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Imperialism in the Pacific Northwest

Andrew Walsh and Cherise Fuselier

The Evergreen State College

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America never became postcolonial. The indigenous inhabitants of North

America can stand anywhere on the continent and look in every direction
at a home usurped and colonized by strangers who, from the very
beginning, laid claim not merely to the land and resources but [also] to the
very definition of the Natives. (Owens, 2001, pp. 14-5)

The Pacific Northwest (roughly defined in this paper as the states of Washington,

Oregon, Idaho, as well as parts of British Columbia and Alaska) today is a well-

developed and modestly prosperous region that has a Euro-American settlement history

that would seem to stretch back to time immemorial. However, some details betray this

notion: Indian reservations, the presence of citizens – Native Americans – who seem to

belong to an extinct race, and various landmarks and tidbits named after Natives. Little is

said about the numerous massacres and unfair treaties with Natives, the vast majority of

which were legally carried out by the colonizers. Instead, relatively pleasant accounts are

substituted and the barbaric atrocities are whitewashed over for the colonizer’s sake.

This whitewashing seeps into the present day, where Natives are (as they have been in the

past) ignored or denigrated when trying to represent themselves, and instead must face

stereotypes perpetuated by both popular culture and academia.

This leads to many contemporary Native problems being overlooked. For

example, a glance at various socioeconomic statistics indicate that rates among Native

Americans for alcoholism, suicide, disease, and crime are significantly higher than the

national average for all ethnic groups. Per 100,000 Native American inhabitants in 1982,

Native Americans had 35.8 alcohol-related deaths compared with 6.4 nationwide for all

ethnic groups; for suicide, 13.4 compared with 11.6; for tuberculosis, 2.0 compared with

0.6; and for homicide, 14.6 compared with 9.7 (Frantz, 1999, p. 99). National statistics
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on annual family income from 1980 show that the percentage of Native American

families in the lowest income bracket (less than $5,0001 for this set of statistics) is about

three times higher than the percentage of whites occupying the same bracket, while the

percentage of whites in the highest income bracket (more than $50,0002) is about three

times higher than the percentage of Native American families. Approximately 28.1% of

Native Americans families in the Pacific Northwest are under the national poverty level

(p. 112). Though these statistics have improved significantly compared with older

figures, there is still a disparity to be accounted for. This disparity can at least be partially

explained by both current imperialism and the aftereffects of past imperialism and

colonization, most significantly in the various forms of cultural domination and

destruction as well as contemporary representations of native peoples and pressures to

assimilate. This weakening of culture, destruction of community, and confusion of

identity among Native Americans breaks down the fabric of their society and births many

negative consequences for Natives.

This paper will give a brief history of colonization and imperialism in the Pacific

Northwest from the beginning of the nineteenth century describing in detail discursive

techniques used by the American government and its settlers to coerce the Natives out of

their land and efforts to assimilate the Native populations. The second half of this paper

focuses on the contemporary forms of colonization and imperialism against Native

Americans including racist representations, environmental imperialism. Finally, the

paper closes with contemporary forms of resistance among Pacific Northwest tribes

including forms of cultural revival.

Adjusting for the rate of inflation this would be equivalent to $12,698.29 in 2005.
Adjusting for the rate of inflation this would be equivalent to $126,982.94 in 2005.
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Historical Context prior to Euro-American contact

One of the most heavily documented Native American tribes in the Pacific

Northwest is the Nez Perce tribe of Idaho (though their reservation today is in Idaho, their

traditional grounds also extend into Washington and Oregon). The Nez Perce had more

than three hundred “small, semipermanent villages,” (Landeen & Pinkham, 1999, p. 54)

with populations of 30 to 200 people (Slickpoo, 1973, p. 29) located over an area of

about 13.5 million acres (Landeen and Pinkham, 1999, p. 54); the overall population of

the Nez Perce was about six thousand people when they encountered Lewis and Clark (p.

53). They did not have wholly permanent residences because “survival dictated that the

Nez Perce bands move in an annual gathering cycle” (p. 54) – this is different from

Natives living on the coast, for they had “natural riches” great enough to hold frequent

potlatches, described as “festivals of conspicuous consumption” (Stannard, 1992, p. 22).

The Nez Perce have inhabited the Pacific Northwest for tens of thousands of

years, “evidence of human occupation in those lands traditionally occupied by the Nez

Perce…dates back as far as 11,000 years” (Landeen and Pinkham, 1999, p. 53). That is a

conservative estimate; for ancient prehistoric writings in caves have been found on

traditional Nez Perce lands (Slickpoo, 1973, p. 6). Some scholars estimate that humans

have inhabited North and South America anywhere from 32,000 B.C. to as early as

70,000 B.C. (Stannard, 1992, p. 10). Of course, the Nez Perce were only one among

many tribes and constituted only a small portion of the total population:

