A Civil Rights History: Native Americans

by Andrea Faville

When European settlers first set foot on the shores of North America, they thought they had discovered an unclaimed territory that held a promise of riches and freedom: the New World. In fact, this world was already home to an estimated 10 to 16 million people — hundreds of native tribes whose ancestors had been on the continent for at least 10,000 years. But the European newcomers’ mistaken perception would have far-reaching, often painful implications for both groups.

The European colonists called the natives “Indians,” a mistake dating back to 1492 when Christopher Columbus thought he had reached India. As European colonists followed Columbus, they thought themselves superior to these “Indians.” At first, many of the natives welcomed the new arrivals with curiosity, wariness, gifts and sometimes friendship.

But relations quickly turned hostile and even deadly. Diseases from Europe decimated the native peoples, who had no natural immunity to contagions like smallpox and measles. The new settlers and the natives warred ferociously over territory and resources as whites embraced what the newly born United States saw as its “Manifest Destiny” to expand westward over the continent. As early as 1787, the new U.S. government began a series of promises to Native Americans to guarantee them safety, sovereignty, resources and their homelands. The government seldom kept the promises.

Thousands of Native Americans were forced from their ancestral lands onto specially designated “reservations” that were often barren wastelands. In 1838, for example, the Cherokee Nation was forcibly relocated from Georgia to Oklahoma. During the journey, 4,000 Cherokees died on what came to be called “The Trail of Tears.”

Discoveries of gold or other valuable resources on lands set aside for Indians often brought new white settlers and swindles of native tribes, who found even their reservations reshaped by new government policies or business deals. Many Native American children were shipped away to white boarding schools. Many families were relocated into growing urban areas.

Indeed, the first Americans were not legally U.S. citizens until 1924, when Congress enacted the Indian Citizenship Act after 10,000 Native Americans had served in the military during World War I. And even as citizens, many continued to be barred from voting by state laws through the 1940s.

After the 1960s civil rights movement led by African Americans, many Native Americans also pushed for more civil rights and renewed what many see as their original struggle to force the U.S. to keep its promises to native peoples. Today the relationship between native peoples and the rest of the U.S. remains complicated and often tense. The government, for example, still maintains agencies to deal specifically with Native Americans, such as the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

On its Web site, the bureau describes its mission as “the administration and management of 55.7 million acres of land held in trust by the United States for American Indians, Indian tribes, and Alaska Natives.” The U.S. government recognizes 562 tribal governments, which have grassroots autonomy over many tribal affairs. Many, such as the Oneida Nation in New York, operate casinos to generate income, fund school and health programs and work to preserve their traditional cultures.

But as recently as July 2003, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, a bipartisan group set up by Congress, decried what it calls a “quiet crisis” for American Indians. They remain among the nation’s poorest citizens with too little access to health care, education and economic opportunity, the Commission concluded, despite a “special relationship” of promises made to Indian nations through treaties and laws.

“To many,” the Commission wrote, “the government’s promises to Native Americans go largely unfulfilled.”

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