The purpose of this paper is to trace the development of national Indian identity within the context of ethnic, economic, and political marginalization. Specifically, it will address the dialectic process of attempts to create a national Indian identity, from the development of the Society of American Indians (SAI) in the early 1900s to the national activist organizations of the 1960s. In doing so, the role of anthropologists and anthropological theory will be highlighted where appropriate.

While part historical, this paper is informed by theory in ethnic process, from which three premises are taken: (1) ethnic identity is a cohesive means for contesting for economic and/or political resources in state-level political systems, and therefore represents an adaptive strategy (cf. Cohen 1981; Nagel 1988; Nash 1989); (2) there are ethnic hierarchies, inclusive at higher levels of action, and a national Indian identity mobilizes at the federal level (Barsh and Henderson 1980); and (3) ethnic identity is a dialectic process that, like a collective “looking glass self,” consists of an interplay between “self’ and “other” or “we” and “they” where the components of identity are historical outcomes of reflexive stereotypes between two or more groups.

The remainder of this paper consists of two parts: (1) an historical overview of Indian Nationalist identity as expressed in several national organizations and (2) an examination of these organizations, their platforms, and their symbolism from the perspective of ethnic process.

Historical Overview

The Society of American Indians, the first formally chartered Indian organization, was formed in 1911. It was formed during the Dawes Act era, a time when Federal Indian policy was heavily assimilationist, which in itself was part of a larger milieu known as “the melting pot.”

The United States at the turn of the century was rapidly industrializing and expanding its domestic and foreign capital. Large numbers of immigrants were coming to the United States from Europe, urban populations were swelling along with the gross national product, and the country was in the process of creating its own nation-state identity in the world through art, literature, and “imperialist history.” The “melting pot” philosophy sought to break down cultural and social diversity and develop “patriot citizens,” hard-working Americans who would value austerity, individualism, and self-sufficiency, and who would share in the largess of “American Progress.”

A subtext to the grandiose aims of melting pot ideology was American Reformism. Poverty and inequality were marked, and late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century America saw a rise in reform movements and organizations devoted to health, education, and welfare. The ultimate goals of these movements and organizations was to help people realize the deals of the melting pot formula: preparation + hard work = progress = success; Horatio Alger could be everybody’s reality. Among the many reform causes were American Indians, and the reformist groups that claimed them were comprised predominantly of a non-Indian element that was liberal with regard to the perception and place of American Indians in a progressive America. Among these groups were the Women’s National Indian Association (1879), the Indians Rights Association (1882), and the Lake Mohonk Conference (1883). Most of these organizations embraced the policy of Indian assimilation as reflected in the Dawes Act of 1887, which, for its time, was the more progressive of viewpoints regarding the possibilities of Indians becoming “civilized.”

In historical context, the platform and symbolism of the Society of American Indians were influenced from three sources: the organizational models of reform organizations; the liberal or assimilationist view that Indians were capable of being civilized and could progress; and the acceptance of nineteenth century evolutionary theory and race consciousness.

Founded on Columbus Day, 1911, in Columbus, Ohio, the SAI was modeled after Euro-American reform groups in its election of officers, collection of dues, annual conferences, voting format, and development of a national Indian platform. The founders of the organization came from a number of tribes. Most of them had been educated at Carisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. Some of the more prominent were: J.N.B. Hewitt, a Tuscorora; Albert Hensley, a Winnebago; Carlos Montezuma, an Apache; Francis La Flesche, an Omaha; Marie Baldwin, a Chippewa; and Arthur Parker, a Seneca. Most of the SAI founders were well-educated and had achieved success in chosen professions. As self-made individuals committed to Indian progress, they espoused a national philosophy and platform that was modeled after their own personal history.

Their founding platform was based on a national, rather than a tribal, agenda. It was assimilationist, yet they espoused a “non-vanishing” platform. Membership in the organization was by individual rather than tribal status. They stressed self-help, self reliance and initiative, and the breakup of reservations. They eschewed Indians who went “back to the blanket,” a term referring to backsliding into traditional tribal culture, which they saw as divisive. They also opposed retaining tribal customs not consistent with progress. Founding president Sherman Coolidge advocated that Indians should curb their “clannish spirit and stand solid,” while Henry Roe Cloud believed that reservations created segregation, which blocked the way to progress (Hertzberg 1971:83, 89). To them, Indian identity was an inner, individual thing. Indians would, they argued, progress and develop the skills necessary to compete, embrace the concept of American citizen, and, most importantly, as a race climb the evolutionary ladder from savagery to civilization. In the following passage, Arthur Parker speaks of how Indians must assimilate yet retain Indian identity (Hertzberg 1971:63):

