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Native Americans Today:
A Rebirth of Pride
Kristin Carlson
Academic affiliation: Oklahoma State University
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Native Americans, also called Indians, are the first known people to inhabit the American continent. They came to the Americas long before the arrival of Columbus and the Europeans and had established a way of life uniquely their own. Native Americans were an imaginative and creative people who had developed a multitude of cultural ways and had clearly established the ability to survive. However, beginning in the eighteenth century white Americans sought to destroy the Native American's culture by forcing Native Americans to assimilate in to white culture. The purpose of this paper, through a select group of scholarly journals, is to explain how Native Americans nearly lost their unique cultural heritage and to demonstrate how Native Americans are reestablishing their ethnicity.

When the Europeans arrived on the North American continent they encountered a multitude of people whose cultural ways and traditions were extremely foreign and virtually impossible for the Europeans to understand. Europeans, also called Euro-Americans, believed that it was their calling, or duty, to civilize the numerous Indian tribes of North America. Believing in their superiority, Euro-Americans, therefore, triggered the demise of Native American culture through their quest to assimilate Indians into the white people's world. The greatest threats to the Native American's way of life were the unfair views that caused the white people to enforce assimilation. Jeffrey Hanson illustrates these views stating that: Two opposable stereotype regarding Indians were: (1) the ignoble savage who was culturally and racially inferior and incapable of being civilized (hence either to be forever separated from 'civilized society' or exterminated); and (2) the noble savage who was savable but had to be weaned from what was considered an inferior culture (204).

David Edmunds quotes from a journal written by Aldar Vaugh and reiterates the views of Hanson, writing that the "English began to have doubts about assimilating the Indians, they increasingly described Native Americans as 'inherently inferior 'redmen'' who were 'prevented by nature rather than education or environment from full participation in American society'" (Vaugh qtd in Edmunds 740). Likewise, in the journal "Exploring a Cultural Borderland: Native American Journeys of Discovery in the Early Twentieth Century," Frederick Hoxie points out the common belief that Indians were just a backwards people and that their culture could not exist in the modern world (973). Reiterating the three previous ideas, Tom Robotham in Native Americans in Early Photographs sums up the European American view of Native Americans and writes, "most whites thought Native American Culture was inferior to European-American culture" (40). Thus, with views such as these the long, difficult, and devastating journey for Native Americans began -either blend with the white American's culture or be separated from it.

The encroachment by white Americans on Indian lands, the foundation of their culture, was a tragic event for Native Americans. "Settlers rolled back the frontier and forced tribesmen from their homeland," states Robotham (6). Concurring with Robotham, though using harsher language, Edmunds emphasizes that Indian Natives "were plagued by the bitter vestiges of removal policies" (732). Louis Avitable and Bryan Kleiner bring attention to these vestiges in, "New Developments Concerning Discrimination Against the American Indians." Avitable and Kleiner speak of the "Trail of Tears" when "five major nations were removed from their land" and placed on reservations (75). With this removal from their homelands the decline of Native American cultural ways had begun for their land was sacred and an integral part of their identity.

Hilary Weaver emphasizes in her essay, "Indigenous Identity," that Native American identity "is connected to a sense of peoplehood and separately linked to sacred traditions, traditional homelands, and a shared history as an indigenous people" (245). Weaver, therefore, strengthens the belief that Indian homelands are connected to their culture and their religion. In Bill S. 2269, compiled by the United States Senate, the members firmly agree with Weaver by stating that for all Native Americans "religion and culture are inextricably intertwined" (8). Therefore, since Native American lands are important to their culture, their homelands are important to their religion as well. Using a selection from Touch the Earth, by T.C. McLuhan, it is evident that Geronimo also understood the important connection of land and religion. Geronimo speaks of Usen, the Apache word for God, and explains how Usen created the Apaches and the land each for the other (154). In complete agreement, Weaver reiterates by stating that many Navajos experience "an extreme imbalance" when they are "outside their territory and away from sacred geography" (245). Ultimately, the removal of Native Americans from their homelands not only affected their culture, it concurrently affected their religion.

