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Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

The Native American Policies

When the explorer Christopher Columbus landed in America, he found people living there. These are the people commonly known today as Native Americans. Over the years, this was a group that has been greatly affected by various factors. Some of the factors include political factors such as colonization of America and economic factors such as industrialization of the American economy. With references from the movie “Bury My Heart at Broken Knee” and other historical events, this paper will look at the policies touching on the Native Americans and how they have affected their lives.

Before the Europeans settled in America, the Native Americans were a tribe that practiced communal ownership of property. The men practiced hunting and gathering. The women practiced small scale farming where they grew food enough for their family consumption. They believed that the lands were given to them by their spiritual father. ‘Sitting Bull in “Burry My Heart at Broken Knee says that the Black Hills were given to them as sacred lands by their spiritual father ‘Wakan Tanka’. They had their own form of government with the chief as its head. These people did not refer to each other as Indians or Natives. They treated their neighbors as co-holders of the many lands they were handed by The Great Spirit and viewed themselves as sharing a common status within creation as a living form (Wilkins & Stark, 2011). The coming of the Europeans brought a great change to their way of life.

The white settlers came to America in search of farming lands. Vast parcels of land were owned by the Native tribes. Therefore, the Europeans had to either bargain to buy the land or forcefully acquire it. A good demonstration can be found in the case of the Pequot. The Pequot come out of Western disease healthier than most of the other tribes and still had the energy to refuse settlements rather than surrender to them. The Pequot resisted all efforts of settlers to take over Connecticut Valley. As a result of this, the settlers attacked the Pequot homesteads at night, surrounded them and set fire on them. This resulted in the deaths of over five hundred Pequot and the survivors were taken as slaves. The urge to remove a threat also lead to a similar policy of removal in Virginia leading to the Indian killings in 1622 and later 1644 (Shelton, 2005).

The massive killings were not an isolated case that happened with the Pequot. After many failed attempts to persuade the five relatively successful and greatly assimilated tribes occupying most of the Southeast to move to the west, the federal government resulted to use of state pressure and congress passed what was to be known as the Indian Removal Act in 1830 (Wilkins & Stark, 2011). The Indian Removal Act is a lesson on the terrible things a race can inflict on another if its members believe they are superior (Stewart, 2007).

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The settlers did not stop at taking the Natives’ lands. They felt that the Natives’ communal way of life was uncivilized. They decided to change that lifestyle. They had all along known that land can only be owned by individuals and not a community. This was not the way of life of the Natives. Dawes told Charles that there was a great necessity to hand the land to individuals among the Indians as opposed to communal ownership. He feared that the increasing ranchers and homesteaders would take away the land from the Indians. However, Eastman cautioned Dawes that the Indians never practiced individual land ownership and in fact, the Sioux had no word for owning land. Dawes could not comprehend how this was even possible (‘Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee’).
The new American settlers could not understand this. Senator Dawes, thinking that he was acting in the best interest of the Natives, introduced the Dawes Act in 1887. He felt that soon, greedy people would take the Indian lands forcefully since none of the lands had documented ownership deeds. Little did he know that this was a big contrast to what the Natives believed? His good intentions met with great resistance from the natives who wanted their land to remain communal.

The white settlers believed that their culture and lifestyle were more superior to those of the Natives. The natives used oral narratives as a way of passing knowledge to the younger generations. This way, they conserved their history and passed down moral lessons. The settlers felt that the Natives should not live that way and should instead be assimilated. The assimilation policy led to forcefully taking away the Natives’ children from their own homes to boarding schools for so called "civilized" education. In 1787, the Northwest Ordinance started a compulsory boarding-school system with children forbidden to communicate in their native language and were washed away of all outward native behaviors (Shelton, 2005). In the movie ‘Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee’, Charles Eastman asks, “Do they have to adapt, to the extent of their self extermination?

In 1934, John Collier introduced the Indian Re-organization Act. The act aimed at ensuring Indian land was not encroached into any more. It gave back the right of the Native Americans to communal ownership of land hence their tribal way of life that had previously been destroyed by enactment of the Dawes Act (Paterson, 2001). This was a great reprieve to Native Americans. However, their joy was short lived. Not long after the act, America was involved in the Second World War. This was closely followed by the cold war. America was in an ideological war against communist Russia. The owning of land as a community within the American soil would thus not reflect well on their international scene. This led to the death of the Indian Re-organization Act.

Implications of the policies on the Native Americans’ lives

The Indian Removal Act led to the deaths of very many Indians. Those who refused to give up their lands were forced out of them and eventually some died out of starvation and other diseases. By the end of the nineteenth century, as a result of war, hunger, forced conversions, the building of railroads and Indian removal acts had led to destructions of whole tribes and to reduce the rest (Smith, 2005). Similarly, the disruption of their way of life and deforestation by the settlers left the Indians exposed to diseases caused by climatic change killing many of them.

The Dawes act recommended that the Natives live in reservations. The living conditions within the reservations were very harsh leading to more deaths. Eastman in ‘Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee’ writes to Senator Dawes, reminding him of his pledge to keep him informed. He goes on to ask for the senator’s assistance. He points out the lack of medicine and medical equipment to treat the sick locals. An outbreak of Measles and whooping cough was quickly wiping out the people. Assimilation also led to the people losing their identity as Indians. Eastman did not understand the ways of the Lakota yet, he was one of them. Some did not know whether to remain as Indians or completely assimilate themselves with the white people’s ways. Some of the tribes were almost extinct due to assimilation.

In conclusion, the Native Americans have come a long way. As shown in the movie ‘Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee’, their story is one full of despair and disappointments. People with good intentions but who totally do not understand their culture and believes yet they think they know it all. This shows the importance of understanding other people and more so realizing that they alone know what is best for them. It also gives a lesson of what a race should never do to another even if it feels superior.


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