restricted access Chapter VI: Progressive Ambiguity: The Reassessment of the Vanishing Policy
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C h a p t e r V I Progressive Ambiguity The Reassessment of the Vanishing Policy The notion of completely assimilating the Native American population into American society was grounded in a set of beliefs that were at the same time complex, confusing, and all too often conflicting . Old reformers like Richard Henry Pratt, Albert Smiley, and Henry L. Dawes, who more or less provided the theoretical basis for the vanishing policy, combined nationalism, Christian idealism and dogma, economic conservatism, and social Darwinism into a kind of mystical philosophy of Americanism. For the most part, they believed in brotherly love, charity, and human equality. On the other hand, they also held some strong convictions that relegated anything other than Euro-American culture to a position of inferiority. To them, Native Americans were not only a race but also a culture (although they did not fully understand the separation) that could be pictured in the most depreciating terms and singled out for deliberate extinction. Despite their curious mixture of hatred for tribal cultures and apparent love for individual tribal members, none of their goals for Indians seemed to have been touched with ambiguity. The policies they formulated for dealing with Native Americans were straightforward and clearly articulated. Indians would no longer be treated as members of distinct polities with recognizable leaders and governments . Moreover, the old reformers essentially denied that the tribes were true states possessing autonomous structures of public authority, when in fact they did. Indians would be treated as atomized individuals having no links to kin, land, religion, or a political system other than that of the United States. So that Native Americans could *final holm pages 5/18/05 4:29 PM Page 131 become American citizens without stigma, each tribal state’s basis in a sense of peoplehood was to be declared nonexistent and the “Indian” of old was to be put to death. During the first twenty-five years of the twentieth century, the old Indian reform philosophy came under rough scrutiny from a group of new but no less ardent reformers. These new reformers in large part thought that the vanishing policy was, in fact, doing precisely what it was intended to do. The problem was that the policy was destroying cultures that possessed some admirable traits. The preservationists began to think that any modification of Native American customs would only make those customs less “Indian” and therefore contribute to their disappearance. Of the Native American cultures that were maintained or that had at least, in the minds of the preservationists, retained their “purity,” they began to feel remarkably protective. To an old reformer, the decline of tribal cultures was a completely natural and anticipated occurrence. To a progressive reformer who sought to preserve the “best” of Indian life, the destruction of a lower civilization and a less sophisticated people was unworthy of America’s greatness. Racism, too, cut across these new attitudes toward Native Americans. The injection of this preservationist sentiment, however widespread , clouded white thinking about Indians. Perhaps this ambiguity was the glorious inconsistency of a nation coming of age. It could no longer justify its treatment of the original inhabitants of America, nor could it bring itself fully to admire them. It preferred, therefore, to hold completely conflicting views concerning alien identities and their relationship with the nation and to refuse steadfastly to give up either idea. In any case, the ambiguity in thought regarding Native Americans contributed to a decline in the influence of the old reformers, who had worked so industriously to make the vanishing policy work in principle and in reality. As early as , Outlook magazine carried an article that criticized the Indian assimilation movement for being so immersed in its own conception of civilization that it had indiscriminately destroyed some facets of Native American life deemed highly commendable and worthy of emulation and absorption by American society. The idea of a kind of reverse assimilation was anathema to the vanishing policy, but according to the author of the article, the arrogance shown by persons who believed that Native American cultures were valueless served only — The Great Confusion in Indian Affairs — — 132 — *final holm pages 5/18/05 4:29 PM Page 132 to make Indians perceive themselves as unworthy. The destruction of tribal life, statehood, ceremonies, kinship structures, and art led to Native American demoralization. According to the writer for Outlook: After one hundred and thirty years of dealing with the American [Indian] we may quite frankly...


Subject Headings

  • United States -- Social policy.
  • Assimilation (Sociology) -- United States -- History.
  • Indians of North America -- Government relations.
  • United States -- Politics and government.
  • Indians of North America -- Cultural assimilation.
  • Indians of North America -- Politics and government.
  • United States -- Race relations.
  • Indians in popular culture.
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