Kill the Policy, Save the Identity

Most modern historians agree that the Dawes Act of 1887 failed. I beg to differ. The Dawes Act did exactly what it set out to do: Kill the Indian, save the man. I have concluded this from my studies on Indian policy and personal experience. The Dawes Act gave the federal government the power to seize Indian lands and redistribute it to individuals, undermining the communal lifestyle of Indian tribes. Of course, to be honest, I have to admit that the Dawes Act did not directly affect my tribe. We Choctaws were exempted from having our land auctioned off and our government liquidated until 1906, when Congress passed the Five Tribes Act, which extended the Dawes Act to include the “Five Civilized Tribes.” These two acts remained on the books and in action until my Choctaw grandfather was eleven years old. His family had already moved away from Indian Country in an effort to escape the Dust Bowl, unemployment and the stigma of their race. By the time the federal attitude toward Indian Policy began to shift, my grandfather’s identity was already well-formed. To the best of his knowledge, it was bad to be an Indian. Indian meant you had a primitive, inferior culture, and you had to work underground in the coalmines because no one else would give you a job. Indian was bad. White was good. White was the standard for which to strive. The white man was the real man. So my grandpa grew up to join the military and fight for the country that told him his identity was inferior, and he didn’t tell anyone about his heritage for decades. Some seventy years after the policy officially changed, “Indian” was still tabooed in my family. I don’t speak the Choctaw language (though I wish to learn it). My mom doesn’t speak the language either. My grandfather, if he ever spoke the language, certainly doesn’t remember it. Of course, even if he did, he would never admit it. My grandfather ended up being a successful real estate investor, and I can assure you that he does not attend powwows. Isn’t this what the Dawes Act aimed to do? –integrate Indians into mainstream society by banishing their culture. Sure, the Dawes Act reduced most of the Indians it affected into inexcusable poverty, stripping them of their culture, identity, and livelihoods. But at its heart, the Dawes Act was not concerned with these side-effects. The central goal of the Dawes Act was to eradicate the notion of Indian identity, and, in large part, it succeeded. Restorative policies have undone much of this damage since then, but that does not delete the fact the damage was done in the first place. Of course, in my grandfather’s hometown of McCurtain County, Oklahoma, there’s been little headway on undoing what the Dawes Act “accomplished.” With each passing generation, the culture inches ever closer to extinction. I applied for an Abbot Grant to launch an Oral History Project in conjunction with the McCurtain County Historical Society, as a follow-up of my research last summer for a CAMD Scholar presentation. Unfortunately, I was turned down, so I’ll have to find another way to do my part to make sure the Dawes Act does not succeed entirely in its aims. But before coming to Andover, doing work duty at the Peabody Museum, doing a CAMD Scholar Project on “The Next Step: The Choctaw a Century after the Trail of Tears,” I didn’t even realize there was a problem. In my ignorance, I was part of the problem. The fact that Andover has prompted me to work against the modern ramifications of the Dawes Act, the Five Tribes Act, Indian Boarding Schools and other forces that sought to break down Indian culture is a slightly ironic testament to this academy’s evolution in the past 100 years. Why? Because Reverend Wright, the founder of the first Choctaw Boarding School for girls, was a product of the Andover Theological Seminary and housed on the Phillips Academy campus. Who would think a Choctaw girl at a once white, protestant, all-male boarding school might be inspired to work against the historical forces that strove to make those three qualities the standard against which the rest of us could be judged. Kill the Indian, save the man. Those six words were the official cornerstone of the U.S. government’s federal Indian Policy for almost fifty years. Where does this leave me, a Choctaw woman. It’s time to stop pretending that “kill the Indian, save the man,” like so many other bad ideas, was just a terrible mistake in our country’s past. Each of us must own up to the fact that history shapes not just our surroundings but the very fiber of our beings. Not only has the past shaped the present, but the present also shapes the future. As an Iroquois principle sagely avows, “In every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations.” So whether you’re contemplating global warming, immigration policy, race relations or any of the other contemporary debates, remember that our choices today will affect our children, and their children, and children born 100 years from now. It doesn’t take a stretch of the imagination to believe this. These are just the facts. Jane Thomas is a three-year Upper and CAMD Scholar from Saratoga, California.