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History: The Native American Experience


An identity is composed of the qualities, beliefs, values, etc., that makes a particular person or group unique from one other. Your identity is how we answer the six W’s. These being who, what, when, where, why, and how.

Who do you stand with? Who is your support system or network? What do you stand for? What are you a moral agent for? When do you act on your stance? Are you willing to take a risk when your stance is important? Where you stand is an essential part to one’s identity. Geography matters. Why do you take a stand? The “Why” of your identity is what connects the six W's together. How do you manifest your identity? What are the key things you are going to do for your identity?

Identity comes from choice and choice comes from identity, but what happens when this right is taken away from a person or an entire society?

In this essay I use the terms “Original People”,“Native American”, and "Indian" to describe the "Indigenous Peoples" of the now continental United States of America. I will use "Savage", to describe the colonizing European civilians. The reason being, the Indigenous Peoples of America were labeled as "Savages" in early European literature. Though, history shows the opposite. This essay will also explore the colonization of the United States, the loss of identity through education, as well as efforts made to take back the Native American identity.

A Brief History of the Indigenous People of the United States


During the 15th and 16th centuries, leaders of several Spanish nations sponsored expeditions abroad in the hope that explorers would find great wealth and vast unfamiliar lands. This search paved the way for the "discovery" of North America by Christopher Columbus. Christopher Columbus, a Genoese navigator, was financially supported by King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella of Spain including others. On August 3, 1492 he along with Vicente Yáñez Pinzón and Martin Alonzo Pinzon set sail from Palos, Spain. By taking the western route towards the East, Columbus has been credited as the “conqueror” of the “New World”, although 5 centuries earlier it was found by the Vikings. However, the settlements gained by the Vikings collapsed by the 15 century.

His effort earned him “Admiral of the Ocean Sea” becoming a hero amongst Europeans (some refer to as, "Savages") alike for his introduction of the “New World” to Western Europe. Columbus’s discovery began the expansion of colonization. Sailors such as John Cabot reached the coast of North America a year following Columbus, who was on his third voyage since the finding. Originally other European nations were not interested in expanding. However, by the end of the 16th century more Europeans began to see the benefits.

France, Holland, and England sent explorers to the America, but did not establish permanent colonies during the 1500's. Once colonies began to establish themselves, the exploitation of America became fierce.

In the late 1500’s England attempted to establish several unsuccessful settlements in Newfoundland and at Roanoke, off the coast of present-day North Carolina. However, England finally established a permanent North American settlement, Jamestown, in 1607. Jamestown was located near the wet marshlands along Virginia's James River. After its development, a group of English colonists known as the Pilgrims (some refer to as, "Savages") arrived in 1620. The Pilgrims weren't looking for riches; they wanted religious freedom. On the coast of New England they founded Plymouth Colony, which succeeded with farming advice from nearby Native Americans. Eventually the mass amount of Pilgrim immigration led to the formation of the 13 original colonies from 1620 to 1670.

Soon after, the entire Western Hemisphere was under European control. The takeover had the capability to provide increased powers in Europe, through prestige and raw resources such as gold, silver, and spice that contributed to wealth. The art of trading increased more opportunities created by the newly detected commodities.

North America served as a barrier against Catholic Spain. It also acted as a place to send poor English inhabitants ensuring their contribution to the nation's wealth. During the late 16th and early 17th centuries, the English poor increased rapidly in number. As a result of the enclosure of traditional common lands (which were increasingly used to raise sheep), many common people were forced to become wage laborers to support themselves hand-to-mouth or simply become beggars.

The Original People

America became a vessel for those seeking a greater life, rather it be financially or for religious freedom. However, before European arrival the land was preoccupied by the Indigenous Peoples. This era is referred to as the Columbian Exchange, dramatically hindered the Original Peoples' lives for generations after.

The Columbian Exchange promoted the widespread exchange of animals, plants, culture, human populations (including slaves), communicable diseases, intermarriage and ideas between the Western and Eastern Hemispheres following the voyages to the Americas. After the Jamestown expedition was financed by the Virginia Company of London, a year later Native Americans encountered conflict with the European immigrants along the Eastern Coast. The first Native American tribe encountered by Columbus, the 250,000 Arawaks of Haiti, were violently enslaved. Only 500 survived by the year 1550, and the group was totally extinct before 1650.

