Opinion

Dina Gilio-Whitaker: Native American Heritage Month history





"The Bureau of Indian Affairs website chronicles the history leading up to the establishment of Native American Heritage Month, connecting it to the early 1900’s and the efforts of Dr. Arthur Caswell Parker, a Seneca Indian (and great-nephew of General Ely S. Parker who had served as Secretary to Ulysses S. Grant during the Civil War), who was the first to advocate for a date to be set aside to honor Native people. Like his uncle before him, Parker was a staunch supporter of Indian citizenship at a time when the Dawes Act mandate of forced assimilation had a stranglehold on Indian country.

Citizenship was a tool of assimilation and during the Dawes years it was a tool for alienating Indians from their lands. Under the Dawes Act, allotments were held in federal trust for 25 years, during which time they were prohibited from sale. In 1906 the Burke Act amended the Dawes Act by lifting the 25-year restriction to those deemed “competent and capable of managing his own or her own affairs” and has “adopted the habits of civilized life.” Competency was associated with European ancestry (meaning the more white ancestry one had the more competent they were considered), determined by competency commissions, whether requested or not. After the lifting of the restriction, lands could be sold and citizenship was conferred. The granting of citizenship took the form of an elaborate ritual in which Indians publicly rejected their Indian identities for their American citizenship. During the Dawes years, as Vine Deloria put it in his book American Indians, American Justice, “citizenship, which is supposed to be a personal right of the individual, was really a function of the status of whatever real estate the Indian might possess.”"

Get the Story:
Dina Gilio-Whitaker: Native American Heritage Month: Reconciling the Contentious History of a Nation (Indian Country Today 11/19)