I decided to publish my write-ups from my comprehensive exam reading fields. I am publishing them *as is.* Thus they represent my thoughts as a new PhD student. They were written between September 2011 and July 2012.  The full collection is accessible here


Native Americans


Francis Paul Prucha, The Great Father: The United States Government and the American Indians (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986). 

Frederick E. Hoxie, A Final Promise: The Campaign to Assimilate the Indians, 1880-1920 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984). 

Donald L. Fixico, Termination and Relocation: Federal Indian Policy, 1945-1960 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1986). 

Dennis Banks and Richard Erdoes, Ojibwa Warrior: Dennis Banks and the Rise of the American Indian Movement (University of Oklahoma Press, 2005).  


The Great Father: The United States Government and the American Indians, written by Francis Paul Prucha, is considered to be one of the best, if not the greatest, syntheses of the complicated relationship between Americans and Native Americans. The foundation of Prucha’s analysis is based on a clear lineage of paternalism within United States policy towards the Native Americans, exemplified by the Native American’s nickname for the President, “Great Father.” Prucha asserts that Native American policy can trace its origins back to the English colonial and imperial experience, and subsequently to the religious conversion efforts undergone by Puritans to uplift the Indians.   

After the Civil War, Prucha argues that American relations with the Native Americans were greatly influenced by the influx of Protestant values into mainstream culture. The predominant percentage of Americans associated themselves with Protestant values and Protestantism became synonymous with Americanism. It was believed that all mankind should strive towards cultural uniformity, and that civilization was the result of a social evolutionary process that began with savagery, of which the Native Americans were an example. These Christian humanitarians believed that Native Americans had the capability to be uplifted to a civilized and Christian existence. Reservations were initially viewed in a positive light because they allowed for the controlled cultivation of Indian civility. Additionally, religious groups played a large role in the funding of Native American boarding schools, which were to assist in the total transformation of Indian children into civilized Christians. However, by the 1880s it was clear to the humanitarians that the Indian would remain uncivilized if he was deprived of the incentive to work and to strive for property. The Dawes Act of 1887, which dealt with the allotment of Indian lands, according to Prucha, was not the result of land-hungry westerners, but rather by pressures placed on the government by these eastern humanitarians. Once the Native Americans were given their own pieces of land through allotment, the center of native policy and humanitarian focus switched to the protection of the Indians’ newfound property and to the question of Native American citizenship. Prucha states that a great deal of focus was placed on lawlessness and the question of Indian accountability to white law. The result was the installation of a political patronage system that further encouraged the historical pattern of government paternalism.  

By the 1920’s, Prucha states that the Christian reformers of the last nineteenth century has largely faded into the distance, their end signified by such Supreme Court cases as Quick Bear v Leupp; however their legacy in regards to Native Americans, that of individualization and Americanization, lived on and was further solidified in federal policy acts and reports. Due to education and allotment policies, the Native Americans were no longer separate nation groups, but rather individual wards of the state, dependent on the government for their education, health, and overall well-being. The Indian Office underwent a period of intense systemization and regularization, which outlined the specific duties and functions that the government was to carry out in the process of Native American progress. Although it is difficult to fully determine the exact sources that Prucha uses due to the lack of footnotes in the abridged version of The Great Father, it is clear that he largely relies on government documents, such as congressional bills and Supreme Court decisions to foster his narrative. 

In A Final Promise: The Campaign to Assimilate the Indians, 1880-1920, Frederick E. Hoxie attempts to provide a fuller context surrounding Native American policy by looking beyond the typical policy history resources to newspapers, exhibits, and even literature. Instead of focusing solely on the influences of Christianity in policy formation in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, like Prucha, Hoxie delves deeper into the intellectual and cultural developments that fueled public opinion towards Indians. Christianity did play a role in this progression, according to Hoxie, but mainly by simply providing the model for the end goal of the social evolutionary process. Native American policy between 1880 and 1920, Hoxie argues, was not fueled by an uninterrupted drive for Indian enlightenment, as Prucha denotes, but rather by two phases of assimilation.  

