Native Americans and U.S. Policies

Addressing the issue of the threat to the indigenous of North America, henceforth indigenous people, the timeline should be reversed going to the present, where in 1978 the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA) guaranteed indigenous people their rights to express and exercise their traditions. The motives and the forces driving for such an act lies in the folds of history. The documented facts of oppression might start from the Indian Religious Crimes Code, which were developed in 1883. According to that code all ceremonial activities were prohibited, and as was outlined by Secretary of Interior Henry Teller, the general guidelines to Indian people “ordered them to discontinue dances and feasts as well as instructing them to take steps with regard to all medicine men.” (Meyer, p. 76) The systematic character of stripping the Indigenous people of their rights was later enforced by specifying the practices that were considered as criminal offences, including all ceremonial dances, Indian medical practices, and keeping the Indians from adopting “civilized” habits. The persistence of the white men to turn Indigenous people into abandoning their civilization was specifically enforced from the period of post Civil War and until the mid-twentieth century. The later period was characterized by cases such as relocation from reservation lands, Sun dance prohibition, and the restriction of possessing and transporting bold and golden eagles, the feather of which was used in rituals and traditions. Starting from 1973, a visible redress of Native rights began to be implemented in government policies.

The self-determination of Indian tribes as a concept is a matter of self-governance and partially of sovereignty, and thus answering the question on whether the policies of assimilation and determination affected the self-determination of American tribes, the answer would be two-folds. Observing the type of relations between the US government and the tribe, it should be stated that “congressional power over tribes was absolute “(Meyer, p. 176), where the components of the assimilation policy were through components such as land loss, specific allotment acts, amendments to allotment policies, Christianizing tribal members, imposition of federal criminal jurisdiction and etc.

As such, the implemented policies either for assimilation or allotment, failed to bring a change in terms of the tribes exercising their sovereign powers. In that regard, the policies did not impact the desire of Indian tribes to have self-governance, and the most evident example of that are the legislative recommendations regarding the Indian tribes, which ultimately became the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975 (Meyer, p. 127).

The implementation of the assimilation and the termination laws were practiced during the course of American history through the exercise of the plenary power, which was defined as unlimited and absolute. This practice was argued through cases in court , where the there in cases did not use this power to force the tribes to comply with its treaties and decisions, but rather the laws being voted down by tribal leaders returned to Washington for revisions.

One of the most known actions that reflect the failures of public policies can be considered the incident that occurred in the reservation village of Wounded Knee in 1973. A group of armed Sioux along with activists from the American Indian Movement (AIM) seized the village as a protest of the corruption in the tribal government at Pine Ridge as well as the violations of the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty. (Meyer, p. 94). The siege lasted for about ten weeks, after which the Indians surrounded with two Indians dead and wounded from both sides. The same location, but 82 years earlier, witnessed another massacre in which nearly 200 Indians were killed by the US seventh Cavalry. In that regard, the period between these massacres has been distinguished by the Indian political revival. These political movements were moderated by the resurgence of the Native religious practices. In that regard, this resurgence can be defined as the movement toward maintaining the religious practices and beliefs without compromises. The leaders of these movements were usually promoting “non-violent tactics and an ethics of preservation, mutuality and respect for tribal differences.” (Meyer, p. 88). The leaders’ firm beliefs of opposing any changes to their culture, traditions and religion, has led to them were labeled as radicals and trouble makers. In that regard, the misunderstanding and the opposition of simple protection and preservation of long-held values which were inseparable from Indians ‘ way of life reflected the absence of knowledge regarding Native Americans and the concept of cultural diversity.

The impact of public policies on the Indigenous people’s life quality can be seen through such statistics resulting from the cuts in funding in the Reagan era; “overall reservation unemployment jumped from 40% to 80%”; the reduction on education budgeting; Cuts of federal subsidies by $1 billion in 1981-83. (Meyer, p. 130). Thus, it can be seen that life quality deteriorated for the Indigenous people. Nevertheless, it should be stated that the case is two-fold. On one hand there are the contradicting differences among the Native Americans themselves, where one part relies on the opportunities given by the non-Indian society, while the other part emphasizes on the preservation and reconstruction of their own culture. On the other hand, many of the options, that although lacking, became available only due to the US public policies and funding. In that regard, the relations of the government with Indigenous people was constantly improving, with visible results being available only by the late twentieth century, with the participation in politics and the many reforms, the Indigenous people were slowly restoring what was initially taken from them by the non-indigenous population. Thus, it is difficult to state a point of comparison in which the quality of life can be measured. His might be due to the isolation policy and partially because of the Indigenous people themselves, and the lack of a definite vision on how they can be sustained. Nevertheless, if looking at Clinton’s administration plan (Mayer, p. 178), which implies that the issues it mentioned were not addressed previously, then generally it can be said that the quality of life has worsened for Indigenous people.

As a personal opinion, I perceive that my civil rights are comparable to that of individual Indians. This situation is based on the position of Native Americans in the US in the late 20th century, rather than the situations during the course of reforms, religious oppression and discrimination. Native Americans as citizens of the United States have the same rights as other Americans. Nevertheless, the relation between the government and the tribes is rather complex, where in addition to being citizens of the United States they are also self-governed as an independent nation, and thus are also regulated by the Indian laws and regulation. Thus, the sort of isolation and the duality in which Native Americans are perceived in the United States have unique characteristics. In that regard, such characteristics might include cases where, the law is governed by the US legislation should be applied to Native Americans as citizens of the United States, such as the protection of the bold and golden eagles. However, this factor is not discriminating as it is applied to non-Indian US citizens as well. Thus, the contradictory nature in such a situation is resulted from such a dual approach to Native Americans, which is mostly demanded by them. Nevertheless, comparing individuals, a Native American has the right to practice his religion, vote, have education, and etc. It should be mentioned that there might be some problems resulting from “the lack of federal administrative compliance with the law” (Meyer, p. 86),rather than from a massive stripping of the Native Americans’ civil rights.


Meyer, John M. American Indians and U.S. Politics : A Companion Reader. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2002.

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