peaceful relations with the Indians (because their primary interest was the fur trade and not land acquisition), had spread out from Canada down along the Illinois river to the mouth of the Mississippi. The British had meanwhile founded Jamestown in Virginia. Less than a century later the English had colonies stretching from Maine to the Carolinas. In New England as well as in Virginia relations between the Europeans and the Indians were at first friendly. The Indians helped the early colonists to survive, sometimes even providing protection and the Europeans gave iron implements and goods to the Indians. By the 1630s the colonists had become self-sufficient. There was increased immigration and as a result they encroached further onto Indian territory.

The Europeans had a devastating effect on the Indians. They brought diseases that wiped out whole Indian populations. By 1662 a long stretch of the New England coast had been depopulated and whole communities wiped out. Over-hunting caused the extermination of fur-bearing animals from region to region and trade with the Indians eventually bred dependence on European trade goods, iron tools and weapons which were clearly superior to the implements of the Indians.

It was inevitable that the three European powers would fight over ultimate control of the territory and between 1689 and 1763 they were fighting among themselves. It was the Indians, however, who were most affected by these wars. Indians had turned against each other to aid their European allies. Some tribes were wiped out by other Indian tribes. At the end of these wars many of the tribes east of the Mississippi were destroyed. The end result was that Indian land was confiscated by Europeans, and eventually those tribes that had fought with and for the victor found their lands taken over by whites as European immigration to the new world increased.

After the wars the British government realized the necessity for native allies on the frontier, so the government issued the Royal proclamation of 1763, which outlined plans for permanent Indian territory west of the Alleghenies. The proclamation forbade private individuals or organizations to take or buy tribal lands, but because the authorities could not police the frontier indefinitely against the stream of settlers moving south and west, the proclamation was a failure.

Indian resistance

In 1776 when the colonies rebelled the Indians were again divided and weakened. Those tribes that had fought for the British lost their lands and the new United States signed treaties with the south-eastern nations, forcing them to cede lands already seized by whites, but recognizing and guaranteeing their title to lands remaining. This “nation to nation” relationship was reaffirmed by the US Congress in October 1988 on the 200th anniversary of the Constitution.

In 1828 Andrew Jackson, an avowed Indian hater, was elected president. He was of the opinion that all tribes east of the Mississippi river should be moved, by force if necessary, west of the Mississippi. Jackson’s policy had the greatest effect on the “Five Civilized Tribes”; the Creeks, Chickasaws, Cherokees and Choctaws of Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia, and the Seminoles of Florida which had been ceded to the USA from Spain in 1821. These tribes were living peacefully with their non-Indian neighbours and had embraced the European social educational and political systems. In 1830, when president Jackson’s Indian Removal Act became law, the tribes were removed one by one to land in present day Oklahoma. The Cherokees, under the leadership of chief John Ross, fought back through the federal courts which in 1832 upheld their case in a decision that said that they were independent political communities that retained their individual rights. Jackson’s reply was that John Marshall (Supreme Court Justice) had made his decision so now let him enforce it. Later that year the Georgia government held a lottery and much of the Cherokee’s land was distributed to the winners.

Some of the Cherokees resisted and continued to live a marginal existence in the area, but they were eventually moved by force to modern Oklahoma. In this move 4,000 Cherokee died and the journey became known as the “trail of tears”. A small group of Cherokees however managed to escape and hid in the Carolina mountains as well as a large part of the Seminoles who held out in the Florida swamps. After seven years of fighting the army gave up and left the Indians alone but, despite this small victory, 1832 marked the end of armed resistance east of the Mississippi.

This pattern was followed throughout much of the 1800s. As new territory in the west was granted statehood, lands which had been promised to Indians in perpetuity was gradually taken away and the Indians herded onto reservations in areas that were not yet given statehood or had not yet been found to be economically profitable for the whites. When Indian land was not given freely it was taken by deceit or force, and sometimes whole populations were wiped out in the process. By 1880 in California the Indian population fell from an estimated pre-European level of 350,000 to 20,000.