The Makah, the Strait, the Quileute, the Nitinat, the Nooksack, the
Chemakum, the Halkomelem, the Squamish, the Quinault, the Pentlatch,
the Sechelt, the Twana, and the Luchootseet are a baker’s dozen of
linguistically and culturally separate peoples whose communities were
confined to the relatively small area that today is bounded by Vancouver in
the north and Seattle to the south, a distance of less than 150 miles. … In
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addition to the coastal settlements, moreover, even as late as the nineteenth

century, after many years of wholesale devastation, more than 100 tribes
representing fifteen different language groups lived on in British
Columbia, Washington, Oregon, and Idaho – including the Chelan, the
Yakima, the Palouse, the Walla Walla, the Nez Perce, the Umatilla, the
Cayuse, the Flathead, the Coeur D’Alene, the Kalispel, the Colville, the
Kootenay, the Sanpoil, the Wenatchee, the Methow, the Okanagan, the
Ntlakyapamuk, the Nicola, the Lollooct, the Shuswap, and more (p. 21).

Traditional estimates of the Pacific Northwest’s population “prior to European

contact rarely exceed a third of a million people,” but there is evidence that possibly as

many as 6,500,000 or more people inhabited the region, 1,000,000 of them in British

Columbia alone (p. 21).

Lewis and Clark

Lewis and Clark certainly weren’t the first Western explorers to come in contact

with the Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest; however, their explorations proved

to be especially significant to the fate of the tribes they encountered. In the book

American Empire in the Pacific (2004), Gunter Barth in an article entitled “Strategies for

Finding the Northwest Passage” recounts the importance of Lewis and Clark is

devastating Native American tribes. He says Lewis and Clark followed President

Jefferson’s instructions to try to bring the Native Americans into peaceful coexistence

with white Americans through commerce and trade, also while gathering invaluable

information of the region which would buttress the American claim over the region’s land

(p. 64).

In 1803, Lewis and Clark were commissioned by President Jefferson to lead an

expedition into the Northwest United States, Captain Meriwether Lewis as leader and

William Clark as second lieutenant of artillery. Their original core of the expedition
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included twenty-nine men: Lewis and Clark acting as two captains, fourteen Army

regulars, nine young men from Kentucky, an interpreter, two French-Canadian river men,

and Clark’s black servant York. In the Mandan villages (along the Missouri River near

North Dakota), a French-Canadian interpreter and his Shoshoni wife Sacagawea and their

baby was added to the expedition.

Their expedition from 1805-1806 would take them 7,000 miles from the Missouri

River to the Pacific coast and back, where they sought a Northwest Passage and gathered

information on the native peoples, flora, fauna, geography, and resources of this region

largely uncharted by Americans. Lewis and Clark’s interpreter also wrongly gave the

Nez Perce their name, which in French means, “pierced nose”. The Nez Perce (or Nee-

Me-Poo, “the people”, as they call themselves) did not actually pierce their noses, and

Slickpoo makes mention of this erroneous misnomer (Slickpoo, 1973, p. vii). The use of

this name as persists to this day, even within scholarly academic fields.

Describing a specific example of Lewis and Clark interactions with the Nez Perce

tribe is Kate McBeth in her nineteenth-century diary entitled The Nez Perce Since Lewis

and Clark (1993). Kate McBeth was a Eurocentric Presbyterian missionary for the Nez

Perce tribe in the late 1870’s. According to her, during the first expedition of Lewis and

Clark they did not care for the Nez Perce. On their second expedition, however, Lewis

and Clark came to be fond of them. McBeth writes,

[Lewis and Clark] thought [the Nez Perce] selfish, avaricious, and so on,
but upon their return in 1806, after camping among them for more than a
month in the Kamiah Valley waiting for the snow to melt off the
mountains, where they were treated as honoured guests, being given the
best of their food, the fattest of their horses to slay and eat, they could not
say enough in praise of the Nez Perce. (p. 19)
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Further expanding on Lewis and Clark’s importance to the Pacific Northwest

Native Americans, Barth in his article states that Lewis and Clark were the precursors to

mapping out an empire. Their journey of gathering information in Oregon Country

provided the necessary knowledge for American expansion in the Pacific Northwest,

while confirming the importance of settlement in the land ceded in the 1803 Louisiana

Purchase. Oregon Country was the early name for the North American region of the land

north 42°N latitude and south of 54°40'N latitude, west of the Rocky Mountains and east

to the Pacific Ocean. Oregon Country included all of the modern-day states of Oregon,

Washington, Idaho, parts of the Canadian province of British Columbia, and parts of

Montana and Wyoming. Although Lewis and Clark did not find a Northwest Passage,

they did find a route to the Pacific from the Missouri river. Barth theorizes that American

entitlement to the settlement of Oregon Country derived from the topographical research

conducted by Lewis and Clark on their early expeditions (p. 64). When the uncharted

Oregon Country was charted and the knowledge of the inhabiting peoples and flora and

fauna was studied, Americans could then safely stake a claim to the Western region.

Once the unknown wilderness of Oregon Country was made known through Lewis and

Clark’s information-gathering expeditions, America could invoke manifest destiny and

safely stake a claim over the now known Oregon Country.

