Posted in assimilation, homelessness, journal articles, marginalization, Native Americans, reformers

To Domesticate and Civilize Wild Indians

Stremlau, Rose. 2005. “‘To Domesticate and Civilize Wild Indians’: Allotment and the Campaign to Reform Indian Families, 1875-1887.” Journal of Family History. 30, no. 3: 265-286.

By the 1880s, critics of Indian affairs proposed a solution to the “Indian problem,” which they saw as the refusal or inability of Native Americans to assimilate into American society. Native families lived in multigenerational, multifamily households. These extended households generated the social reproduction of Native societies. Reformers believed that Native American communal systems prevented assimilation, so they implemented federal policies to fracture the kinship relationships into male-dominant, nuclear families, modeled after white middle-class American households. The primary policy offered American citizenship and property ownership in exchange for agreeing to move away from tribal land. This act was meant to foster individualism, defeat communalism, and instill the core values of white American culture. It also provided the reformers with the excess tribal land not allotted to the Native Americans. In 1887, President Grover Cleveland signed the Dawes Act. The reformers believed that they had freed the oppressed Indian people by dismantling communal and tribal relations. These amendments resulted in dramatic losses of land that impoverished Indian communities. Stremlau concludes that “throughout the brutal poverty and oppression of the allotment period, Native kin continued to care for one another, however, and it was only this communalism that enabled Native people to survive.” (281)

Stremlau presents a strong argument that shows how misguided American people and lawmakers can be in their pursuit to inflict “American values” on other cultures, even within our own borders. Their “well-meaning” policies stripped Native Americans of their land and heritage. I disagree with the author’s assessment of the reformers’ and lawmakers’ good intentions; rather, arrogance, racism, and greed motivated these reforms. The article shows how decisions made by those in power can disenfranchise communities and steal resources from large groups of people. This article, along with Buried in the Bitter Waters, shows how those in power made entire communities homeless and established a precedent that promulgated multigenerational poverty.

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