The only successful resistance effort came from the plains region which was home to the tribes who, since the middle of the eighteenth century, had adopted the horse and gun from the Europeans. These tribes, the Sioux, Cheyenne and Comanche among them, had established a warrior ethic and developed great military skill to protect their hunting territories from encroachment by whites. Sporadic fighting continued in this region until the 1880s when small bands of Apaches, who had continued to hold out in the south-west, were finally subdued. By the end of the century the Indians were completely dependent on their conquerors, and the population was down to one tenth of its pre-European level due to disease and warfare.

The General Allotment Act was passed in 1887. Also known as the Dawes Act after the Senator who initiated the proposal, it was an honest attempt by some to transform Indian society by assimilation. Indians were each given a plot of land, approximately 160 acres, in trust until the Indian owner was thought competent enough to hold the land in fee simple. The economic effect of the Act was that, by 1890,17.4 million acres of Indian land which had been retained after the wars of the 1880s were now part of the public domain and eventually more than 90 million acres of Indian land no longer belonged to them.

The social effects of the Act were even greater. Tribes were broken up when tribal lands were lost and the social structure of the tribes was threatened. The old system of communal property which was vital to Indian social and traditional survival was destroyed and the Indians were left feeling discontented and hopeless. Young Indians were deprived of their traditions and did not get the skills necessary to survive in the white world. As a result they found themselves caught between two worlds neither of which they were equipped to deal with.

Twentieth century developments

The Meriam Report, published in 1928, described the Indians as destitute and the housing, sanitation and health conditions of the Indians as deplorable. In 1933, when Franklin Roosevelt became president, the direction of Indian policy was changed. The Reorganization Act of 1934 was accepted by 191 tribes and became law. It re-established the sovereignty of Indian tribes and tribal governments were given the authority to draw up constitutions and to assume judicial and fiscal control over the reservations. Allotment of tribal lands was halted, two million dollars was allotted for Indian land acquisition and a 10 million dollar loan fund was established so that economic enterprises could be undertaken by the Indians themselves. Religious freedoms were extended, educational programmes were re-evaluated and the O’Malley Act of 1934 gave the BIA authority to make contracts with federal, state and local agencies for specific Indian programmes.

Despite the war and the depression the Indian New Deal achieved good results. Indian beef-cattle holdings increased by 105% and their yield of animal products over 20 times. Indians became good credit risks, for of the $12 million that had been loaned to Indians only $3627 had been cancelled as uncollectable. However there were those who argued that the Indians should be more rapidly absorbed into mainstream America, and during the 1950s when Dillon S. Meyer (who had been in charge of Japanese internment during the Second World War), became the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, the new official policy toward the Indians changed. The policy was embodied in the House Concurrent Report (HRC) 108, which was adopted by Congress in 1953 and stated that the Indians should be freed as soon as possible from all federal supervision and responsibility; thus they would be forced to assimilate into white society. Another similar bill was passed extending the authority of states to enact similar legislation.

Some Indian groups fought against termination, arguing that supervision should continue for a period of time so that the tribes could prepare themselves for termination. However, by 1960, 61 Indian tribes and bands had been terminated. Termination was also followed by a policy of withdrawal which meant that development projects were discontinued, loan funds were frozen and federal services ceased. In 1944 the National Congress of American Indians had been formed, to represent every recognized tribe in the country. By 1960 they, along with the new Indian leaders who had fought in World War II and the Korean war, and were more aware of how white society functioned, managed to stop the termination policy and it has never actually been resumed.

The original function of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) was to hold the lands in trust for the tribes. Because of its structure the BIA has over the years become unresponsive to the plight of the Indians and very bureaucratic. The head of the bureau is the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, who has ultimate control over the various Indian nations’ constitutions, the composition of their governments, their power to make contracts, the disposition of their property and the funding and implementation of most programmes that affect them. The BIA has authority to veto decisions made by the tribal Councils. The policies of the Bureau are decided by the Congressional Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs and by the Indian section of the Bureau of the Budget, which is subject to changing political fashions in the country. The BIA also has a position in the Department of the Interior which is under the management of the Assistant Secretary for Public Land Management.

