Historical Context and American Policy
When white Americans in the nineteenth century spoke of assimilation they were talking about a cultural transformation of Indian peoples that assumed that there were "stages" of civilization arranged in a linear, ladder-like structure. Grounded in Enlightenment thought-the same intellectual philosophy that produced the ideas of natural rights and human liberty enshrined in the U.S. Constitution-this concept of civilization stipulated that every society had to climb the ladder from savagery through barbarism to, at the pinnacle, civilization. Civilization, of course, was defined in ethnocentric terms of the Euroamericans. Under that model Indians would only become civilized and assimilated once they adopted agriculture (which included the abandonment of communal land holding in favor of "severalty"-the individual ownership of private parcels); learned to read, write, and speak English; and became Christians. Left unanswered by the white thinkers were knottier questions that revolved around questions of race and acceptance: Would whites welcome Indians as citizens? Would white parents allow Indian children to attend schools with their children? Would it be acceptable for whites and Indians to marry and have mixed-heritage children? These same thinkers, by and large, seldom paused to consider whether Indians wanted to be assimilated or whether Native peoples could be incorporated into American society without renouncing their heritage and identity.
Less than three years after Lea made his remarks the official Indian policy of the United States was one that still recognized Indians' property rights-and the need to extinguish those rights before allowing whites to settle on Indian lands. In addition, it now sought to move Indians onto reservations where they could be supervised by government agents who would teach them how to farm and educate them in the skills and knowledge needed to become American citizens. The government, acting as the paternal guardian of its Indian wards, also took on the responsibility of clothing, housing, and feeding its charges until they became self-sufficient enough to fend for themselves in American society.