Hello! I am back (I hope)! With an article I originally plunked out last year, true enough. Baby steps, people.

Anyway, this all started when I came across a June 2009 article in The Globe and Mail (now sadly behind a pay wall) on the Canadian government’s reaction to swine flu outbreaks on First Nations reserves (the Canadian version of reservations):

In the critical days after dozens of Manitoba aboriginals fell severely ill with swine flu, Health Canada hesitated in sending desperately needed hand sanitizer to native towns because of concerns that people would ingest the alcohol-based gel.

At the time, I’d been reading Will Ferguson’s Why I Hate Canadians, in which he makes a comment about Canada’s First Nations being admirable for having survived so many good intentions of the government (I’m paraphrasing). Now, obviously, both the article and Ferguson’s quote pertain specifically to Canada, but there are parallels to how Native people have been and are still treated in the U.S.

Most people–I think, I hope–understand that a great amount of violence was done to Native peoples during the conquest of North America and the establishment of the United States. Even if they don’t know details or think much about the topic, I would think that most Americans realize that Native Americans got the short end of the stick. But what most people don’t realize is the equally lengthy history of damage done via “progressive” policies aimed at bettering the lives on Native people (which largely meant making them more “American”).

As historian Karl Jacoby points out in a blog post from 2008, Indians were frequently subjected to policies that would not have been applied to white Americans. This is true not just of military actions, but also in terms of the domestic policies visited upon Native peoples in the name of civilization, of “killing the Indian and saving the man.” For instance, although our Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, Native religions and practices were regularly outlawed; the most famous instance of this being, of course, the suppression of the Ghost Dance.

There’s also the Dawes Act, a shameless land grab dressed up as an attempt to turn Indians into Jefferson’s idealized yeoman farmer, the supposed basic unit of American civilization. And there are the sterilizations performed by the Indian Health Serivce–either with dubious consent or without consent at all–on Native women through the 1960s and 70s. In her study of the subject, Jane Lawrence gives the following explanations for why this happened:

The main reasons doctors gave for performing these procedures were economic and social in nature. According to a study that the Health Research Group conducted in 1973 and interviews that Doctor Bernard Rosenfeld performed in 1974 and 1975, the majority of physicians were white, Euro-American males who believed that they were helping society by limiting the number of births in low-income, minority families. They assumed that they were enabling the government to cut funding for Medicaid and welfare programs while lessening their own personal tax burden to support the programs. Physicians also increased their own personal income by performing hysterectomies and tubal ligations instead of prescribing alternative methods of birth control. Some of them did not believe that American Indian and other minority women had the intelligence to use other methods of birth control effectively and that there were already too many minority individuals causing problems in the nation, including the Black Panthers and the American Indian Movement. Others wanted to gain experience to specialize in obstetrics and gynecology and used minority women as the means to get that experience at government expense. Medical personnel also believed they were helping these women because limiting the number of children they could have would help minority families to become more financially secure in their own right while also lessening the welfare burden.[1]

The practitioners who performed these sterilizations thought they were doing the right thing, making wise decisions on behalf of those who clearly couldn’t be relied on to do so themselves. Of course, it doesn’t so much seem that way from the other side, women who were uninformed or misinformed when these procedures took place. To them, it looked an awful lot like the government was trying to gradually and quietly phase out Indians altogether.

And then there are the boarding schools. The federal government set up several boarding schools throughout the country for the purpose of Indian education and assimilation. Many Native children went (or were sent) voluntarily, as either they or their parents thought that education was their only hope for the future. Many more were forcibly removed from their homes. Once at the schools, the children underwent a forced transformation. Their hair was cut; their traditional clothes were traded for Euro-American ones; they were forbidden–by force in many cases–to speak their languages or practice their religions; they were required to take new names. Education in these schools was largely of the vocational type; Indians were not believed to have the capacity for higher learning. Their role was to be mechanics, farmers, household help. Children frequently did not return home to their families for many years; on holidays they were hired out to work for local families.

The boarding school programs, like other assimilation policies espoused by the government at the time, did in fact contribute to the widespread loss of Native cultures, languages, and traditions, although some survived despite all efforts. But these programs didn’t succeed in “saving the man,” so to speak, in integrating Indians into the dominant culture. Much like the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t end racism against African Americans, assimilationist education couldn’t change the physical appearances of Indians or make them more palatable to white society.

And so, to return to the article that started this all. In some ways, it’s ludicrous; you want to roll your eyes and laugh at yet another example of how governments come up with policies and concerns that seem to be completely unrelated to reality. But a) people died; and b) the particular concerns the government expressed point towards a continuing tendency to see Indians as people who cannot be trusted. At worst they’re seen as savages, at best as children, but either way they’re not seen as capable of making their own decisions. Can you imagine the same situation, the same reasoning, if swine flu had broken out anywhere but a reserve?

This is all part and parcel of the continuing problems facing Native nations today as they struggle for economic and political self-sufficiency. Self-determination and self-governance have been massively eroded over the centuries (with some gains in this one) precisely because governments viewed Native Americans as inherently inferior and incapable of handling their own affairs. And if you think that just because this specific instance came from Canada that this kind of stuff doesn’t still happen in the U.S., consider this May 2009 article from NPR, which says that most Native women living on reservations don’t even bother reporting sexual assault because they know that the FBI (responsible for law enforcement on most reservations) won’t bother pursuing their cases. Or consider the fact that casino gaming aside, most reservations continue to be among the poorest places in the country. Basically, envision a place like Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota:

Although Pine Ridge is the eighth largest reservation in the United States, it is the poorest reservation. Unemployment on the reservation hovers around 80% and 49% live below the Federal poverty level. Adolescent suicide is four times the national average. Many of the families have no electricity, telephone, running water, or sewer. Many families use wood stoves to heat their homes. The population on Pine Ridge has among the shortest life expectancies of any group in the Western Hemisphere: approximately 47 years for males and in the low 50s for females. The infant mortality rate is five times the United States national average. Reservation population was estimated at 15,000 in the 2000 census, but that number was raised to 28,787 by HUD, following a University of Colorado door-to-door study.

This has gotten a wee bit ranty, so I’ll wrap it up. Basically, what I want to say here is that regardless of the strides made in the past 50 years–and they have been many–Native Americans still face enormous disadvantages, socially, economically, and in their dealings with governments. And if you think they don’t, just stop a minute and consider whether the government would delay sending you hand sanitizer because they were worried you’d drink it.


[1] Jane Lawrence, “The Indian Health Service and the Sterilization of American Indian Women,” in American Indian Quarterly, Vol. 24, No. 3 (Summer, 2000), pp. 410.

further reading:

David Wallce Adams, Education for Extinction: American Indians and the Boarding School Experience 1875 – 1928. University of Kansas Press, 1997.

Clyde Ellis. To Change Them Forever: Indian Education at the Rainy Mountain Boarding School, 1893-1920. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1996.

I also found the following articles very interesting, in my cursory cruise through JSTOR;

James A. Curiel, “Social Theory and the Disjuncture between Predicted Outcomes and Student Experiences during the Gilded Age,” Wicazo Sa Review, Vol. 14, No. 1 (Spring, 1999), pp. 215-233.

Donald A. Grinde, Jr., “Taking the Indian out of the Indian: U.S. Policies of Ethnocide Through Education,” Wicazo Sa Review, Vol. 19, No. 2 (Autumn, 2004), pp. 25-32.

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