Posted in 19th century America, assimilation, borderlands, homelessness, journal articles, law, marginalization, Native Americans, reformers

To Domesticate and Civilize Wild Indians’: Allotment and the Campaign to Reform Indian Families, 1875-1887

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.

Posted in 18th century America, 19th century America, borderlands, historiography, marginalization, material culture, myths, Native Americans, racial cleansing, racism, resistance

Violence over the Land: Indians and Empires in the Early American West

Blackhawk, Ned. Violence over the Land: Indians and Empires in the Early American West. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008.

(This is also a borderlands historiography.)

Jeremy Adelman and Stephen Aron do not share the same conception of a “borderland” as Ned Blackhawk precisely because Blackhawk gives voice to the pain and violence suffered by Native Americans in his story, while Adelman and Aron remain focused on boundaries of imperial conquest.

What is borderlands history? Pekka Hämäläinen and Samuel Truett argue in their essay “On Borderlands” that borderlands histories are not traditional frontier histories, “where empires and settler colonists prepare the stage for nations, national expansion, and a transcontinental future.” They explain,

If frontiers were the places where we once told our master American narratives, then borderlands are the places where those narratives come unraveled. They are ambiguous and often-unstable realms where boundaries are also crossroads, peripheries are also central places, homelands are also passing through places, and the end points of empire are also forks in the road. If frontiers are spaces of narrative closure, then borderlands are places where stories take unpredictable turns and rarely end as expected.[1]

After recapping several early milestones in borderlands history, Hämäläinen and Truett identify Jeremy Adelman and Stephen Aron’s “From Borderlands to Borders” as a “landmark essay on the state of the field.”[2] Hämäläinen and Truett assert, “With an eye to distinctions, definitions, and membership, Adelman and Aron proposed a new frontier-borderlands grammar to connect current work and give it a shared lineage.”[3]

Frederick Jackson Turner’s thesis once again is brought into focus as Adelman and Aron attempt to differentiate the terminology of “frontier” from “borderlands.” They claim that recent historians have simply substituted one term for the other, when in fact, the terms should be used quite differently. Adelman and Aron define a frontier as “a meeting place of people in which geographic and cultural borders were not clearly defined” and borderlands as “the contested boundaries between colonial domains.”[4] They assert that these distinctions should allow historians to address the often overlooked “competitive nature of European imperialism and the ways in which these rivalries shaped transitions from colonies to nation-states in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.”[5] However, by framing borderlands history around European imperialism, instead of Native American experience and agency, Adelman and Aron appear to have replicated the same “triumphalist and Anglocentric narrative of continental conquest” that Turner was guilty of.[6]

In a scathing critique of Adelman and Aron’s “new paradigm for understanding Indian and EuroAmerican relationships,” John R. Wunder and Pekka Hämäläinen accuse the authors of relegating Native Americans to the “historical scrap heap” just as Turner had.[7] “In many ways,” Wunder and Hämäläinen argue, “Adelman and Aron’s model marks a return to a Turnerian tradition in which native populations are objects rather than subjects, mere pawns in the great colonial board game.”[8] Their article, “Of Lethal Places and Lethal Essays,” identifies and challenges four major problems in “From Borderlands to Borders” that include factual errors as well as conceptual ones. The biggest complaint was that Adelman and Aron left out the very people whose homelands were invaded. Wunder and Hämäläinen assert that

[Adelman and Aron] evidently believe empires are European and lead to nation-states; empires are never indigenous, nor is there such an entity as an Indian nation. By definition, treaties are fictive or cynical tracts. Frontiers are ambiguous, borderless meeting places that involve cultural mixing. Borderlands are places of European imperial rivalry where Indians slyly seek micro-diplomatic openings. Once the rivalry is over, borderlands can become bordered land, where national borders are defined, and indigenous peoples are swallowed up by national cultures.[9]

Hämäläinen and Truett show in “On Borderlands” how new borderlands historians have begun to rewrite North American history “as a history of entanglements—of shifting accommodations—rather than one of expansion.”[10] Historians now recognize that Early America was more native than formerly assumed. Native Americans played a “decisive and frequently unexpected role in the movements of empires and the rise of modern nations.”[11] Ned Blackhawk’s Violence Over the Land fits into this new form of borderlands history.

In Violence Over the Land, Blackhawk emphasizes the pain and the violence endured by the Shoshone, Ute and Paiute peoples during and following European and American conquests of the Great Basin region. He argues that for Native Americans, violence “became a necessary form of social, economic, and political survival, a practice that beleaguered as much as benefited.”[12] He underscores the pain and terror that Native Americans endured under European and American powers, and how many of these Indians inflicted similar violence on other indigenous groups. Blackhawk notes that “violence weds the history of these Native groups to larger imperial histories.”[13] Yet, his story is not just about the subjugation of Native Americans. He shows how they influenced imperial nations as well as other Native Americans.

Horses, introduced through Spanish colonization, became a defining technology for the indigenous people in the Great Basin region.[14] By 1730, Comanches were entirely equestrian.[15] Blackhawk asserts that “the emerging imperial borderlands between New Spain and French Louisiana became the primary centers of the Comanche world, and their former Ute allies lost the influence they had once achieved with their Comanche kinsmen.”[16]  Horses remade Native economies and polities.

Blackhawk claims that even though historians, such as Turner, “declare the process of American expansion as the foundational experience of American history,” few historians acknowledge that the effects of American expansion on Indian peoples are representative of the American experience.[17]

The challenge with addressing borderlands, according to Hämäläinen and Truett, is to “find ways to reconcile old empire-centered and nation-centered narratives with indigenous and nonstate space and territoriality.”[18] I think that Blackhawk’s work has done an excellent job of reconciling the two.

[1] Pekka Hämäläinen and Samuel Truett, “On Borderlands,” Journal of American History 98, no. 2 (2011): 338. Pekka Hämäläinen is professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Rhodes Professor of American History at Oxford University. Samuel Truett is associate professor of history at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque

[2] Ibid., 344.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Jeremy Adelman and Stephen Aron, “From Borderlands to Borders: Empires, Nation-States, and the Peoples in between in North American History,” The American Historical Review 104, no. 3 (1999): 815-16.

[5] Ibid., 815.

[6] Ibid., 814.

[7] John R. Wunder and Pekka Hamalainen, “Of Lethal Places and Lethal Essays,” American Historical Review 104, no. 4 (1999): 1230. Note that these criticisms were published concurrently with Adelman and Aron’s article. Hamalainen’s (and Truett’s) (re)assessment of “From Borderlands to Borders” as a “landmark essay” came twelve years later.

[8] Ibid., 1232.

[9] Ibid., 1229. Evan Haefeli also challenged aspects of Adelman and Aron’s essay. Adelman and Aron published a rebuttal to the three authors in the same issue of The American Historical Review. Jeremy Adelman and Stephen Aron, “Of Lively Exchanges and Larger Perspectives,” The American Historical Review 104, no. 4 (1999): 1235-39; Evan Haefeli, “A Note on the Use of North American Borderlands,” The American Historical Review 104, no. 4 (1999): 1222-25.

[10] Hämäläinen and Truett,  346-47.

[11] Ibid., 347.

[12] Ned Blackhawk, Violence over the Land: Indians and Empires in the Early American West (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008), 265.

[13] Ibid., 8.

[14] Ibid., 19.

[15] Ibid., 61.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., 9.

[18] Hämäläinen and Truett,  352.

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