50. The Cultural Decline of Native Americans

Author: Summerbrook Courtney-Lawson, First Year

 Americans have long been fascinated with the imagery and lore of Native Americans.  From early historians to Mark Twain to Hollywood, Native Americans have been viewed as savages, aggressors, monotonal in voice, and drunks.  Native Americans have had a strong influence on America’s birthplace including environmental issues to the diet and foods we eat.  It was not until the arrival of the European settlers that Native Americans faced the deterioration of their civilization and culture.  Events of the past have proven the relationship between European settlers and Native Americans have not always been pleasant.  The extended history between these two groups has had a negative impact on indigenous people, due to the loss of life and culture.  Since the arrival of Europeans, Native Americans have been culturally degraded and discriminated against in the United States through the taking of land, the denial of religious freedom, and the direct impact of health and welfare.

Since the arrival of the Europeans, Native Americans have struggled to maintain ownership of their land and sacred burial grounds.  American Indian author, Vine Deloria, Jr., author of “God is Red”, wrote about the Aboriginal World and Christian History.  He explained that, “The status of native peoples around the globe was firmly cemented by the intervention of Christianity into the political affairs of exploration and colonization.  They were regarded as not having ownership of their lands, but as merely existing on them at the pleasure of the Christian God who had now given them to the nations of Europe”. (Deloria, 255)  The Spanish, upon meeting tribes recited their “requirement” which included the Creation and Garden of Eden, and ending with the pope sitting on the throne in Rome.  The indigenous people were asked to surrender to Christianity and if they did not, the Spanish said it was legal to wage war and “an act of religious piety for the Europeans to wage war to wrest the lands from the people.  Consequently, by the time the other European nations began to discover the Western Hemisphere, the struggle for recognition of native legal rights had disappeared.”  (256-257) This article recognizes the take over of European religion and forcing Native Americans to practice Christianity instead of being free to practice Native American spirituality.  Native Americans were being deprived of their land, their rights, and their culture. 

“The United States of America was founded on the principle of religious freedom, yet the indigenous peoples whose land was used to establish this country were denied this freedom.” (Locust, 315)  Native American spirituality has declined drastically due to Europeans forcefully trying to convert Native Americans to Christianity.  Research conducted by Carol Locust from the Harvard Educational Review reported, “American Indians were not granted religious freedom until 1978, when Congress passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act.” (316).  This proves that even after the passing the Bill of Rights and the banning of slavery, it still took over two hundred years for Native American to be granted religious freedom.  On the other hand, this “cannot bring change quickly after decades of discrimination; racist attitudes toward traditional Indian religions still exist.” (316) 
In addition, even though religious freedom became law in 1978, religious freedom and religious customs still have been denied.  In 2003, the North Carolina Prison system denied Dayle Rousey, death row inmate, a traditional spiritual advisor, ceremony, and his medicine bag.  A Baptist minister was assigned to Rousey.  The Baptist minister commented, “Dayle was void of any spirituality, but he (the minister) was sure he could convert him (Rousey) when he got to the death chamber.” (Cooper, 12).  Dayle Rousey’s wife was informed that if she brought his medicine bag to the death chamber, she would not be granted permission to have his final moments with him.  There is no program for those facing execution who seek to maintain their traditional ceremonies.  Outside of death row, the general population, are not given an opportunity to worship as well.  They are only allowed to receive a minimum amount of traditional articles—a feather, a few headbands, and pipe that can only be purchased.  Even if this were not insult enough, these items must be purchased only through an approved vendor by the state. (12)  These material items are not the basics of traditional spirituality.  It is depressing to think that the dominant culture feels that Native American spirituality can be shaved down to the possession of just a few material articles.

Professor, and scholars, Theda Perdue and Michael Green state, “The United States insisted that the right of conquest doctrine, which had required England to surrender its claims to the United States, also applied to the tribes.  By this reasoning, the tribes had no rights to the land and could expect to receive no compensation for the county they had to relinquish.” (Perdue, 22-23)  In addition, Patrick Minges from the American Indian Quarterly stated that, “Even into the nineteenth century, the Cherokees were noted for their cultural accommodation.  Only years later, following the introduction of Christian traditions and the ideology of race as a component within human interactions, would a Cherokee myth of multiple origins and racial hierarchy be developed.” (Minges, 456)  Due to the influence of Christianity and the government forcing Native Americans to live on reservations, cultural expansion has been restricted and limited.
In several situations, school systems have deprived Native Americans of their culture and forbidden to speak their own language.
                    “Discrimination against persons because of their
                    beliefs is the most insidious kind of injustice; Ridicule
                    of one’s spiritual beliefs or cultural teachings wounds
                    the spirit, leaving anger and hurt that may be masked
                    by a proud silence.  American Indians* experience this
                    discrimination in abundance for the sake of their
                    traditional beliefs, especially when such beliefs
                    conflict with those of the dominate culture’s
                    educational systems.”(Locust, 315)

The Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 created a negative label for some Native American children.  “It caused multitudes of children to be labeled mentally retarded or learning disabled who up until that time were not considered handicapped in their own cultures.” (Locust, 326)  Psychological evaluation tests have been viewed as bias because the process does little to accommodate Native American language or “cognition styles” of other cultures. (326)

Another issue that has been disregarded in the school systems is traditional Native American ceremonies.  Locust goes on to say, “School calendars include holidays based on Christian tradition and on national historical events.  In most school systems, American Indian children do not enjoy religious freedom, but are penalized for being absent from classes while participating in traditional tribal ceremonies.” (327) In some situations, Native American students would have to suffer humiliation by the teachers to make up for their absences.  In addition, Native American students have been restricted in the past to participation in academics, clubs, and athletics. “Indian students may not participate in group sports that require uniforms or equipment that they must purchase, for the school’s money spent on those things means that someone else must go without.” (328) Locust provides a strong statement, “We remain positive that, once understanding has been established between tribal cultures and educational systems, discrimination will cease.” (329) Even in today’s society these rash actions impact the progression and teaching of Native American culture.

Discrimination towards Native Americans reach es further back into American history.  In times of war, Native American soldiers were not considered equal to white soldiers.  During the Civil War, as white soldiers began to die by the thousands, the military began to accept Native Americans.  Ely Parker, a Seneca Indian, became an aide to Ulysses S. Grant.  Parker was ordered by Grant to draw up the articles of surrender for Robert E. Lee.  At the surrender at Appomattox, Lee remarked, “I am glad to see one real American here,” to which Parker replied, “We are all Americans, Sir.” (Sutton and Latschar, 19)  After the Civil War, the North discarded Parker’s brilliance and he died penniless.  Ely Parker was discriminated against by the North because he was Native American.  Parker stated, “I have little or no faith in the American Christian civilization methods of healing the Indians of this country.  It has not been honest, pure or sincere.  Black deception, damnable frauds and persistent oppression has been its characteristics, and its religion today is that the only good Indian is a dead one.” (19) The affiliation between Americans and Ely Parker (Native American) demonstrated the manipulation used for the selfishness of the Americans.  Consequently, another innocent Native American life was lost.
Following the Civil War, atrocities towards Native Americans continued.  The Sand Creek Massacre in 1864 was one of the most brutal events for Native Americans.  Colonel Chivington and 700 troops slaughtered over 500 Cheyenne and Arapahos who believed they were under the protection of the US Army.  The majority of the dead were women, children, and elderly. (132) Many of the Cheyenne in the camp came out waving American flags, yelling, “don’t shoot”, but they were killed.  The wife of Chief Black Kettle was shot nine times.  Many of the survivors dragged themselves fifty miles over frozen ground to reach safety. (154-155) It was noted that, “By the time Lee surrendered to Grant, the groundwork for the final military defeat of American Indian nations had largely been laid.” (181) It can be concluded, if this group of people had been the “same” as the Europeans, tragic events such as The Sand Creek Massacre would not have even occurred.  The United Methodist Church finally acknowledged their role in the Massacre (Chivington was a Methodist minister), in 1996 and as the 150th anniversary of the Massacre approaches the church is focusing on making amends to the Native people by making financial contributions towards the tribes. (Bloom, 1)
The notion of white dominance continued and was displayed in horrible context during the rounding up of the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole tribes, forcing them on the Trail of Tears in 1838.  A direct account came from a Cherokee widow named Ooloocha.  “The soldiers came and took us from home.  They first surrounded our house and they took the mare while we were at work in the fields and they drove us out of doors and did not permit us to take anything with us not even a second change of clothes, only the clothes we had on, and they shut the doors after they turned us out.” (Perdue, 124)  White ascendancy was sustained during the round up of the Cherokee.  “A deaf man failed to respond to the soldiers’ commands, and they shot him dead.  Greedy whites often witnessed these scenes because they had flocked to the Cherokee Nation ‘to seize whatever property they could put their hands.’” (125) The Cherokee widow and the deaf man are prime examples of how Native Americans have been discriminated against and abused.

