Ronald Takaki Indian Question

Assimilation Versus Preservation
By the middle of the 19th century, the Indian way of life had begun to be disturbed through advancements into the West in many ways, the most important of which was the construction of the transcontinental railroad. Railroads pierced through the heart of the continent while slashing through Indian lands dividing the once open ranges of the Great Plains and splicing the economies of the East and West. The Indians had faced many battles and suffered great losses, but the fate of the Plains Indians was to be determined not by a battle with guns or bows and arrows, but by a change in policy by the American government. Ronald Takaki takes on the topic of the “Indian Question” in Chapter nine of his book A Different Mirror – A History of Multicultural America.

Francis A. Walker, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, sought to end the hostilities between the Indians and settlers by seeking what he thought to be a mutually beneficial means of interaction with the Indians. Walker believed that it was the responsibility of the government to ensure the survival of the Plains Indians by creating an environment that encouraged assimilation during the inevitable clash of cultures that would soon take place. Though he had only minimal first-hand experience through visiting and observing Indian culture once, Walker’s devout belief in technology and the market as civilizing forces was the main driver behind his policy towards the Indians. It led to the formation of his idea to concentrate the Indian population onto one or two reservations to forcibly assimilate them into white culture by training them to perform industrial skills and entangle them in a society that would eventually grow up around them. Walker feared that if these measures were not taken immediately, Indians would grow to be out-of-date and incapable of merging with the modernized civilization that would encircle the Indian civilization.

However, Walker was not without detractors and soon their voices would materialize in the form of the Dawes Act of 1887. Walker’s strategy was criticized as being too slow of a process to encourage assimilation. Their solution to the “Indian Question” was to relegate the Indians to allotments

of 160 acres which they felt was a means to the end of destroying the “habits of nomadic barbarism” and “savagery”(Takaki 221). Unallotted land leftover from the reservations was to be available for purchase by white settlers. The presence of whites so tightly quartered with the Indians was thought to be a catalyst for assimilation where the Indian children would attend school with white children and Indian and white families would worship together in churches. The results of this policy were disastrous for the Indians, eventually leading to a landless people due to countless breaches into Indian lands through underhanded dealings to secure land for development.

In 1934, President Roosevelt signed into law the Indian Reorganization Act which was developed by Roosevelt’s appointee to the Indian Affairs Commissioner. John Collier was a man who, unlike Francis A. Walker, had come to fully appreciate Indian culture from his time spent in New Mexico with the Taos Indians. He felt that the allotment policy had resulted in the destruction of this rich culture and that it was a failed attempt to assimilate Indians into white culture. He saw the Dawes Act and its repercussions as being “much more than a huge white land grab; it was a blow, meant to be fatal, at Indian tribal existence”(Takaki 225). Set on ensuring the coexistence of white and Indian culture, Collier went to work on the Indian Reorganization Act which aimed to federally fund the purchase of land for tribes on which the Indians could establish a form of self-governance. Not every tribe was willing to agree to the shift in policy, however.

The Navajo Indians were one of the many tribes that voted to reject the provisions of the Act. In the early 1860s, Kit Carson and his troops had destroyed their sheep and orchards before moving them to Bosque Redondo. The memories of their removal from their homeland, what the Navajo called the “Long Walk”, was still fresh in their minds. After five years of trying to get the Navajo to switch from a population of herders to farmers, the government eventually resettled them back on their original homeland where their stock of sheep that had been slaughtered by Carson and his men was replenished. All of the mistreatment and slaughter could have been avoided

had the Navajo been simply left alone. It is easy to understand why the Navajo were weary of an Indian New Deal.

The song would remain the same for the Navajo in the years to come after the Indian Reorganization Act’s passage. A government study had revealed that the massive size of the Navajo’s sheep herds was ultimately the cause of silt problem downstream from their reservation. Thought to be caused by overgrazing, the silt problem threatened to clog the Boulder Dam, thereby jeopardizing the supply of water and electricity to southern California which would severely inhibit its economic development. John Collier, the man who was supposed to help the Indians, finally convinced the Navajo to reduce their stock, but by 1935, Collier insisted that the reduction was not great enough. It would not be long after that government scientists would uncover that overgrazing was not the source of the problem.

The fate of the Indians was due the fundamental idea that both Walker and Collier shared; that the Indians would not survive unless the omnipotent government stepped in and created an environment in which the Indians could thrive when they had been able to achieve that goal long before the white man came along. Expansion at any and all costs was the theme of the mid to late 19th century and no matter who was the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, the treatment of the Indians would probably have been very similar. It seems that the main idea Takaki attempts to convey is that the U.S. needlessly interfered with the Indians at times, often forcing the Indians to do one thing and then after time, go back to square one with the Indians bearing all the burden of the attempts of social engineering. I agree with Takaki on this sentiment and find that perhaps the best policy towards the Indians would have been to simply leave them alone to avoid having to go through unnecessary hardships.


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