Native Americans have continued to represent a marginalized ethnic minority in the United States, despite repeated efforts at assimilation. No one argues publicly anymore that Native Americans are inferior to Whites, but the taint of racism seems to remain embedded in public policy decisions concerning this demographic. Accordingly, Native Americans have attempted to insulate themselves from the influence of what can only be described as the dominant colonial culture. I will argue that the colonial attitudes that first invaded North America over 400 years ago continue to influence how mainstream American society views Native Americans, and vice versa.
A Case Study of Early Cultural Conflict
Spanish immigration into California would have benefitted greatly through the development of an overland route that crossed what was then a major river, the Colorado, because supplying settlements by sea was untenable at the time (Santiago, 1998, p. 1-5). Until Padre Francisco Garces traveled from San Xavier del Bac in 1771, located just south of Tucson, this route into California had yet to be established. As a result, Spain had little control over California except through a few scattered missions.
Interest in establishing this route predated Padre Francisco Garces' visit to the area, but by the time the Spanish government had committed to expanding into Sonora, the local tribes, Yaqui, Mayo, Pima, and Seri, had begun to revolt in the 1750s (Santiago, 1998, p. 6-7). In the 1760s, the Spanish crown renewed its interests in California, primarily to defend its colonial expansion goals against Great Britain. A series of embarrassing defeats in Cuba and the Philippines at the hands of this other colonial power had renewed Spain's interest in establishing a reliable supply route into California to support its missions and a standing military. Sea going vessels had to contend with strong winds from the west, making travel across the Gulf of California difficult, thus the desire for an overland route from central Mexico into California.
The architect of military expansion into Sonora was a close advisor of King Charles III of Spain, Jose de Galvez (Santiago, 1998, p. 7-8). However, Galvez was no fan of the Missions because of they sought native peoples' assimilation and acculturation into Spanish society. He and other critics claimed that the missions created communities of people who became dependent, rather than integrated, and exploited the wealth produced by these communities for their own gain.
The native peoples along the Gila and Colorado rivers had formed rivalries and alliances, fueled in part by ancient animosities and by the encroachment of Spanish culture (Santiago, 1998, p. 11-15). Regarding the latter, the introduction of horses and other agricultural products into the area during the early 1700s helped fuel rivalries, as did the slave trade run by the Spaniards. When the Spanish finally ventured into the area around the confluence of the Gila and Colorado Rivers, otherwise known as the Yuma Crossing, both the Spanish and many local residents (Quechans or Yuma) viewed a working relationship as strategically advantageous. Spain would gain an overland route into California and the Quechans a powerful military ally.
The Quechans were not unified in wanting the Spanish to settle among them; however, the chief of the Quechans, who was named Salvadore Palma by the Spanish, saw considerable benefit to inviting the Spaniards to live among them (Guerrero, Winter 2010-2011, p. 332). In addition to the military might and European agricultural products a close friendship would offer, Chief Palma was reportedly also trying to fortify his ability to remain chief of the Quechans by increasing his military prowess through a treaty with the Spanish.
Chief Palma began traveling around to Spanish leaders in 1774, inviting them to settle among them (Guerrero, Winter 2010-2011, p. 332-335). After several years of feeling that his invitation was being ignored, he traveled to Mexico City in 1776 to make a personal request before Viceroy Bucareli. Chief Palma's intentions were captured in a diary entry by the expedition's chaplain, Pedro Font:
Captain Palma (as I mentioned yesterday) said he wanted to come with us to Mexico to meet with the viceroy and inform him that he and his Yuma very much wanted and would be very happy to have priests and Spaniards come to live together with them in his country (p. 335).
Upon arrival in Mexico City, a letter was prepared on behalf of Chief Palma expressing his desire for Spaniards and missionaries to settle among the Quechan (Guerrero, Winter 2010-2011). From the tone of the letter, it is obvious that in contrast to Pedro Font's diary entry the Spanish view themselves as superior to the Quechan:
Most Excellent Sire: It should not be surprising that encouraged by the pious generosity with which Your Excellency has received me and by what I can expect from such a noble nature, I should express with modesty and trust the object of my request the powerful desire that have taken me from my home and family and have brought me over a distance of more than seven hundred leagues to implore the protection of Your Excellency. And convinced that the only impediment that may delay the fulfillment of my wishes is an unjustified suspicion of my motives, I feel it necessary to provide a brief introduction of myself. Perhaps this will be enough to establish my good faith and the sincerity with which I seek holy baptism for me, for my children, brothers, relatives, and subjects. (p. 340).
The unrelenting colonial attitude towards the indigenous peoples of the Americas seeps through the following passage from the prepared letter from Chief Palma to the viceroy:
With their consent I immediately informed the Captain [Anza] of everything, asking him to accept us as vassals of the king and treat us accordingly, issuing whatever orders he wished, to give proof by our obedience of our sincerity and good faith. He then proceeded to honor me in the king's name with a baton and an image of His Majesty. (p. 341).
The cultural differences became apparent once the settlements were established in 1780 (Santiago, 1998, p. 98-107). Quechans practiced polygamy and expected to be rewarded for attending Christian ceremonies. In contrast, Spanish settlers took a paternalistic approach based on assumptions of inferiority. In addition to viewing Quechans as heathens and infidels, they began to decide who the tribal leaders should be, but probably the biggest source of discontent was caused by Spanish settlers annexing already cleared and cultivated fields for their own use and for animal grazing.
In July of 1781, the Spanish settlements at Yuma Crossing had been wiped out by Quechan warriors fed up with what was happening (Santiago, 1998, p. 112-126). In addition to 76 settlers taken captive, 105 men, women, and children were massacred. The number of dead Quechans is unknown, but during the assault on garrisoned Spanish troops, many were killed and wounded. The massacre at Yuma Crossing restored governing power to Chief Palma and returned the cleared and planted fields to the Quechans. The Quechans maintained possession of their ancestral home throughout history and continue to inhabit the region today, while the Spanish were never able to establish an overland route from Mexico to California.
Although the outcome of the massacre at Yuma Crossing represents an exception to conflicts between Native Americans and the colonial powers expanding into North America, the motivations and attitudes were highly similar. Oliver (1996) outlined the elements of colonization as including forced entry of the colonial power into the resident society, imposition of policies that suppress or destroy the native culture, recruitment and use of native informants, and establishment of a racist ideology that justifies treating the indigenous people as inferior (p. 5). All but the first element is evident in the story of the Quechans, since Chief Palma went to great lengths to invite the Spaniards to live among them. However, if not for the extreme conditions of the Sonoran Desert, which represented a significant environmental barrier to expansion, it seems likely that enough Spanish troops would have descended on the Quechans to reestablish control after the massacre.
Oliver (1996) describes Native Americans as internally colonized because they were displaced from their ancestral lands during the European expansion across North America, were segregated to reservations, were viewed as inferior, and governed by federal agencies (p. 6-7). In effect, Native Americans have been marginalized within the United States for over 200 years due to the colonial and racist attitudes of the dominant European society.
Reeducation of Native Americans
An important tool for attempting to replace Native Americans values and beliefs with those of the dominant society has been the imposition of an education system. Native Americans believed in supernatural forces, viewed land as communal property, and held nature in high regard (Oliver, 1996, p. 7). These values were in direct conflict with European values, which included Christianity and the right to own property. Cumfer (2007) agrees, by pointing out that European settlers moving onto the ancestral lands of…