Assimilated Thoughts: The Identity Crisis of Native America

I will begin with a recital of the relations of the Creeks with the government of the United States from 1861 and I will explain it so you will understand it. I look to that time- to the treaties of the Creek Nation with the United States- and I abide by the provisions of the treaty made by the Creek Nation with the government in 1861. I would like to enquire what had become of the relations between the Indians and the white people from 1492 down to 1861?”

— Chitto Harjo (Crazy Snake), address to the Special Senate Investigation Committee for the Indian Territory, Nov. 23, 1906

Chitto Harjo, Crazy Snake, was the leader of a dissident band of Creek Indians that stood in opposition to the political leaders of the Creek Nation during the early years of the twentieth century. They would come to be known as “Snake Indians” in deference to their recognized leader.

The Snakes were motivated by their opposition to the allotment of Creek lands and the efforts to assimilate Creek people in violation of the terms of the Treaty of 1832 between the United States and the Creek Nation. With the Dawes Act of 1887 and the Curtis Act of 1898 the U.S. Government sought to break up the communal land bases of the remaining Indigenous Nations and allot the land in small plots to individual Indians with the “surplus” lands left over going to new waves of Anglo-settlers.

Harjo had travelled to Washington with a delegation of Creek leaders attempting to obtain the support of President Theodore Roosevelt for the terms of the treaty. Finding little or no support, Harjo returned to Oklahoma and called for the establishment of a separate traditional Creek government at the Old Hickory Stomp Grounds.

The Snakes urged tribal towns not to participate in the allotment process and began to engage in open conflicts with individual tribal citizens who did participate in the process. Chitto Harjo remained an ardent opponent of allotment and assimilation till his death in 1911.

What is apparent from Harjo’s words and actions was his position and perspective as a traditional Muskogee Creek. He stood in opposition to any attempt by the government of the United States to denigrate the sovereignty of Creek Nation. He stood opposed to the Creek National Council that was colluding with the Americans and the individual Creeks who were accepting the allotment of Creek lands. He was an ardent proponent of the Treaty of 1832 which he saw, correctly, as a formal agreement between two sovereign entities. He knew full well the price paid by the Creek people for the Treaty of 1832, the loss of their traditional homelands in southeast and the horrors of the “Trail of Tears” that lead them to the Oklahoma territory.

Chitto Harjo saw himself as a citizen of an Indigenous Nation and understood his relationship to the government of the nation that had colonized Creek territory. His loyalties and allegiances are obvious to any who examines his life and work.

As we look back at Harjo’s example we must ask ourselves how we, as Indigenous People, relate to the political power structures that exist around us. Like Harjo we need to ask, “What has become of the relations between the Indians and the white people?”

Divided Loyalties, Conflicting Interest

There is much to be learned from the terms that some of us have grown accustomed to using as self-identifiers. We generally give little thought to the implications of “Native American” or “American Indian” nor do we seriously examine the rhetoric that attaches itself to these terms. If we were to examine that rhetoric and pay close attention to the words being spoken in the name of “Native America,” we would get a much clearer picture of the struggles postulated by the Indigenous leaders today compared to the battles fought by leaders like Chitto Harjo a century ago.

On January 26th, 2012 Jefferson Keel, the President of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) delivered the tenth annual State of Indian Nations Address. The speech is often portrayed as the definitive description of the status of the native nations within the United States.

Perhaps the most telling difference between Chitto Harjo’s impassioned speech to U.S. Senate Committee in 1906 and the words of President Keel in 2012 has to do with the clarity of position and identity provided by Harjo.

Where Harjo provides distinct lines of separation between Nations and Peoples giving deference to Creek sovereignty we find much less clarity in the words of the NCAI President. The contrast is very apparent when President Keel articulates his vision for the political entity he terms “Our America.” Lacking in his speech is a defined acknowledgement of the separate sovereign status of native nations, Keel instead points to a linked destiny as he states… ”Our nations are committed to the success of the United States of America.” Where Harjo had stressed the importance of treaty rights and self-determination as the best strategies for the Creek Nation, Keel tells us that our goals need to be centered on greater participation in the U.S. elections and a more direct role within the American political system.

Harjo understood that for native nations the struggle for treaty rights and self-determination was a struggle for what freedoms they could retain in the face of a colonial reality. The struggle for self-determination is, after all, a struggle for freedom and the responsibilities that true freedom brings. After centuries of oppression large portions of the indigenous population cling to the concepts articulated by the colonizer, such as “trust status” and “domestic dependent nationhood,” and shy away from the obligations and responsibilities that true freedom bring.

Paulo Freire, the critical theorist, examines the syndrome in some detail:

“The fear of freedom which afflicts the oppressed, a fear which may equally lead them to desire the role of oppressor or bind them to the role of oppressed, should be examined.”

“The oppressed, having internalized the image of the oppressor and adopted his guidelines, are fearful of freedom. Freedom would require them to eject this image and replace it with autonomy and responsibility.”1

We are being told that the Presidential election of 2012 will afford native America an unprecedented chance to engage in the U.S. political system. Under the Indian Country Today headline “President Obama’s Million-Dollar Native Fund-Raiser,” we are told: “In a sign of growing tribal political clout, 70 Indian officials attended a first-ever Native-specific campaign fund-raiser with President Barack Obama in Washington, D.C. on January 27.” Tickets for this event started at the reasonable price of $15,000 apiece.