Land treaties, acts, and the establishment of reservations

In Wretched of the Earth (1961), Frantz Fanon describes colonial land:

The town belonging to the colonized people…the reservation is a place of

ill fame, peopled by men of evil repute. They are born there, it matters
little where or how; they die there, it matters not where, not how…The
native town is a hungry town, starved of bread, of meat, of shoes, of coal,
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of light…For a colonized people the land is most essential value, because

the most concrete, is first and foremost the land: the land which will bring
them bread and, above all, dignity. (as cited in Owens, 2001, p. 18).

One of the most obvious discursive techniques implemented to gain ownership of

Native American lands were land treaties. Land treaties were legal and recognized by the

US government. These land treaties included measures such as fishing right restrictions

and established tribal reservation lands for Native American relocation. Land treaties

provided legal, documented avenues for the US seizure of Native Americans and

subsequent relocation of Native Americans onto reservation lands. These treaties were

the main avenues for the legal acquisition of the tribal territory necessary for white

settlement as well as limiting Native Americans’ economic rights from natural resources

such as fish. Historic examples of land treaties include those established between the US

government and governments as well as those established by the US government against

Native American tribal governments.

Historical examples of land treaties established between the US and other

governments include the Treaty of 1818. This treaty, between the governments of the US

and Great Britain, called for joint control of Oregon Country for ten years with free

settlement and navigation for its settlers. Both countries had equal rights to claiming land

within Oregon Country, as well. This treaty preempted the cede of Great Britain’s claim

to Oregon Country in 1846 and further propelled America’s claim to settlement of

Oregon Country.

The Intercourse Act of 1934 was the result of earlier treaties passed between the

US government and Native Americans which regulated commerce and travel into tribal

lands by non-Native Americans. The Intercourse Act of 1934 (or the Indian Intercourse
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Act) was the finalized result of earlier treaties beginning in 1790. This finalized act

established “Indian Country” as all of the land west of the Mississippi River, excluding

the states of Missouri, Louisiana, and Arkansas. The act also started it was illegal for

non-Native intrusion into these tribal lands. Shortly after this act was passed the 1850

Oregon Donation Land Claim Act was established, which acted as a precursor to the 1862

Homestead Act. The Oregon Donation Land Claim Act granted white settlers 160 acres

to singles and 320 acres to married couples within Oregon Territory (established in 1848).

Isaac Stevens, the governor of Washington Territory in the 1850s, officially declared

Oregon Territory open to white settlers in 1855. This declaration and the 1850 Oregon

Donation Land Claim Act helped Oregon achieve statehood in 1859.

Specific examples of treaties imposed on tribes by the US government involving

restrictions over fishing rights include the Treaty of Medicine Creek and the Treaty of

Point Elliott. Washington Territory’s 1854 Treaty of Medicine Creek included fishing

right restrictions for Puget Sound tribes such as the Nisqually and Puyallup, claiming that

the white settlers on this land had equal rights to fish as an economic resource. Another

treaty limiting Native fishing rights was the Treaty of Point Elliott. This treaty was

established in 1855 between the US government and Puget Sound tribes such as the

Suquamish and Duwamish. This treaty included fishing right restrictions for the tribes as

well as the establishment of several tribal reservations including Tulalip and Port


Startling examples of the atrocity, frequency, and severity of land treaties are

those imposed on the Nez Perce Native Americans of Idaho. In 1855, Isaac Stevens

signed the first treaty against the Nez Perce. This treaty included seizure of their tribal
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territory in Idaho, as well as imposing Western-style headchief government instead of

more traditional Native government structures. According to Deward Walker in Conflict

and Schism in Nez Perce Acculturation (1968), the 1855 treaty reduced Nez Perce

territory to very little, most rights of movement were retained with very little population

dislocation, traditional warfare was discouraged, and the treaty reinforced the headchief

system (p. 45). Isaac Stevens vowed not to disturb the Nez Perce on their tribal lands,

but soon gold strikes and miners were crowding into Nez Perce territory and the second

treaty imposed on Nez Perce was established in 1863. This treaty further cut down Nez

Perce territory (which was already sparse due to the 1855 treaty).

Chief Joseph, while cooperating with the 1855 treaty, refused to sign the 1863

treaty because it excluded his beloved homeland of Wallowa Valley from Nez Perce

territory. This caused a permanent schism in Nez Perce culture, and the development of

different tribal governmental bands. Nez Perce who refused to sign the 1863 treaty and

those who cooperated with the treaty were pitted against each other and the Nez Perce

governmental and social structures were surely negatively affected.

Finally in 1889, Indian agents were appointed to allot acres of land individual to

Native Americans with Alice Fletcher as the Indian agent for the Nez Perce. Of the 756,

960 acres of the original Nez Perce reservation (established with the 1863 treaty), the Nez

Perce were individually allotted only 175, 026 of those acres beginning in 1889, or about

twenty-three percent. The rest of those acres were given to white settlers because of the

1887 Dawes Act. The 1906 Burke Act allowed for sales of Nez Perce allotments, and by

1923 half of the original 175, 026 acres of Nez Perce allotments had been sold to non-
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Natives. As of 1963, only 57,062 acres of the original 175, 026 acres allotted to Nez

Perce remain (p. 78), or about thirty-two percent.