To survive at all he must become as other men, a contributing, selfsustaining member of society…The true aim of educational effort should not be to make the Indian a white man, but simply a an normal to his environment…No nation can afford to permit any person or body of people within it to exist in a condition at variance with the ideals of that nation. Every element perforce must become assimilated. I do not mean by this that the Indian should surrender things and passively allow himself, like clay, to be pressed into a white man’s mold…

I do mean, however, that the Indian should accustom himself to the culture that engulfs him and to-the force that directs it, that he should become a factor that directs it, that he should become a factor of it, and that once a factor of it he should use his revitalized influence and more advantageous position in asserting and developing the great ideals of his race for the good of the greater race, which means all mankind.

The Role of Anthropology

While it is true that many anthropologists, particularly many Boasians, were opposed to assimilation and advocated tribal separatism, the role of anthropology in shaping early reform pan-Indianism was not insignificant (Hertzberg 1971:35). On the contrary, anthropology as a profession was well represented in reformist organizations during the late nineteenth century, as well as in subsequent SAI membership (Marden 1972). Hewitt, Parker, La Flesche, and James Murie were all anthropologists. Oliver Lamere and Stacey Matlock had worked extensively with anthropologists. Alanson Skinner and Frank Speck were associates in the SAI, a non-voting status open to non-Indians.

These and other members embraced several key components of late-nineteenth-century evolutionism espoused by Lewis Henry Morgan, among others. Parker and others accepted the unilineal development of humankind, progression up the ladder from savagery to civilization. They also embraced the concept of race, and in fact, seized on the race concept as the unifying foundation of a national Indian identity, bound by the common history of aboriginal occupancy and Euro-American oppression.

In very Darwinian terms, Sherman Collidge argued (Hertzberg 1971:65):

I think we have reached a time when the white people are pretty well educated to the fact that the Indian can be civilized, can be Christianized, can be a good man…Don’t let our people neglect their opportunities; let them realize that they must compete in life’s race, and in the conditions of our American civilization.

From Parker we can see the importance of race consciousness and aboriginal ancestry (Hertzberg 1971:141):

Today there is a growing consciousness of race existence. The Sioux is no longer a mere Sioux, or the Ojibway a mere Ojibway… Today as perhaps as never before all men of the aboriginal peoples feel themselves members of the red race or of aboriginal ancestry. No man should seek to destroy the special genius that race ancestry gives him. The God of nations did not give races distinctive racial endowments and characteristics for naught. And now, with a coming race-consciousness the American Indian seeks to go even further and say, ‘I am not a red man only, I am an American in the truest sense, and a brother man to all human kind.’

SAI Disintegration and the Rebirth of Tribal Traditionalism

The SAI held annual conferences from 1911 into the 1920s where voting members hammered out policy platforms. While enjoying some early success, the SAI began to fragment after World War I. Sources for this fragmentation came from both within and outside the organization. From within, some SAI members, such as the very influential Sioux Charles Eastman, envisioned a more traditional tribal cultural approach to SAI identity and activities. He was among many who, for example, advocated a more political road that included a respect for tribal treaties. Eastman, in fact, was a major actor in the development of the Teepee Order, a fraternal pan-Indian organization that, among other things, fostered the revival of traditional tribal ceremonies. In addition, the SAI’s educated elite appeared to become insulated and were not very successful in maintaining the grassroots support of large numbers of Indians on the reservations.

This traditional romanticism that was advocated by Eastman and others was consistent with a deeper and more widespread romantic interest in the Indian past held by many urban Indians and non-indians. As early as the 1830s, non-Indians had extolled the romantic virtues of Indians, and images of them often took a Plains Indian symbolic cast (Ewers 1964). In art, Indian life was recast with Plains traits, illustrated by George Catlin’s Choctaw Ball Game complete with tipis, and George Wimar’s romantic portrayal of the kidnapping of Jemima Boone by an obviously Plains Indian. During the late 1800s audiences in American and European cities were sensitized to the Plains Indian genre through the Wild West Shows of Buffalo Bill and others, where Indian wars were re-enacted, and the winning of the west symbolized by the last sunset on the noble savage and Plains buffalo culture.

By the 1920s, 30,000,000 Americans were active members of some 800 secret fraternal orders, where Indian history, lore, prayers, and ceremonies were adapted and promoted. Local chapters were known as bands or clans, had “councils,” and possessed totems such as the golden eagle or buffalo, and their members received Indian names. An American Indian Day was promoted in schools and churches. To non-Indians, “real Indians” were conceptualizedin terms of the Noble Savage, who lived in harmony with nature, lived in tipis and wigwams, and embraced the traditional culture, rather than the formally educated, inner Indian who dressed like the American middle class. This point is illustrated by SAI member William Madison, who made the following observation on the 1923 Chicago conference (organized by Ralph Linton), during which an “authentic” Indian encampment, complete with ceremonies and traditional dancing, was part of the activities (Hertzberg 1971:98):

It is only when he [the Indian] exhibits Indian war dances and ancient ceremonies that the public evinces any interest in the Indian.

