MLK and the Indians

I remember Alvin Josephy saying many times that the white liberals who had joined the Civil Rights Movement and Dr. King did not understand the Indian situation. To paraphrase him, “As the Civil Rights movement gained strength and won some victories, white liberals thought they could just transfer ideas and tactics over to Indian affairs. But there was a fundamental difference. Indians didn’t want their ‘civil’ rights, but their ‘sovereignty,’ the treaty rights and at least some of the land that had been stolen from them.”

Another constant theme of Alvin’s: “From the beginning Indians had three choices: become white—assimilation; move, across the Mississippi, further west, to reservations—removal; or extermination.” From the beginning, Euro-Americans who wanted to treat Indians fairly often thought the best way to do so was to assimilate them. Their assumption was that Indians had lost the continent, white civilization was on the march, and Indians were obliged to join the parade.

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“Noble Savage”

After the last blog on Mildred Bailey and “passing as white,” a friend suggested that it sounded accurate on the one hand, but on the other, why is it that so many Americans claim Indian roots? There are jokes about the number of people with Cherokee great-grandmothers, but when, he asked, have you heard someone obviously “white” claim a slave ancestor from Sierra Leone.

What’s with this contradiction of widespread pride in Indian ancestry—and white America’s disregard for and continuing practice of forgetting Indian history and consciously eradicating Indian culture?

I can’t site a page in a Josephy book or remember a specific conversation, but I know that he believed that, from the earliest days of white settlement, relations with Indians were dominated by a triad of white attitudes toward them: romanticize, kill, or assimilate.

We now know that diseases often preceded actual contact and that millions of indigenous Americans died before they saw a white face. We also know, Read The Article