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At the start of the twentieth century there were approximately 250,000 Native Americans in the USA – just 0.3 per cent of the population – most living on reservations where they exercised a limited degree of self-government. During the course of the nineteenth century they had been deprived of much of their land by forced removal westwards, by a succession of treaties (which were often not honoured by the white authorities) and by military defeat by the USA as it expanded its control over the American West.
In 1831 the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Marshall, had attempted to define their status. He declared that Indian tribes were ‘domestic dependent nations’ whose ‘relation to the United States resembles that of a ward to his guardian’. Marshall was, in effect, recognising that America’s Indians are unique in that, unlike any other minority, they are both separate nations and part of the United States. This helps to explain why relations between the federal government and the Native Americans have been so troubled. A guardian prepares his ward for adult independence, and so Marshall’s judgement implies that US policy should aim to assimilate Native Americans into mainstream US culture. But a guardian also protects and nurtures a ward until adulthood is achieved, and therefore Marshall also suggests that the federal government has a special obligation to care for its Native American population. As a result, federal policy towards Native Americans has lurched back and forth, sometimes aiming for assimilation and, at other times, recognising its responsibility for assisting Indian development.
What complicates the story further is that (again, unlike other minorities seeking recognition of their civil rights) Indians have possessed some valuable reservation land and resources over which white Americans have cast envious eyes. Much of this was subsequently lost and, as a result, the history of Native Americans is often presented as a morality tale. White Americans, headed by the federal government, were the ‘bad guys’, cheating Indians out of their land and resources. Native Americans were the ‘good guys’, attempting to maintain a traditional way of life much more in harmony with nature and the environment than the rampant capitalism of white America, but powerless to defend their interests. Only twice, according to this narrative, did the federal government redeem itself: firstly during the Indian New Deal from 1933 to 1945, and secondly in the final decades of the century when Congress belatedly attempted to redress some Native American grievances.
There is a lot of truth in this summary, but it is also simplistic. There is no doubt that Native Americans suffered enormously at the hands of white Americans, but federal Indian policy was shaped as much by paternalism, however misguided, as by white greed. Nor were Indians simply passive victims of white Americans’ actions. Their responses to federal policies, white Americans’ actions and the fundamental economic, social and political changes of the twentieth century were varied and divisive. These tensions and cross-currents are clearly evident in the history of the Indian New Deal and the policy of termination that replaced it in the late 1940s and 1950s. Native American history in the mid-twentieth century was much more than a simple story of good and evil, and it raises important questions (still unanswered today) about the status of Native Americans in modern US society.
- See more at: http://www.historytoday.com/andrew-boxer/native-americans-and-federal-government#sthash.u8kBUPBw.dpuf