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The Native American and The Culture of Incorporation

12 High Ranking Kiowa Officials on their way to Washington

In the last decades of the nineteenth century Native Americans suffered countless assaults and indigneties under a brutal, and congressionally mandated, program aimed at incorporating the Native American into mainstream America. This period, known as the Gilded Age, was in fact the age of incorporation, a time when developments like the railroad and the telegraph made the vast United States a smaller and more manageble place. Americans were introduced to national brands, national corporations, and national pastimes as they developed an increasingly incorporated national culture. The message sent by the White City at the Columbian Fair of 1893, "the first expression of American thought as unity," represented the fulfillment of an incorporated American culture(Trachtenberg 220).

Not all Americans shared in this unity of thought. Chief Simon Pokagon, whose family had originally owned the section of Chicago upon which the White City was built, wrote the "Red Man's Rebuke" in order to vent his frustration at lack of representation accorded to the first Americans. As thier relative absence from the Fair's exhibits suggests Native Americans remained unincorporated in the age of incorporation.

Yet in this generic age mainstream white America worked hard to force Native Americans to assimilate and take thier place among the already incorporated. The experience of the Native American in this period, a time defined by the massacre of hundreds at Wounded Knee and the assination and imprisonment of thier leaders most notably Crazy Horse and Geronimo, speaks to the dangers of forced cultural assimilation.

 

As John Gast's painting "American Progress"(shown above) suggests the traditional Native American, a dying breed even at the onset of the Gilded Age, remained cast as the "savage other," the outsider, and signified, to the agents of incorporation, a road block to the "grand drama of progress." Native American warriors like Sitting Bull, Chief Joseph, and Geronimo remained the enemies of incorporation.

Native Americans represented a special problem to those who sought to incorporate the west and saw the land as a resource to be exploited. In The Incorporation of America Alan Trachtenberg explains the problem posed by Native Americans to the agents of incorporation: "The Indian projected a fact of a different order from land and resources: a human fact of racial and cultural difference not as easily incorporated as minerals and soil and timber"(27).

Thus in the Gilded Age white Americans were increasingly interested in solving the so-called "Indian problem and attempted through various means to figure out "how to get rid of it in the easiest and quickest way possible, and to bring the Indian and every Indian in to" their incorporated culture.

The agents and agencies of incorporation took various forms. In 1887 the movement to forcibly incorporate the Native Americans was legalized when Congress passed the Dawes Severalty or General Allotment Act. The Dawes Act offered Native Americans a choice between thier own legally sanction extinction and incorporation. It, according to Alan Trachtenberg:

"implied a theory and pedagogical vision of America itself.....manifested in practical terms. To every male Indian 'who has voluntarily taken up ....his residence apart from any tribe... and has adopted the habits of civilized[read white] life,' the act offered not only an allotment of land for private cultivation but the prospect of full American citizenship. It offered a choice: either abandon Indian society and culture, and thus become a 'free' American, or remain an Indian socially and legally dependent.


NEXT: THE NATIVE AMERICAN IN POPULAR CULTURE

 

Designed and Created by Laura Grand-Jean MA '01