The following is based on Dr Beverly Tatum’s excellent book, “Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” (1997):
Growing up Native American or American Indian is not well understood, not like growing up black or white in America. There are 750 different Native peoples, like the Sioux, Hopi and Navajo, each one different from the next. But since the coming of the white man they share a common history, an experience that makes it useful to talk about them as a whole.
Most people who grow up in America who cannot pass for white go through these four stages:
- race does not matter
- experience of racism
- making sense of your race or ethnicity
- becoming proud of your race or ethnicity and moving forward with a secure sense of who you are
Blacks and Asian Americans go through these stages, though some do not make it all the way through. Same for Native Americans, but with one huge, important difference: stage 3 is way harder.
Native Americans have come through a full-blown genocide that has not only wiped out their numbers but much of their cultures – their language, customs, history and understanding of the world. The very things you need for stage 3.
Blacks and Asians have rich. living cultures to fall back on – to understand who they are and where they come from. It allows them to build an identity, a sense of who they are that is independent of White America, which they will need to stand up to its racism, to not sink into despair, insecurity and self-hatred.
No such luck for most Native Americans: they just have bits and pieces left of their cultures from the war and disease of the 1800s and, even worse, the forced assimilation of the early 1900s.
In the early 1900s Native children were taken from their families and sent far away to boarding schools. There the government cut them off from their families to turn them into white people, teaching them to feel shame for being Native – instead of pride like their families would have taught them while passing on their culture.
Native Americans gave up their culture to become White Americans. But because of how they looked most were never fully accepted as White Americans. Because White America is more than a culture – it is a race. The melting pot only works for white people.
So trying to make Native children into white people failed profoundly. Many turned to drink or crime or even to ending their lives. Many lived in poverty. Worse still, they had little they could pass on to their children in the way of a culture, leaving them defenceless in the face of a white racism that tells them they are no good.
For Native Americans to function well in an America that is still racist they need roots in their own culture so they can be proud of who they are – because they will certainly not get that from trying to be white.