They took away everything except the spirit, which they were incapable of seeing.
Julia Esquivel, You Can’t Drown the Fire, 197
A people’s spirit can be wounded, dishonored, and diminished. Their land can be stolen, their leaders killed, their people enslaved, their children starved. Remembering the spirit of their people’s resistance they will, nevertheless, endure. The most dangerous and insidious tactic of the colonizer is the attempt to destroy the people’s spirit. Such a strategy aims a weapon at the people’s culture, attempting to “adapt” that culture to the “civilized” culture by negating the culture of the colonized. This leads to self-hatred on the part of children who grow up in the shadows of the hated (or feared) subjugating culture. This strategy also reinforces in the colonizer’s descendants a legacy of moral superiority, which, because it is a lie, is morally corrosive.
Consider, for example, the damage to the Indian spirit, as well as the moral character of Americans, to have U.S. government policies state an objective of cultural destruction of Indian nations. After the buffalo were killed off the Great Plains, after wild horses no longer ran the open range, and after red people of this land were penned into reservations, the white fathers in Washington made policies to win the final war against the Indians. This was the cultural war; the weapon used was law and policy. The objective of U.S. Indian policy was to deny Native American cultural identity. Psychologists insist that the failure to know who you are leads to madness, suicide, or violent rage. It is psychic death. Yet this was Indian policy. Here is an extract from the Annual Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in 1889. “The logic of events demands the absorption of citizens….The Indians must conform to ‘the white man’s ways,’ peaceably if they will, forcibly if they must….They cannot escape it and must conform to it or be crushed by it” (Prucha, ed., 177)
Indian Commissioner Morgan then goes on to identify the essence of U.S. “civilization” and the Indian cultural practices which presented obstacles to their enculturation. “The tribal relations should be broken up, socialism destroyed, and the family and autonomy of the individual substituted. The allotment of lands in severalty, the establishment of local courts and police, the development of person sense of independence, and the universal adoption of the English language are the means to this end” (Prucha, ed., 177).
The excerpt below from the Annual Report of the Secretary of the Interior also identifies the Indian cultural values of community and non ownership of sacred land as obstacles to their civilization. “The value of property as an agent of civilization ought not to be overlooked. When an Indian acquires property…he has made a step forward in the road to civilization” (Prucha, ed., 161).
The clash of cultures centers on the property right and individualism of the white way and the communal and non acquisitive values of the Indian. Identifying individualism and private property as civilization not only destroys Indian culture but exposes the spiritual bankruptcy of white mainstream culture. The most morally damaging aspect of U.S. Indian policy for the “civilized” citizens of the United States was and is presented as a moral effort much the way modern wars against “communist” or “terrorist” nations are fought in the name of God to save civilizations from the new “savages.” The forms of “morality” used to justify destruction of Indian culture can be overtly racist or sympathetic, as the next two government documents illustrate. Whether the conservatives or the liberals decided Indian policy, the result was still the same: reservations, broken treaties, the banning of Indian language and rituals in the reservation schools: in short, cultural destruction. Indian Commissioner Price recommended a policy that would solve the “Indian Problem” in 1881:
To domesticate and civilize wild Indians is a noble work, the accomplishment of which should be a crown of glory to any nation. But to allow them to drag along year after year, and generation after generation, in their old superstitions, laziness, and filth, when we have the power to elevate them in the scale of humanity, would be a lasting disgrace of our government…savage and civilized life cannot prosper on the same ground. One of the two must die. If the Indians are to be civilized…they must learn our language and adopt our modes of life. We are fifty millions of people, and they are only one fourth of a million. The few must yield to the many.
From the Annual Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, October 24, 1881, in Francis Paul Prucha, ed., Documents of United States Indian Policy, 156
Is the more sympathetic “liberal” approach of Indian Commissioner Walker, which follows, much different in practice from Commissioner Price’s harsh tone?
Had the settlements of the United States not been extended beyond the frontier of 1867, all the Indians of the continent would to the end of time have found upon the plains an inexhaustible supply of food and clothing. Were the westward course of population to be stayed at the barriers of today…the Indians would still have hope of life.
The freedom of expansion which is working these results is to us of incalculable value. To the Indian it is of incalculable cost. Every year’s advantage of our frontier takes in a territory as large as some of the kingdoms of Europe. We are richer by hundreds of millions; the Indian is poorer by a large part of the little he has. This growth if bringing imperial greatness to the nation; to the Indian it brings wretchedness, destitution, beggary….
Can any principle of national morality be clearer than that, when the expansion of development of a civilized race involves the rapid destruction of the only means of subsistence possessed by the members of a less fortunate race, the higher is bound as of simple right to provide for the lower some substitute for the means of subsistence which it has destroyed? That substitute is, of course, best realized, not by systematic gratuities of food and clothing continued beyond a present emergency, but by directing these people to new pursuits which shall be consistent with the progress of civilization upon the continent, helping them over the first rough places on the
white man’s road.”
Commissioner Walker, Annual Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, in Francis Paul Prucha, ed., Documents of United States Indian Policy, 137