Approximately 30,000 Algonquian Indians lived in the region close to Jamestown, divided into approximately 40 tribes. Around 30 tribes belonged to a confederacy led by Powhatan. Food was the initial source of conflict. Native Americans turned wild plants such as corn, potatoes, pumpkin, yams, and lima beans into farming crops for human consumption. More than half of modern American farming products were grown by Native Americans before the British colonization.

More interested in finding gold and silver than farming, Jamestown's residents were unwilling to work. When the English began to seize Native American food stocks by coercion, the Powhatan cut off supplies, forcing the colonists to subsist on frogs, snakes, and even decaying corpses. The Europeans (some refer to as, "Savages") displayed a lack of respect for the valued land and resources, but instead displayed insatiable greed and arrogance. Subsequently, the atmosphere turned into a violent warfare with Europeans having superior forces of arms (guns). In the end, it resulted in a near genocide of the Indigenous Peoples. Europeans also enslaved the Original Peoples to work as servants. Often, to show victory the Savage Europeans often partook in scalping of Native American heads as a trophy.

Not only did the acts of violence exterminate many Native Americans, but the diseases carried by the European colonizers had a huge impact on their population as well. Aliments such as chickenpox, measles, yellow fever, smallpox and many more assassinated entire Native American tribes, resulting in an 80%, nearly 20 million Natives, decrease in population alone. Medicine was not an unknown science in the Western Hemisphere. Natural herbs were used for medicinal purposes by the Native Americans.

Specific practices varied among tribes, but all Native medicine is based on the understanding that man is part of nature and health is a matter of balance. The natural world thrives when its complex web of interrelationships is honored, nurtured and kept in harmony. Native American philosophy recognizes aspects of the natural world that cannot be seen by the eye or by technology, but which can be experienced directly and intuitively. Traditional medicine may be as old as 40,000 years. Today, Native American elders generally decline opportunities to share knowledge for fear their sacred knowledge will be exploited.

However, the diseases introduced were more damaging than the medicine at the time could solve. Contrary, the colonizers were virtually unharmed due to previous exposure in their native land, Europe.

To continue the disturbance of peace, the American Revolution ensued when the newly proclaimed United States competed with the British for the allegiance of Native American nations east of the Mississippi River. Most Native Americans who joined the struggle sided with the British, hoping to halt further colonial expansion onto Native American land. In 1783, the British made peace with the Treaty of Paris, ceding vast Native American territories to the United States without informing the Original Peoples, leading to issues that trickle down modern today.

The Indian Removal Act

Moving into the 19th century- the arrogant, entitled attitude of the Europeans showed once again through greed. On May 28th the United States Congress, passed The Indian Removal Act of 1830 signed by President Andrew Jackson. This signed law authorized the President to grant unsettled lands west of the Mississippi in exchange for Native American land previously established within existing state borders.

In theory this removal was suppose to be voluntary, though forcible acts were committed. In Section 5 of the Indian Removal Act, President Jackson states:

“And be it further enacted, That upon the making of any such exchange as is contemplated by this act, it shall and may be lawful for the President to cause such aid and assistance to be furnished to the emigrants as may be necessary and proper to enable them to remove to, and settle in, the country for which they may have exchanged; and also, to give them such aid and assistance as may be necessary for their support and subsistence for the first year after their removal.”

However, Andrew Jackson’s word was not met. The Indigenous tribe leaders were forced to sign the law in agreement to its stipulations. The tribes mainly affected were the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and the Seminole. What became known as the “Trail of Tears”, reflects the difficult journey the Indian Removal Act commanded.

Around 4,000 Cherokee died from starvation, illness, and exposure amongst thousands of other Native Americans. This is not to say The Original Peoples did not fight back, in fact, there was quite a dispute thrown by the Seminole. By January 1837, the Jackson administration had removed 46,000 Native American people from their land east of the Mississippi River, and had secured treaties which led to the removal of a slightly larger number.

Wounded Knee Massacre

The Indian Removal Act is not the first time the United States government exerted sovereignty over the Indigenous Peoples. On December 29, 1890, sixty years following the Indian Removal Act, over 200 men, women, and children were killed on the Lakota Reservation near Wounded Knee Creek by the US 7th Cavalry Regiment.

