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259 CHAPTER 17 Teaching American History as Settler Colonialism MIKAL BROTNOV ECKSTROM AND MARGARET D. JACOBS The “opening of the reservation” has been the theme of the local newspapers for some months past, and the land has been talked of as though it were veritable prairie. Fears that I might allot it without discrimination as grazing land have led to some funny performances on the part of a portion of the people hereabouts: You can fancy me followed about by persons who consider it their “duty to look after the interests of the settlers”; and you would be amused, if not incensed, at the strange comments and almost threats when it is discovered that desirable locations are already allotted. It is often openly declared, “The Indians have no right to the land; they ought to be made to stay in the cañons.” Perhaps the Indians have no right, and perhaps the white men have none either. Right to land is considered by some people a mooted question, but I fancy the average Idahoan does not bother his head about agrarian theories, apart from reservations. —ALICE FLETCHER, Proceedings from the Seventh Annual Meeting of the Lake Mohonk Conference of Friends of the Indian, 1889 Reformer and anthropologist Alice Fletcher wrote this account shortly after the U.S. government had hired her to implement the allotment of the Nez Perce (Nimiipuu) Reservation in present-day Idaho. Under the terms of the General Allotment Act of 1887, or the Dawes Act, Fletcher endeavored to break up communally held Indian land and allot individual plots of 160 acres to each Indian adult male and 80 acres to each single Indian adult female. Once the reservation was allotted, any surplus lands would revert to the U.S. government to make available in the public domain . Fletcher and other “friends of the Indians” believed that allotment would help Indians to assimilate and become self-sufficient American citizens, and they had lobbied hard for the passage of the Dawes Act. As 260 MIKAL BROTNOV ECKSTROM AND MARGARET D. JACOBS Fletcher’s experience in Idaho illustrates, however, the act also stood to benefit non-Indian squatters and land speculators who hungered for land, and they, too, had agitated for its approval. Like much legislation before it, the Dawes Act facilitated settler colonialism. The story of allotment on the Nez Perce reservation represents one case study for a survey class that takes a settler-colonial approach to teaching American history. This framework makes the struggle over land between indigenous people and Europeans (and then Americans) a central and omnipresent theme in the teaching of U.S. history. True to the past, a settler-colonial approach recognizes that “the Indian problem,” as generations of European and American authorities deemed it, was an ongoing and vexing feature of American history. As the British and then Americans envisioned North America as a colony of settlement that would harbor religious exiles, relieve population pressures, and turn a handy profit, the presence of Indians and their claims to territory represented an obstacle, a “problem.” While early colonists turned to violence against resistant Indian tribes, and thanked Providence for killing thousands of Indians through disease, other authorities turned to legal maneuvers and behindthe -scenes manipulation to wrest land away from Indian peoples. When this, too, met with resistance, a series of Indian wars forced compliance. But still, even into the late nineteenth century, reformers such as Fletcher and U.S. government authorities complained of an Indian problem, now defined as the ongoing dependence of Indian peoples on federal largesse. Assimilation policies, including allotment and Indian boarding schools, became the new humanitarian answer to the Indian problem in the late nineteenth century. The “problem” would not go away, however; it surfaced again and again in the twentieth century, as Indians failed to fully assimilate and continued to fight to reclaim their lands. Typically, Indians make only brief appearances in the survey classes we American historians teach, usually at the beginning of our pre-1877 course, perhaps during the Cherokee Removal, and maybe, if our students are lucky, in the mid- to late nineteenth century with the Indian wars. If our post-1877 classes touch on Indian history at all they might mention Wounded Knee in 1890, never again to discuss Indians. Many of us would like to include more on Indians, but our overall narratives and the themes and textbooks we choose often make it awkward to insert a more meaningful coverage of Indian history...


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