In the 1880s, an indigenous prophet named Wovoka of the Paiutes had a vision, saying that if all Indians danced the Ghost Dance, the Great Spirit would rid the land of white people by drowning them in a flood. Native people would be saved, and the land would be repopulated with the dead, as well as the animals whom white people had killed off. Buoyed by this vision, Native people began ardently dancing. This terrified settlers, who ordered the arrest of Native leaders. The Sioux Chiefs Sitting Bull and Big Foot attempted to evade arrest, but were taken—along with members of their community—to a creek called Wounded Knee.
White settlers may have dismissed and denigrated Native belief systems, but when it came down to it, they were terrified by the sight of Native resistance. Indeed, this historical event helps explain why settlers were so strict about refusing to let indigenous children speak their own languages and practice their own faiths and cultural traditions in Indian boarding schools—the settlers were terrified of the power of Native cultures.
Soldiers forced the Indians to give up their weapons, while setting up cannons pointed toward the Indian camp. They then opened fire, indiscriminately killing men, women, and children. By the end of the massacre, hundreds lay dead. The soldiers stripped many of the bodies naked, taking their clothes as souvenirs. Big Foot’s dead body lay frozen in the snow, his arms raised in an attempt to protect himself.
The absolute brutality of the Massacre at Wounded Knee is one of the most horrific moments in a long history of shameful behavior by white settlers. In recounting this event, Takaki seeks to reveal the frightening depth of the settler’s merciless racism.
General George Armstrong Custer was responsible for the murder of 103 Cheyenne men and the capture of 53 women and children. Eight years later, he was killed at the Battle of the Little Big Horn, and in retaliation for his death, Native people were confined to reservations. During his life, Custer had a paradoxical view of indigenous people. He characterized Indians as both brutally savage and a beautiful, peaceful, courageous group of people. Regarding the question of where Native people fit in modern American society, Custer believed that if he himself were Native, he would choose death over assimilation or confinement to a reservation. In fact, Custer longed for the wild freedom he associated with the Native way of life.
General Custer’s strangely self-contradictory attitude toward Native Americans is both confused and confusing. Yet it is also representative of the way a great many white people viewed Indians. Whereas negative feeling about other racial groups (particularly black people) was more straightforward, racism toward the Indians was often mixed with curiosity, admiration, and even envy. However, Takaki emphasizes that this does not mitigate racism, or make the racist acts committed by white people any more forgivable.
During the 1870s, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs was a man named Francis Amasa Walker. Walker advocated for a “Peace Policy” with Native people. Although he was largely unfamiliar with the reality of Native life, he believed that urgent steps would need to be taken in order to ensure that the Plains Indians survived, and that the government should take charge of this through “social engineering.” He devised a plan for placing Native tribes into one or two large reservations, which would be subject to the constant possibility of military attack. He believed that confining indigenous people to reservations was a necessary step toward their ultimate assimilation. They would be “trained and reformed […] to enter civilized society.”
Over the course of American history—and still to this day—Native people have been subject to the arbitrary and contradictory whims of a long stream of white people. A Different Mirror emphasizes that none of these figures have been qualified to make decisions on behalf of indigenous people, because none have been indigenous themselves. Moreover, their constantly changing and inconsistent attitudes have made life hellish for Native communities, who must constantly readjust to arbitrary new rules and policies.
Other white reformers were opposed to the segregation that involved in confining Native people to reservations. In 1887, Congress passed the Dawes Act, which some reformers happily nicknamed the “Indian Emancipation Act.” This divided reservations into allotments to be owned by individual families, with the “surplus” land being sold to white settlers. Through participating in the allotment program, Native people would be eligible to become US citizens. This policy reflected the general view that, unlike other groups (such as the Chinese), Indians were capable of assimilation. The allotment system also included the establishment of schools where Indian children would speak English and “learn the ways of civilization.”
In all cases, what was celebrated as progress and reform by white people did not actually bring justice to Indians. Takaki suggests that the only way in which such justice would arrive would be in the form of reparations and the return of the land taken from indigenous nations. Instead, Native people were forced down a seemingly never-ending rollercoaster of different policies orchestrated by a government that ultimately wanted to maintain control over them.
