Native American Assimilation

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The United States of America has seen profound changes within its borders throughout its history, from the Reconstruction following the civil war, to the changing tides of its immigration policies. The gilded age of 1870-1890, and the progressive era of 1900-1919 were times of many shifting aspects that left an indelible impact on American society. People in the United States from all walks of life felt the widespread ripples of change elicited by these times. Although the fruits of these eras were numerous and enjoyed by many, countless others were not so fortunate as to share in the splendor of the times. Throughout the gilded age and the progressive era, Native American populations of the United States were subjected to profound discrimination, forced assimilation, and marginalization. Several methods throughout the course of these periods were employed to force assimilation, all the while managing to subdue the sovereign spirit of Native Americans, and reduce both their lands, and their populations.

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Throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s, many Native American populations, largely from the Western region of the United States, were required to attend Americanization schools7. Reservation day schools, reservation boarding schools, and off-reservation boarding schools were the three distinct forms that the Americanization schools took on2. The reservation day school curriculum was academic, along with actual industrial training, while the reservation boarding schools split their curriculum of the English language with the academic and industrial components2. In these schools, adults and children alike were instructed, and required, to relinquish all observable aspects of their traditional culture including dress, religion, and language. A student of Pennsylvania’s Carlisle Indian School composed a poem that offers a glimpse into the daily life of a Native American student in a typical Indian boarding school, “Now this may sound like going a fishing, But this is my only industrial position”2. This student’s poem sheds light on the strict, fast-paced, and stressor-rife life that Carlisle’s pupils, and those of countless other Indian boarding schools had to endure2. The daily school schedules were practically full from start to finish, and if the hectic nature of the schedule wasn’t enough, all the while the students also had to endure the constant pressing of forced assimilation and blatant hegemonic attitudes2. The widely-shared progressive ideals of the early 1900s were a strong driving force of the continued use of Americanization schools for Native Americans. As Cristina Stanciu describes, “Advocates of assimilation and Americanization saw the schoolhouse as a “seedbed of republican virtues” and believed that such institutions could “civilize” in record time, preparing Indians for material self-sufficiency”2. This common ideal of the Progressive Era once again manifests the “white man’s burden” in the sense that many Americans believed it was their duty to civilize the uncivilized Native American populations of the country.

In close association with the goals of the Americanization schools, many outside forms of education were also used in an attempt to achieve complete Native American assimilation to Anglo-American culture. One such tactic employed to further the Americanization process was the use of parades of non-traditionally clothed Native Americans through public streets for fellow Native Americans, and their non-Native American counterparts alike to witness3. As John Gram of the Native American Quarterly explains, “The banners on the float spoke not of the past but of the future–a future when, like these children, Native Americans would submit to the inevitable reality of Anglo-American hegemony, take their place alongside other Americans as fellow citizens, and enjoy the sort of freedom that education and assimilation could grant”3. The American government and a large majority of its citizens believed that if Native Americans renounced their traditional practices and ways of life in favor of the “true American” lifestyle, the long-standing tension between the two would diminish, and their would be far less obstacles in the way of acquiring Native American land and resources6. The common American theme of “manifest destiny” had spread its influence to what many referred to as, “the Native American problem”.

In addition to using Americanization schools and parades to achieve Native American assimilation to the Anglo-American way of life, land allotment practices were also applied. The Dawes Act, implemented in 1887, granted the President of the United States the power to break apart Native American reservations and allot portions of the land to individuals11. Also within the Dawes Act itself, is stated that the government shall be allowed to spread the so-called protection and insurance that United States laws should apply to Native Americans as well11. Up until this act was implemented, most constitutional rights and amendments along with national laws did not apply to Native Americans, as they were not considered citizens of the United States. This act granted Native Americans citizenship, regardless of whether they wanted it or not11. At the time of its implementation, Americans were scrambling to acquire as much land for themselves as possible, posing an imminent threat to Native American land. This served as the underlying justification for the Dawes Act, as it was supposed to uphold the rights of Native American lands6. Although the act claimed to support and protect Native Americans, in many cases, it failed. Several of the portions of land that were allotted to individuals were not capable of supporting a farming lifestyle, which the livelihoods of many Native Americans depended on7. Conversely, individuals who were given land that allowed for farming, were unable to afford the necessary commodities to farm, and were therefore unable to sustain themselves7. In addition to ill-suited environmental conditions, the Dawes Act also deprived Native Americans of over 90 million acres of previously owned land9. Upon learning of the realistic outcomes of the Dawes Act in stark contrast to its justification, the true motives for the act become more clear. The United States was once again using the idea of “civilizing savages”, this time granting them with inadequate land ownership as a justification for stealing lands and forcing the ways of life of one group, onto another.