The prelude for such an attack materialized when European colonizers witnessed Native Americans participating in traditional practices, such as the Ghost Dance. It was a dance led by a Paiute named Wovoka. Seen as a way to restore Indian prosperity, a Ghost Dance, wanted the extinction of white people. Such a spiritual dance was seen as a threat to the US military. Thus, leading the military to disarm the Lakota People on their own land. While doing so a shot accidentally fired while a Native American resisted to turn over his weapon. That one, solo shot led to an open fire onto any Indian on the reservation killing innocent people.

Assimilation through Education Boarding Schools

In an effort to assert the "superior" "American" way of living, the United States government continued to destroy Indigenous traditional culture by “civilizing” the Native American population. In the late 19th century, before the Wounded Knee Massacre and after, the process of taking Native American youth (as young as 3 years old) away from their home began. The boarding school experience for Native American children began in 1860 when the Bureau of Indian Affairs established the first boarding school on the Yakima Indian Reservation in the state of Washington. It was an attempt by the US government to assimilate the Original Peoples into American culture, essentially stripping them of their heritage. Usually, the children were put into government sponsored boarding school to ensure American values were installed into their cognitive.

The Indian Boarding School Movement was led by Captain Richard Henry Pratt, who established Carlisle Indian Industrial School, one of the first boarding schools.

Captain Richard Henry Pratt believed assimilation through education policy would "kill the Indian and save the man." Meaning the “inferior” ways of the Native American would no longer exist once done with a full transformation. The first priority of the boarding schools would be to provide the guidelines for an academic education: reading, writing and speaking of the English language. Their Native language was not permitted in the classroom or with each other. Those who restrained were awarded while those that did not cooperate were punished. The students could not communicate with one another if they wanted to due to the diverse languages used within the Native American culture.

Arithmetic, science, history and the arts would be added to open the possibility of discovering the “self directing power of thought.” A community-based culture was now being taught independent ways of living. Along with academics, Christianity became a focal learning process with conversion being essential. The Original Peoples were taught that Christopher Columbus Day was a privilege in their culture's history. Along with Thanksgiving being a day to celebrate “good” Indians that aided Pilgrims as well as George Washington’s birthday being a time of celebration for the “Great White Father”.

Captain Richard Henry Pratt believed that by immersing Native Americans into the mainstream of American life, he hoped to have the Native youth would not return to their reservations, but become part of the white community. Many children did not see their families on the reservations for almost up to four years and if they could they would have to travel almost 1,500 miles making the option almost impossible to complete.

During the summer Native children would live among white families to help push this motive. Between 1880 and 1902, 25 boarding schools were built with about 20,000 to 30,000 Native American children recruited. Totaling roughly 10 percent of the total Indian population in 1900.

Scholarship was not the only way of inserting American values. Children were forced to forfeit their traditional clothing and hairstyles. Children were forced to cut their hair, wear Victorian style uniforms, and march in formations from sun up to sun down teaching self-restraint and discipline. Rules were very strict and correction methods were often harsh when rules were broken. They were given “white names” in place of their community given alias.

"[Long hair] was the pride of all Indians. The boys, one by one, would break down and cry when they saw their braids thrown on the floor. All of the buckskin clothes had to go and we had to put on the clothes of the White Man. If we thought the days were bad, the nights were much worse. This is when the loneliness set in, for it was when we knew that we were all alone. Many boys ran away from the school because the treatment was so bad, but most of them were caught and brought back by the police."- Lone Wolf of the Blackfoot Tribe

To add insult to injury, teachers mocked the students’ Native traditions. Their lesson plans humiliated the students and taught them to be ashamed of being the Original People. The boarding school experience had a horrific affect on the self-esteem of Native students and on the well being of Native languages and cultures. There have been records of malnutrition, sexual, physical, and mental abuse imposed onto the students likewise. Beatings with a leather belt were a common form of punishment for natural human responses like grieving. Broken bones from the beatings were also common.

Making matters even worst, hundreds of students died while attending boarding school from diseases previously contracted from the early Savage European colonizers such as smallpox, pneumonia, and tuberculosis. Over 325 cases of measles and nine deaths were reported within a 10 day period throughout the boarding schools. Mentally and physically impaired children were usually left behind on the reservations given little attention from the whites.