The first phase of assimilation was based on a belief that Indians were capable of being fully transformed into civilized Americans. This belief was not fueled by humanitarian inclinations, but rather by the realization that assimilation or the envelopment of Native American people and land into American society would end most of the problems plaguing the country at the time, including frontier violence, corruption on reservations, and the lack of progress amongst Native American communities. Hoxie states that by looking at the newspapers of the time it is clear that charity was not the main thing on the public’s mind in regards to Indians, but rather how to fix the problem of their impediment to western frontier settlement. The conviction that Native Americans could be uplifted to the level of white Americans was fueled by the rise of Anthropology and the popularization of social evolutionist thought. Although Prucha hints at this influence, Hoxie fully fleshes out the influence by looking at the work of such individuals as Lewis Henry Morgan and John Wesley Powell. Like Prucha, Hoxie recognizes that this embracement of social evolution was largely inspired by a deep-seated fear of diversity. However, he attributes this fear less to the influences of Protestantism.  

The result of this adoption of social evolutionist thought into public policy was a “chilling condensation” of the social evolutionist cycle, writes Hoxie. Native American policy was now based on three goals: removal of the Indians, introducing them to individual land ownership, and finally citizenship and total assimilation. This process was believed to not only be achievable, but to be able to be done with a short time period. The Dawes Act, according to Hoxie, was the final step in this assimilation campaign, and acted as a statement of intent for future Native American policy. However, by the turn of the century, popular opinion on the matter began to change. Hoxie illustrates this change effectively by examining the Native American displays at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1896, which he writes exemplified the return of the “Nobel Savage” motif. Literature at the time also extolled the message that Native Americans belonged at the fringes of society. They were to dwell on the edge slogging in manual labor jobs or they were to become extinct. This social atmosphere was further perpetuated by Theodore Roosevelt. In Hoxie’s account, Roosevelt reinitiates a paternalistic fever, which Prucha characterizes as being a continuous factor. A resurgence of racism and nostalgia and the professionalization of the social sciences, Hoxie argues, led to dissatisfaction with the social evolution theory. Hoxie also traces the development of the concept of culture, which is quite interesting, as most historians use the term to describe earlier societies without acknowledging that it was a concept that the people at the time neither embraced nor used to describe themselves. Culture offered a way for diversity to be explained without playing the race card, however, Hoxie shows that individuals at the time got around this by claiming that race preceded culture and thus was still the core factor in ethnic differentiation.  

Thus, the second phase of assimilation was based on a belief that Native Americans were to assimilate, but not to gain equality. They were not capable of being raised to the status of full-American, and thus formal education was wasted upon them. Instead, vocational training was encouraged.  Federal guardianship concludes Hoxie, was, by 1920, not ended, but strengthened. Nevertheless, Hoxie ends on a positive note, as he believes that this marginalization actually allowed the Native American to retain and cultivate the remnants of their traditional way of life. “Tribal members could take advantage of their peripheral status,” he writes, “replenish their supplies of belief and value, and carry on their war with homogeneity. We should be thankful this is a conflict that the Indians are winning.” 

By expanding the analysis of Indian policy through the acknowledgment of the social atmosphere that was fueling these policies, Hoxie paints a much more interesting and realistic picture of the time period. Prucha, probably due to his closeness to religion as a Jesuit priest, does not examine these forces aside from those caused by Christian reformers. Prucha also sticks to a much more traditional and forgiving description of the individuals involved and the policies, whereas Hoxie demonstrates a much more critical assessment. For instance, Prucha emphasizes Francis Leupp’s stance that Indian culture should not eradicated, but rather improved. Hoxie, on the other hand, focuses much more on the unflattering aspects of Leupp’s policies, such as his firm belief that Native Americans should be left to fend for themselves and should step aside in the name of progress. Another example is the description of the Omnibus Act of 1910, which Prucha matter-of-factly describes as indicating the “realization that allotment could not apply uniformly to all Indian communities.” (299) Hoxie’s description, contrastingly, emphasizes the unfairness and discrimination of the bill by pointing out the fact that it was based on desire to speed up the allotment of Indian land and to take away any land that the Indians were not cultivating in some way. The act also discriminated against those Native Americans that were deemed “incompetent,” as “’competent’ Indians could receive their portion of the tribal treasury just as they received full title to their land.” (176)  