Forced reservation life had a tremendous affect on Native American cultural activities. Furthermore, with the forced assimilation into non-Indian society the United States Government hoped Native American cultures would disappear from the Earth. In an effort to accomplish just that, Native children were removed from their families and their culture and were sent to boarding schools. Robotham explains that boarding schools were "designed to teach Indian children the ways of white culture" (13). Supporting this theory Edmunds states, "Students were encouraged to renounce their traditional culture and to plunge headfirst into the mainstream of American life" (734). Their hair was cut, their Native clothing was exchanged for white people's attire, and they were forced to give up their Native tongue in exchange for English. Two generations of Native Americans were subjected to this treatment and were prohibited from practicing their Native ways.

Similarly, even though Native Americans had their own spiritual and religious practices, white Americans thought those beliefs to be both savage and backwards and wanted them to end. As mentioned in the report by the United States Senate, "there has been a long history in this country of discrimination against Indian religions" (1). The attitude of white Americans towards Native American religions and cultural practices prohibited them from practicing traditional religious ceremonies such as dances. Dance, often used in religious ceremonies as Victoria Sanchez documents, was repeatedly "curtailed by government regulations" (5). Hoxie, supports Sanchez, and stresses that many rituals, including dances such as the Sun Dance, were forbidden by the United States Government (976). Sadly, Senate Bill S. 2269 concurs with both Sanchez and Hoxie and states that the government took extreme measures to "suppress the expression by Native Americans of their traditional cultural and religious practices" by ordering the military to incarcerate women and children found "engaging in prohibited dances" such as the Ghost Dance and the Sun Dance and to "kill Indian men engaging in such prohibited activities" (7). Voicing the same opinion, Edmunds documents that the Lakota's acceptance of the Ghost Dance as a "promise of religious deliverance …frightened Indian agents and ultimately led to the massacre at Wounded Knee" (718). Wounded Knee symbolized the last full breath of Native American resistance to forced assimilation (Edmunds 718).

Reservation life and the many tragedies that had befallen the Native Americans brought them to their knees. It appeared to all as though their unique culture, their misunderstood traditions, and even the people themselves were doomed. The Native American population had been decimated, writes Robotham (6). Supporting this notion, Edmonds emphasizes that it "appeared as though both the Indian and his culture were descending in to oblivion" (718). Miraculously, however, Native Americans and their culture failed to succumb to the white people's ways. Edmunds relates, "Native Americans were overwhelmed, but they also persisted" (728). Concurring with Edmunds, yet in reference to the present day Native American, Robotham writes, "the descendants of ancient tribes have managed not only to survive but to hold on to some semblance of their traditional cultures"(82).

Society has witnessed a rebirth of Native American cultural ways. Concurrently, Native Americans have witnessed among their people an energized awareness of their tribal traditions and cultural heritage and a renewed determination to establish their place in society. In "Dreaming Indian," Allen Trachtenberg writes: "the early twentieth century witnessed a rehabilitation of the alienized native as a newly acknowledged precursor" (60). Likewise, although disagreeing with the time frame, Edmunds believes that the study of Native American history changed during the 1960s and that "by 1968 scholars were also taking a new look at Native Americans and their contribution to the countries past" (723-724). Hanson points out that Native Americans were becoming more active, and in 1944 formed the National Congress of American Indians. This organization, according to Hanson, elevated "cultural pluralism and tribalism as national Indian goals" (220). In this attempt, present day Indians have developed a re-awareness of self through heightened interest in their spirituality, their arts and crafts, their stories, songs and dances.

