Indigenous Responses to Euro-American Cultural and Religious Assimilation

The earliest Euro-American influences on Native American religious life were indirect and often preceded the arrival of white settlers. Illness spread across the continent faster than Euro-Americans did, devastating indigenous communities. By the time settlers arrived, often the communities they encountered had already been weakened by disease. Violence also often preceded settlers: as new colonies in the East pushed Native communities west, those tribes often engaged in warfare with the tribes they in turn sought to displace. The arrival of the newcomers from Europe had disrupted the political equilibrium of the continent. Native communities in the early centuries became strategic allies for the various European interests as they vied for control of the New World, and as a result fought with one another. In many instances, missions had a crucial role in such encounters.
The earliest missionaries on the continent were Roman Catholic: Franciscan missions in the Spanish Southwest began as early as the 1590s, and Jesuit efforts in New France as early as 1608. Protestant Anglo-American missionaries did not follow until considerably later, well into the seventeenth century. Particularly during these early years, missionaries served political as well as religious purposes, sent out by their colonial governments to secure the friendship and cooperation of Native peoples, and at times their alliance against other tribes or nations. French, British, Spanish, and American colonial governments employed missionaries to “subdue the savages” and to help open up land for settlement.
These early missions varied in style and method: Jesuits generally preferred venturing individually or in small groups into Native territories, where they lived among the people, learning their language and lifeways, with an eye toward build- ing a mission in their midst, converting them to Christianity, and gradually reform- ing their moral lives to fit European expectations—including their approaches to family, marriage, and gender roles. Franciscan missions were large, inclusive of a church, agricultural and commercial endeavors, dormitories for single men and women, schools, and orphanages. They were generally established adjacent to a military compound, and served to pacify the Native population, with an eye toward creating docile subjects for the Spanish crown. Franciscans were extremely harsh in their tactics, punishing people who resisted them by public beatings and lock-downs, or refusing to allow them to see their families. In California, missions reduced the Native population to a near-slave status as they worked on Francis- can plantations. Early Protestant missions in New England followed yet another model. In general, the ideal was to construct “Praying Towns,” ideal utopian communities, isolated from Euro-Americans, wherein Native people could be converted to Anglo-American cultural practices and values (including farming, animal husbandry, textile manufacturing, and marketing of these goods), as well as cultural norms such as the nuclear family, private property, monogamy, and sexual chastity. These early Protestant missions emphasized cultural as well as religious conversion.
Particularly outside California, the success of missions varied widely. While many converted in the early years of missionary efforts, most Native people rejected conversion, seeing little inducement to change their entire ways of life, and unable to reconcile major conflicts between Christianity and their own world- views. There were fundamental issues that complicated the conversion of many Native people to Christianity. Perhaps most important was the fact that Native religious culture and traditions were intricately bound to the entirety of Native life. Religious life was not segregated to a particular day in the week or a particular set of rituals. Rather, indigenous religious practices were interwoven throughout every aspect of life: religious activities and symbols imbued seemingly mundane activities with meaning and empowered individuals for success in their society; this included hunting, fishing, gathering, cooking, raising children, maintaining families, governing communities, planting and harvesting crops, treating illness, or traveling. And most missionaries considered traditional modes of leadership, of family structures, of gender roles, of economy, of language or worship to be hindrances to the full assimilation and conversion of Native people. To convert to Christianity often meant severing ties with sacred societies or traditions that governed politics, healing, social organization, hunting, warfare, agriculture, and political leadership.
In addition to this, the tenets of Christianity stood in stark contrast to many indigenous worldviews and theological positions. For instance, the notion of original sin was foreign to Native people. While Native communities clearly had highly complex ethical systems, they did not weigh ethical decisions against a notion of original sin that saw human beings as intrinsically depraved. Native cultures, in fact, tended to view human beings as inherently good, inclined toward right action and balance, though certainly capable of great wrong. Likewise, the notion of a nonnegotiable eternal list of rules decreed by an otherworldly being often did not sit well with Native congregants, who regarded ethics as being dictated by the needs and well-being of the community. Monotheism also posed a challenge to Native people, who saw the natural world as being filled with powerful spiritual beings. For there to be one powerful God or Creator among many was not difficult to accept—but to reject the possibility of any other spiritual power in the cosmos was much more of a challenge, and carried with it enormous social and material repercussions.