Public images of Indians, a move toward tribalism on the part of many in the SAI, and the renaissance of tribal heritage among urban Indians, all aided in the descent of national Indian identity into the Looking Glass, toward an identity that was the antithesis of what many of the SAI founders had envisioned. Additional factors were the Merriam Report, which demonstrated the failure of Dawes Act-era Indian policies in particular and the “melting pot” philosophy in general, and the Committee of 100 report which recommended more culturally relativist Indian policy changes.

The role of anthropology during the post-World War I period was again evident. Individual anthropologists from the Bureau of American Ethnology, such as James Mooney, testified in Congressional hearings against the proposed prohibition on the peyote religion. Later, the American Anthropological Association and the American Ethnological Society passed resolutions condemning the Bursum Bill (Marden 1972:21-22). In addition, it is of note to mention that the Committee of 100 included anthropologists such as Alfred Kroeber, Clark Wissler, and Frederick Hodge. It also included SAI members Henry Roe Cloud, Arthur Parker, and Charles Eastman. The findings and philosophy of this committee would form the direction of Indian policy under John Collier’s Indian New Deal in the 1930s. Marden has written (1972:22):

During the campaign against the Bursum Bill, John Collier contacted both Franz Boas and A.L. Kroeber soliciting their help in working on an Indian policy which would restore tribal authority and put a stop to the policy of allotment.

By the time of Collier’s Indian New Deal, the edifice of classical evolutionism had crumbled in anthropology, and had been replaced by cultural relativism, holism, and configurationism (cf. Harris 1968). This new social science approach to American Indians was not lost to Collier, whose policies sought to retribalize Indian peoples, and served to crystallize tribal government and tribal diversity. Collier, a cultural pluralist, provided federal funding for maintaining rather than abandoning tribal traditions, particularly in art. The CCC employed Indians at the local level, and Indian students were transferred from distant boarding schools to community day schools. The Johnson-O’Malley Act created federal government contracts with states to provide education, health care, and welfare for Indians. In short, the reform goals advocated by the SAI through assimilation were now being addressed through tribalism and cultural pluralism, and national Indian organizations were adapting their identity and platforms accordingly.

The National Congress of American Indians

Cultural pluralism and tribalism as national Indian goals were heightened by the formation of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) in 1944. Sometimes referred to as “the United Nation of tribes,” the NCAI platform had a strong departure from the SAI: it reflected New Deal influence; it was committed to tribal sovereignty; it promoted the development of human and natural resources on reservations; membership could be individual or organizational; and it subsequently was an active opponent of the termination policies of the 1950s. In two important respects, however, the NCAI was very much like the SAI: (1) it sought to confine itself to the broad problems which confronted the total Indian population; and (2) its founders and many subsequent members were professional people, college educated, and successful. NCAI membership has included influential Indian leaders such as Robert Bennett, Vine Deloria Jr., Suzan Shown Harjo, Helen Peterson, and anthropologist D’arcy McNickle (Witt 1968:118; Philp 1986:324-325; Steiner 1968:223).

Throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s, the NCAI fought on the national level for legislation on behalf of Indian reforms. Unlike the SAI, which expressed Indian unity through race, the NCAI spoke of “Indian people” and “Indian culture,” and tried to tread a delicate line between common identity and tribal differences. In the 1960s, however, the NCAI began to share the national stage with two new Indian organizations, both more aggressive, media oriented, and confrontational: the National Indian Youth Council (NIYC) and the American Indian Movement (AIM).

The NIYC and AIM

In June of 1961 the University of Chicago, under the active leadership of anthropologist Sol Tax, organized the American Indian Chicago Conference. Representatives of seventy tribes and many others convened to address issues of Indian affairs. As McNickle has noted (1973:117):

The representatives of the seventy tribes at the Chicago conference had in common a sense of being under attack, and it was this shared experience that drew them together…A noticeable element throughout the conference was the young adult group, mostly college students, who infused a spirit of militancy into the discussions and before the conference had ended had taken the first steps toward the formation of a National Indian Youth Council.

