Most usually, they are incorporated with the victorious
nation, and become subjects or citizens of the government
with which they are connected. The new and old members of
the society mingle with each other; the distinction between
them is gradually lost, and they make one people.
--Chief Justice John Marshall, writing for the U.S.
Supreme Court in Johnson v. M'Intosh (1823)
Can we fulfill the promise of America by embracing all
our citizens of all races, ... [C]an we become one America
in the 21st century? Can we define what it means to be an
American, not just in terms of the hyphen showing our ethnic
origins but in terms of our primary allegiance to the values
America stands for and values we really live by? Living in
islands of isolation ... is not the American way.
--President William Jefferson Clinton, announcing his
Initiative on Race (1997)
For many generations now, a cultural divide has been
widening between the Ongwehoweh** --the
Indigenous peoples in the United States who seek to preserve
their distinct existence and right of
self-determination--and Native Americans--those individuals
of Indigenous ancestry who seek to assimilate into and
become a part of American society. This conflict has not
been an inherent part of Indigenous existence, but is
instead a symptom of the efforts taken by the United States
throughout its history to colonize Indigenous lands and
incorporate Indigenous peoples into its polity.
In its quest to achieve its Manifest Destiny, America
realized early on that simply killing Indians to make way
for Westward expansion was neither a politically viable nor
humane public policy option. Early nineteenth-century
policymakers ultimately concluded that the best approach for
dealing with the Indian nations was to forcefully remove
them from the East and relocate them to new lands in the
West. Establishing these "reservations," however,
created new problems. The radical transformation associated
with herding Indigenous people onto unfamiliar lands was
highly disruptive to the workings of Indigenous societies,
which eventually resulted in their being greatly dependent
upon the United States for the basic means of survival.
Moreover, the American appetite for land and resources was
far greater than first imagined and, by the late nineteenth
century, new efforts were being taken to confiscate the
remaining Indian lands.
To American policy makers, then, the Indigenous
population was a "problem" in need of fixing.
While American business interests proposed a brutally simple
approach for dealing with the Indian problem--simply taking
the land--there remained the relatively "sticky"
problem of what to do with the Indians once the land had
The ultimate solution to the Indian problem that emerged
in the late nineteenth century was designed to effectuate
the total assimilation of Indigenous peopleinto American
society. Christian activists and other social reformers were
deeply troubled by how "uncivilized" and
"pagan" the Indians were. Because they were
convinced that the Indians were a doomed race, these
interests concluded that the best approach would be to
"kill the Indian and save the man." Thus, they
sought to "civilize" Indians through a four-
pronged attack that served as a kind of Four Horsemen of the
Indian Apocalypse: convert the Indians to Christianity,
force Indian children to obtain Western education, allot
tribal common lands to individual Indians, and extend to the
Indians American citizenship.
The effort to destroy Indigenous tribal existence and
bring about the "civilization" of the Indians was
not, for the most part, motivated by maliciousness. To the
contrary, the sponsors of this policy approach very much
believed in their hearts that this was the morally correct
thing for both the Indians and American society. Of course,
the proponents were limited greatly by their own cultural
myopia, which prevented them from formulating other policy
options, such as simply leaving the Indians alone.
Nonetheless, the "Four Horsemen" largely succeeded
in working their transformative effect on Indian society.
Indians became Christians and traditional religions were
abandoned. Indian children went to school and traditional
education was relinquished. Most Indian lands were allotted
and eventually turned over to Whites. And by 1924, all
Indians had been made American citizens, and in some cases,
at the direct cost of their tribal citizenship.
Much has been written about the way in which American
colonization has destroyed the integrity of Indigenous
societies. All Indian nations have been affected by
colonization to some degree. For most Indians today, being
Christian, going to state public school, or owning their own
land in fee is hardly controversial. As a result it might be
concluded that colonization has largely succeeded in
accomplishing its intended objective.
There remain, however, many formidable obstacles that
have prevented American colonization from bringing about the
total extinction of Indigenous peoples within the United
States. Many Indians today continue to practice their own
traditional religion, educate their children in the
traditional ways through their own language, and otherwise
continue to live a traditional way of life. Not
surprisingly, Indigenous people who seek to preserve a
unique Indigenous spirituality, continue the traditional
knowledge base, and maintain a lifestyle founded upon the
sharing of common resources are often in great conflict with
the growing American minority group known as Native
Americans. In very real ways, those Indigenous people who
seek greater participation in American society do so at the
direct expense of those who do not.
Despite the seriousness and intensity of this modern
cultural conflict, the fact that Indians are now considered
to be American citizens is not a source of considerable
controversy within Indian country. Most Indians today, it
seems (including many of the most culturally traditional),
appear to fully accept that they are American citizens. To
be sure, there also seems to be broad acceptance of the
notion that, as Indians, there is dual national
citizenship--status as Americans as well as status as
citizens of a particular Indigenous nation. But there is
also a large class of individuals-- the Native
Americans--who self-identify as having Indian ancestry, but
who primarily identify themselves politically as Americans.
Perhaps most troubling of all are those within this category
who might be recognized as citizens of an Indian nation, but
who have chosen to forgo such identification in favor of
exclusive identification as an American.
This Article will assess the effects of forcing American
citizenship upon Indigenous peoples and set forth a possible
mechanism for redressing this genocidal act. In doing so, I
write primarily for an Indigenous audience concerned about
the fate of our sovereignty and the survival of our future
generations. My hope, however, is that non-Indigenous people
may also find the Article informative and thought-provoking.
Part I recounts the history of America's efforts to
eliminate the Indian population through a variety of
measures, including the conferral of American citizenship.
Part II describes the current legal status of Indigenous
people in the United States. Part III highlights how Indians
have come to accept American citizenship and status as a
racial and ethnic minority group within American society.
Part IV assesses the genocidal effects of forcing American
citizenship upon Indigenous people. Finally, part V sets
forth a proposal for decolonizing Indian citizenship and
restoring choice on this issue to those Indigenous people
who might still desire it.