Professor and author, Henry Shapiro, explains the mindset and behavior of the European settler.  Many of them lived on tiny plots of land in Europe or Great Britain, where they barely eked out an existence.  Others had never owned land.  They lived at the mercy of huge landowners.  Upon their arrival to the new world, “vacant” land was everywhere.  The new arrivals assumed that since it was not being occupied by the Indians, it was not being used.  They had no concept of stewardship of lands or maintaining a balance in hunting grounds.  They also had no intention of keeping treaties or agreements. (Shapiro 42-55)  Historian James C. Klotter states that in Kentucky, “From the first pioneer settlement in 1774 to statehood in 1892, white and red men battled over the hunting grounds…” (Klotter, 291)

The discovery of oil on Indian Reservations has once again created explosive situations endangering the land and Native Americans.  The oil companies are releasing waste water onto tribal land.  Duke University environmental scientist, Robert Jackson, stated he was very surprised that this was allowed because we should know better from previous experience (Shogren,2)  In addition, non-Indians are moving onto Reservation land to work the oil fields.  The rise in violence has escalated and tribal officers are often powerless to stop it.  Freelance journalist, Sierra Crane-Murdoch reports, “In 1978 the Supreme Court case Oliphant v. Suquamish stripped tribes of the right to arrest and prosecute non-Indians who commit crimes on Indian land.”  (2)  Prosecuting crimes committed in Indian country is extremely difficult.  “In 2011, the U.S. Justice Department did not prosecute 65 percent of rape cases reported on reservations.  According to department records, one in three Native American women are raped during their lifetimes-two-and-a-half times the likelihood for an average American woman-and in 86 percent of these cases, the assailant is non-Indian.” (2-3)  In April 2012, the Senate added a new provision to the Violence Against Women Act, which was first passed in 1994.  This would allow tribal courts to prosecute non-Indians who sexually assaulted tribal members on Indian Land.  Unfortunately the bill has stalled and set on a back shelf since House Republicans opposed the measure as “a dangerous expansion of tribal independence.” (Crane-Murdoch, 3)  The movement of non-Indians onto reservations continues, as greedy corporate America drills for oil.  Sadie Young Bird, director of the Fort Berthold Coalition Against Violence shared, “When the oil boom’s over, what’s it going to be like here?  My staff talks about this a lot because we all want to know.  They’re not going to take their trailers with them.  It’ll just be deserted, with a lot of broken people.” (7)

Since the arrival of Europeans, Native American people suffered a great loss overall from the exposure of diseases that was carried over from Europe.  They had never been exposed to measles or small pox.  The impact of these diseases devastated tribes, wiping some out entirely.  During the trade process, Europeans acted maliciously by trading blankets that had been infected with small pox to unsuspecting Indians. Scholar, Ann Ramenofsky noted that, disease contact in the Americas has had its cultural consequences (Ramenofsky, 242)  Similarly, the Pacific Coast people were forced from their ancestral lands to a reservation by the government, after their tribe was significantly reduced from epidemics. (Ruby, 185)  As a result of disease and related deaths, tribes have become extinct and a considerable amount of Native American culture has been lost forever.  Despite the recent emphasis on health care, the “health status disparities for many racial and ethnic minorities is not new in the U.S., especially among America’s Native American population.”  (Grossm an, 579)