Founded in 1961, the NIYC was led by individuals such as Clyde Warrior, Mel Thom, and Herbert Blatchford (Steiner 1968). In its preamble it stated:

We, the younger generation, at this time in the history of the American Indian…band together on a national scale in meeting the challenges facing the Indian people (to) recognize the inherent strength of the American Indian heritage, and believing in a greater Indian America.

Blatchford was one of twenty-five Indian students who had years earlier attended the 1956 Workshop on American Indian Affairs, which had been sponsored by the University of Chicago Department of Anthropology and organized by Sol Tax and Fred Gearing. The workshop focused on Indian history and participants were indoctrinated to current social science concepts of personality, society, and culture. Visiting lectures were provided by D’arcy McNickle, Helen Peterson, Ben Reifel, and Tax (UCDA 1956).

The NIYC quickly became active on the national level by participating in the anti-poverty march on Washington in 1963, symbolizing its activism through the term “Red Power” (McNickle 1973:117). NIYC resolutions opposed termination, recognized the inherent sovereignty of tribes, and advocated active exercise of Indian rights. In opposing termination, the NIYC emphasized its dialectic opposites: perpetuation of Indian culture; tribalism; and a land base. Described by Stan Steiner as “The New Indians,” NIYC members actively protested and were involved in the Alcatraz occupations in 1964 and again in 1969. They also were active in fishing rights protests in the Northwest (McNickle 1973:117; Steiner 1968:50-58).

These activities drew heavy local and national media attention, and participants used Plains Indian symbolism, particularly the headdress/warbonnet, as national expressions of Indian identity that both Indians and non-Indians immediately recognized.

In associating the Alcatraz occupations with urban relocation, La Donna Harris has stated (Philp 1986:172-173):

Alcatraz was very understandable. It was part of the after effect of the policy of relocation. People needed an identity, they needed a tie. People were saying, we are Indians and we want to belong to something.

On the heels of the NIYC came the American Indian Movement. Founded in 1968 in Minneapolis, AIM expanded to the national level through formation of state chapters and active protests. Its platform centered on self-determination, tribal sovereignty, treaty relations, police brutality, legal rights, and improved public school curricula on American Indians. Like the NIYC, its strategies included public protest, high visibility Plains Indian symbols, and public awareness. With a coalition of Indian organizations, including NIYC, AIM activism culminated in the Trail of Broken Treaties caravan, the occupation of BIA headquarters in Washington DC, and the Wounded Knee occupation in 1972.

In stark contrast to the’ platform and direction of the SAI, AIM and the NIYC represented a dialectic reversal of Indian goals, identity, and tactics on the national level. Tribal sovereignty and retention of treaty rights and a reservation land base replaced the abolition of reservations. Special status and political separatism replaced assimilation. Society and culture expressed in continuation of traditional tribal values replaced race. Going “back to the blanket” carried positive rather than negative connotations, and the outer, visible Indian replaced the inner Indian of the SAI.

Ethnic Process

Now that the historical development of several national Indian organizations have been traced, we can turn our attention to ethnic process, in terms of the adaptive, hierarchical, and dialectic premises of ethnic identity.

Clearly, from the inception of the SAI through the founding of the NIYC and AIM, national Indian organizations were adapting platforms and missions to the economic, political, and ideological climates in which they found themselves. If one views ethnicity as a means by which disenfranchised populations attempt to improve their position in state-level systems, then the platforms and directions of these organizations can be better understood. The SAI operated within a milieu where the potential for “civilizing” Indians was still in question, and where the alternative to assimilation was removal, segregation, and extermination. There were few rewards for tribalism coming from the national agenda on Indian policy. In contrast, by the time of the NIYC and AIM, tribalism and reservation development had drawn significant federal funding from Collier’s Indian New Deal and the Kennedy Administration. The alternative to tribalism was assimilation and termination, and the lessons of the failed melting pot approach had already been learned.

As hierarchy, ethnic identity can operate at several levels: one can, for instance, be Oglala, Lakota, and American Indian all at the same time. These identities are suited to levels of action. At the federal level, Barsh and Henderson (1980:251-253) have cogently discussed the niche that national Indian organizations fill. From the perspective of the state, it is easier for decision-makers to deal with a small body of Indian leaders than with more than five hundred independent tribes and subtribes. National organizations can respond to this, and in the process build networks of influence with congressmen, judges, lobbyists, and other officials. They must maintain high visibility, but also must neither alienate the sources of power nor lose whatever grassroots support they possess. When either of those things occurs, the organization may be perceived as less effective and new organizations may contest for national status.

At the national level, Indians have attempted to build an ethnic identity around three elements common to all ethnic groups: (1) ancestral charter; (2) belief in common blood; and (3) symbolic boundaries.

