Montana, a western state in the US, is both worse and more familiar than I expected – at least as Native American sociologist Luana Ross tells it in her book “Inventing the Savage: The Social Construction of Native American Criminality” (1998).
Montana drew in Whites in large numbers starting in the 1880s. It had land for raising cows, it had silver, it had gold and, most of all, it had copper.
Many Natives in Montana depended on hunting bisons, but most bisons had been wiped out by the 1870s. When Whites arrived it got even worse: White-owned cows behind fences took the place of roaming bisons.
The US government gave away Native land to Whites through Homestead Acts in the late 1800s and early 1900s. They forced Natives onto reservations, pieces of land Whites did not want. And then they gave away the best of the reservation lands too.
By 1978 Natives had only 2.4% of Montana left.
In addition to taking their land:
- Further destruction of their economy: Whites killed their horses.
- Destruction of leadership: Whites killed or locked up many Native leaders. In their place came White judges, White police officers, White schoolteachers – and Natives who would do their bidding.
- Destruction of culture: Whites outlawed Native religion, criminalized their work and marriage patterns (“vagrancy” and “adultery” became crimes), punished men for wearing long hair, forced their children to receive a White education, etc. To leave a reservation you needed a pass. Since the 1930s many of these laws have been overturned, but the cultural damage was done, making Natives easier to control.
- Stereotypes: Natives as shiftless, savage, drunk, immoral, criminal, unintelligent, irresponsible, as unable to manage their own affairs, as a drain on society, as living the high life on government handouts paid for by hard-working (White) taxpayers. The “good Indians” are the silent ones who know their place. These stereotypes have changed little since the 1800s. It is part of why the law comes down way harder on Natives than on Whites. These stereotypes lead to:
- Internalized racism among Natives, which leads to internalized brutality: high rates of murder, domestic violence and substance abuse.
- Segregation: Even when Whites live within the bounds of a reservation, like Flathead (the government having sold its best lands), Whites will still have their own schools, churches, bars, museums and newspapers.
So what do Natives do?
At a personal level, the main choices are:
- Identificational assimilation: You see White culture as better (colonized mentality) and take on White ways to be accepted by the White world.
- Withdrawal: You see Native culture as better and withdraw into a largely Native world.
At the tribal level the big issue is:
- Sovereignty: Natives used to have independent nations, complete with their own land, leadership, language, laws, religion, etc. Despite the huge damage done by Whites, these nations are trying to hold onto what little they have left and gain back some of what they have lost.