Mission Schools

While boarding school required Native children to be taken away from the reservation, schools promoting academics and Christian religious training were found on the doorsteps of the Natives' land. Similar to boarding schools, these institutions strongly discouraged traditional language and cultural practices. Christianity was taught using symbols, pictures, and other doctrines representing the religion.

25 off-reservation boarding schools were supported by The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) while churches ran 460 boarding and day schools on reservations with government funds. The schools ran on a very limited budget compared to the thousands of student attending. This created a lack of medical care and inadequate amounts of food to distribute. The process of assimilation through education last well into the 1970’s.


Although it became the law for Indigenous children to be sent to the Americanized schools, that did not stop parents and communities from resisting. Entire villages would refuse schooling, resulting in white "Indian" government agents (residing on the reservation) to hold out on rations or send the protesters to the police. In some instances police officers would enter homes and seize children in order for the schools to meet quota.

Parents joined one another to withdraw their children en masse, encouraged runaways, and disregarded the European influences while on vacations. In 1893, the Original Peoples parents gained the right to deny children being transfer to an off-reservation boarding schools. The very idea of the school left a bad taste in the parent's mouth. They did not trust the white man to provide the fundamental tools a parent offers their child.

In 1972, the Indian Education Act was passed allowing tribal communities more control over Native American schooling systems within the guidelines set by the federal government for all schools in the United States. Soon creating school districts, tribes now had the opportunity to teach native language and traditions with a degree of control over federal funds for education.

The cultural humiliation that students endured at the boarding school created low self-esteem, but not hate of one’s tribal identity. Once students had the capability to leave the schools many returned to the reservation becoming tribal political leaders. Students found support within one another leading to a greater sense of kinship and pan-Indian identity, leading to the American Indian Movement (AIM).

Taking Back the Original Peoples Identity

In Canada, the government made an official apology. Watch "Apology to Former Students of Indian Residential Schools."


As the native populations declined (mostly from European diseases, but also and significantly from forced exploitation and careless murder), they were often replaced by Africans imported through a large commercial slave trade.

By the 18th century, the overwhelming number of black slaves was such that Native American slavery was less commonly used.

The boarding schools served to assimilate and train Native students as laborers. However, the level of education and training offered prepared Native students for menial vocations.

As a result, most Indigenous students today are missing generations of professionals, such as doctors, lawyers, or bankers to emulate. Today, most schools work closely with surrounding Indigenous tribes, employing tribal members as staff and reflecting the culture of Native students as part of its educational programming.

The loss of language cut deep into the heart of the Native community. Recent efforts to restore Native languages hint at what was lost. Mona Recountre, of the South Dakota Crow Creek reservation, says that when her reservation began a Native language immersion program at its elementary school, social relationships within the school changed radically and teachers saw a decline in disciplinary problems.

Recountre's explanation is that the Dakota language creates community and respect by emphasizing kinship and relationships. The children now call their teachers "uncle" or "auntie" and "don't think of them as authority figures," says Recountre. "It's a form of respect, and it's a form of acknowledgment."

Works Cited

"Digital History." Digital History. Web. 19 Dec. 2014. <http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/disp_textbook.cfm?smtID=2&psid=3574>.

Flint, Valerie I.J. "Christopher Columbus (Italian Explorer)." Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica. Web. 17 Dec. 2014. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/127070/Christopher-Columbus>.

"History and Text of The Indian Removal Act of 1830." History and Text of The Indian Removal Act of 1830. Web. 18 Dec. 2014. <http://www.legendsofamerica.com/na-indianremovalact.html>.

"Indian Boarding Schools." Indian Boarding Schools. Web. 19 Dec. 2014. <http://www.usdakotawar.org/history/newcomers-us-government-military-federal-acts-policy/indian-boarding-schools#sthash.yAt0O1Om.dpuf>.

"Native American - History and Philosophy." Native American - History and Philosophy. Web. 19 Dec. 2014. <http://www.healthandhealingny.org/tradition_healing/native-history.html>.

"Shape Your Identity Or It Will Shape You." Reid Hoffman RSS. 15 Apr. 2013. Web.


The National Geographic

19 Dec. 2014. <http://reidhoffman.org/shape-your-identity-or-it-will-shape-you/>.

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