I believe one of our greatest traditions is precisely this. In earlier eras, Indians were suppose(d) to surrender; instead we fought. We were suppose(d) to die off from war and starvation and disease; instead we survived. We were suppose(d) to assimilate; instead we kept our traditions and languages. We were suppose(d) to leave reservations for cities; instead we live in cities, towns and reservations.
Paul Chaat Smith, Everything You Know about Indians is Wrong (Pg. 185)
Recently I was driving to Montreal, Quebec with a friend. We had to take a longer-than-usual route to get there because the International Seaway Bridge across the St. Lawrence River had been closed by the Canadian government in response to protests by Akwesasne Mohawks. I didn’t mind; it was a beautiful drive through farmland and small villages along the St. Lawrence River. I appreciated the Akwesasne Mohawks standing up in a democratic and non-violent manner to the Canadian government’s new policy to have armed border guards—guards who have harassed Mohawks. Because of the reasons we were taking this longer route, my friend was asking me about the situation at Akwesasne, and what I foresaw for the future. I don’t remember how the issue of assimilation came up but it did, and my friend was very surprised when I said I didn’t think the Akwesasne Mohawks or the indigenous peoples of the Americas in general would ever totally assimilate, nor should they.
Assimilation is basically the adoption by individuals or a group, aspects of another, usually dominant, culture. It can be voluntary, or it can be forced. For example, if you travel to other countries known to be very different than those of the United States or Canada, the countries of Africa for example, you might be surprised to see people dressed very much as they would in your home country. I have heard people who had visited the Holy Land be very disappointed to see people dressed in Western style clothes as opposed the robes of the Bible. The first time I went to Mexico City I saw young girls wearing leg warmers in the fall heat, because that’s what they saw in U.S. movies and magazines. Just about anywhere you go, you will hear American popular music. One of my professors from graduate school told a story about traveling for days on a donkey to get to a remote Maya village in southern Mexico to study a nearly extinct dialect of Quiche’ (one of the major languages of the Maya) that was still spoken in the village. As he and his donkey came over the last hill to the village, he could hear the then-popular pop group the Bee-Gees blaring from a radio in the village. These are examples of voluntary assimilation. Or are they?
One of the reasons people around the world wear our clothes, watch our movies and television shows, and listen to our music is because we are a dominant world power culturally, politically, economically, and militarily. (I am referring primarily to the United States, but those of you who live in Canada know what I mean. I live close to the Canadian/U.S. border. I can watch two Canadian television networks. One of them broadcasts Canadian shows, and the other one airs U.S. shows like The Sopranos.) A factor that gets left out when discussing assimilation is that of hegemony: the dominance of one social group over another. The dominance of hegemony can be based on gender, race, economic class, and language—any number of factors. For example, when people immigrate to the United States, they are expected to learn English. But when people of the United States travel to other countries they expect people wherever they go—France, Italy, Germany, Ghana, or Thailand, for instance—to speak English. They do not consider that they should learn at least a few words in the language of the country they are visiting. And they expect they should be able to eat American food, not the cuisine of the country. That’s hegemony. I’m not saying that U.S. travelers never attempt to learn the language or try the food of the countries they visit. But while traveling, I have observed and talked to people who see no reason to learn a bit of Spanish while traveling in Mexico. The early European immigrants to the Americas did not learn Algonquin, or Mohawk, or Cherokee. But they did expect the indigenous peoples to learn the language of the incoming settlers, either English, French, or Spanish.
In the nineteenth century, Christian churches and the U.S. and Canadian governments established residential schools to, in the words of William Pratt, “kill the Indian” in the children who were forcibly removed from their families and taken to the schools. When children arrived at the residential schools, their hair was cut, their clothes were burned, and they were given new, often ill-fitting, clothes to wear. In the case of Pratt’s Carlisle Indian School, those clothes were altered military uniforms. The children were punished if they spoke their own languages or practiced their religious rituals. They were forced to attend Christian church services. Residential schools had cemeteries where the children who died from malnutrition, disease, abuse, and loneliness were buried. The education the children received was third-rate compared to that of Euro-American children. Children at residential schools spent most of their time working in the school buildings doing the cooking and cleaning if they were girls, or farming the surrounding fields if they were boys. What education they did receive was Euro-American, designed to lead to the extinction of their languages and cultures.
At the same time, their families and communities were forced to live on reservations or reserves, sometimes at great distances from their homelands. In the twentieth century, the land bases of many reservations-reserves were reduced or entirely eliminated. In the United States some reservations and the treaty obligations that went along with them were terminated. Across the country, Native peoples were coerced into relocating to slums and tenements, taking low-wage jobs in cities such as Oakland, Milwaukee, and Chicago. These are examples of forced assimilation. Yet despite all this, the First Peoples of the Americas remain. According to census counts in both the United States and Canada, their populations are growing. While over 60% of Native peoples live in towns and cities, not reservations or reserves, they still have ties with their home communities, speak their languages, and practice their ceremonies. As I told my friend during our drive, if Native peoples haven’t assimilated yet, despite the worst that was thrown at them, what makes you think they will now or in the future?
Not entirely assimilating doesn’t mean Native peoples don’t usually dress as most other Euro-Canadians or Americans dress. It doesn’t mean that they don’t drive cars and trucks instead of ride horses—which, remember, were introduced by the Europeans. Euro-Canadians and Americans don’t dress or drive around in a horse and buggy like their founding mothers and fathers. Does that mean they’re not American or Canadian? I sometimes feel that the indigenous peoples of the Americas are like the Geico cavemen on television commercials. First, non-cavemen are surprised to find out they’re still around; and then media advertisements continue to portray the urban Cavemen wearing animal skins and carrying clubs. The First Peoples of the Americas are still here; they still do their traditional dances, but they also go to country music dances on Saturday night at the VFW or to dance clubs, classical concerts, and operas. Sometimes they are the performers. Was Maria Tallchief any less Indian because she was a ballet dancer?