Ancestral charter is the glue of common history and experience. Recall that the SAI attempted unity through the experience of aboriginal occupation and oppression by the white man. The NCAI, NIYC, and AIM also parlayed ancestral charter, in terms of inherent sovereignty, a trail of broken treaties, and the notion of Indian culture (Lurie 1968). The occupation of Alcatraz has also been viewed as a statement that symbolized aboriginal occupation and reoccupation of federally abandoned lands (Trottier 1981). In terms of common blood, the SAI platformed common blood as race, a conventional scientific and popular concept at the time. The two more recent organizations also spoke of “Indian blood,” but framed it within cultural distinctions between Indians and non-Indians.

It is these cultural distinctions and the symbols that express them that have been formed through dialectic interaction between Indian and non-Indian perceptions of “Indianness.” Ethnic identity cannot act in a vacuum; distinctions or boundaries between “We” and “They” need to be drawn. Sam Deloria and Oren Lyons have grasped this by noting that when Indians cease to be discernible by cultural differences, they will not be allowed to exist as separate nations (Philp 1986:193, 244). This reverts directly back to the problem faced by the SAI: the alternatives to assimilation had more dire consequences, and “going back to the blanket” represented failure because to SAI membership it represented the negative stereotype that Indians were intellectually unsuited for civilization. Recall that during the period in which the SAI emerged the two opposable stereotypes regarding Indians were: (1) the ignoble savage who was culturally and racially inferior and incapable of being civilized (hence either to be forever separated from “civilized society” or exterminated); and (2) the noble savage who was savable but had to be weaned from what was considered an inferior culture. Despite ethnographic knowledge to the contrary, American Indians were conceptualized by non-Indian policymakers and the public at large as a homogeneous “race.” This traditional stereotypic paradigm is illustrated in Figure 1, which shows “facts” (ethnographic and historical knowledge) being filtered through alternative stereotypic lenses because of the underlying premises of cultural homogeneity and the inherent goodness of progress. Further, it suggests that the two simultaneous and opposable views that non-Indians had of Indians was influenced by the degree of political and/or economic competition between Indian and nonIndian ethnic groups. This is supported by the general observation that Indian support groups originated in eastern urban areas long devoid of Indian-EuroAmerican resource competition, while virulent anti-Indian sentiment appeared along the frontier edge of American expansion.

On the other hand, being an “inner” Indian only does not create the necessary cultural distinctions upon which ethnic identity depends. The SAI failed to create a culturally distinctive national identity, and in doing so set in motion a change in Indian and non-Indian stereotypes of “Indianness” that was the antithesis of what had been envisioned. Reinforced by changing EuroAmerican stereotypes of Indians (as transmitted through the hobbyist organizations, the media, and cultural anthropology), Indians built a national identity with distinctive cultural traits: Mother Earth, spirituality, love and respect for nature and the environment, and Plains Indian symbolism that had spread to Indians far beyond its geographic homeland to provide a visible and recognizable symbol of “Indianness” (Ewers 1964; Trosper 1981; Trottier 1981). As previous studies on Indian stereotyping have suggested (Berkhofer 1978; Hanson and Rouse 1987; Price 1973; Rouse and Hanson 1991), the traditional stereotypic paradigm (as illustrated in Figure 1) was replaced by an emergent one that, with cultural pluralism as its foundation, replaced the assimilationist outcome (a retention of part of the traditional paradigm) with a cultural relativist and tribalist outcome. This emergent stereotype paradigm is illustrated in Figure 2. As with the traditional paradigm, this scheme suggests that non-Indian stereotypes of Indians will be influenced by the degree of political and/or economic competition between Indian and non-Indian ethnic groups.

Stereotypes need not be synonymous with “false notions,” prejudice or negativity. They can provide the necessary motivators of symbol and belief to create unity within a group, form a transcendent identity, and garner support from the out-group at the national level. Trottier writes (1981:288):

Those relatively few Indians…who see panethnic unity as a likely means of achieving desired goals must redefine the stereotypical category as a valid identity in terms that are meaningful to those they wish to attract and mobilize.

As long as decisions affecting the Indian tribes are made at the national level, there will be a need for a national Indian consensus, and the consensus will continue to be expressed through ethnic identity as long as the ethnic symbols are recognized and accepted by non-Indian allies and policy makers.

DIAGRAMS: Figure 1. Generalized traditional stereotype structure (A), with directional process based on degree of economic competition (B and C).

DIAGRAMS: Figure 2. Generalized emergent stereotype structure (A), with directional process based on degree of economic competition (B and C).


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by Jeffery R. Hanson

Jeffrey R. Hanson is an associate professor of Anthropology at the University of Texas at Arlington.


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