Forgotten nations. US policy toward native Americans

President Washington's Indian War, by Wiley Sword. Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press. 399 pp. $24.95. The Indians in American Society, by Francis Paul Prucha. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press. 127 pp. $15.95. Shadows of the Indian: Stereotypes in American Culture, by Raymond William Stedman. Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press. 302 pp. $14.95. Amid all the discussion these days about the furthering of civil rights and economic self-sufficiency in the third world, it is often forgotten that thousands within the United States continue to live under adverse political and economic circumstances, not totally unlike conditions found in some developing nations.

Many of these Americans are minorities who find themselves on the sidelines of the nation's overall economic growth. The subgroup that most fits within this category would have to be the nation's large -- and growing -- native American community. Ironically, the Indians themselves are not hard to find. Many have moved to urban areas. But most are tucked away on tribal reservations -- just as they have been for the past century. By one count there are some 288 reservations in 26 states.

These three books provide an illuminating, uncomfortable reminder of how America's original inhabitants have fared. Simply put, they have not fared well. Indians can point to between 300 and 400 treaties with Washington by which tribes ceded close to a billion acres of land to the United States. What is troubling is that the US, in return, has yet to produce a comprehensive and workable Indian policy.

The historical record is not all one-sided, as Wiley Sword's account makes clear. Cruelty and duplicity were found on both sides. Some Indian tribes back in colonial and post-Revolutionary days were not above committing the most macabre acts of terrorism. And whites could engage in indiscriminate slaughter when they attacked tribal villages. From the outset, two cultures, two civilizations, clashed -- the Indians, with their shared communal values and reverence for land and wildlife; the white man, with his desire for a private plot to cultivate a crop and raise a family, his urge to tame forest and plain and build cities. Little wonder a US senator could say, as one reportedly did shortly before the year 1900: ``They [Indians] must either change their mode of life or they must die.''

The conflict, back in colonial America as throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, has been over land. The white settlers wanted to move west. The Indians in the way were conquered on the battlefield -- and resettled. But that does not mean that their hearts were conquered, as Wiley Sword notes. Rather, as he eloquently concludes, ``the Indians' legacy remains, well fulfilling a prophesy that physical persecution is inevitably momentary, while the free spirit of man endures forever.''

Over the years, US Indian policy has largely been based on paternalism and dependency. That changed somewhat in the 1930s with the New Deal and an administration in Washington sympathetic to tribal self-government. Since 1983, the Reagan administration's avowed policy has been that of self-government and private economic development for reservations. But federal budget reductions in a broad range of social programs have tended to undercut economic self-development on reservations.

Mr. Sword's account of early US Indian policy involving the Old Northwest Territory in the period from 1790 to 1795 provides the stirring visuals: tribal councils, scalping parties, and military raids -- heroes and villains on both sides.

The Rev. Francis Paul Prucha's little book (written to be read at a single sitting and based on a series of lectures) provides an excellent overview of US Indian policy. Fr. Prucha, a professor of history at Marquette University in Milwaukee, makes a strong case for tribal self-sufficiency.

Dr. Stedman's account, meanwhile, aimed at a general audience as much as at scholars, records the extent to which Americans have misperceived the Indian over the centuries. This is the first paperback edition of a book originally published in hard cover in 1982.

It contains close to 200 illustrations. The Lone Ranger and Tonto are there. So, too, are Chingachgook and Hawkeye, Red Ryder and Little Beaver, Pocahontas, Sacajawea, and Ramona, as well as artwork on the Cleveland Indians and Boston Braves baseball teams. But there are no pictures of the two most obvious examples of the pervasive influence of the Indian on American society -- the Indian head pennies and Buffalo nickels found in virtually every pocket in the land during the latter part of the last century and the first decades of this one.

What all three books most underscore is the extent to which contemporary Americans -- Indian and non-Indian alike -- remain captive to their historical past. The books also underscore the need for a rethinking of US Indian policy. As Dr. Prucha's fine account makes clear, defining a workable US Indian policy involves reconciling deep paradoxes -- Indian insistence on maintaining traditions that are, to a large extent, anti-capitalist and the need for Indians to become more enterprising and profit-oriented to break the poverty cycle. For many tribes, this involves more assertively developing their own rich natural resources, including land, oil, and mineral wealth.

One starting point for both government and the news media to begin shaping a more productive Indian policy would be to focus on tribes that have somewhat managed to reconcile past and present, such as the Navajo and Northern Cheyenne, rather than concentrating, as is so often the case, on more economically troubled tribes such as the Sioux.

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