Discrimination towards Native Americans has seeped into professional football and is currently being brought to the forefront.  The Washington Redskins, named in 1932, has a legacy and history rooted in racism and discrimination including the name of the team.  Thirty years after the race-based name was selected, the owner of the Redskins was forced to hire its first black football player in 1962, the last NFL team to do so.  Dictionaries describe Redskin as offensive, taboo, disparaging, and to avoid using the word in public usage.  President Barack Obama said, “I have to say that if I were the owner of the team and I knew that there was a name of my team—even if it had a storied history—that was offending a sizable group of people, I’d think about changing it.” (Newell)  Attorney Gyasi Ross, a member of the Blackfeet Indian Nation asked, “Would it be acceptable to name a professional sports team according to the color of someone else’s skin?  Would it ever be cool to have a sports team called the Washington Blackskins…San Francisco Yellowskins?”  Ross goes on to explain, that the term Redskin predates the current conversation dating back to when white bounty hunters were paid for scalps only when they provided proof by showing the redskin.” (Ross)  Owners and fans of the Redskins have consistently maintained that Native Americans should be proud that the team is honoring them.  Ross states that this debate is frustrating.  He shares, “We Native people, the folks who are the only meaningful stakeholders in this debate—are not allowed to have a voice in the matter.  Correct that:  We can have an opinion so long as it is pro-Redskin.  Otherwise, we’re being ‘too sensitive.’” (Ross)  This on-going controversy has created an impact for some Native Americans because of the lack of interest for others to underst and.
Until recently, the majority of books written, research conducted, directors appointed to Native American museums, and university courses relating to Indian studies, have been conducted by whites.  Native Americans are gradually filling these much-needed spaces.  It is imperative that Native American children are encouraged to further their education.  For instance, the State of North Carolina has the largest population of Native Americans east of the Mississippi (122,000; eight state recognized tribes and one federally recognized tribe).  However, it wasn’t until the 1970s that the first Native American became a lawyer after graduating from UNC-Chapel Hill.  A question no one is asking is how do we recruit Native Americans to become active citizens in politics, education, and diplomatic careers, medical and legal fields?
I predict that in the next two generations, tribes such as the Eastern Band of the Cherokee will cease to exist.  There are few jobs available in or near the reservations.  Tribes are moving away from what is left of the remnants of Native culture in order to find jobs and better their lives.  It is important that today’s Americans know about their fellow Native American citizens.  History does repeat itself, therefore, it is important that Americans understand the horrible actions taken towards Native Americans in order for Americans to respond to future events and challenges.


                                                         Works Cited
Bloom, Linda.  United Methodists Plan Sand Creek Project.Web. 10. Oct. 2013.

Cooper, Kathryn. Interview with Courtney, P. April, 2004.

Crane-Murdoch, Sierra.  “On Indian Land, Criminals Can Get Away With Almost Anything”.Feb 22, 2013,Web. 10. Oct. 2013

Deloria, Vine, Jr. God is Red:  A Native View of Religion. Fulcrum Publishing, Golden:  1994. Print.

Genetin-Pilawa. Joseph C. Ely Parker and the Contentious Peace Policy, Western Historical Quarterly. Vol. 41, No. 2 (Summer 2010), pp. 196-217 Web. 9 Oct. 2013.

Grossman, David C., MD, MPH. “Measuring Disparity Among American Indians and Alaska Natives; Who’s Counting Whom?”  Medical Care. Vol. 41. No. 5, pp. 579-581. 2003.

Klotter, James. C.  “Feuds in Appalachia:  An Overview”.  The Filson Club History Quarterly. Vol. 56.  pp. 290-317. July 1982.

Locust, Carol. “Wounding the Spirit:  Discrimination and Traditional American Indian Belief Systems”,  Harvard Educational Review. Vol. 58, No. 3 (1988). 315-330. Web. 9 Oct. 2013.

Minges, Patrick. “Beneath the Underdog:  Race, Religion, and the Trail of Tears.” American Indian Quarterly.  25.3 (Summer, 2001): 453-479. Web 9 Oct. 2013.

Newell, Sean, “President Obama: I’d Think About Changing Redskins Nickname.” Deadspin.  (2013): n. page. Web 21 Oct. 2013.

Perdue, Theda.and Green, Michael D. The Cherokee Nation and the Trail of Tears.
Penguin Group, New York: 2007.

Ramenofsky, Anne F. Alicia K. Wilbur and Anne C. Stone. World Archaeology. Vol. 35, No. 2, Archaeology of Epidemic and Infectious Disease (Oct. 2003), pp. 241-257. Web.

Ross, Gyasi. “Redskin: A Native’s Guide to Debating An Inglorious Word”. Deadspin. (2013): n. page. Web. 21. Oct. 2013.
Ruby, Robert H., and Brown, John A.  Guide to the Indian Tribes of the Pacific Northwest. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman. No. 1 1986. Print.

Shapiro, Henry D., “Appalachia And The Idea of Appalachia:  The Problem of the Persisting Frontier”. Appalachian State University Press, Boone: 1977, pp. 42-55.

Shogren, Elizabeth.  “EPA Wants To Allow Continued Wastewater Dumping In Wyoming.  National Public Radio.  August 7, 2013. pp.1-4.

Sutton, Robert K. and Latschar, John A., Editors. “American Indians and the Civil War”. The National Park Service, US Department of the Interior. 2013. Print.

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