Of the many forms of imposing one’s ways of life onto another, religion is one of the most commonly affected central targets. Freedom of religion is a cornerstone to the foundation of the United States, but this freedom, for all groups to practice their religion of choice, has been a constant source of conflict throughout the nation’s history. Native Americans are among the many groups in the country who have not been so fortunate as to savor in the promise of complete freedom of religion. Among the innumerable ways that religion is practiced throughout the world, dancing is revered as one of the most important to many Native American tribes4. For instance, established in 1889, many Native Americans danced the Ghost Dance to keep their religion alive, and to spread the message of shaman Wovoka, who prophesied that Indian tribes would be resurrected and united, and evil (whites) would be banished from their lands8. Although dances such as these were harmless, non-Native Americans were threatened by the ideals it embodied and its assertion of Native American sovereignty, and sought to end this practice by any means possible. Forbidding dancing, meant stripping Native Americans of their identity, thus forcing them to assimilate at a more rapid pace, which is what many non-Native Americans aimed to achieve4. Several legal restrictions and codes were implemented to achieve this goal, but more extreme and violent measures were also taken. Hundreds of Native American men, women and children were slaughtered by the US army at the Wounded Knee massacre when they were witnessed peacefully partaking in the Ghost Dance on their reservation1. For the assimilation-driven, the Native American practice of dancing was seen as a defiant mechanism keeping them from being self-sufficient, civilized, model American citizens. The many consistent, increasingly unpleasant measures to smother Native American culture and sovereignty posed a very serious threat to Native American populations and the spirit of their people.

The many forms of discrimination, marginalization, and forced assimilation are ills that have resurfaced time and time again throughout history, and are not soon to fade from existence. The grand legacy of the gilded age and progressive era of the United States will forever be tainted by the country’s treatment of its Native American populations. The United States wanted so badly to subdue the sovereign spirit and vibrant , distinguished culture of Native American tribes, that they did everything in their power to force assimilation upon them. The country’s desire for assimilation was driven by the age-old idea of “manifest destiny”, using the Dawes Act to claim massive amounts of Native American land in return for citizenship that did little to nothing to uphold Native American rights. From Americanization schooling, to parading visibly-assimilated Native Americans through the streets, the country was determined to once again take on “the white man’s burden” and civilize “the uncivilized”. Although times have changed drastically since the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era, as Sherry Smith asserted, “The tension between exercising power over their lives and submitting to forces beyond their control remains current in Indian country”.7


James Mooney, “The Ghost-dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890,” 14th Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, Part 2. (1891):

Cristina Sanciu, “‘That Is Why I Sent You to Carlisle’ : Carlisle Poetry and the Demands of Americanization Poetics and Politics,” American Indian Quarterly 37: (2013).

John Gram, “Acting out Assimilation: Playing Indian and Becoming American in the Federal Indian Boarding Schools,” The American Indian Quarterly 40, no. 3: (2016).

Jose Hobday, “Forced Assimilation and the Native American Dance,” Cross Currents 26, no. 2: (1976).

Gabriella Treglia, “Using Citizenship to Retain Identity: The Native American Dance Bans of the Later Assimilation Era,” Journal of American Studies 47, no. 3: (2013).

John Pyne and Gloria Sesso, “Federal Indian Policy in the Gilded Age. Lesson Plan,” OAH Magazine of History 9, no.3: (1995).

Sherry Smith, “Comments: Native Americans and Indian Policy in the Progressive Era,” The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 9, no.4: (2010).

Michelle Getchell, “The Ghost Dance and Wounded Knee,” Khan Academy: (2016).

Our Documents, “Transcript of Dawes Act,” (1887).

Our Documents, “Dawes Act,” (1887).

Edited by Frederick Hoxie, “Dawes Act,” Encyclopedia of North American Indians, Houghton Mifflin: (1996).


  1. Mooney, James. “The Ghost-dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890,” 14th Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, Part 2. Accessed November 13, 2018.
  2. “Chicago Style Citation Quick Quide,” The Chicago Manual of Style. Accessed November 28, 2018.
  3. Stanciu, Cristina. “‘That Is Why I Sent You to Carlisle’: Carlisle Poetry and the Demands of Americanization Poetics and Politics.” American Indian Quarterly 37, no. 1-2 (2013): 34-76. Accessed November 28, 2018.
  4. Gram, John R. “Acting out Assimilation: Playing Indian and Becoming American in the Federal Indian Boarding Schools.” The American Indian Quarterly 40, no. 3 (2016): 251-273. Accessed November 28, 2018.
  5. Hobday, Jose. “Forced Assimilation and the Native American Dance.” Cross Currents 26, no. 2 (1976): 189-194. Accessed November 28. 2018.
  6. Treglia, Gabriella. “Using Citizenship to Retain Identity: The Native American Dance Bans of the Later Assimilation Era, 1900-1933.” Journal of American Studies 47, no. 3 (2013): 777-800. Accessed November 28, 2018.
  7. Pyne, John, and Sesso, Gloria. “Federal Indian Policy in the Gilded Age. Lesson Plan.” OAH Magazine of History 9, no. 3 (1995): 46-55. Accessed November 28, 2018.
  8. Smith, Sherry. “Comments: Native Americans and Indian Policy in the Progressive Era.” The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 9, no. 4 (2010): 503-07. Accessed November 28, 2018.
  9. Getchell, Michelle. “The Ghost Dance and Wounded Knee.” Khan Academey. (2016). Accessed November 28, 2017.
  10. Our Documents. “Transcript of Dawes Act (1887).” Accessed November 28, 2018.
  11. Our Documents. “Dawes Act (1887).” Accessed November 28, 2018.
  12. “Dawes Act.” In Encyclopedia of North American Indians, Houghton Mifflin, edited by Frederick E. Hoxie. Houghton Mifflin, 1996. Accessed November 28, 2018.
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Native American Assimilation. (2020, Jan 10). Retrieved November 30, 2022 , from

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