The Bureau has at times been negligent or has abused its function and authority. One example of the many abuses by the BIA concerns the land rights of the 3,650 Cheyenne people living in their original homeland of eastern Montana on 433,434 acres of land that is rich in coal. Between 1966 and 1971 the BIA drew up leases with energy companies which were economically unfavourable to the tribe, without any protective clauses to protect either the land or the Cheyenne population. After six years of legal battles, the leases were finally revoked by act of Congress in 1980. Although several mineral companies received compensation the Cheyenne did not.

Indian organizations

The 1960s saw an increase in Indian political activity. In 1961 the Chicago American Indian Conference was held and representatives of 90 tribes set out the goals of the Indian community. They wanted to retain their Indian culture and special relationship with the Federal government but they also proposed improving government programmes so that one day Indians would be self-sufficient.

The same year the National Indian Youth Council (NIYC) was founded by 10 college-educated Indians. The NIYC was a more radical group whose leaders were impatient with the BIA. They wanted a clear definition of Indian culture and Indian rights and their first focus of attention was on the north-west states and native fishing rights. They staged sit-ins and fish-ins and demanded recognition of the rights guaranteed to the Indians in treaties made with them by the Federal government. When the BIA was slow to act the NIYC decided to use force if necessary to resist state action and a series of confrontations followed. The efforts were successful and the government eventually did file charges against the state governments on behalf of the Indians.

Other more radical Indian groups also followed. One was the American Indian Movement (AIM), which consisted mainly of urban Indians. They used confrontations and demonstrations to draw attention to the problems of native Americans. In 1972 they and a number of other groups organized a march on Washington known as the “Trail of Broken Treaties” to present a list of grievances and a 20-point programme to stress the treaty rights of the tribes. The Indians were not able to meet with officials and the 20-point programme, which was formulated by a number of representatives from different groups around the country, was never considered. This was partly due to the fault of AIM itself who were perceived by the public as destructive because of damage done to the BIA building which the marchers occupied for six days when they found out that officials would not meet with them. In addition members of the Tribal Chairman’s Association which was formed to counteract the more radical elements of groups like AIM held a press conference denouncing the demonstrators.

During the 1960s legal aid organizations were also set up to help the Indians fight for their rights in the courts. One of the most important of these organizations was the Native American Rights Fund (NARF). The NARF encouraged non-recognized Indian groups such as some Eastern Indian groups to present claims for their land. The government eventually settled claims with many of the tribes. One such example is the Passamquoddy and Penobscott Indians of Maine, who received 300,000 acres of undeveloped land and $27.5 million. The Indians went on to invest their money and land into small businesses that have provided jobs for Indians as well as non-Indians in the area.

American Indian organizations have forged international links with other oppressed indigenous peoples. In response to their attempts to be awarded UN representation as a sovereign nation the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations Working Grants was established in 1982.

Social and economic position

Indians tend to be very poor. Most still live on reservations where work is scarce. In 1985 half of the Indian workforce had no work while in some areas unemployment was as high as 75%. There are housing shortages on the reservations and 55% of homes are sub-standard. The Indian population has a greater incidence of communicable diseases and fatal infectious illnesses. Over the years a welfare society has developed. Many Indian people are depressed, lacking in initiative, self assurance and not able to live successfully in their own culture or the white culture. These symptoms usually manifest themselves in violence, delinquency drunkenness and despair. Suicide and accidents are the single biggest cause of Indian deaths. The suicide rate is twice the national average and most of the accidents are related to alcohol and drug abuse. Crimes of violence are 10 times more frequent on reservations than among the population as a whole.