When I told my friend that I didn’t think Native peoples would ever totally assimilate, I was referring to the Akwesasne Mohawk demonstration. Despite the fact that Akwesasne may look like any other rural community in northern New York, southern Ontario and Quebec, it is not. Despite the fact that people at Akwesasne typically dress like other people in the area and shop at many of the same stores doesn’t mean they aren’t culturally different. They are, and throughout 400 years of encounters with Euro-Americans and Canadians they have been constantly reminded of how different they are. In the couple of hours it took my friend and I to get to Montreal, the discussion about assimilation led to a discussion about another issue of great importance to aboriginal peoples of the Americas: that of sovereignty.
Sovereignty is the right to exercise within a specific territory the highest authority of law. In other words, the Akwesasne Mohawks, as other Native peoples on reservations and reserves, expect to be able to exercise their laws in their territory, such as to not have armed border guards on their territory. There are over 200 treaties that ensure that Native communities can exercise their own laws on their own lands “for as long as the sun shines and rivers run,” as the law that removed the Cherokees to Oklahoma states. But as you read throughout this book, these treaties and laws have been violated time after time. As I write this, it remains to be seen how the Akwesasne Mohawks and the government of Canada will resolve the issue of the bridge closure. This is but one issue of sovereignty in one reservation. It is one example of the ongoing struggles of Native communities in Canada and the United States.
Basic to the issues of assimilation and sovereignty is the issue of identity; not only who is an American Indian or First Peoples, but what does it mean to be an American Indian or First Peoples. It often seems like non-Native peoples want to control aboriginal identity. The U.S. and Canadian governments, through agencies like the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Indian and Northern Affairs Canada have attempted to control the identity of Native peoples through various policies like blood-quantum (Chapter 1). Native peoples often hear, “Well you don’t look like an Indian,” or “Can you speak any Indian?, or “What part of you is Indian?” or “Some of my best friends are Indian and they think…” (this last one was published by a reporter in the Albany Times Union newspaper).
Identity is essential to the issues of assimilation and sovereignty: if you look like us, and dress like us, you must be like us—so why should you be treated any differently? American aboriginal people may at times, like peoples in Mexico or Ghana or Thailand, choose to dress like people of the dominant culture, or eat the same food and listen to the same music. That doesn’t mean they have assimilated, or given up their identity or sovereignty.
Within these issues of assimilation, sovereignty, and identity, are many other issues: hunting and fishing rights, land and mineral rights, and water rights. As issues of population growth, economic fluctuations, and climate change continue in the twenty-first, the sovereignty and identity of indigenous peoples and nations will be challenged. These issues will establish the patterns of encounters between Native peoples and nations and the United States and Canada. As you have read in the various chapters, in the late twentieth century continuing into the twenty-first century, the courts and even occasionally the governmental agencies of Canada and the United States, have been more willing to acknowledge that past interactions with Native peoples have been wrong, illegal, and uncertainly have not lived up to their expressed ideals of justice for all.
Will the indigenous peoples of the North America assimilate to the dominant cultures that surround them? Remember in Chapter 1 you read about the Basque people of Europe, those who are probably the descendants of the people who made the cave paintings found around Europe 30,000 to 40,000 years ago? The Basque were in Europe when very different Indo-European peoples migrated to western Europe and pushed them to the margins and no doubt tried to assimilate them. We don’t know much about the process because people weren’t writing back then. What we do know we must infer from archaeology, linguistics, and the oral tradition. Surrounded by dominant cultures for thousands of years, the Basque adopted some traditions, for example, they are Christian. But the Basque still have their own language, they tend to still live in the mountains between France and Spain. When they migrate, they tend to keep their language, and seek the same type of labor they did in their homeland, largely sheep-herding and fishing. In Europe the Basque have been very active politically, sometimes violently, in trying to establish their autonomy from Spain and France and create their own nation-state. Thinking about the Basque and what you’ve read in the previous chapters, do you think the indigenous peoples and nations of North America will ever fully assimilate to the dominant societies of the United States and Canada?
In these aspects, it is frustrating to write a book about the indigenous peoples of North America because there is still so much that should be written and shared. I’ve written about the border closure at Akwesasne, but across Indian Country there many other events occurring that also demonstrate the continued identity and sovereignty of Native peoples. Do you know about any of these incidents around your home? For all the examples I included in this book, there are hundreds of other incidents that I could have written about. I hope this book will inspire you to learn more about the First Peoples of the Americas. Each chapter has a list of resources that will be a good place to start. Remember, the ongoing history of Native peoples hasn’t stopped, any more than the ongoing history of Canada or the United States has stopped. The other knowledge I hope you take away from this book is the amount of diversity among the aboriginal peoples of the Americas. In my classes, I tell my students if they remember nothing else from class to remember that the Native peoples of what is now the eastern United States were farmers, as were the peoples of the Southwest. Those peoples who were foragers may have gotten most of their food through fishing, not hunting, certainly not hunting on horseback more than 500 years ago. Some Native societies had chiefs, some had kings, and in some it would be difficult to tell who was in charge—true democracies. The roles of women in societies such as the Haudenosaunee would inspire women in the United States to campaign for full political and economic rights. Over 700 languages were spoken across these societies, and so much more. Indian County was and continues to be a very diverse place.