How Native Americans Adapted to Assimilation and Attribution

By Daniel M. Cobb, Ph.D., University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

American Indians continued to adapt to the challenges and changes they faced in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. While some have adapted to the new circumstances, others have categorically refused to do so. However, both formal education and allotment gardens have provided progressive opportunities for those who have successfully adapted without giving up their values.

Assimilation and attribution was more than a choice between Indigenous and non-Indigenous cultures. (Image: Unknown / Public domain)

The greatest challenge facing the American Indians was the deliberate and multifaceted effort of the federal government to dismantle reservations and erase tribal cultures through attribution and assimilation. So what did this mean for the people who had to go through assimilation and attribution?

Wohaw: Interpretation of his art

Wohaw, a Kiowa, was a veteran of the Red River War in the 1870s. He was probably 20 years old when he was transferred from Indian territory to Fort Marion. While there, he created a drawing titled “Wohaw in Two Worlds”. He seemed to present a bifurcated view quite typical of identity. On the left side, Wohaw depicted a bison and a teepee. Both were meant to represent the old ways. On the right side, he added symbols of a new way of life: an ox and a farm. And in the middle, Wohaw took shape.

Upon his release from Fort Marion in 1878, Wohaw returned to Indian Territory in present-day Oklahoma, where he served in the Indian Reserve Police Force and later in the United States Cavalry.

The image shows the ritual of the ghost dance.
The Ghost Dance was a revitalization movement. (Image: Boyd, James P./Public domain)

Yet at the same time, Wohaw made other interesting life choices. He was a member of a Kiowa Warrior Society and supported a revitalization movement known as Ghost Dance. Wohaw also practiced the peyote path, an indigenous religious tradition revolving around a thornless cactus that some believed to contain a hallucinogenic property.

Thus, Wohaw’s art presents a much more complicated and nuanced view of education and assimilation. He seems to have been quite adept at adapting to new circumstances rather than someone who felt compelled to give up one identity for another – to swap one culture for another.

Learn more about ghost dancing.

Daklugie: refusal of accommodation

We can get equally complex information about the lives of students at Carlisle Indian Industrial School, like that of Daklugie, an Apache Chiricahua who fought against the US military in the 1870s and 1880s. He characterized the process. immersion in civilization as being immersed in a vicious and hostile world that was both hated and feared.

Marked by his experiences in Carlisle, Daklugie went so far as to abandon Asa, the name he was given there. Daklugie, like Wohaw, defined his encounter with assimilation on his own terms. However, rather than accommodate, he flatly refused.

This is a transcript of the video series Indigenous peoples of North America. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Luther’s Standing Bear: Defining Your Own Terms

Image of Luther Standing Bear with his father.
Luther Standing Bear described going to Carlisle Indian Industrial School as an act of bravery. (Image: John Nicholas Choate / Public Domain)

Luther Standing Bear, a Lakota, told another story.

Raised among the Oglala of the Great Sioux Reservation in the late 1860s and early 1870s, Standing Bear described attending the Carlisle Indian Industrial School as an act of bravery. While frustrated with the treatment he received there, he did not dismiss Henry Pratt’s vision or Carlisle’s experience.

Standing Bear played an instrument in the school orchestra. As part of the Outing system, he worked for a local non-Indian farmer and learned useful professional skills. He later did an internship at the Wanamaker department store in Philadelphia.

Upon his return to the Rosebud Reservation in the late 1880s, he recruited students for Carlisle and joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. He eventually moved to Los Angeles and spent the first decades of the 20th century making Western films. He also began what would become a successful career as a writer, which included his now classic memoirs of 1928, My people the Sioux.

Learn more about leaders like Standing Bear and Lone Wolf.

The flip side of assimilation and attribution

Taken as a whole, the attribution proved to be devastating. And yet, some American Indians have successfully adapted to individual ownership and profited from farming and leasing their land.

Other American Indians adopted more subtle techniques to resist assimilation. One of these techniques involved selecting contiguous lots to preserve the integrity of extended kinship groups, or using private property to escape the watchful eye of agency superintendents.

Still others, like Comanche leader Quanah Parker, devised strategies of accommodation and subversion that allowed their people to survive as a people despite radically altered circumstances.

Chief Comanche Quanah Parker

Image of Comanche chef Quanah Parker.
Quanah Parker was a prime example of resistance through strategic accommodation. (Image: National Archives / Public domain)

In 1867, Parker opposed a major treaty that would have sequestered his people on a reserve. He then fought the United States in the Red River War in the mid-1870s.

Although Parker submitted to the life of the reserve at the end of the decade, he did not give up his values ​​or his resistance. Instead, he transformed them. For example, Parker could be seen in photographs sometimes wearing a suit and top hat, and sometimes buckskins, but he was never without his long, braided hair. In fact, he protected traditional religious practices as a judge at the Indian Offenses Court on his reservation.

In allocating the Comanche estate, Parker also took a subtle approach to resistance. He represented his Comanche people in formal negotiations with the federal government to secure larger allotments, demand fair compensation for surplus land, and prevent the allocation of half a million acres of the reserve. He also helped the Comanches select the best possible land for their properties.

Adaptation, persistence and survival

The experiences of Wohaw, Daklugie, Standing Bear, and Quanah Parker are just a small part of the larger and more complex accounts of Indian adaptation, persistence, and survival.

They remind us, in their own way, that there was more to assimilation and attribution than a choice between Indigenous and non-Indigenous cultures.

Common questions about how American Indians adjusted to assimilation and attribution

Q: What did Wohaw show in his drawing titled “Wohaw in Two Worlds”?

On the left side, NS depicted a bison and a teepee. Both were meant to represent the old ways. On the right side, he added symbols of a new way of life: an ox and a farm. And in the middle, Wohaw took shape.

Q: Who is the author of My people the Sioux?

Luther Standing Bear, a Lakota, wrote My people the Sioux, his memories.

Q: What subtle techniques did some Aboriginal people use to resist assimilation?

One of the techniques was to select attributions to preserve the integrity of extended kinship groups, or to use private property to escape the watchful eye of agency superintendents.

Keep reading
Indian tribes: challenges and measures taken to save their cultural identity
Indigenous struggle for autonomy after the war of independence
Study American History: Buffalo Bill and the Wild West


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