The Mental and Spiritual Erasure of Native American Culture

Do you remember learning about Native Americans in history class? Most remember very little, as curriculums across America are limited to events like The Battle of Little Bighorn, The Wounded Knee Massacre, and lets not forget the first Thanksgiving. If your curriculum allowed you got some more information about massacres, land battles, and treaties signed between colonizers and Native American tribes, it’s taught in passing—with maybe a chapter in a whole textbook to expand on a couple events—and always told through the white European point of view. Simply put, Native Americans are glossed over in our history. As a result, the majority of Americans are ignorant towards the struggle, relocation, and rich culture of American Indian tribes. Our country has a brutal history filled with murder, war, and almost complete erasure of the societies that inhabited North America long before colonizers reached the east coast.

American Indians have been suppressed since colonizers landed. Indigenous people were viewed as a threat to the ever-growing ideology of Manifest Destiny. In 1853, the United States finished expanding our borders into the country we know today. Shortly after in 1860, the Bureau of Indian Affairs opened the first American Indian boarding school in Washington state. These boarding schools acted as an assimilation tool, and used their classes to teach the “American way of life” to indigenous children.

Boarding schools were a way to teach Indian youth the English language, as well as reading, writing, math, science, and history. European arts were also part of the curriculum, and Christianity was taught as the only religion acceptable. The goal of these classes were to eradicate all echoes of Native American culture. By the 1880s, the U.S. operated 60 boarding schools that pushed order and discipline, and wouldn’t seem too different from modern day military schools. One of the most disturbing topics taught in these schools was possessive individualism, meaning you care about yourself, your property and your possessions more than you care about anyone else. This opposed old American Indian beliefs of communal ownership, which said that the land was for all people.

Educating American Indians with European school structures was the beginning of mental assimilation. However, an attack on Native spiritual beliefs was the cornerstone of the logic behind educating indigenous peoples in the first place. Religion has always been at the front of colonization and the U.S. is no different. Until 1935, any religions that weren’t Christian were banned from being practiced on reservations. This was so strictly enforced that Native Americans faced imprisonment and large fines if they didn’t comply. The government believed they knew what religion was best for a people they did not legally govern. Sadly, Christianity has been forced on native peoples in the Americas since the first Europeans explorers arrived. The first Christian baptism in the “New World” dates back to 1497 on the island of Hispaniola (modern day Haiti / Dominican Republic).

In the western United States, one of the biggest programs to convert Native Americans was started by a man named Brigham Young, a well-known leader in the 19th century of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS). The program was supposed to free American Indian children from possible slavery, and was quite popular among members of the LDS faith as well as Native tribes. However, the driving force of the program was ultimately a religious one meant to fulfill prophecies in the LDS addition to scripture called The Book of Mormon. The program ended up taking Native children to educate them both academically and religiously to assimilate them into white culture. Similar to the boarding schools, this program virtually erased any knowledge the young children had of their tribes’ traditions, values, and homes. It wasn’t until 1978 that Congress passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA) that was meant to protect Native American cultural practices on reservations. But the government failed Native Americans once again as the act didn’t end up protecting certain sacred sites, which left multiple places of significance and spirituality vulnerable. I wish I could say the U.S. has turned around and helped American Indians in the present day, but for the vast majority that isn’t the case. While we undoubtedly made progress, the general situations on reservations and Native communities are still struggling. Political and territorial problems like the Dakota Pipeline and Bears Ears still have to be fought. Showing support, donating, and voting for legislature that will benefit and uplift the Native American population are steps in the right direction we can all take.

All media is sourced in the article