The Stolen Spirit Assimilation


They did not leave them "enough land to lay down a carpet". They had long since been labelled "savages". It was decided that the best means to solve the European-American "problem" was by assimilating them into the dominant culture. The Native Americans had lived in harmony with nature for centuries, but now their knowledge was dismissed and their rituals outlawed. They were not given citizenship or the right to vote until 1924.

The intimidation of the Native Americans began soon after Christopher Columbus's discovery of America in 1492. The confiscation of their land and natural resources only came to an end in 1886 with the surrender of Geronimo, the Apache chief and last to hold out against the white onslaught. Tens of millions of Native Americans and hundreds of nations, languages and cultures were wiped off the face of the earth for eternity by the Europeans.

Confiscation began relatively late, but from l860-90 it gained momentum and was swiftly completed. In the United States, the events occurring in the West were easily exaggerated and had reached the level of legend. The stories about the West became so distorted as they spread throughout the world that children all over the globe grew up chasing "bowler hat wearing Indians" with toy wooden guns.

The Native Americans became the common enemy of all the geographies touched by the European-American culture. However, a few Native Americans managed to survive this bloody period, albeit wounded, exhausted and destitute. However, the phobic prejudice began to lessen as partly cultural, partly touristic, and partly scientific interest helped the Native American plight. Instead of saying "we won't hang them, but shall we support them?" people began to say, "we won't hang them, but we'll assimilate them".

The main aim of the formal "civilisation" politics applied by the United States and Canadian governments at the end of the l9th Centurv and during the major part of the 20th was to destroy Native American traditions and tribal life. The resulting vacuum would, of course, be filled with European-American traditional culture.

The politics of assimilation were realised with four main aims in mind. To create an agrarian lifestyle and thereby destroy the nomadic hunter lifestyle that had no concept of property. To change traditional style of dress and to make only the white people's clothing acceptable. To use Christianity to erase the Native American traditional beliefs. More important than all of these was the system of civilisation through education, which must be studied in further detail.

While "American colleges" were being established in different parts of the world, "boarding schools" and schools for Native Americans were being set up in the United States. The aim of these schools was to provide a good education to poor Native American children. The most famous school, the Carlisle School for Native Americans established in 1879 in Pennsvlvania, accepted Native American children from all over the country. The founder of the school, Richard Henry Pratt, believed that the farther the school was from the reservation, the better.

What made a good school according to Pratt is highly questionable. Many Apache children were sent to Carlisle after Geronimo's surrender. Soon aFter, at least fifty of these children died at the school from negligence and bad treatment.

Luther Standing Bear describes his journey as a ten-year-old to the Carlisle school for Native Americans: "I didn't know what the whites could do to the Native American children other than to kill them, and I had no idea what a school was. I thought that I was going east to die. It was only three years after Custer. When we arrived at the train station, we saw a lot of white people who had come to welcome the 'little savages'. The older children on the train tried to keep up morale by singing songs of heroism."

One of the first steps of assimilation was giving the children new names. James Buller (Kasawapamat) remembers what happened to him in 1896 when he was eight years old: "Because the teachers could not pronounce the Native American names, they gave us all new names. They gave everyone a last name. When it was my turn, they gave me the name Buller. Then they gave us each a first name. They named the boys after English kings and the girls after English queens. As a result, a lot of children had the same first name, so the teachers gave us a middle name from the Bible. Mine was Solomon."

One of the means of civilisation used at the schools for Native American was sport. Having been beaten and rejected in so many areas of life, the Native American children enjoyed the sports competitions that gave them the chance to win something. They had been given the opportunity to compete, win medals, wear different clothes and play white games, but they did not realise that they were speeding up the process of assimilation. Besides, sport was not as easy an option as it seemed. When Jim Thorpe, a Native American, won the decathlon at the Olympics, they created an excuse to revoke his medal.

There were many Native Americans who fought against the government's politics of assimilation. They refused to give up their style of dress, and were humiliatingly known as "Blanket Indians". A century later, they are representatives of this continuing struggle.

* Taken from Atlas Magazine(06/01)
Ahmet KÖKSAL, author