Glyph of David Pendelton Oakerhater
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From Warrior to Saint: The life of David Pendelton Oakerhater

ASSIMILATION ERA

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 like whites.”

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

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