Indian Wars

There are numerous examples of Indian Wars in the Pacific Northwest as well as

specific examples of the atrocities committed by the US military in those wars.

Examples of Indian wars against specific tribes include those against the Yakama, Coeur

D’ Alene, and Nez Perce. Specific battles within Indian Wars include the Battle of Bear

Paw, the Battle of Four Lakes and the Bear River Massacre. Additionally, an example of

an Indian War as Native resistance is the Whitman massacre.

The 1855 war against the Yakama tribe sprang from Steven’s declaration that

Oregon Territory was open to white settlement. According to Churchill (1997), in the

Oregon Territory “’settlers loudly demanded’ that the army ‘annihilate’ the region’s native

peoples, [and] several campaigns for such purposes were undertaken” (p. 221). In order

to conquer the land, the military annihilated the Yakama, Walla Walla, Umatilla, Palouse,

and Cayuse tribes in the Yakama War (pp. 222-3). An additional war campaign in this

area was the 1857 Coeur D’Alene War. This war was fought against the Coeur D’Alene

and Spokane tribes along with those remaining of the Yakama, Palouse, Umatilla, and

Cayuse tribes. Churchill describes these tribes being pitted “against ‘a superior force…

each man having been issued brand-new long-range rifles’” (p. 222). The 1858 Battle of

Four Lakes is a specific example of Indian Wars fought with rifles, as Colonel George

Wright conquered some 500 Natives from Columbia Basin tribes with the help of Nez

Perce scouts, while maintaining no American causalities. This battle was about
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retaliation, as Wright attempted to punish the Palouse tribe for killing white settlers as

well as punish Columbia Basin area tribes for the defeat of Colonel Steptoe earlier that

year (Wilma, 2003). Because of these Indian War military campaigns, the Columbia

Basin tribes surrendered to the US government and the land treaties imposed by

Governor Stevens and settled onto reservation lands ratified by the Senate in 1859 (p.

222). After the Coeur D’Alene, the tribal leaders were executed for resisting

dispossession of their lands (p. 222).

The Nez Perce War of 1877 is sometimes referred to as “Joseph’s War”. The

tribal bands under Chief Joseph (which had split off from other bands as a result of the

1863 land treaty imposed by Stevens) fought in this war. This war culminated in the

1877 Battle of Bear Paw. In this battle, 1/3 of the tribal members under Chief Joseph

were murdered while making a 1,400 mile trek to Canada to seek sanctuary and join

Chief Sitting Bull. The remaining survivors of the Battle of Bear Paw, including Chief

Joseph himself, surrendered to Oliver Otis Howard in the Bear Paw Mountains near the

British Columbia border. The survivors were forcefully transported to Indian Territory in

Oklahoma, or the “hot land” as they called it (McBeth, 1993, p. 96). In 1885, those Nez

Perce tribal members willing to convert to Christianity were allowed to return to the Nez

Perce reservation in Southwestern Idaho, while those who refused to convert to

Christianity were transported to the Coeur D’Alene reservation in Northern Idaho. Chief

Joseph was among the Nez Perce who resisted conversion to Christianity and was sent to

the Coeur D’Alene reservation, far away from his homeland and beloved Wallowa Valley.

Specific battles include the 1858 Bear River Massacre. The Shoshoni tribe of

Idaho and Utah was said to have grown increasingly “restive” (Churchill, 1997, p. 227)
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over Mormon communities being established on their lands. Colonel Patrick E. Connor

waged war on the Shoshoni in 1863 with about 1,000 volunteer cavalrymen. In February

of 1863, Connor and his forces infiltrated a Shoshoni village in Idaho along the Bear

River. Of the approximate 700 Shoshoni natives residing in the village, as many as 500

were slaughtered (Churchill, 1997, p. 227), or about seventy-one percent of the village’s

inhabitants. Churchill describes the brutality of this massacre, saying:

Soldiers reported…that Indians who were so incapacitated they could not

move “were killed by being hit in the head with an axe”…[A] soldier
found a dead woman clutching a little infant still alive. The soldier “in
mercy to the babe, killed it”…[Numerous women] “were killed because
they would not submit quietly to being ravaged, and other squaws were
ravaged in the agony of death (p. 227).

Finally, the 1847 Whitman Massacre serves as a specific example of Native

American resistance to Americans intrusion onto tribal territory. In 1847, an outbreak of

measles ravaged the Cayuse tribes, which lived near a Christian mission, arguably as a

direct result of European contact because of missions. In November of 1847 the mission

was attacked by Cayuse natives. Doctor Whitman, his wife Narcissa, and twelve other

whites were killed. It’s arguable whether the murder of fourteen people is considered a

“massacre”. In contrast, the Bear River Massacre can truly be called a massacre since

seventy-one percent of the village’s inhabitants were slaughtered. However, the Whitman

Massacre serves as an example of Native resistance and violence against American

settlers in their homelands.

