Artists, teachers, and tribal elders

A couple of weeks ago I went with friends to an art opening for Judd Koehn at the Pendleton Arts Center. Judd is a retired art professor who taught for many years at Eastern Oregon University. Once, a long time ago, when we bought the building that became the Bookloft in Enterprise (and still is!), we donated all of the old heavy heating radiators to Judd and Eastern to be turned into molten metal and student art projects.Read Rich’s Post →

The Early Assimilationists

Pocahontas–aka Lady Rebecca

I don’t know when it started—maybe with the very first meetings of Europeans and the Indians of North America. The Powhatan child, Pocahontas, at the Jamestown settlement, is certainly an early example of an Indian captured, converted, and assimilated by the English.

(A caveat: I am thinking of the English and other Northern Europeans’ colonization of North America, and not of the Spanish and Portuguese in Central and South America, where other, often brutal, modes of assimilation were carried out.)

Although Pocahontas probably did not “save” Captain John Smith, she was familiar to the colonists at Jamestown, and in 1613 was captured and held by the English. In captivity she was instructed in Christianity and baptized “Lady Rebecca,” and apparently fell in love with one of her captors, John Rolfe. Wahunsonacock, her aging father, who had a complicated relationship with the colonists, at this point had them under siege, but in order to see his daughter again, he agreed to peace and her marriage to Rolfe. The couple, accompanied by a group of Powhatan, including Tomocomo, who the chief tasked with “counting the people,” went to England, where she was a sensation, a model of the “transformed savage.” Unfortunately and quite understandably, given the Indians lack of resistance to European diseases, she died of smallpox on the return voyage to America. Tomocomo apparently gave up counting the English.

It is probable that the numbers of Europeans and the lack of Indian resistance to their diseases were on the minds of many North American Indians as the foreigners came in larger and larger numbers, bringing guns, iron tools, livestock, culture, religion, and diseases with them. There were wars and there were treaties, and the ferocious forces of numbers, diseases, and a religious culture that considered itself divinely driven and the custodian of ultimate truth were relentless in displacing the indigenous Americans by killing, removal, or assimilation.

Alvin Josephy believed and stated often that the Indians had these three choices; he said also that the Europeans’ preferred choice was most often assimilation, making Indians white.


Killing all of the indigenous people would have been an extraordinary task—they were many peoples living in many different environments, and they knew the land as the invaders did not. And the newcomers needed their guidance: Where did the waters begin and end? What was on the other side of the mountain? How deep would the snow be?  But mostly the Europeans needed what the Indians had—land and the natural and agricultural resources that the land contained and supported.

Removal would become the preferred option under Andrew Jackson, and again in the major treaty period as the Euro-Americans moved across the continent. But in the early days, the new Euro-Americans needed the Indians in their places for reasons above.

Assimilation, the third choice, was that of reasonable men because they could use the information and sometimes the labor and military alliances with tribal people who were alive and in or near their native places.

There were Indian tribes and individuals who resisted, but resistance meant war—and then death, or removal, leaving traditional lands, or some kind of accommodation, or assimilation.  Back to the three alternatives.

For many of the newcomers there were moral arguments for assimilation. They had moral standards—promoted by a body of English common law and a religion that asked that people be treated fairly and honestly. I believe that the religious argument for assimilation—and conversion—was the primary motivation for most of the early critics of those who treated Indians unfairly, the driving force of early assimilationists.

In 1880, Helen Hunt Jackson published A Century of Dishonor, a stinging critique of private and government actions against Indians. She wrote about the massacre at Sand Creek and the Nez Perce War, chronicling misdeed after misdeed, a “Century of Dishonor.”

H.B. Whipple, Bishop of Minnesota, wrote the preface, calling it a “sad revelation of broken faith, of violated treaties, and of inhuman deeds of violence [that] will bring a flush of shame to the cheeks of those who love their country… Dark as the history is, there is a brighter side. No missions to the heathen have been more blessed than those among the Indians. Thousands who were once wild, painted savages, finding their greatest joy in deeds of war, are now the disciples of the Prince of Peace.”

