Indian reformers spoke out to save their native cultures

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Historian Frederick Hoxie introduces his new volume of writings from early American Indian reformers with a startling statement: “Of all the myths that distort our understanding of the Native American experience, none is more powerful than the belief that the rise of the modern United States caused the destruction of the Indians’ culture.”

In the book, Talking Back to Civilization: Indian Voices From the Progressive Era (Bedford/St. Martin’s), Hoxie states up front that while the expansion of the United States destroyed peoples and traditions, “it fell short of wiping out the continent’s indigenous cultures.”

He also notes that as tragic as the 19th century was, it marked “but a moment in the long history of a people.”

Indian pioneers.

Indigenous cultures persisted largely because of the efforts of American Indian pioneers who, in daring to speak out in the first decades of the 20th century, “inspired the cultural survival that has become the central theme of their modern history,” wrote Hoxie.

The book is anchored to the historical record – speeches, court statements, memoirs, cartoons – which offers a cross-section of courageous American Indian “back talk.”

Those who criticized and challenged the U.S. government, Hoxie argues, created “the earliest infrastructure for the modern Native American community.

Indians communicated.

“By making their ideas known, finding places where they could be heard, and encouraging the emergence of new political leaders, they made it possible for Indians to communicate with outsiders and with each other in new ways.”

Probably the best known American Indian reformer was Charles Eastman, a Santee Sioux.

After being sent to a Christian boarding school like most of the reformers, Eastman “blazed a path of distinction” through an Ivy League college and then through medical school.

Famous reformer.

He was an agency physician at Pine Ridge, S.D., had a private medical practice in Minnesota and co-founded the Society of American Indians, which published the Quarterly Journal, the main vehicle for American Indian commentary.

Eastman also wrote nine books, including a popular and influential autobiography.

“His books brought traditional Native American culture before a broad non-Indian audience and played a crucial role in cultivating a sympathetic audience for Native concerns,” Hoxie wrote.

In addition to criticizing the actions and policies of the Indian Office and other federal programs, Eastman and his peers proposed many alternatives for bringing Indians to “civilization.”

Myths continue.

Yet, despite the work of American Indian reformers, past and present, and despite the proliferation of American Indian history courses, many myths persist, including the ideas that all Indians are environmentalists or that Indians always lived in peace with one another or, conversely, that they were uniformly devoted to war.

Hoxie calls his book “a small rebuke” to those who do not see Indians as historical people.

“Indians are not static; they are not ‘one way’ or ‘one thing,” he said. “Indians are many things. They change, they adapt, they talk back.”

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