Assimilation of African Americans and American Indians—some notes for discussion

One of the first axioms of White-Indian relations I remember hearing from Alvin Josephy was that from the moment Europeans hit the North American shore, indigenous peoples had three choices: they could move away; they could become white; or they could die. Assimilation—becoming white—has been the alternative favored most often by governments and by popular opinion. 

In the years since, I have learned how assimilation of Indians played out with missionaries, boarding schools, the Allotment Act, Termination Act, and Relocation policy. I have read about Colonel Pratt, Carlisle and the other Indian boarding schools, read too about Alice Fletcher, the “measuring woman” who came to allot Nez Perce lands, but, more importantly, wrote much of the Dawes Allotment Act.

It is interesting but understandable that her books notating Omaha Indian culture—dances and music, work done before the possibility of recording, are still in print, and speak to her love of Indian history and culture.  But, like Pratt and other “moderns,” she saw assimilation as the only road to Indian survival. The old—or “vanishing”—Indian could live on in books, museums, and in Edward Sheriff Curtis’s photos; the new Indian would be an educated farmer—or domestic worker or trades-worker.

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In Stamped From the Beginning, Ibram X. Kendi says that societal attitudes towards African Americans historically break down into racism and anti-racism. And he defines a racist idea as “any concept that regards one racial group as inferior or superior to another racial group in any way.” (p. 5) How these ideas were and are carried out in practice has resulted in policies of segregation and assimilation. Even abolitionists, according to Kendi, were divided between those who favored sending freed slaves back to Africa and those who wanted to assimilate them.

If I understand him correctly, he believes that assimilation is ultimately a racist idea that posits “Black cultural and behavioral inferiority.” Assimilationists object to segregationists and their belief in biological inferiority, and suggest that Blacks can rise up by adopting the religious, educational, and cultural practices of Whites. Kendi sees many Blacks as well as Whites falling into this racist trap. Even W.E.B. Du Bois embraced assimilation—or straddled it—before becoming a firm anti-racist. By the 1930s, he was promoting the celebration of Black history, biology, and the institution of Black Studies programs, which was still controversial among Black intellectuals who saw “uplift” assimilation, as the step beyond slavery.

Kendi uses over 500 carefully researched and well-written pages to discuss racism and assimilation. And although he tells us how early Euro-Americans quickly adopted a philosophy of White superiority and Brown and Black inferiority, he does not compare the assimilationist arguments and practices aimed at African Americans with those involving Native Americans. Similarly, writers and activists critiquing assimilationist practices and programs targeting Indians—boarding schools, allotments, etc.—do not discuss them in relation to those targeting Blacks.

It’s a complicated business. Indians were here—and European-American colonizers wanted their land. The first contacts, initial relationships between the colonists and the Natives, were most often friendly. Newcomers, from New England to the Oregon Territory, needed Native knowledge as well as resources, which the Natives readily shared. Romantic notions around Indians—their freedom in the natural world; their robust physical appearance and fitness—quickly reached the Old World in words and images by early artists. The drawings and paintings of John White, Peter Rindesbacher, and others were copied and widely distributed in England and Europe. Indian chiefs were sent to England, named “kings,” dressed in finery and painted in court.

But continued immigration, the need for more Indian lands, and cross-cultural misunderstandings over property, religion, and culture made conflict inevitable. By the time the founding fathers envisioned a new nation, African-American slavery was firmly established, and Native Americans were firmly seen as being below Whites—alongside or slightly above Blacks—in the human hierarchy. (Ironically, that human hierarchy was in part the result of the new European “scientific” ideas of taxonomy—and, eventually, evolution.)

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Grappling with the differences and similarities in the way the white power structure has treated Indians and Blacks is an interesting and complicated affair. And honing in on assimilation does not reduce the complexity by much. I have, however, recently come on a statement and idea that might guide further discussion. It is in Philip J. Deloria’s fine book, Indians in Unexpected Places, which has gone through several printings since its 2004 publication:

“… the varied efforts to reshape Indian people so as to assimilate them had nothing to do with the sameness that might have characterized social or political equality. Rather, they had everything to do with the practice of perfecting conquered people into similarity—ghost forms of the white conqueror, coexistent but not equal. Americans meant to bring Indian people within social and cultural boundaries only to the extent that they could be shaped using the same institutions and ideologies that made white citizens into subjects—schools, churches, wage labor, and literacy among others.” (p. 28)

When “similar” replaces “same,” one can see the paths of assimilation imagined by a white power structure. Whites could imagine tamed and civilized Indians and African Americans as lesser reflections of themselves—as similar; meanwhile, Indians and African Americans espousing assimilation mistakenly envisioned equality–sameness.

From this perspective, the way assimilation has played out—and continues, in some ways, to play out to this day—can be traced and compared in the government policies and public attitudes of majority society towards Indians and African Americans. Deloria chronicles the idea through centuries of popular culture in writing, art, film, sport, and technology. Another Indian writer, David Treuer, has written extensively of government actions aimed at assimilation, from the end of the Indian wars to the modern day, in The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee.

And Ibram X. Kendi’s detailed history of majority-white and Black relations and the role of assimilationist thinking provide a detailed measuring device for that side of the discussion. The side-by-side is out there; the opportunity for comparisons, and learning from both, is at hand.

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