Challenges of Native Americans in History and Impact of John Marshall on Federal Indian Law
Eleanor Glewwe portrays the circumstances and consequences of government mistreatment through the novel “Wildings.” She depicts governmental power though the Society, which is in charge of not only the entire social system regarding the Halan and Kasir divide but also the political and economic systems. Similar to the governmental power in “Wildings,” the United States government is in charge of the divide between Indigenous peoples and Americans. The simple natives, people who were generous, took what they needed from the land, and always gave back. The colonists who came felt they were more educated and advanced than the natives, and found them to be inferior. It was, in fact, the exact opposite. It was the colonists who had forgotten that the best and smartest way of life was the most simple way. The colonists were clouded by their ‘great knowledge’ and they were persuaded that the best way of living was their way of life and anything else was not acceptable. The natives were powerful and not easily swayed, but in spite of their unwavering will to fight, they would eventually lose. Living side by side was not a realistic option because the differences were too big, so treaties have been made and treaties have been broken (“The Trail of Tears”). Now, for the benefit of all Indians, the federal government is responsible for managing Indian affairs but the government has not been able to live up to this responsibility. As a result, Native American reservations are among the United States’ toughest living conditions (Regan). The United States Government should increase assistance to Native American reservations to mitigate the harsh living conditions Indigenous people face every day.
It is no secret that many minority groups in America are facing challenges that are not the subject of the average American, but Native Americans living on reservations are experiencing a unique set of social hardships. Many of these difficulties are due to the fact that they live on reserves where resources are limited, but to maintain cultural identity and independence, some indigenous people feel that it is not only their right to live on reserves but also their responsibility. Similarly, it is the U.S. government’s duty to provide the services they need to lead prosperous and happy lives to these people who have experienced a long history of violence and injustice at the hands of the government. Native Americans are a group of peoples that deserve appreciation and dignity, but they are also a group that struggles to survive as a result of the harm our nation has caused them, and that is why the US government needs to increase reservation assistance to natives by honoring the treaties.
Opponents of the efforts to expand reserve support for natives claim that if natives want a better life, they should just move away from reservations to assimilate into American culture. They claim this would reduce the problems faced by Native Americans on reservations, as they would then live as average American people. While this may diminish some of the native challenges facing on reservations, it creates a whole new set of issues related to the rights of Native Americans to sovereignty and the actuality of their cultural heritage. Supporters of assimilation also discount the oppression and assimilation efforts forced upon natives by the government throughout history. The importance of these tribe ‘ ancient cultures and histories is ignored by those who claim that natives must change their lifestyles to integrate into American culture.
With that being said, it is impossible to understand both why natives insist on living on reservations when they are so harsh on them and why life is so rough on reservations without understanding the history of oppression that Native Americans have endured in the United States. The U.S. adopted similar policies against colonists after the Revolutionary War as Great Britain did. National and state authorities confiscated territory for colonists from native people under the appearance of treaties (“American Indian Treaties”). Before 1871, the federal government negotiated exclusively with natives through treaties because indigenous peoples were called ‘domestic independent tribes’ (“American Indian Treaties”). However, many of the treaties’ commitments were not fulfilled. Additionally, while these treaties were being negotiated, the Marshall Court took away legal power from tribes, making it difficult for tribes to claim any sense of authority in negotiations.
Chief Justice John Marshall ruled on a series of cases targeting indigenous rights in what was named the ‘Doctrine of Discovery.’ In Johnson v McIntosh, a man named Johnson was granted a piece of land by members of an indigenous tribe but Chief Justice Marshall stated it was invalid because, unlike the U.S. government, indigenous tribes had no authority to grant land to individuals. Chief Justice Marshall stated, “rights to complete sovereignty, as independent nations, were necessarily diminished” (“Johnson v. McIntosh”). Later in 1828, the state of Georgia stripped Cherokee citizens of their rights. In Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, Marshall ruled that the Supreme Court had no ‘jurisdiction’ to hear or resolve Native American proceedings because the Cherokee were an independent nation (McBride). The Court essentially left native tribes without any legal rights when deciding the lawsuit in this way. These decisions have given way to atrocities that the federal government eventually perpetrated.
The Trail of Tears is the most prominent atrocity committed against Native Americans by the federal government. In 1838 and 1839, as part of the Indian removal program of President Andrew Jackson, the Cherokee Nation was forced to abandon its territory east of the Mississippi River and move to its current ‘home’ in Oklahoma (“The Trail of Tears”). The Cherokee had no choice but to leave the fertile land on which they had made a life and move to rural Oklahoma. The incident has been infamously labeled the Trail of Tears due to the devastating effects of the removal on the Cherokee. The fifteen thousand Cherokees who had to make the journey faced starvation, thirst, and sickness, and four thousand of that fifteen thousand died during the trek (‘The Trail of Tears’). That horrific event is just one of many reminders of the injustice endured by Native Americans at the hands of the U.S.