World War II, as presented by Prucha, was significant for Native Americans because it threw a significant portion of them into the middle of white society by way of military service and wartime industry. These Native Americans became accustomed to the higher standard of living offered by the white world and were no longer content with their lives on reservations. Federal policymakers recognized that they could seize this opportunity to bring assimilation of the Indian to its climax. Termination, best represented by the Zimmerman Plan, and relocation, which involved moving Native Americans to urban centers, took over Native American policy during the 1950s. These policies created a great deal of havoc and fear amongst Indians due to the fact that they were being ripped from the protective embrace of the paternalistic programs the government has used to manage them. However, despite the fact that termination and relocation had negative side effects, Prucha argues that the effects of the two policies were not long-term and represent a very short departure from the concept of self-determination, which ruled right before World War II and continues to rule in the 1980s when Prucha is writing. 

Donald L. Fixico presents a very different viewpoint on the effect of termination and relocation policies of the 1940s and 1950s on contemporary Native American populations in his policy history, Termination and Relocation: Federal Indian Policy, 1945-1960. Unlike Hoxie, who represents the earlier time period as a resurgence of racism, Fixico characterizes the policies of the early twentieth century as consisting of sincere attempts to improve the condition of Native American lives. It is not until after World War II, that the government seriously tries to wipe out Indian identity by way of assimilation. The difference in interpretation between the two historians is likely due to the fact that Fixico bases his analysis largely on congressional and other public documents, much like Prucha.  

Fixico agrees with Prucha that World War II marked a turning point in the Native American experience. Fixico describes the willingness to join the war effort as being driven by a desire by young Native American men to once again prove their manhood through warrior activity, a desire that was supported by the Native American women who stayed at home. These individuals found it difficult to incorporate themselves into the white world at the beginning of the war and found it equally difficult to return to the reservations afterward. Bureaucrats viewed Native American participation in the war as proof that they were ready to become full members of American society, and thus, it was no longer necessary to waste money and effort on guardianship programs and the management of trusts. The government was also spurred by Cold War scrutiny and the threat that Native American segregation negated their claims of democratic superiority. Policymakers were divided, notes Fixico, between insensitive terminationist and concerned pro-Indian factions.  

The Indian Claims Commission and the Zimmerman Plan exemplify the first phases of termination, which revolved around legislation that enabled the gradual withdrawal of government supervision and Indian welfare programs. This gradual withdrawal was intensified during the Truman and Eisenhower administrations. Fixico portrays Truman as a well-meaning president that was too distracted by war issues to pay close attention to what was happening in domestic policy. Truman’s Fair Deal emphasized the fact that everyone should be given the chance to become part of the middle-class and to achieve independence. Fixico shows that the Eisenhower administration marked a return to frontier idealism and the glorification of rugged individualism and self-reliance. Native Americans were determined to be getting by too easily; government paternalism was damaging to their ability to progress. This atmosphere led to the second phase of termination, relocation. The goal of relocation was to move Native Americans to urban centers where they could find jobs and complete the process of assimilation. The problem with much of this legislation was that it was assumed that it could happen quickly and failed to recognize how difficult it was mentally and physically for Native Americans to make this transition, nor did it account for the differences in individual experience.  

Nevertheless, termination and relocation, according to Fixico, were a regrettable success and, in contrast to Prucha’s assessment, had long-term consequences, which are illustrated by the fact that over half of Native Americans now live in cities and the fact that they are still struggling to reconcile their traditional values with those of the modern world. Fixico, like Prucha, characterizes Unites States Indian relations as a continuous flow of paternalistic resolutions. Fixico does not hide his extreme distaste for this paternalism, which he believes it did a great disservice to the Native Americans and is the root of their present-day problems. He characterizes it as unhealthy and the source of Native American’s inability to achieve financial independence and self-reliance, and subsequently led to the difficulties they endured while undergoing the termination relocation processes. Fixico, probably due to his Native American heritage, places more emphasis on the experience of the Native Americans in this political atmosphere than Hoxie and Prucha. He highlights the reservations health and education problems and deepened factionalism. He also includes first-person insights from interviews and oral histories. Nevertheless like the other two accounts, due to the nature of policy history, Fixico’s Native Americans ultimately blur into a homogenous group with slight differentiations made between traditionalists and progressives.  