Jackson herself, in an author’s note at the beginning of the volume, says that “The history of the missionary labors of the different churches among the Indians would make another volume. It is the one bright spot on the dark record.”

However misguided, and in order to understand all later attempts to “make Indians white,” we must acknowledge the moral ground on which the early assimilationists  stood.

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Happy Fourth of July

American Indians’ patriotism and Indian celebrations of America’s favorite patriotic holiday are as complex and convoluted as is the overall dance of American History—although Indians, as Alvin Josephy said only half jokingly, don’t have history—or biography; they have anthropology, or archeology, or ethnography. (Look, as Alvin always did, for books on Indian cultures and heroes on bookstore shelves. See where they are shelved.)

The real early history of the people and places in the new world, the on-the-ground complexities of interrelationships between Indians and white Europeans (and later Black Africans and various groups of immigrants from Asia), is the push and pull of new relationships in a strange land. The pull was “help”—Early European immigrants needed help with food, clothing, and shelter to stay alive; the “push” was for Indian lands the newcomers needed to realize their visions of freedom and prosperity.

Indians tried valiantly to deal with the relentless colonization of the continent. They fought and they negotiated. And intermarried. There are many examples of that (which is not paid much mind in our standard histories), and only in Canada, with the Metis, does this intermarriage result in a new broad cultural melding. Most intermarriage was “local”—although the products of those unique pairings were sometimes historically important, from Tecumseh to the Western wagon guides for missionaries and settlers.

Josephy again: “from the beginning, Indians had three choices: assimilate, become white; move—west until the country filled; or die.” Assimilation was the first choice of government bureaucrats and religious do-gooders. Policy—from boarding schools to Dawes Act allotments to Eisenhower’s Termination, put as kind a face as possible on assimilation, and although men hungry for land seemed always in the wings, there were serious assimilationists who truly believed that Indians were doomed to die if they did not become white. Alice Fletcher of Dawes Act note and General Pratt and the Carlisle Indian School are two committed and sympathetic assimilationists. They believed their Indian friends’ alternative was death. It’s easy to criticize their assimilationist views now, but probably unfair to their circumstances.

I don’t know the background of Henry Teller, Secretary of the Interior in the 1880s, don’t know the roots of his assimilationist beliefs. But it was during his tenure that what has come to be called the Religious Crimes Code was enacted. These were regulations at the heart of the Department of Interior, Office of Indian Affairs, and they prohibited American Indian ceremonial life. Teller’s general guidelines to Indian agents were to end tribal dances and feasts. The “code” banned Indian ceremonies, disrupted religious practices, and destroyed or confiscated sacred objects. Consequences were imprisonment and/or the withholding of treaty rations. Indian superintendents and agents implemented the code until the mid-1930s.

Some Indians saw in the 4th of July and its commemoration of American independence a small opening through which they could publically continue their own important ceremonies. There were 4th of July fireworks, dancing and celebrating across the nation; superintendents and agents justified allowing reservations to conduct ceremonies on the 4th of July as a way for Indians to learn patriotism and celebrate American ideals. They could take their regalia out of hiding.

And then, after WW I Indian vets—there were 12,000 of them—could be honored in patriotic parades that crossed the culture barrier.  With a nod to American patriotism, they marched under American flags. At this point it is interesting to note that Alvin’s first Indian book, Patriot Chiefs, was loved by Indians for naming them patriots. “No one has ever called us patriots,” they would tell Alvin, “but this is ‘our land’ that were fighting for.”  To this day American flags fly alongside eagle feathers at reservation powwows and dances. And many of them fly on or near the Fourth of July.

As in so many ways, Indians had to be very creative to keep traditions and culture alive. Here’s more in a piece on 4th of July from Indian Country Today:

See also “Code of Indian Offenses”:

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