The political position of Native tribes declined dramatically after the War of 1812. The new U.S. government adopted a policy of securing a unified nation with a single homogeneous culture. Native people were to blend into the melting pot, or be removed to make room for white settlers. Within this context, two options were available: removal or assimilation. Many government officials shared missionaries’ view that assimilation into Anglo-American culture was a necessary part of this process, and in 1819 passed the Indian Civilization Fund Act, setting aside funds to assist missionaries in their efforts to “civilize” the Natives, establishing missions and boarding schools to teach Native people English, Christianity, and Anglo methods of farming and commerce. Native assimilation into Euro-American culture brought the added bonus of freeing up land for white settlement—since farming required much less land than hunting and gathering.
Assimilationist policy makers and missionaries had to contend with lawmakers who preferred the outright removal or extermination of Native people, a policy that also held sway in the federal government throughout much of the nineteenth century, particularly from the 1830s to the 1880s. Rather than emphasizing assimilation, this policy pushed for the elimination of “the Indian Problem” by simply removing the people from the land. In some places, officials tacitly condoned the genocide of local populations or even offered a $5 bounty for the heads of Native Americans, as happened during the Gold Rush era—from 1850 to 1880—in south- ern Oregon and northern California. Atrocities such as the Sand Creek Massacre exemplify such policies of removal. In 1864. John M. Chivington, an ordained Methodist minister and a major in the U.S. Army, took up the call of a Denver newspaper to “exterminate the red devils.” At Sand Creek, Chivington attacked the village of the Cheyenne chief Black Kettle, who was in favor of peace with whites and was flying an American flag at the time. Chivington and his men murdered between 200 and 400 Cheyenne, mostly women and children, and after- ward scalped and sexually mutilated many of their bodies, displaying them before cheering crowds in the Denver streets. A handful of soldiers who had refused to participate later publicized the atrocity, and Chivington was placed under investigation. He was never punished, although the government and army later condemned his actions.
The government rarely condoned such violence, preferring legislative means to remove Native people and to curtail their religious and cultural freedoms. During the nineteenth century, the government passed a series of laws supporting the forcible removal of Native people from lands deemed worthy of Euro- American settlement. The Cherokee, Navajo (Diné), and Lakota provide striking examples of this historical trend. Early in the nineteenth century, the Cherokee Nation had become known for its remarkable commitment to assimilating to Euro-American society. The Cherokee built wood-frame houses that mirrored those of their white neighbors; they adopted agriculture, owned African American slaves, a printing press, and a newspaper (the Cherokee Phoenix, established in 1829), translated the Bible into Cherokee, modeled their governance after
U.S. structures (with Supreme Court and legislature), and abandoned their traditional gender equity for Euro-American patriarchy. The Cherokee likewise welcomed Protestant missions, mission schools, and churches. However, they also established themselves as an independent republic with claims to their traditional homeland, refusing to become citizens of the United States. After Euro- Americans discovered gold in Georgia, President Andrew Jackson signed the 1830 Indian Removal Bill into law. By 1838, the Cherokee, Choctaws, Chicka- saws, Creeks, and Seminoles had all been forcibly removed from the Southeast, and relocated to Indian Territory (what would later become Oklahoma). Over a quarter of the Cherokee population died en route, a tragic moment in history known as the Trail of Tears.
By contrast, the Diné (Navajo) avoided cultural assimilation and conversion until relatively late in their history. While their Pueblo neighbors complied to some degree with Spanish authorities and tolerated the presence of Franciscan fathers, the Diné avoided contact with them, protected by their semi-nomadic lifestyle until the mid-nineteenth century, when the Diné, along with the rest of Native America, came up against the U.S. policy of establishing reservations. The Diné fiercely resisted efforts to reduce their land, until 1863, when they were forced to capitulate to the brutal military incursions led by Kit Carson. Exiled to the Bosque Redondo Reservation, the people were compelled by Carson and his troops to walk 300 miles across the desert from their home in Arizona to Fort Sumner, New Mexico. In their five years of exile, approximately one-quarter of their population died from hunger, poor sanitation, and disease, despite the army’s promises to care for them. Agriculture was impossible in the arid land, and disease and hunger skyrocketed. Four years later, in 1868, the U.S. government realized its mistake, and the Diné returned home.
