Monday, November 18, 2019

Americanizing Native Americans and "Foreign Aliens"

In his correspondence, Benjamin Franklin tells a quaint story about how the Iroquois came to place little value on Western education. He relates that at a conference with representatives of the Six Nations, Pennsylvania authorities offered to provide college scholarships to Iroquois youths. The Indians considered this proposal and recalled that they had accepted just such an offer some years back, but when the young scholars returned from their “education” among the English, their elders said they proved “absolutely good for nothing”—not for killing deer, catching beaver or surprising an enemy. In refusing the colonists' offer, however, the Indians wanted the English to know that they appreciated the sentiment behind the invitation. And so, as a gesture of goodwill, they proposed that if the colonists would “send a dozen or two of their children to the Iroquois, the Great Council would take care of their education, bring them up in what was really the best manner and make men of them.”

Needless to say, the colonists did not accept the Indians' offer. A hundred years later, Pennsylvania became home to the Carlisle Indian School, which operated from 1879 through 1918 and sought to remove every vestige of Indian culture from its students under the profoundly ironic mandate to “Americanize” its Native American students.

At roughly the same time, the United States was experiencing a record number of immigrant arrivals from Europe, an influx remembered today as the “Great Wave." This influx hit its peak around World War I (1914-1918), which ushered in the “100% Americanization” movement, the purpose of which was to fully assimilate the "foreign aliens" from southern and eastern Europe. The most extreme proponents of this philosophy believed that the process of becoming American was a zero-sum game, newcomers had to abjure every aspect of their old selves--language, culture, even demeanor--before they could assume American identity, and that they could only do so by wholeheartedly embracing American habits and values.

It would be a mistake to think that most Americanizers did not want the immigrant. Of course, there were many who did oppose immigration, but it was not the Americanizers. Those who sought to stop immigration, like the blueblood members of the Immigration Restriction League, believed the alien was constitutionally inferior and incapable of change. Teaching the Jewish peddler to speak English or the Italian laborer to give up what Americans considered his revolting food was like teaching a mongrel dog tricks. The mutt might learn to roll over, but it would never be a greyhound.

The most prominent restrictionists traced their ancestry to New England, notably to Puritans like Cotton Mather, who believed the Indians were devils incarnate and deserved extinction. The same attitude prevailed among the Paxton Boys, a gang of Pennsylvanian frontiersmen who slaughtered nearly a hundred unarmed Indians less than fifty miles from Carlisle in 1764. That their victims were "praying Indians," that is, Indians who had embraced Christianity, meant little to the killers. They were still Indians.

As ethnocentric and condescending as were the Americanizers of the early 20th century, they at least recognized shared humanity with the Native American students at Carlisle and the new immigrants pouring in from steerage at New York Harbor.

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