U.S.-Native American Policies in the last half of the 19th century usually get watered down to only the Plains Indian Wars, Custer’s Last Stand, and Geronimo. History textbooks and classes highlight only these policies because they show the United States’ great strength and will-power. They leave out the questionable policies of assimilation and boarding schools, reservations, and the general American dislike of Native Americans because they do not show the United States at its finest hour.
Not only did the U.S. government seek to squelch Native American uprisings, it also sought to stop those cultural traits from being passed to younger generations by assimilating them in boarding schools. Even religious groups felt the need to assimilate and convert these young Native Americans, and they publicized the need for money to pay them in journals that were circulated. These schools took in Native American children and attempted to erase every trace of their former Native American life. They received an American education and were also given American clothes. While at the schools, the Native Americans were required to perform manual labor to contribute to the upkeep of the school, but were not allowed to be compensated for their work.
While most Americans can provide several facts about the Trail of Tears and Native American Reservations in Oklahoma, U.S. policies concerning Native Americans in the Mid- and North-West United States are not covered by textbooks. Several Native American tribes were put on reservations together in locations that are not traveled by most Americans. The U.S. government attempted to keep these citizens in places that were not seen by others so that they would not be noticed or remembered. While on these reservations, Native Americans were given rations, something that other Americans only experienced during times of extreme need such as war.
Editorial cartoonists recognized the U.S. government’s fragile policies with Native Americans by illustrating them as a house of cards. The government saw the Native Americans as a problem but did not know how to deal with them, even after trying several approaches. Others saw Native Americans as a menacing snake that the government could only appease and not fully control.
This primary source activity has been designed to expand students’ knowledge of U.S.-Native American relationships in the late 19th century by providing them an opportunity to see several different perspectives by analyzing primary sources. Following the analysis activities for each artifact is a performance task which requires students to synthesize all the information they learned and form their own opinion of it.
While examining these artifacts, keep these two questions in mind:
1. Have U.S. policies toward or relationships with Native Americans been just?
2. Was America imperializing its own citizens?