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Excerpted from: Robert B. Porter, The Demise of the Ongwehoweh and the Rise of the Native Americans: Redressing the Genocidal Act of Forcing American Citizenship upon Indigenous Peoples, 15 Harvard BlackLetter Law Journal 107 (Spring, 1999) (422 Footnotes) (Full Document)


RobertBPorterFor many generations now, a cultural divide has been widening between the Ongwehoweh Indigenous peoples in the United States who seek to preserve their distinct existence and right of self-determination--and Native Americans--those individuals of Indigenous ancestry who seek to assimilate into and become a part of American society. This conflict has not been an inherent part of Indigenous existence, but is instead a symptom of the efforts taken by the United States throughout its history to colonize Indigenous lands and incorporate Indigenous peoples into its polity.

In its quest to achieve its Manifest Destiny, America realized early on that simply killing Indians to make way for Westward expansion was neither a politically viable nor humane public policy option. Early nineteenth-century policymakers ultimately concluded that the best approach for dealing with the Indian nations was to forcefully remove them from the East and relocate them to new lands in the West. Establishing these “reservations,” however, created new problems. The radical transformation associated with herding Indigenous people onto unfamiliar lands was highly disruptive to the workings of Indigenous societies, which eventually resulted in their being greatly dependent upon the United States for the basic means of survival. Moreover, the American appetite for land and resources was far greater than first imagined and, by the late nineteenth century, new efforts were being taken to confiscate the remaining Indian lands.

To American policy makers, then, the Indigenous population was a “problem” in need of fixing. While American business interests proposed a brutally simple approach for dealing with the Indian problem--simply taking the land--there remained the relatively “sticky” problem of what to do with the Indians once the land had been taken.

The ultimate solution to the Indian problem that emerged in the late nineteenth century was designed to effectuate the total assimilation of Indigenous people into American society. Christian activists and other social reformers were deeply troubled by how “uncivilized” and “pagan” the Indians were. Because they were convinced that the Indians were a doomed race, these interests concluded that the best approach would be to “kill the Indian and save the man.” Thus, they sought to “civilize” Indians through a four-pronged attack that served as a kind of Four Horsemen of the Indian Apocalypse: convert the Indians to Christianity, force Indian children to obtain Western education, allot tribal common lands to individual Indians, and extend to the Indians American citizenship.

The effort to destroy Indigenous tribal existence and bring about the “civilization” of the Indians was not, for the most part, motivated by maliciousness. To the contrary, the sponsors of this policy approach very much believed in their hearts that this was the morally correct thing for both the Indians and American society. Of course, the proponents were limited greatly by their own cultural myopia, which prevented them from formulating other policy options, such as simply leaving the Indians alone. Nonetheless, the “Four Horsemen” largely succeeded in working their transformative effect on Indian society. Indians became Christians and traditional religions were abandoned. Indian children went to school and traditional education was relinquished. Most Indian lands were allotted and eventually turned over to Whites. And by 1924, all Indians had been made American citizens, and in some cases, at the direct cost of their tribal citizenship.

Much has been written about the way in which American colonization has destroyed the integrity of Indigenous societies. All Indian nations have been affected by colonization to some degree. For most Indians today, being Christian, going to state public school, or owning their own land in fee is hardly controversial. As a result it might be concluded that colonization has largely succeeded in accomplishing its intended objective.

There remain, however, many formidable obstacles that have prevented American colonization from bringing about the total extinction of Indigenous peoples within the United States. Many Indians today continue to practice their own traditional religion, educate their children in the traditional ways through their own language, and otherwise continue to live a traditional way of life. Not surprisingly, Indigenous people who seek to preserve a unique Indigenous spirituality, continue the traditional knowledge base, and maintain a lifestyle founded upon the sharing of common resources are often in great conflict with the growing American minority group known as Native Americans. In very real ways, those Indigenous people who seek greater participation in American society do so at the direct expense of those who do not.

Despite the seriousness and intensity of this modern cultural conflict, the fact that Indians are now considered to be American citizens is not a source of considerable controversy within Indian country. Most Indians today, it seems (including many of the most culturally traditional), appear to fully accept that they are American citizens. To be sure, there also seems to be broad acceptance of the notion that, as Indians, there is dual national citizenship--status as Americans as well as status as citizens of a particular Indigenous nation. But there is also a large class of individuals-- the Native Americans--who self-identify as having Indian ancestry, but who primarily identify themselves politically as Americans. Perhaps most troubling of all are those within this category who might be recognized as citizens of an Indian nation, but who have chosen to forgo such identification in favor of exclusive identification as an American.

This Article will assess the effects of forcing American citizenship upon Indigenous peoples and set forth a possible mechanism for redressing this genocidal act. In doing so, I write primarily for an Indigenous audience concerned about the fate of our sovereignty and the survival of our future generations. My hope, however, is that non-Indigenous people may also find the Article informative and thought-provoking. Part I recounts the history of America's efforts to eliminate the Indian population through a variety of measures, including the conferral of American citizenship. Part II describes the current legal status of Indigenous people in the United States. Part III highlights how Indians have come to accept American citizenship and status as a racial and ethnic minority group within American society. Part IV assesses the genocidal effects of forcing American citizenship upon Indigenous people. Finally, part V sets forth a proposal for decolonizing Indian citizenship and restoring choice on this issue to those Indigenous people who might still desire it.