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Christian missionaries served as vital agents of assimilations for Natives.

Encouraging (and often imposing) the conversion to Christianity, these missionaries

sought to “civilize” and Americanize the Natives. Discursive techniques were also

implemented by missionaries in order to convert, “civilize”, Americanize, and destroy

traditional Native social, governmental, and cultural structures.

The missionaries of the Northwest Coast sought to end the traditional Native

potlatch ceremony. They viewed the potlatch ceremonies as economically wasteful;

however, the criminalization of potlatch ceremonies acted as a way to prevent the Natives

from passing on to younger generations their important oral histories and traditional

economic and social structures (Wyatt, 1984, 20). Potlatch ceremonies were illegal in

Canada from 1884 to 1951 and in American from the late nineteenth century to 1934.

Native American’s access to education was often through Christian missions,

sometimes as the only option. Some missions established schools to educate the younger

generations of Natives while only studying the Bible and other Christian texts. Education

was so intertwined with Christianity for the Natives of that era that surely certain tribes

had no access to Western education apart from that found in Christian missions.

In 1830, a Spokane native named Garry returned to the his tribe from the East as

the only Native who could read and write English as result of his Western education. In

1831, the Nez Perce attempted to follow in his footsteps and sent four delegates to St.

Louis, Missouri to seek out the knowledge of reading and writing (McBeth, 1993, p. xii).

Missionaries of the time took the Nez Perce trip as a sign that they were surely seeking

Christianity, and began to dispatch missionaries to their tribe.

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These missionaries imposed Protestant theology on the Nez Perce, including

Christian marriage, adoption of horticulture, sedentary living, and Bible reading. Also

imposed by missionaries were the Protestant work ethic and mission and government

appointed headchiefs and subchiefs.

Walker describes the Nez Perce missionaries and their implementation of

discursive techniques, saying:

Several methods were used to enforce [Christianity]...First, the Nez Perces

were genuinely eager in the beginning to adopt the attitudes and practices
advocated by the missionaries. Second, as enthusiasm began to fade,
missionaries adopted economic means of coercion, such as withholding
goods. Another method was to withhold the sacraments, and this became
a sort of final sanction, usually imposed with accusations of heathenism
and threats of hell fire and damnation. A final type of coercive device
used from time to time was flogging and physical force. Toward the end
of the first period of Christian missionization, when the Nez Perces had
become disillusioned, such measures were resorted to frequently (p. 41).

Boarding Schools

Boarding schools as a discursive technique facilitated a form of cultural

imperialism that indoctrinated Native American youth with Eurocentric values for over

five successive generations. Boarding schools also served as a form of exerting

American and Canadian power and control onto the subjugated Native American youth

generations. The overall goal for the dominant Westerners in using boarding schools as a

form of cultural imperialism on and to exert social control over Native Americans was to

ease the theft of white settlers on Native American territorial lands. Starting around

1880, there were thirty-three boarding schools in the Pacific Northwest states of

Washington, Oregon, Idaho and the Canadian province of British Columbia.

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These boarding schools served to remove the child’s Native American identity

and encourage assimilation into American culture using several different techniques.

These included the systematic use of uniforms, forced use of the English language,

sometimes forced Christianity adoption, studies of exclusive Eurocentric history, and

Western skills training and labor to teach a Protestant work ethic.

As soon as a Native American child first arrived in a boarding school, the attempt

to strip them of their Native American identities began. The children were scrubbed with

alcohol and kerosene to disinfect their bodies, often with staff reference to “dirty Indians”

(Churchill, 2004, p. 19). Their articles of clothing and personal items were confiscated

and they were issued a school uniform to wear. The majority of children’s names were

Anglicized and the use of English as the only language was forced, even in daily

conversation amongst pupils.

Boarding schools were often Christian institutions. The forced adoption of

Christianity served to sever ties of the Native American child and his or her traditional

native religion. The Bible was often studied like a textbook, and when textbooks were

available for studied these often exhibited a Eurocentric bias. One example of a biased

textbook noted by Churchill in Kill the Indian, Save the man (2004) is the use of Horace

E. Scudder’s A History of the United States of America, published in 1884. In more

secular schools, in addition to teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic, emphasis was

placed on “civilization” and textbooks such as Scudder’s were used for this purpose. The

Native American students studying Scudder’s textbook learned that America is “peopled

by men and women who crossed the seas in faith [and that] its foundations [were] laid

deep in a divine order…[that] carries with it grave duties: the enlargement of liberty and
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justice is the victory of the people over the forces of evil” (as cited in Churchill, 2004, p.


The last method used to strip Native Americans of an ethnic self-identity was by

forced training of Western skills and forced labor to teach a Protestant work ethic. In

1935, a BIA employee called boarding schools “penal institutions with forced labor” (p.

