To what extent were Native Americans a persecuted minority in the period 1865-1980?
In the 19th Century Native Americans were undoubtedly a persecuted minority because:
Native Americans seen as an obstacle to white settlement [manifest destiny]:
By 1860s 240,000 Native Americans [NA] lived unmolested and outside of US jurisdiction on
the Great Plains. But land under threat from white settlers migrating west, hungry for land.
Nomadic lifestyle, reliant on the buffalo, also a hindrance to railroads- first built across USA in
In addition, due to white notions of racial superiority Native Americas seen as uncivilised and
in some cases sub-human. Consequently they were denied civil rights and subject to various
white responses. Most showed a desire to wipe out Native American culture:
Education: A minority of humanists believed Native Americans could be ‘civilised’- from the
1880s children taken to boarding school to be westernized and converted to Christianity.
Indian Treaties: 1850s and 1860s treaties systematically reduced NA land and forced them
onto reservations- often insufficient in size to support nomadic life. Promised federal aid was
never delivered. E.g. Sioux sold 24m acres to the government by 1867. Dawes Severalty Act
 divided up reservation land into family units and given certain rights of citizenship-
protection of federal law but had to pay federal taxes. But often given poorest land, while meat
subsidies cut. Resulted in hunger and disease.
Plains Wars: Desperation and hunger of NA led to attacks on white settlers in the 1860s and
1870s. Added to white views which saw the NA as savage, uncivilised and sub-human fit only
for extermination or ethnic cleansing by the army. E.g. Sand Creek Massacre 1864. By the
1870s politicians handed over the problem to the army especially after the defeat at Little
Bighorn . Last desperate bid by Sioux [reacting against federal prohibition of the sun
dance] ended in massacre in 1890 at Wounded Knee.
Overall by the eve of the First World War plight of the Native America serious:
By 1900 NA numbers fallen from 240,000 to 100,000. Vast areas of the reservation land sold
off to white prospectors- 1880-1934 86 out of 136 million acres sold. Most NA migrated to
NA still despised and segregated with few civil rights. Unity of purpose prevented due to lack of
leadership and tribal differences.
The inter war period however was a more positive time for the Native American:
Citizenship: 1901- citizenship extended to five civilised tribes in Indian Territory- Creek,
Choctaw, Chickasaw, Seminole, Cherokee. 1924 Act- gave all Native Americans guaranteed
rights of citizenship.
Federal aid: 1928 study shocked many: concluded that few NA had adapted to farming life on
the impoverished reservation land. Some were still facing eviction if oil was found on
reservation land. Diseases such as TB rife- death rate higher than birth rate. Aid increased by
President Hoover who was sympathetic.
The New Deal: FDR set up Bureau for Indian Affairs and continued Hoover’s aid. Loans also
provided for economic development. Work of CCC and PWA made available. Indian
Reorganisation Act in 1934- recognised and aimed to preserve Indian culture and religion and
ensure NA control of reservation land. Restored tribal/communal rather than family control of
the reservations and allowed them to govern themselves [taken from them by Dawes]. Tribal
lands seen as independent sovereign nations- hence Iroquois declared war on Germany in
1942! Though much of tribal life too far destroyed, the decline in population was halted and
some land re-cultivated [though had already been leased to whites]. Women were given formal
political rights and a small number entered higher education.
Post war period has produced some further gains but like African Americans end to de jure
persecution has not brought about an end to de facto segregation and economic inequality:
Some legal/economic gains made:
Some attempt by Nixon administration to give NA, through the 1974 Indian Self-determination
Act, more control of their reservations and maintain traditional beliefs.
Supreme Court decisions have given some tribes compensation for loss of land: e.g. 1972
Passmaquaddy Tribe of Maine for broken treaty of 1790. 1980 Sioux Nation given $107m for
illegal confiscations in 19thC etc.
Some NA have used their position as ‘independent nations’ to introduce gambling enterprises
such as Mohawks of New York State and Pequods of Connecticut e.g. Las Vegas etc. Others
such as the Jicarilla Apaches of New Mexico have exploited oil and gas exploration of their
But despite growing Native American unity civil rights protests, particularly over land, often
Formation of the National Congress of American Indians in 1944-similar to the NAACP, but
attempts to challenge illegal confiscation of reservation land largely unsuccessful.
National Indian Youth Council. In 1968 this body organised a ‘fish-in’ to preserve fishing rights-
unsuccessful. Criticism of the Indian Bureau [white dominated] also increasingly vocal- e.g.
compensation for loss of Californian land based on 1861 market value- e.g. 47 cents an acre!
In the 1960s Black Power influential- emergence of Red Power and the American Indian
Movement in 1968. Black Power nationalism echoed NA racial separatism. Led to rejection of
Indian [like Negro] as pejorative. 1969 occupation of Alcatraz- in protest at loss of land etc-
offered to buy the island for $24 in cloth/glass beads [same price paid for Manhattan] 1972 AIM
organised a Trail of Broken Tears on Washington in protest at waste of resources by BIA
Also attempts by federal government to encourage integration actually resisted:
After WWII Indian Bureau policy shifted back to attempts to assimilate the NA and make them
entitled to the same laws and privileges as other Americans. By 1965 90% of NA in
mainstream schools [though most dropped out with few qualifications]. Unlike blacks Native
Americans did not want integration but wanted to preserve their separate cultural identity.
Economic plight for most dire:
Post-war migration to cities- many NA faced poverty, low pay and unemployment. But
experience in towns bewildering and often lonely. 50% of migrants received no welfare
payments and 2/3 on low pay seasonal work. Problems of alcoholism, illiteracy, drug abuse
high. Suicide rates well above national average. By 1980 life expectancy 44 [US average 64].
80-95% of NA housing dilapidated, unsanitary or no running water.
By 1980 Native Americas had achieved de jure equality- largely a product of concessions in
the inter-war period. Native America numbers quite small and 50% live on reservations-
therefore racial prejudice not as great as for African Americans. But economic problems a key
continuity of the 20th Century despite some individual economic success.