Monday, January 19, 2015

MLK and the Indians

I remember Alvin Josephy saying many times that the white liberals who had joined the Civil Rights Movement and Dr. King did not understand the Indian situation. To paraphrase him, “As the Civil Rights movement gained strength and won some victories, white liberals thought they could just transfer ideas and tactics over to Indian affairs. But there was a fundamental difference. Indians didn’t want their ‘civil’ rights, but their ‘sovereignty,’ the treaty rights and at least some of the land that had been stolen from them.”

Another constant theme of Alvin’s: “From the beginning Indians had three choices: become white—assimilation; move, across the Mississippi, further west, to reservations—removal; or extermination.” From the beginning, Euro-Americans who wanted to treat Indians fairly often thought the best way to do so was to assimilate them. Their assumption was that Indians had lost the continent, white civilization was on the march, and Indians were obliged to join the parade. Alvin’s boss at Time Magazine, Henry Luce, thought Indians who resisted this maxim were “phonies,” and should just get on with adapting. Alice Fletcher, the famous “measuring woman” among the Nez Perce who had actually written some of the Dawes, or Allotment, Act, had in mind to make every Indian a Jeffersonian farmer. She appreciated Indian cultures—some of the ethnographic work she did among the Omaha and other Plains tribes on Indian songs and dances is still available in Dover Books. But the Indian solution, in her mind, was assimilation. The culture would go to textbooks and museums.

Even photographer Edward Sheriff Curtis felt that Indian cultures were “vanishing,” and sought to keep as many of them as possible alive in words and images. To Curtis’s credit, his time of work, the years on either side of 1900, were probably the nadir for Indians. According to the US Census Bureau, there were only 237,196 Indians left in the country in 1900.

Indians have not disappeared—Fletcher and Curtis would both be happy with that. And in fact their resurgence did have something to do with the 1950s and 60s Civil Rights Movement. Martin Luther King was aware of Indian history, which he naturally interpreted in racial terms in his 1963 book, Why We Can’t Wait:

Our nation was born in genocide when it embraced the doctrine that the original American, the Indian, was an inferior race. Even before there were large numbers of Negroes on our shores, the scar of racial hatred had already disfigured colonial society. From the sixteenth century forward, blood flowed in battles of racial supremacy. We are perhaps the only nation which tried as a matter of national policy to wipe out its Indigenous population. Moreover, we elevated that tragic experience into a noble crusade. Indeed, even today we have not permitted ourselves to reject or feel remorse for this shameful episode. Our literature, our films, our drama, our folklore all exalt it.  

King trumpeting the Indian story nationally in such graphic terms had to have had an impact. And Indians did follow what was happening with American blacks. The NCAAP, the oldest civil rights group, was formed in 1908. NCAI, the National Congress of American Indians, the first national Indian lobby, was formed in 1944, and NARF, the Native American Rights Fund, was modeled after the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund in the mid-sixties, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement.

Today, sovereignty and treaty rights, not always secure, not always playing out the Indian way, are acknowledged and of moment across the country—with a much greater understanding by white liberals. It’s all speculation, but one might argue that AIM, Alcatraz, the second Wounded Knee, none of it would have happened without the Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King. And the way King brought Alvin’s third Indian alternative—extermination, or, in 20th century terms, genocide—to the fore has certainly had a sobering influence on policy makers and Indians themselves over the last 50 years.

As King and Indian leaders would say, there is still much work to do, but we are a long way from 1900 and a “vanishing race.”


# # #

2 comments :

  1. The American Indian and The Black African have totally different migration routes, they are not even remotely related. Migration from Asia - http://genetics.thetech.org/sites/default/files/migration.gif Migration from Africa - http://bridgingcultures.neh.gov/muslimjourneys/archive/files/b81f6b8fa95eca63521445c236d29317.jpg

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. No argument there. My post had to do with how Indians and African-Americans were treated by the white Europeans who began arriving--if you forget the Norse--in the fifteenth century. And of course, if we are talking genetics, the indigenous people of the Americas are ultimately of African origin. There is some interesting genetic information on this--and how it played out with introduced European diseases like smallpox and measles, in Charles Mann’s 1491: New revelations of the Americas before Columbus.

      Delete