Both Fixico and Prucha view the self-determination that was dominating Indian policy in the 1980s as a continuance of the paternalistic dynamic between American whites and Native Americans. Fixico certainly does not depict the contemporary situation as one in which the Native Americans were “winning” as Hoxie does. Hoxie’s claim that pushing Native Americans to the peripheral of society ultimately led to the preservation of their culture is further discredited by the personal account of Dennis Banks. In Ojibwa Warrior, Dennis Banks provides an emotional connection to the material that the other three histories cannot, a firsthand account of the effects that these policies had on the Native Americans. Banks is most well-known due to being a founding member of the American Indian Movement, which was established in 1968 to defend Native American civil rights and protect traditional Native American culture. 

Born in 1937, Banks describes himself as being part of a generation that was able to experience the tail end of the traditional way of life for his people. Banks does not tell a tale of his people being able to preserve their culture while riding the sidelines of modern America. Instead he tells describes the closing stages of a way of life. “The place in which I drew my first breath,” he writes, “is gone now, overgrown with weeds, but the foundation is still there. The woods that were filled with the sounds and songs of birds and animals are silent now; and by the time I had grown up, there was little left of our once vast reservation.” (12) Banks describes the closeness with nature that he felt as a small child and the warmness of communal living.  

Like Fixico and Prucha, Banks recognizes World War II as a turning point in his culture. He does not characterize this war participation as a heroic event in which young Native American men marched off to prove their manlihood though, but rather as a sad occurrence that caused those left behind to feel abandoned. Even when Banks himself joins the military later in his life, he does not view it as an exciting adventure, but rather as a last resort, a refuge from a life of poverty. Banks also brings emotional depth to the boarding schools that the other author’s discuss. Banks brings to life the terror that these children felt when they were taken from their families and forced to abandon all of their Native American ways. He describes the intense brainwashing techniques that the school officials tried, and in many ways succeeded, to strip them of their Indian-ness.  

For eleven years Banks was separated from his family and his home, and when he returned it was quite evident that the traditional way of life was on its way out. Instead of a people living in harmony with nature and reaping its bounty, Banks’ tribe was now beholden to outside assistance. Life on the reservation was now a depressive matter, Banks describes mass unemployment, ill-health, and dependence on junk food.  Banks describes the key impact of Public Law 280 on his people. The law enabled states to commodify the fish and game on Native lands. They now had to have licenses and compete with wealthy tourists for the resources that had once been their livelihood.  

Knowing that the reservation did not offer him any type of future or protection, Banks joined the Air Force. His time in the military ultimately led to a feeling of despair, as the events that he experienced sorely tested his faith in humanity. He likens a particularly bloody scene in Japan where peaceful demonstrators were beaten to death to later encounters with the Bureau of Indian Affairs police.  Witnessing firsthand the blows that were being sent towards Native Americans by the government policy and a society that acted discriminatory towards them, Banks and other likeminded Native Americans banded together, most notably by way of the American Indian Movement (AIM), in the late 1960s and early 1970s to take control of their destinies. Most notably AIM fought for justice in the murder of Yellow Thunder in 1972, organized the Treaty of Broken Treaties, which culminated in takeover of the Bureau of Indian Affairs building in Washington, and the Wounded Knee incident in which Banks and other AIM members occupied the town in South Dakota for 71 days, demanding that the government respect their treaty rights. Throughout Ojibwa Warrior, Banks does not describe a group of people that are happy to cultivate their traditional culture in the shadows of the sidelines of American civilization. Neither does Banks portray a people that have been completely anesthetized by centuries of government paternalism. Instead, Banks portrays a people that are angry and adamant that they be active participants in their future. They are a people that are struggling to hold on to the last vestiges of their culture, while fighting for their part in modernity.  

Feature Photo:

[Six people, probably Umatilla Indians, posed, standing, full-length, in front of branch structure, Castle Rock vicinity, Washington State(?)]


Published by Jessica M. DeWitt

Dr. Jessica M. DeWitt is an environmental historian of Canada and the United States. She is passionate about the use of digital technologies to bridge the gap between the public and researchers. In addition to her community and professional work, she offers various editing and social media consultancy services.

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