In addition, policies aimed at assimilating natives have been passed throughout the history of the United States and later abolished. The Dawes Act of 1887, for instance, granted single native people land in exchange for their agreement to assimilate into American culture and to give up their right of citizenship (“The Dawes Act”). The Dawes Act ended in failure as most natives were unable to change their lifestyle in such dramatic fashion, leading to an increase in reservation poverty, illness, and depression. Another example of an assimilation policy that had adverse effects on natives was the attempt to engage as many indigenous children as possible in boarding schools far away from home from 1878 until the 1900s (Prillaman). Students had to cut off their braids, learn to think and speak English, do tough industrial work, and stay for months without any interaction with their parents (Prillaman). The man who established the first Indian boarding school, Richard Pratt, stated: ‘kill the Indian, save the man,’ revealing how barbaric the schools are against native dignity (Prillaman). These schools tried to erase the cultural identity of students and transform them into standard Americans, but ended up being shut down due to the trauma they caused to students and the disrespect they showed for native cultures. These are just two examples of how unfortunate the results of forced assimilation programs have been. Since forced assimilation is unworkable and voluntary assimilation is impossible, the US will have to work with tribes to enhance reservation quality of life.
Nevertheless, the question of how to resolve the existence of reservations is complicated because of the right to citizenship and independence of American Indians. As K. Tsianina Lomawiama said in her paper on the mutuality of citizenship and sovereignty, the “ambiguity in Indian individuals’ legal status [is] the great confusion in Indian policies” (Lomawiama 333). Article 1 Section 8 of the Constitution deals with the constitutional right to independence of the native population. John Marshall summarizes the section’s point in remarking, “tribes possess a nationhood status and retain inherent powers of self-government” (“What is…”).
Helping Indians on reservations when they are understood to govern themselves is understandably difficult for both the federal and state governments. However, this is not an excuse to ignore the natives and the distressing situation created for them by the U.S. government. It was established in 1942 in Seminole Nation v. U.S. that the U.S. ‘has charged itself with moral obligations of the highest responsibility and trust toward Indian tribes’ (“What is…”) In other words, the U.S. has not only a constitutional obligation to help Native Americans but also a moral obligation to help them. Because the reality of the conditions in most of the indigenous reservations is poor today, the government has immense responsibility. For American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month in November 2013, the U.S. Census Bureau released a report showing how life can be on reservations for natives. In 2012 there were 325 federally-recognized reservations, where 22% of all US Native Americans lived (US Census Bureau). Only 54% of Indians owned their own homes in comparison to the national average of 64% of Americans. In addition, the low median income of single-race American Indian households was found to be $35,310 in 2012 compared to the national median of $51,371 (US Census Bureau). This, in turn, lends itself to 29.1% of American Indians who found themselves in poverty in 2012, the highest of any race group (US Census Bureau). It is evident that the government must do more to fulfill its moral and legal commitment to natives.
To natives, these extreme conditions trigger much worse social situations. The low socioeconomic mobility rate on reservations also diminishes any hope for a better future for most indigenous people, particularly indigenous youth. Problems related to drug and alcohol abuse often become serious in societies with low morale. In a study conducted by the National Institute of Health, 56.2% of American Indian 8th graders and 61.4% of American Indian 10th graders used marijuana compared to the national average of 16.4% of 8th graders and 33.4% of 10th graders (Stanley, Linda R., et. al). Similarly, both alcohol and oxytocin usage rates for Native American youth reservations were much higher than the national average (Stanley, Linda R., et. al). In addition, the high use of substances in reservations ‘contributes to a range of social problems including violence, delinquency, and suicide or alcohol mortality or other substance abuse’ (NIDA). Substance use at such a young age can have disastrous effects on the human brain and can lead to many people suffering from addiction and illness (NIDA).
Drug and alcohol use also contribute to high rates of risky sexual behavior and high rates of suicide. Similar to the statistics on drug and alcohol use on reservations, the reports of risky sexual behavior and rape among American Indians youth is much higher than the national average. One out of three indigenous women was a victim of rape, which is twice the national average (Salam). Compared to the national average of 25%, 46% of native women have children in adolescence (Sarche, et. al.). Young men and women on reserves put themselves in dangerous situations, and little has been done to mitigate them. High rates of drug and alcohol abuse mixed with high rates of risky sexual behavior and rape create life-threatening circumstances. In 2012, 22.5% of Indigenous people between the ages of 18-24 committed suicide, while the national average stood at 12.8% (Santhanam and Crigger). There is a very good chance that everyone on any given reservation knew someone who has taken his/her own life. These kinds of statistics show how much of a struggle life is on reservations for natives.
Native Americans have a special journey through life. They have to face grim challenges and daily obstacles that most Americans do not. The fact that for years Native Americans have been at the top of many negative statistical lists, clearly showing how overlooked the Indigenous people have been and continue to be. The U.S. government must do more to help these people gain access to the life they deserve. Native Americans are fighters, indigenous people, proud of their roots, and they are more than a numerical figure. The United States has to show them the respect they deserve by giving them the support they need to become the tenacious individuals they are identified by history.
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