Cultural Genocide Veiled as Education—The Time for Healing Is Now
The Struggle to “Civilize” the Native People
There was a debate about whether to exterminate the “wild” tribes that had not been confined to a reservation, or to seek their conversion to a “civilized” life—by which was meant to be Christian farmers or craftsmen. The military and the frontier settlers were the primary advocates of the former, and the churches the latter. It wasn’t a serious debate in the sense of impending strategy. While there were examples of barbaric slaughter of Native people—e.g. Wounded Knee, Sand Creek, etc.—it was, in fact, simply too expensive to enter into an extended campaign of genocide on the heels of an expensive Civil War. It was estimated that the annual cost to maintain a company of United States Calvary in the field was $2 million. Whatever the standards of humanity, the economics augured for assimilation as the preferred alternative.
Among the frontier settlers, with largely squatter sensibilities and values, was the occasional person of conscience that could see past their own self- interest in acquiring land and riches—to the incredible injustices visited on the Native people in the process of their dispossession of those very same lands and riches. John Beeson, likely a Quaker, was one such person who lobbied tirelessly to expose the erroneous depiction of the Indians as the aggressors when it was the settlers who were in fact the transgressors against Indian lands and resources on the frontier. Beeson met several times with President Abraham Lincoln and pressed upon him the idea that Indians should receive instruction in every phase of the culture that was displacing their own: Anglo-American economy, democratic self-government, and the Christian religion.
A contemporary of Beeson who worked toward the same goal was Episcopal Bishop of Minnesota Henry B. Whipple. In 1860 Whipple sent a letter to President Buchannan lamenting the evils of liquor and the inability and unwillingness of the federal government to enforce the laws prohibiting its distribution among the tribes. He also observed that the federal policy of treating the tribes as self- governing nations was mistaken; it would be better to regard Indians as wards and undertake their assimilation. Once the laws were enforced, practical Christian teachers could instruct them in agriculture and other arts of civilization. More important, he decried the corrupt patronage system of appointment of Indian agents that resulted in the looting of Indian resources, fraudulent contracts and sham schools that accomplished little more than to line the pockets of the Indian Agents. He sought a system that would allow for the appointment of “a commission of men of high character, who have no political ends to subserve,” to which should be given the responsibility for devising a more perfect system for administering Indian affairs.
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