44). Some boarding schools operated as technical schools, training Native American

students in useful skills in order for the student to gain employment after school. These

skills included learning fish hatchery methods for males and sewing for women. Or, as

Tinker says in the introduction of Kill the Indian, save the man, women’s training

consisted of “[Becoming] maids and household servants—or to toil in the commercial

laundries” (p. xv) and men’s training consisted of “[Mastering] the skills needed to place

them in the cheap hire of ranchers and farmers” (p. xv). These vocational training

schools operated similar to sweatshops, making goods for profit by exploiting the labor of

students. Additionally, by imposing this Protestant work ethic on Native American

students, new generations of cheap labor would be made available to fuel American and

Canadian capitalist wage labor economy.

Boarding schools also served as a method of control of Native Americans for the

dominant Western culture. Under the guise of educating young Native American

students, boarding schools were really more about controlling and subjugating new

generations of Native Americans in order to displace Native American populations from

their territorial lands. George Tinker, an enrolled member of the Osege Nation, Native

American activist, and author, presents the theory of boarding school education disguised

as social control in the introduction of Ward Churchill’s Kill the Indian, Save the man
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(2004). He says, “‘Education’ of the colonized became a central and conscious technique

for attaining [Native Americans’ willful concession of land]…The larger goal was always

not only the control of native peoples, but the ‘consensual’—i.e. legal—theft of their

properties” (p. xiv). In striving to assimilate Native American youth into mainstream

American and Canadian Christian culture and exerting tremendous social control over the

young generations, Americans made it easier to effectively stake permanent claims in

Native American territorial lands.

Several techniques were used to control and subjugate Native American students

in the residential boarding schools. Students were often taken from their homes by force,

sometimes in handcuffs as Tinker recounts the example of his brother Donnie, who was

forcibly taken from a reservation in handcuffs at the age of five years old (p. xx). Other

measures included the BIA withholding food and other materials from families who

refused to send their school-age children to boarding schools in 1839. In Canada, the

1894 Indian Act forced children under the age of 16 to attend boarding schools until they

were age 18. Once at these boarding schools, students were rarely allowed visits to their

families. The student’s family was seen as potentially corrupting to the efforts being

made to assimilate the student in American or Canadian culture. In 1888, visits home

were considered “swine return[ing] to their wallowing filth and barbarism” (p. 21).

Often, letters from family members were withheld from students for similar reasons.

Boarding schools were run with a military-style rule and use forms of physical

violence as punishment. Some boarding schools were modeled after military barracks,

and some of the student’s uniforms resembled military uniforms. Physical violence was

the main form of punishment, and the severity often amounted to torture. Malnutrition
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was also consciously implemented. Infliction of physical violence and malnutrition only

added to the devastating death rates these schools experienced.

In addition, sexual abuse among students was rampant. A1993 Canadian study

conducted by the Ministry of National Health and Welfare says that between 1950 and

1990 at some schools 100% of students were sexually abused (p. 64). Students were

sexually molested and raped by employees and superiors, including priests and other

clergyman, for sometimes many years in a row.

The negative impacts of Native American residential boarding schools are vast

with lingering aftereffects continuing to contemporary times. Due to many factors such

as torture-like violent punishment, malnutrition, and the spread of epidemic disease death

rates were high. Reliable death rate data for American boarding schools is practically

nonexistent, partly due to the practice of sending home terminally ill children to die and

therefore not associating those deaths with boarding schools (p. 34). In Canada, however,

the boarding school death rates were fifty percent. History suggests that boarding school

conditions were only slightly better in America than Canada, and it follows that American

boarding schools had a similar death rate.

The emotional trauma boarding school students had to cope with was

unfathomable. Efforts to strip their ethnic identities and assimilate them into mainstream

American or Canadian culture were traumatic in of themselves, but devices used such as

forced labor, torture, and sexual predation only added to the negative effects. Tinker

describes a psychological condition similar to post-traumatic stress syndrome that former

students often experience called Residential School Syndrome (RSS), a term which has

come to be known in Canada with no US equivalent. Tinker describes RSS as “a

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complex and intractable blend of devastated self-concept and self-esteem, psychic

numbness, chronic anxiety, insecurity and depression” (p. xix). Tinker than goes on to

equate RSS, which many boarding school survivors suffer from, as going far to account

for modern Native American socioeconomic afflictions such as endemic alcoholism, high

suicide rates, pervasive domestic violence, and others (p. xix).

The United States' and Canada’s efforts to assimilate five successive generations

of Native American children caused great emotional trauma to students who passed

through boarding school doors. Instead of assimilating five generations of native

children, boarding schools stole the souls of five young generations and made the

conquering of land and subjugation of native peoples easier as the older generations were

replaced by the younger generations.

Contemporary Imperialism

Two examples of contemporary imperialism and discursive techniques are the

destruction of native fishing rights concerning salmon and the development of the

Hanford nuclear site in Washington State.