The Lakota provide another example of the impact of removal policies on Native life. The Lakota signed the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868. It established the Great Sioux Reservation, which stretches across all of present-day South Dakota west of the Missouri River, and a vast unceded territory encompassing much of Wyoming, Nebraska, and Montana. When Euro-Americans broke the treaties, continuing to trespass on Lakota lands, the Lakota responded with military action, and a fierce war with the U.S. Army began. The commander of the U.S. forces, General William Tecumseh Sherman, argued before Congress for an intentional effort to exterminate the bison, the central source of the Lakota economy and a central symbol in Lakota religious life. He insisted: “Kill the bison, and you kill the Indians.” The Lakota would lose much of their treatied land after Euro-Americans discovered gold in the Black Hills in 1874, and thousands of white settlers and prospectors poured into the region. Despite their illegal status, the federal government protected these prospectors, reducing the size of the Lakota reservation and forcibly confining the Lakota to new reservation boundaries. By 1880, the Lakota were living in poverty, their reservation reduced to a fraction of its original size. While they retained a small piece of their original homeland, the Lakota nonetheless suffered under the same federal policies of removal, as they lost access to the great majority of their homeland, and as a result could not participate in the subsistence practices that had defined them for centuries.

The reservation system, established between 1850 and 1880, served to meet federal agendas of both removal and assimilation. The U.S. government and its military forcibly removed Native people to reservations, and then assigned missionaries as “Indian agents,” tasking them with the responsibility of teaching Native people the tools for assimilating to Anglo-American life. Separated from their traditional land bases, Native people lost access to the sacred sites and resources necessary for performing ceremonies and conducting vision quests. They lost access to subsistence resources, which had for millennia supplied their food, clothing, shelter, and medicines. Entire economies, sacred societies, and social structures were upended, even as knowledgeable elders and leaders were lost to disease, violence, and hunger. Despite federal treaties that guaranteed that Native people would have access to food, shelter, clothing, education, and medical care, such supplies often did not arrive—or arrived only to be misappropriated by dishonest reservation officials. Poverty skyrocketed on many reservations, and as a result Native religions and cultures were under severe stress: they could not continue as they had, since the traditional social, political, and economic structures and subsistence practices that had been intrinsically intertwined with religious life were now gone.
It was during the reservation era that missionaries saw the most success in their efforts to convert Native people. Indeed, many missionaries were moved by the crises of poverty, illness, and despair that were evident in these early years of reservation life. Such individuals and their backers in the federal government were reform-minded people who insisted that the best and only recourse for Native people was to assimilate to Euro-American society. They saw reservations as a temporary phenomenon, a stepping-stone on the path to assimilation. They set out to provide Native people with the tools to become American citizens: English, Christianity, agriculture, commerce, and the moral virtues of Euro- Americans. A change in governmental policies, inspired by President Ulysses S. Grant’s Peace Policy of 1869, supported these missionaries. The policy sought to replace corrupt Bureau of Indian Affairs Indian agents with missionaries who would, it was hoped, be more ethical in their dealings. Grant established the Board of Indian Commissioners, composed of Christian laymen, to monitor reservation officials.
Under Grant’s Peace Policy, missionaries now possessed a cadre of legal and military resources, and could enforce the elimination of traditional practices. And, importantly, Native cultures and communities were profoundly vulnerable during these early reservation years. Euro-Americans had brought epidemic diseases that decimated their communities. Many had fought unsuccessful and bloody conflicts with the American military. Confined to reservations, they had lost access to most of their traditional subsistence activities and sacred places. Poverty, hunger, and despair were rampant. Many turned to alcohol—the other tool of acculturation that Euro-America offered them. In this context, missions offered many

Native people hope, and they seized on the possibility of renewal, and of gaining the means to cope with the new world that they faced.
The Peace Policy also established a system of boarding schools, with the intention of removing Native children from their homes and confining them to mission schools that would teach them English, Christianity, and Euro-American culture. Mission schools, most of which had their tenure from the 1870s to the 1930s, had an enormous impact on Native life. Entire generations were lost, as some children, sent away from their families and communities for years at a time, returned speaking only English, in some instances no longer able to communicate with their parents. For some, the experience was positive: they valued the education they received and the opportunity to enter the white world. For most, however, it was devastating, leaving scars that Native communities are still working to heal today.
