The Great Confusion in Indian Affairs: Native Americans and Whites in the Progressive Era.
As the title suggests, this book is about the inconsistencies that have characterized government relations with Native Americans. Tom Holm focuses upon the era of the "vanishing policy," the Progressive Era effort to eradicate all traces of indigenous identity and culture between the 1870s and 1920s. As the author illustrates, policies such as land allotment and boarding school education, despite their totalizing scope and often rigid enforcement, ultimately failed. Holm addresses how this failure reflects both the resilience of Native "peoplehood" and the contradictions that characterized reformer ideology.
The bulk of The Great Confusion in Indian Affairs addresses the conflicts that existed among reformers. However, Holm understands their "confusion" not as the product of idiosyncratic characteristics but rather as a logical result of a larger colonial process that occurred worldwide as European nations expanded into Africa, Asia, and the Americas five hundred years ago. Providing a theoretical foundation for this understanding, he draws from a Canadian report commissioned during the early 1980s that broke the relationship between aboriginal peoples and colonizers into distinct stages: "displacement, restriction, assimilation, structural accommodation, and, finally, self-determination" (x). Holm argues that the period of time covered in his book is one of transition between "assimilation" and "structural accommodation," and that this transitional character largely explains the confusions that he describes.
Central to Holm's argument is the concept of "peoplehood," a concept drawn from the work of Edward Spicer, George Pierre Castille, Gibert Kushner, and Bob Thomas that identifies "the resiliency of enclaved groups" with the ability to sustain language, a sense of place, religious ceremonies, anda sense of "Sacred History" (xiv). In an early chapter, Holm provides examples of how different Native Americans maintained their sense of peoplehood in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries through such practices as the Sun Dance, the Hope Snake Dance, Sequoyah's creation of a Cherokee syllabary, and the sustained resistance to removal among the Cherokee Keetoowah society (23-49).
Yet the primary focus of the book is not upon specific indigenous cultures but rather the turbulent nature of the colonial transition that gave birth to the "vanishing policies." The assimilation policies of the late nineteenth century advocated by reform-minded groups such as Friends of the Indian and the Lake Mohonk Conference took direct aim at indigenous peoplehood. Indian boarding schools attempted to eradicate native languages and impose Christianity, while laws such as the Dawes Severalty Act worked finally to erase indigenous relationships with their land (1-22). Yet by the turn of the century, the assumptions behind these policies began to weaken, particularly as white reformers began to recognize the value of Indian arts.
Holm illustrates the ideological instability of this era with an intellectual history of such "New Indians" as Charles Eastman, Carlos Montezuma, Laura Cornelius, and Arthur C. Parker. Each had become highly educated within elite institutions of the United States, had taken up the cause of pan-Indian causes, and had, to varying degrees, endorsed policies of assimilation for Native Americans. Yet their attitudes toward pan-Indian identity varied widely, from the hard-line assimilation position advocated by Carlos Montezuma to Laura Cornelius's celebration of Indian arts and advocacy of utopian independent Indian communities (50-84).
Holm points out that arguments over assimilation not only existed between whites and Indians, but also within groups, such as the debates among the "New Indians," or the battles that erupted between the new reformers of the twentieth century who advocated a preservation of Indian arts, and Carlisle Indian School founder Richard Henry Pratt, a rigid assimilationist. In addition, inconsistencies characterized the very nature of the vanishing policies themselves. For example, reformers professed that assimilation would free Native Americans from the yoke of government control. In fact, the policy of assimilation expanded the Bureau of Indian Affairs tremendously, leading to ever greater levels of bureaucracy and control than had existed before that time (154).
Holm's book provides an excellent overview of the Indian policies of the Progressive Era. By framing them within the context of colonial transition, he provides a valuable contribution to scholarship and interprets Native American-white relations within a larger story of European expansion and conquest. The broad scope of this book places it within the tradition of the groundbreaking work on federal Indian policy by Frederick Hoxie and pan-Indian identity by Hazel Hertzberg. The author might have provided more support for his claims to the resilience of indigenous peoplehood had he referenced some of the excellent work produced by scholars such as Margaret Archulet, Brenda Child, or Tsianina Lomawaima about student life at Indian boarding schools, or if he had addressed the theoretical concept of "survivance" advanced by Gerald Vizenor. However, as a clearly written book by someone with extensive teaching experience, it could be assigned to intermediate or advanced survey courses in Native American history.
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2007|
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