Salmon, as well as being a major food source and livelihood, has long been an

integral part of the culture of many Pacific Northwest Native American tribes. For the

Nez Perce, “times of the year were measured by the chinook’s lifestyle…families

gathered at traditional fishing sites … to await its miraculous return…[many] stories,

legends, and ceremonies” are associated with chinook salmon (Landeen and Pinkham,

1999, p. 1). The lifecycle of the salmon also represents a religious “circle of life” for the

Nez Perce. Salmon is also “an essential aspect of [Nez Perce] nutritional health” (p. 21),
Imperialism 21

and replacing salmon with other foods causes “health problems that are eroding [Native]

mortality” (p. 21). Salmon are so integral to Nez Perce culture that the four Columbia

River tribes (Nez Perce, Yakama, Umatilla, Warm Springs) say, “without salmon

returning to our rivers and streams, we would cease to be Indian people” (p. 110).

Colonizing whites have wreaked havoc on both the salmon and the culture that is

dependent on it. The first assault against salmon was by the white canning industry’s

over-harvesting of salmon. In 1880, “more than 600,000 cases of salmon were packed

each year, but by 1889 only 310,000 cases were packed;” despite the intensification of

harvesting, less and less salmon were harvested. So extensive was the over-harvesting

that the gene pool of larger salmon (60-80 pounds) was wiped out, leaving only small,

20-30 pound salmon. “Now people wonder why we only have small salmon,” says Allen

Pinkham, of the Nez Perce tribe (p. 28). Other industries also contributed to the decline

in salmon through destruction of prime habitats for salmon: the increases in water

temperature and decreases in oxygen concentration in water can be attributed to gravel,

silt, and sediment deposits in rivers caused by the logging industry, pulp mills, road

construction, grazing, mining, and agriculture (p. 24).

In the 1930s, construction of dams, beginning with the Bonneville Dam and

ending with thirty-four dams along the Columbia and Snake Rivers (p. 23), began a new

era of salmon decline. Salmon require an open river in order to go upstream and spawn,

and dams block the river. Though some dams were built with fish ladders, other “dams…

were built without fish ladders. These ladderless dams eliminated about half of the

spawning habitat for salmon” (p. 23). Dams have also over doubled the amount of time it

takes for young salmon to travel downstream, resulting in increased exposure to

Imperialism 22

predators, disease, and also interfere with proper physiological development. Dams

themselves kill five to fifteen percent of salmon that go through them; series of dams

have resulted in up to 90 percent of salmon passing through to be killed (p. 24). Dams

have also had other negative consequences for Natives: Rod Wheeler of the Nez Perce

says, “[his] grandfather’s parents were buried upstream from Ice Harbor Dam. When that

dam was built the backwaters covered the site where they were buried” (p. 36).

Today, many salmon that are consumed by Native Americans are contaminated

with various pollutants from various industries (such as radioactive materials from the

Hanford nuclear site and various metals from mining operations), and “the Columbia

River United report asserts that Native Americans who annually consume many fish from

the river over a long period of time may be exposed to unacceptable risks as defined by

Environmental Protection Agency standards” (p. 25).

Besides fish ladders, the other main efforts to restore salmon by various

governmental institutions have been fairly unsuccessful. Hatcheries, “although well

intentioned…have generally been limited to increasing total salmon numbers with little

regard for sustaining historical geographic distributions of the species present” (p. 29).

These oversights lead to situations such as the Mitchell Act of 1938, which gave $200

million to build salmon hatcheries along the Columbia River,

But thirty-six out of thirty-eight of these initial hatcheries were located below
Bonneville Dam. This strategy made sense for ensuring that the bulk of the
artificially raised fish did not have to pass any dam, but it also meant that new
salmon would not swim upstream where Indians could catch them (p. 29).

Further contributing to salmon’s destruction by polluting the environment in the

Hanford nuclear site in Central Washington. This site has been used for “full-scale
Imperialism 23

plutonium production,” being the home to “nine plutonium production reactors along the

Columbia River” (Landeen and Pinkham, 1999, pp. 33-5).

The government chose 640 square acres of land to become the Hanford Site.

Before beginning construction, both Natives and white settlers in the area “had their land

condemned by the federal government and were given thirty days to leave” (p. 33). The

nuclear site began to pollute Native resources through “releasing millions of curies of

radioactivity into the Columbia River and tons of toxic pollutants into the soil column

surrounding the reactors” (p. 35). This pollution came from underground storage tanks

that have leaked. As of 1999, “the Department of Energy [was] working on ways to

remove these tanks and monitor the contaminants that have escaped” (p. 35). The

Hanford site was also “indirectly responsible for the construction of some of the Snake

River dams” – since plutonium production requires large quantities of electricity -- doing

further harm to Natives in the region (p. 35).

Native American Representations by the Colonizers

Native Americans have been represented by whites and denied the chance to

represent themselves to the world since colonization of the New World began. The effect

of these misrepresentations is to make Natives into the “Other” – a homogeneous and

inferior figure that America, the “Self,” can use to elevate itself and justify oppression.