The Indians were forced to part with 64% of the land which they retained at the end of the Indian Wars of the 1880s and today less than 53 million acres, mostly in the mid-west and the south-west, belongs to them. These areas tend to have severe water shortages and limited economic potential. The Indian population has increased five-fold over the past century and the land base which has remained constant is unable to sustain them. The BIA estimated that 75% of the land is suitable only for the least intensive grazing, the least most profitable form of agriculture, while 10% of the land has viable resources of oil, gas and minerals. Twenty-five per cent of all remaining Indian lands is in the hands of non-Indian owners because of legal entanglements.

In 1964 the Economic Opportunity Act was passed, and Indians gained access to funds not controlled by the BIA. Although the budget for the Indians was small the results were good as Indians planned and implemented programmes. For example in Washington state the Lummis, who were one of the poorest tribes, were able to establish a successful fish-farming business based on Indian cultural traditions. Because of these successes more money was eventually channelled to Indian communities.

In 1970 President Nixon outlined various proposed administrative reforms. Although many of his proposals were never followed, the sacred Blue Lake of Taos Pueblo which the Indians had been trying to recover since 1906 was returned to them, the composition of the Congressional Sub-Committee of Indian Affairs was changed so that it was more responsive to Indian needs and Louis Bruce, a business man of Indian ancestry became Commissioner of the BIA. Later in the 1970s legislation was passed to allow some Indian tribes to take responsibility for running most or all of their federal programmes.

In 1975 25 Indian tribes in the north-west joined together to form the Council of Energy Resource Tribes, which is modelled on OPEC. In addition many other tribes have been taking advantage of legislation such as the Indian Tax Status Act of 1980 to enter into enterprises that can attract money from outside the reservation. Indeed these and other types of legislation have allowed Indians to become more self-reliant. Although reservations that follow a policy of economic and industrial expansion have a higher percentage of social breakdown, other legislative measures, like the Indian Religious Freedom Act, may help to offset these developments by allowing the Indians to retain their traditions and culture. The Act, which was passed during the 1970s, gives the same degree of protection to Indian faiths that is given to other religious faiths in the USA. This has also meant that there could be greater protection for Indian burial places and sacred sites.

Government aid to the Indians and Indian programmes has continued to increase despite budget cuts during the Reagan administration. Despite this there has been little improvement in the economic circumstances of the Indians. They are still unable to support themselves on their own land, therefore economic dependence on the government continues. The increase in government funding has meant increased involvement in the lives of the Indians. The BIA and other federal agencies now provide more than half the jobs for Indians and 60% of the Indian’s personal income. These figures are higher in reservation communities where there are no significant alternative sources of employment and wealth.

In 1979 the largest Indian land settlement in American history was awarded to Sioux Indians when they won a court case against the USA which had been going on for almost a century. The Indians were awarded $105 million dollars for the illegal seizure of the Black Hills in 1880. The Indians refused to accept the money and wanted the land instead, for it represented more than just an economic opportunity. They saw it as a chance once again to be reunited as one nation in their traditional homeland. In 1985, the Senator of New Jersey introduced a bill whereby the federally owned land, including some of the most important Indian burial sites, would be returned to them. There are a number of other land claims pending, such as those of the Western Shoshone in Nevada and the Yurok, Karok and Tolawa in the northwest. A highly controversial case has been the partition of disputed land between members of the Hopi and Dine (Navajo) peoples.

In the early 1970s the Indian Education Act was passed. This allowed the Indian communities to run their own schools and to emphasize their own cultures and histories. This was then put under the Department of Health Education and Welfare. The head of the Indian Education Office was given the rank of Assistant Secretary and therefore had direct access to the White House. In addition the Tribally Controlled Community Colleges Act was also established and is today a very successful programme. It gives the tribal government authority to establish centres for further education where members are able to return to college and learn more about their own history and culture while receiving qualifications. This was an important step for American Indians whose school drop-out rate is between 45% and 62% and who do not always have the skill or the capital required to undertake enterprises that would make the best use of their lands and resources.

However, the Indians have been able to make advances legally, politically, educationally and, when given the opportunity, they have also been successful economically.

(See also Indians and Metis of Canada; Hawaiians, Indigenous; Inuits)