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Indigenous Americans’ Loss of Rights

Indigenous Americans Loss of Rights

White man was not the first to settle the Americas, it was the Indigenous populations who had treated the lands and resources with respect. So why is it that they have been at the bottom of American society since European settlement? Why is it that their cultures now are so hard to trace? Why do the reservations exist? What has become of those who were here before all others?

The Native Americans had their own societies, religions, trade and commerce and civilisations. Many tribes warred with each other over lands, resources and many other reasons, but it was not until the settlement of Europeans that their ways began to unravel. 

When the Europeans –mainly the British and French settling the north and the Spanish settling the south– the hand of curiosity and trade was extended to the Natives. Furs, precious metals and timber were important to the Europeans for trade, as it was to the Natives, and through what began with peaceful exchange, connections were formed. 

Settlements began to pop up here and there along the east coast, and soon they started pushing further inland. The Natives were losing land as their people were killed or forced to leave and make way for the powerful Europeans. 

In 1803 the idea of ‘Manifest Destiny’ was centre stage for the white populous. Hundreds of Americans began moving westward looking to settle these untamed lands and expand the country. It was seen as a mission from God to form new territories and educate the Natives. Because of their non-conforming cultures they were looked at with disdain, as naïve children meant to be moulded by the European education standard and Christianity. 

The encroachment of the Americans saw tribes run off their lands or massacred until some tribes were at war with their enemies in search of safe haven.

Within the following decade, the American military had been assigned to proposing treaties to these tribes on behalf of the US government. Many of these treaties were paper promises and never adhered to. The Natives were marched from their lands to the Indian Territories (in present day Oklahoma), like the Cherokee in the ‘Trail of Tears’. This particular occurrence was the result of the Cherokees trying to retain their claims to their land and establish their own government.

The US government did not view Natives as citizens even though they had been on the continent before the Europeans arrived. The Cherokee declared themselves as a sovereign nation with their own government and borders, but after years of fighting, this failed. Nearly ¼ of the Cherokee people died on the 1,000-mile march from the Georgia-Tennessee area to Oklahoma. 

After years of confining Natives to the Oklahoma Territory –an infertile scrap of land that rendered the Natives dependent on the negligent US government– other undesirable lands were set aside for Native placement. We know them today as the reservations. Many of which still exist, though the conditions have not improved. Most are impoverished homes that have no plumbing, limited access to water –and limited electricity today. 

To further strip the Natives of their rights, there were laws put in place to prevent them from practising their own religions and partaking in cultural events.

To prevent the continuation of the Native cultures, the Assimilation Schools were set up. They were intended to ‘kill the Indian, and save the child’. Though, in a large percent of the cases, the children were killed and no one was saved. 

These schools were usually set up within missions. hundreds of miles from the reservations to prevent children returning to their homes. While there, the children were forced to stop speaking their own languages and only practise some variation of Christianity –dependant of which denomination the mission was. Corporal punishment was standard as disciplinary practices went. If a Native child spoke their own language, they were beaten. If they prayed to the wrong God, they were beaten. If they disobeyed those in authority, they were beaten. If they tried to run away, they were beaten or possibly killed. It was not uncommon for children to be locked in solitary confinement or put to work at these schools. And sexual assault was not uncommon either. These children had no one to protect them as their families were hundreds of miles away. They were at the mercy of their captors for years. 

The educations in these schools were substandard. Girls were taught basic household skills like cooking and sewing in the European practices, and how to take care of families. Boys were taught little in the way of mathematics or science, and only American history. Their own culture and languages were prohibited. English was mandatory for all, in the hopes they might fit into American society one day, though society would never accept them based on their race and pasts. 

When children returned to their reservations, should they choose to do so, they were left apart from the community. These children, now grown, spoke none of their tribe’s language at this point and had been separated from their culture so much they had no choice but to join the American society. But, as stated earlier, this was a set up for failure. 

Many Natives struggled with identity as they neither belonged to their tribes or the American society. 

These schools were not just some small segment on a timeline, several of these schools stayed open until the 1970’s. Schools and lives on the reservations are not all too different from what they were two centuries ago. 

The lands that had been taken from the Native Americans had been sold piece by piece from the government to the settlers, and were quickly snatched up after the Civil War. Many soldiers and their families continued Westward Expansion with the Homestead Act. 

Today, efforts are being made to preserve former Native lands that were not settled, such as private holdings and some national forest areas. Many see this as beneficial to the environment as the Natives have treated their land with respect. The preservation of this wildlife may lead to the steady regrowth of forests and give a habitat to animals that are in danger of losing their homes from the constant development of growing towns.

Today, education is still substandard in the schools within the reservations. They are funded by the government, but little care is paid to the children because of lingering hatred. Four out of every five Native American and Alaskan Native women have experienced violence, be it domestic or external. One half of American Indigenous women have experiences sexual violence. 

Crime is common in cities, and many Natives who live off reservation live in high crime rates as these often fall hand in hand with poverty. Indigenous persons are easily blamed for these crimes.

There is much that still needs to be done to reinstate the rights that the Indigenous peoples should have had centuries ago. It is only through the actions of those who this lack of rights effects and those who stand with, will this ever be righted.

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About the Contributor
Virginia Thorpe
Virginia Thorpe, Sr. High Staff Writer
Virginia is a redheaded fifteen year old who loves reading war fiction. She participates in Impressions, is a member of the Trap team and has earned three Varsity letters.  She also participates in FFA and is the SPL of Boy Scout Troop 3357G of Rotterdam. She enjoys writing, hiking, camping, travelling, shotgun and pistol shooting as well as being an avid hunter. She lives on her family’s farm with her parents, younger sister, two dogs, four house cats, and their assorted livestock. She has been published by Young Writers on three occasions and hopes to publish her own novel in the near future.

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