However, even under such conditions, Native people persisted in practicing their traditional faith, continually frustrating missionaries’ attempts. The federal government responded with a series of laws and ordinances that gave missionaries the power to curtail Native religious freedom. For instance, the Rules for Indian Courts (1882) directed Indian agents and missionaries to actively suppress any ritual activity on the reservations, with punishments ranging from withholding of rations, to imprisonment (thirty days for participation, six months for officiating). The Indian Religious Crimes Code of 1883 reiterated these rules, mandating prison sentences and suspension of rations for Native people participating in or leading traditional ceremonies. In 1922, government officials issued Circular 1665, again encouraging agents to prohibit any traditional religious gatherings or practices.
As part of this ongoing assimilation effort, reformers envisioned transitioning Native communities from tribal communities that held land collectively to loose groupings of nuclear families, each with its own privately owned plot of farmland. As one Indian agent noted, the best thing for “the Indian” was to “give him his portion and turn him lose to work out his own salvation.” This perspective led to the establishment of the Dawes, or Allotment, Act of 1887. The act divided reservation land into allotments, assigned to individuals and their families. The remainder of the land was declared “surplus” and opened for white settlement. As a result, between 1887 and 1934, Native people lost 60 percent of reservation lands to white settlers. The act thus struck another blow at the cultural cohesion on which Native religions depended.
Federal policies toward Native religious traditions would not change until 1933, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt appointed John Collier as Commissioner of Indian Affairs. Collier established policies that sought to protect and preserve Native cultures, languages, and religions. Collier abolished the Board of Indian Commissioners, and worked to return self-governance to Native communities, through the Indian Reorganization Act (or Wheeler-Howard Act) of 1934. Collier’s leadership made an end to mandatory boarding schools for Native children, terminated the allotment system, and sought to restore unallotted lands to tribes. Collier funded Native higher education and reformed the school system. Importantly, he ended the official governmental suppression of Native religious practice.
The termination and removal polices of the 1950s and 1960s interrupted Collier’s reforms, however. These new policies sought to terminate tribal status and remove Native people (particularly young men) to urban centers throughout the country. Government officials saw this new policy as the solution to “the Indian Problem,” which would effectively free up reservation land for white settlement and assimilate Native people into mainstream society. However, the promised jobs, training, and housing rarely appeared, and many Native people found themselves homeless in unfamiliar cities. These policies had an enormous impact on the spiritual well-being of communities, as family members suffered the damaging effects of poverty and alcoholism.
Sweeping legislation of the 1970s would resurrect the spirit of Collier’s reforms. Such legislation affirmed Native nations’ right to self-rule and religious protections under the constitution. The Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act (1974) granted local tribes control over their health care and education. The Indian Child Welfare Act (1978) formally ended a federal policy of out-adoption of Indian children. It was not until the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978, however, that the federal government formally confirmed the rights of Native people to practice their traditional faiths. After nearly two centuries of coerced assimilation and missionization, the act affirmed Native peoples’ “inherent right of freedom to believe, express, and exercise the traditional religions of the American Indian, Eskimo, Aleut, and Native Hawaiians, including but not limited to access to sites, use and possession of sacred objects, and the freedom to worship through ceremonials and traditional rites.” Federal policies still curtailed Native religious freedoms in many respects, however, particularly those relating to religious practice in prison or the use of controlled substances such as peyote. The Native American Free Exercise of Religion Act (1994) later ensured the right of card-carrying members of the Native American Church to participate in peyote ceremonies, and Native prisoners the right to practice traditional religions while in prison.
As this brief description of Euro-American policies toward Native peoples and religious practices illustrates, goals of assimilation and removal guided federal Indian policies between the eighteenth century and the mid-twentieth century. It was not until the 1930s that the federal government introduced a new approach: one that recognized Native sovereignty and the intrinsic value of Native cultures and religions. The late twentieth century saw a series of legal reforms that would dramatically change Native life in the twenty-first century. In contrast to this legacy of pain and struggle, this more recent history is marked by an emphasis on sovereignty, increasing economic prosperity (in some communities), and a remark- able renaissance of Native cultures, arts, and religious practices.

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