For some perspective let us quickly review some basic demographic figures for the indigenous population living within the borders of the United States of America. You can rest assured that the 70 tribal officials at this gala where representative of the 40% of federally recognized tribes that operate gaming enterprises. As a whole the native people comprises less than 2% of the U.S. population and are the most impoverished of all ethnic groups. Native people have the highest rates of teen suicide, the highest rates of teen pregnancy, the highest high school dropout rates, the lowest per capita income and the highest unemployment rate.

In over two centuries of American colonization, our people have been reduced to the poorest, most impoverished levels of society. We have struggled to maintain what aspects of sovereignty and self-determination were not stripped away by the plenary power of the U.S. Government and watched as the monolithic monster of western capitalism continues to devour the land and resources that have sustained us for a millennium. Now we are lead to believe that our answer lies in handing over a million dollars to help the election campaign of the current American emperor?

In response to the million dollar donation President Obama told the gathered tribal officials that he was committed to making sure that “we” get the relationship between the U.S. and tribal governments’ right. His promise to native people that “Your children and your grandchildren have an equal shot at the American Dream.” The reality, of course, is that the million dollar night will have little or no effect on the vast majority of the indigenous population but will make the gaming interest that produced most of the political payoff more secure.

The argument that is made in defense of this tactic is that it offers the only way forward for our people; we must after all be practical. Only by investing ourselves within the American political system can we have any hope of our voices being heard within the corridors of power.

Among my people, the Houma, this strategy has been put forth many times. Written accounts of our attempts to gain the ears of the rich and powerful are well known.

In 1921 Jean Baptiste Parfait, a Houma community leader, lead a delegation from the lower bayous to the Lafourche Parish seat in Thibodaux. They made the two day boat trip to meet and lobby Congressman W.P. Martin for a school for Houma children. Indian children were excluded from the all-white public education system with the only access to formalized learning coming from sporadic missionary efforts.

Unfortunately for the Houma, there would be no direct assistance from the congressman other than his forwarding the request to the Federal Office of Indian Affairs. This did little to address the problem and there would be no school for Houma children in the near term.

Of interest to our discussion is a short description of the Houma written in correspondence inspired by the visit to the congressman.

They are poor it is true, but they are devout Christians, loyal citizens and staunch Republicans. At the last Presidential election their undivided votes aided in carrying the 3rd Congressional District solidly for President Harding and Congressman Martin.2

This was the pattern at the time and the one that continues, to some extent, to the present day. Politicians come into the Indian community and express their great concern for the plight of the Indian people. The people are encouraged to vote for candidate “A” because they have paid attention to the tribe and have promised to remember the needs of the Houma community when they are elected.

The issues within the story illustrate perfectly the reality of the struggle for political influence and the futility of the strategy. The Houma case for inclusion in public education went as far as the Louisiana Supreme Court in 1917 and was laid before Congressmen, Governors, and Presidents for years on end. In the end, the basic need for education for the Houma People would remain unmet for generations. It would take the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the conclusion of a lawsuit aided by its passage that would finally open the doors of public education to Houma children. Gaining the ear of a congressmen in exchange for votes forty years prior had done little for the cause, victory for the Houma came from fighting from the outside and not access to the inside of U.S. politics.

Even the precious gaming compacts of the fortunate few tribes that have them are serious breaches of any concept of genuine sovereignty. Compacts are made subject to the input of local and regional powerbrokers as well as federal machinations. All these players are given the ability to control or influence any legitimate exercise of self-determination or economic independence on tribal land.

So again we ask the question, what are we fighting for? Are we content with the crumbs that fall from the table of the emperor, or can we set our sights on regaining the ability to feed ourselves? Can we stand again as free men and women like our grandparents. or will we continue to bend our knees to the will of the colonizers?

Admittedly our Nations today lack the ability to seize power as we once did but we can commit our communities to move towards real self-determination with every step we take. If we really believe in the rhetoric that we preach then should we not be obligated to walk that path? Have we not given up enough ground in the last two centuries?

If we ask these questions of ourselves with sincerity of heart and listen closely with earnest expectation then perhaps we will hear again the voice of the Dragon as it carries across the ages…

Should we not therefore run all risks, and incur all consequences, rather than submit to further loss of our country? Such treaties may be all right for men who are too old to hunt or fight. As for me, I have my young warriors about me, we will have our lands. A-Waninski, I have spoken. — Tsi’yu-gunsini, Dragging Canoe

  1. Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. []
  2. Ernest Coycault to L.M. Gensman, 1 Dec. 1921. []

T. Mayheart Dardar was born in the Houma Indian settlement below Golden Meadow, Louisiana. He served for sixteen years on the United Houma Nation Tribal Council (retired in Oct. 2009). Currently he works with Bayou Healers, a community based group advocating for the needs of coastal Indigenous communities in south Louisiana. Read other articles by T. Mayheart Dardar, or visit T. Mayheart Dardar's website.