Dr. C. Blue Clark
Intertribal Governmental and Cultural Advisor, Native American Legal Resource Center
Oklahoma City University School of Law
Making Medicine was one of the young Indian warriors made captive in 1875. He suddenly entered the period
in United States Indian policy known for an overt push for assimilation of native peoples. The time span following the American
Civil War to the start of the Indian New Deal in 1934 is referred to as the era of assimilation for American Indians. Most
of the Indians in the United States felt some aspect of the impact of the policy, some more than others.
Of course, Europeans pressed for cultural change among native peoples since the first encounters in late 1492. Spanish,
French, Russian, English, and others sought imperial control over new territories and peoples. Europeans enforced their own
rules and regulations on the Indians they met, conquered, or settled among. Later, the English in New England converted Algonquian
peoples to Christianity and to Puritan lifestyle, collecting some American Indians, called Red Puritans, within Massachusetts
in “praying towns.” That experiment ended with the severe reaction against Indians in the aftermath of King Philip's War
in 1677. Puritan assimilation policies and restrictions tightened.
The early founders of the American nation believed that assimilation for the Indian was possible and necessary. During
the revolutionary struggle, Indians had served as crucial allies of the new republic. Others had also served as bitter enemies.
President George Washington wrote the Cherokee in August of 1796 that their attempt at acculturation was an important “experiment”
that would be eagerly watched by all to observe the outcome. Washington wrote he would send people “to teach” the Indians
how “to promote your success” in the ensuing years. If the Cherokee could manage to change their ways and could become productive
farmers, he reasoned, then they would live happy lives forever under the protective benevolence of the United States. They
would serve as a model for all other native peoples. The U. S. Congress in 1819 responded to earlier efforts by establishing
a “civilization fund” (3 U. S. Stat. 516) to encourage native mission education. Mission instruction sought to teach American
Indian children “the English language, the principles of the Christian religion, and the arts of civilized life,” in the words
of Cyrus Kingsbury, an early missionary writing in mid-1817 from Brainerd Mission near what would later be Chattanooga, Tennessee.
In the period following the American Civil War, so-called reformers sought to halt alleged corruption in the Indian Service
and to end Plains warfare with a policy of assimilation. After all, they reasoned, it had worked as a policy for their own
ancestors and neighbors who came from Europe. The European immigrants had become Americans. For the Cheyenne prisoners in
Fort Marion like Making Medicine, the policy stressed learning English in a prison compound classroom. The prison commandant
decided his charges needed something to do, so he set up a classroom and enlisted the aid of ladies in the nearby town. One
of the prisoners' volunteer instructors was Harriett Beecher Stowe, author of “Uncle Tom's Cabin.” Under the watchful eye
of prison commander Richard Pratt, the volunteers taught the basic Three R's to the Indians inside the Castillo de San Marcos
in St. Augustine, Florida, from 1875 to 1878. Pratt pointed out in his memoir that “the end to be gained . . . is the complete
civilization of the Indian and his absorption into our national life . . . The Indian [is] to lose his identity as such .
. . The sooner all tribal relations are broken up; the sooner the Indian loses all his Indian ways, even his language, the
better it will be for him and the [U. S.] government.” He fervently hoped after their education “they are permitted to become
Learning English language skills and conversion to Christianity were two aspects of assimilation. Others also involved
education similar to Making Medicine's experience. Mission schools provided boarding school training for Indian children.
If closer to their homes, the school attracted Indian kinfolk to live nearby and help their child. If the school was far
away, then there were tearful farewells as the child traveled a long distance to a boarding school and might not return home
for years. In some instances, Indian children were kidnapped and shipped off to boarding schools. Hart Merriam Schultz,
the western landscape painter, recalled in his elder years with tears in his eyes that as an eight-year-old mixed-blood Blackfeet
Indian child, then called Lone Wolf, he was placed in a wagon one frigid winter night amid his family's tearful goodbyes and
sent to an Indian boarding school. He never forgot the anguish of that trauma even during his successful professional career
and his retirement.
Alterations to tribal government were also a part of the assimilation policy. Indian agents aggressively altered the traditional
voting and governance patterns on their reservations. They undermined the influence of traditional chief councils and the
role of religious leaders. Agents banned ceremonies. Agents singled out cooperative Indian leaders, or arbitrarily appointed
them, then built up their following through gifts, money, housing, and other rewards. Agents encouraged the Indians to adopt
citizen dress styles and to become familiar with the handling of money, two attributes of American citizenship. As Anglo-American
demand for land increased during the era, Indian agents also worked to further the diminishment of reserved land bases. Pressure
mounted to “open” reservations to settlers. Indian agents implemented the policy of individual allotment. Reservations for
Indians were carved into single farm allotments and the remaining land was then opened to Anglo-American settlers, calling
the available real estate “surplus.” Shortly afterward through sale, tax liens, and fraud, much of the Indian allotted land
passed to non-Indians. The land loss occurred under the veil of platitudes about helping the nation's wards, but furthered
graft and corruption. Loss of traditional tribal structure combined with loss of tribal land to thrust the American Indians
into abject poverty. The Cheyenne and the Arapaho Reservation of Making Medicine underwent allotment beginning in 1892.
Rapid change thrust on the Indians led to a variety of reactions. Some Indians accepted the changes. They took up farming.
Others resisted and refused to change or actively fought against the pressures. Still other native peoples bent with the
new wind. Using trial and error, they selectively adapted aspects of the mainstream culture but made those aspects “Indian.”
The Code of Handsome Lake, the Native American Church (using the sacrament of Peyote), and a wide range of Indian Christian
practices borrowed and built upon Anglo-American cultural traits and beliefs. However, native peoples adopted selectively
and made many of the characteristics their own.
Making Medicine/David Pendleton embodied much of the assimilation era in his own life. His experiences were emblematic
of the entire period, and his life encompassed all of the period. He underwent warfare, surrender, confinement, education,
conversion, reservation life, allotment, and statehood. His self-reflective correspondence highlights his personal highs
and lows throughout that journey. He helped give birth to ledger drawing art from within the prison. He knew and dealt with
the demands of leading advocates of assimilation like Samuel Armstrong, Richard Pratt, and Bishop Henry Whipple. For a time
David Pendleton headed one of the mission schools in the American West, Whirlwind Mission, for his Cheyenne and Arapaho people.
David Pendleton's correspondence offers a glimpse into one of the most important periods of Indian policy in the history
of the United States.
© Copyright, C. Blue Clark, 2006