With renewed determination, Native Americans have rid themselves of their silence and are unwavering in their desires and efforts to be heard. Hoxie emphasizes that by "finding places to be heard and appreciated in an alien world, they [Native Americans] have created ways of communicating with outsiders and, ultimately, with each other" (993). Native American and United States Senator, Daniel Inouye helped unleash the silence with his communication skills and fought for the passage of Bill S. 2269; a Bill designed to protect the religious rights of Native Americans and promote Native American cultural and spiritual identity (Senate 1). Sanchez understands and agrees with the importance of communication and describes how contemporary Powwows such as those held in Ohio bridge the gap between non-Indians and American Indians (52). As a means for communication, powwows not only encourage intertribal contact through a spiritual celebration, but also represent a means for Native Americans to share their culture with non-Indians. Dance, an integral part of Native American religion and self-expression, once prohibited by the government, now reclaims center stage at contemporary powwows. No longer afraid to practice their tribal heritage, Native Americans have gone "back to the blanket," which Hanson explains refers to as "backsliding into traditional tribal culture" (196). Chief Luther Standing Bear, according to McLuhan, defines "going back to the blanket" as the Indian choosing to return to his tribal customs and he emphatically points out that "'going back to the blanket' is the factor that saved him from...his final destruction" (104). Native Americans have long missed the traditional powwows of their ancestors, however, as Sanchez relates, the rebirth of powwows has created a resurgence of Indian pride and non-Indian awareness of a unique culture (59).

Vendor and information booths, often found at contemporary powwows, introduce Native American arts and crafts to the public and are another means of communication between Indian and non-Indians. Reclaiming their cultural ways, Native American artists have discovered that traditional and modern art forms are experiencing a reemergence. Hoxie relates how new technology has helped to advance "Indianness" and further stresses that through their art, Indians present "themselves to the non-Indian as a bridge connecting an ancient past to the modern era" (984 & 986). Furthermore, by communicating through their artwork, Native Americans have "challenged the public's assumption that Indian people belong to a backwards, vanishing race" (Hoxie 986). Nothing could be less true and if their artwork does not instill a reclaiming of self, their writings will.

Ironically, the language that Native Americans were forced to learn -English, has assisted them in reclaiming their cultural ways. Before the attempted assimilation of Native Americans into the Euro-American culture, Indians had no written language, only oral traditions in many tongues. Any oral history used by historians, according to Edmonds, was written by non-Indians and was colored by non-Indians as well (72). Hoxie reveals however, that with the forcing of Indian children into boarding schools came a generation of Indians lucky enough to remember their traditional stories and cultures who now had a means to preserve them (969). They could remember those who lived in the ancient ways, could put their remembrances to paper, and pass them on to future generations of Indians with the use of English. "With access to both the written language and modern technology," Hoxie further relates that Native Americans could now "explore publicly the meaning of their predicament" (969).

Through a variety of channels, Native Americans still affirm their cultural heritage. Native Americans have accepted the task to stay tied to their culture, to practice sacred ceremonies, to protect sacred and tribal lands, and to speak in a unified voice while preserving tribal identities. The silence the United States Government and others once hoped to achieve has been broken by contemporary Indians who are speaking out for their rights as the first inhabitants of North America.

Works Cited

Avitabile, Louis and Brian H. Kleiner. "New Developments Concerning Discrimination Against the American Indians." International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy 21(2001): 74-82.

Edmunds, R. David. "Native Americans, New Voices: American Indian History, 1895-1995." The American Historical Review 100.2 (1995): 717-740.

Hanson, Jeffrey R. "Ethnicity and the Looking Glass: The Dialectics of National Indian Identity." American Indian Quarterly 21 (1997): 195-207.

Hoxie, Fredrick E. "Exploring a Cultural Borderland: Native American Journeys of Discovery in the Early Twentieth Century." Journal of American History 79.3 (1992): 969-995.

McLuhan, T.C. Touch the Earth. New York: Pocket Books, 1971.

Robotham, Tom. Native Americans in Early Photographs. North Dighton, MA: World Publications Group, Inc, 1994.

Sanchez, Victoria E. "Intertribal Dance and Cross Cultural Communication: Traditional Powwows in Ohio." Communication Studies 52.1 (2001): 51-69.

Trachtenberg, Alan. "Dreaming Indian." Raritan 22.1 (2002): 58-79.

United States Senate. "To Protect Native American Cultures and to Guarantee the Free Exercise of Religion by Native Americans." 12 September 1994. OSU University Microfilms (1994): fiche CIS 94 S413-16

Weaver, Hilary N. "Indigenous Identity." American Indian Quarterly 25 (2001): 240-255.

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