Rituals took place wherein Native people would change from traditional dress into Western clothing, exchanging a bow and arrow for a plow, in order to symbolize their transformation into “Americans.” The Dawes Act essentially gave Indians land they already owned while also taking some of that land for white settlers. In the following years, Congress granted the right to build railroads throughout Indian territories. Land that was not being cultivated was seen as being wasted and unneeded by Native people.
The strange and ironic thing about these rituals is that a reverse version of them was repeated by settler children in summer camps in the twentieth century. Here, Native people were ritualistically inducted into settler culture, while in many summer camps, white children performed rituals where they dressed as Indians as a way of inhabiting a mythic form of original American identity.
In 1902, Congress passed an act that required Indian land to be put up for public auction upon the death of the owner. The family members could only gain the land if they purchased it. This was deliberately designed to transfer Indian land into the hands of settlers. Four years later, the protections of Indian land ownership assured by the Dawes Act were eliminated. Theoretically, the goal was for Indians to become farm workers, but in reality Indians became an impoverished, “landless people.” In 1934, the allotment program was abruptly brought to an end by the Indian Reorganization Act, written by the Indian affairs commissioner John Collier.
There was a horrifying shamelessness to the way that the American government deliberately and obviously dispossessed Indians of their land. This was half-heartedly hidden under the guise of “protections” and other policies that were theoretically meant to seem as if they were helping Native people. Yet ultimately the government did not care what their theft of the land looked like, because Native people had no power to stop them from doing it.
Collier admired certain aspects of Native cultures, such as communalism, and believed that Native people should be allowed to retain their unique identity and heritage. He saw that allotment was ruining communal forms of life and thus wrote a bill that ended the practice, while allowing indigenous peoples to govern themselves and promoting the preservation of indigenous cultures. Roosevelt was pleased with the bill, which came to be known as the “Indian New Deal.” It was up to individual tribes to decide whether they wanted to accept the measures in the bill. 172 voted to be included, whereas 73 tribes decided to exclude themselves from its measures.
Some government representatives, perhaps including Collier, had genuine sympathy for Native people and wanted to improve their conditions. Yet Takaki emphasizes that whatever good intentions existed could not justify the fundamental injustice of US colonization of Indian land and the paternalistic, controlling relationship with Native people that developed as a result.
Among the tribes who refused the bill was the Navajo. In 1863, Navajos had been forced to march to new land, where they were to become “civilized” and switch from herding to farming. However, they refused, and were eventually able to return home and keep practicing their original way of life. Although the Indian New Deal theoretically gave Native people self-determination, in reality it was still a patronizing attempt to manipulate and control Indians without surrendering any real power.
The Navajo’s experience shows why Native nations were reasonably suspicious of any and all measures coming from the government. Why should they trust a people who had taken their land, killed off a huge percentage of their population, and were now subjecting them to arbitrary authoritarian control?
Collier saw that soil erosion caused by the overgrazing of sheep would soon endanger the Navajo way of life, and decided that it was the government’s responsibility to intervene. He compared the relationship of the government to the Navajos to that between a parent and child. He was also concerned about how soil erosion would affect white settlers. He announced a plan for the government to buy sheep and goats from Navajos. When he presented this plan to representatives of the tribe, they were angry and adamant that they would keep their sheep. To them, sheep were more than just “stock”: the animals represented their way of life.
Again, Collier may have had good intentions, but these were severely undermined by his misguided, patronizing belief that he was the “parent” to Native “children.” Such an attitude, as readers have already seen, was unjust and deeply dehumanizing. Furthermore, it ignored the fact that indigenous people had successfully lived on this land for centuries; they knew how to sustainably farm the land, and certainly did not need the intervention of settlers.
However, Collier went ahead with the stock reduction program anyway. Although they didn’t want to, the poorest Navajos were compelled to sell their sheep because they needed the money. Soon, most Navajos had resorted to supporting themselves with wage labor, which meant they were dependent on the government and the New Deal work programs. Even worse, in the end it turned out that overgrazing was not the cause of soil erosion, and that stock reduction was therefore unnecessary. Navajos already knew this, but the government did not listen to them. As longtime residents of the land, the Navajo knew that soil erosion was fixed by the coming of rain. This knowledge had been passed down the generations.
Takaki shows how the government’s dismissal of indigenous knowledge was not just wrong because it was based in ignorance and prejudice; it was wrong because it had an adverse effect on the land, Native communities, and indeed the country as a whole.