Natives are misrepresented frequently in popular culture. Ward Churchill states


Since 1925, Hollywood has released more than 2,000 films, many of them
rerun on television, portraying Indians as strange, perverted, ridiculous,
and often dangerous things of the past. Moreover, we are habitually
presented to mass audiences one-dimensionally, devoid of recognizable
Imperialism 24

human motivations and emotions; Indians thus serve as props, little more.
We have thus been thoroughly and systematically dehumanized” (as cited
in Jolivette, 2006, p. 3).

Words and phrases frequently used in movies, on television, and in novels (along

with other mediums) to describe Natives and what they do are “discovered [by whites],”

“lurking in the wilderness,” “attacking wagon trains,” “scalping pioneers,” “savages,”

“[conducting] massacres,” “nomadic,” “warlike,” “primitive,” and “simple” (Bataille,

2001, p. 5), among many others. Images in the media have shaped many peoples’ views

of Natives to such a degree that Winona LaDuke says “whenever I have the occasion to

ask people to name Native nations with whom they are familiar, invariably they are only

able to produce the names of Native people from Westerns” (LaDuke, 2006, p. 63).

Certain other stereotypes are also reinforced through other mediums (and from a

very early age), as seen in Mattel’s line of American Indian Barbie dolls. In Kim Shuck’s

essay titled “Say Hau to Native American Barbie” (Shuck, 2006, p. 27), Shuck analyzes

the language used to describe Native Americans and their culture and lifestyle on the

backs of the dolls’ boxes. The box establishes “the historical nature of Indian behavior”

(p. 30), stating that their “traditions exist[ed] long ago”. Also, “keeping the traditions

alive is so urgent that it is mentioned again in the last bit of the blurb”. The box also

describes everything in the past tense, telling children what “Native people used to do”

(p. 31). Of the boldface and clarified terms on the box (“teepee” and “moccasins”),

Shuck says, “it is probably worth mentioning that these words are from two different

Indian languages” (p. 31). These stereotypes contribute to the stereotypical and

homogeneous perception of Natives by whites.

Imperialism 25

Racism towards Natives is so ubiquitous and unacknowledged that millions of

Americans can watch sports featuring mascots with racist caricatures, names, and other

nouns: “Washington Redskins, Cleveland Indians, Atlanta Braves, Chief Wahoo, the

Tomahawk Chop” (Owens, 2001, p. 21). One must then ask: “would we live so

comfortably today with the New Jersey Jews, Newark Negroes, Cleveland Chicanos,

Houston Honkies, Atlanta Asians, and so on…Would the city of Washington cheer a

football team whose mascot scampered around at half-time in blackface or wearing a

yarmulke and carrying a menorah?” (p. 21).

Native Americans have also been misrepresented academically, whether in

standard curriculum or even in eminent scholars and higher education. Dr. Mihesuah

writes that “even university programs in Indigenous Studies usually exist within a

colonialist structure” (Mihesuah, 2006, pp. 191-2), and that today,

Many AIS [American Indian Studies] and NAS [Native American Studies]
programs have become ‘dumping grounds’ for those professors and
instructors who, because they cannot succeed in their home departments,
are allowed to join an AIS department…Many of these schools have no
commitment to quality; their only concern is to have numbers in the
classroom…[so] they can fool grant-giving agencies into giving them
money so they can perpetuate the programs” (pp. 191-2).

One example of misrepresentation is with the Nez Perce. They were given their

name, meaning “pierced nose” in French, even though “it was a known fact that the Nee-

me-poo tribe [the Nez Perce], as a whole, did not practice piercing their noses and

wearing ornaments, like many authors have described” (Slickpoo, 1973, p. iii). This

name, however, is the standard used to refer to the Nee-me-poo. Another example,

A history textbook being used in the 1960s demonstrates that it was not
just popular culture that was perpetuating the stereotypes: “… Indian
contributions to American history have been so slight that one is justified
in suggesting that they might be omitted entirely without appreciably
Imperialism 26

altering the main trend of development. … American history began

therefore not with the Indians but with the arrival of the first Europeans.
… As compared with the meager contributions of the Indians, the English
brought a complex, well-developed civilization” (Bataille, 2001, p. 5).

And another:

American educational institutions have done a fairly poor job of teaching

American history, particularly from the perspective of Native people.
Little is known about the history of genocide in this country… [And] even
less is known about the history of the treaty-making period or the present
struggles of Native people. By and large, most discussions of Native
people take place in the past (LaDuke, 2006, p. 63).

Not only have natives been academically misrepresented and omitted by whites,

but also their own attempts at representing themselves have largely been ignored or

insulted. “In spite of the successes of several novels written by American Indian writers

over the last thirty years,” says Carolyn Dunn, “there still has been a reluctance on the

part of literary scholars to acknowledge the existence of an American Indian literature or

literary tradition” (pp. 139-140). Bataille says that “Native writers were taken seriously

by scholars” only after “N. Scott Momaday’s 1968 novel House Made of Dawn had

received the Pulitzer prize” (p. 4). Disturbingly, even academics that champion the

causes of other misrepresented peoples have ignored or otherwise attacked Native voices.

For instance:

The most extraordinary denigration of Native American voices is found,

however, in Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism, where this celebrated
father of postcolonial theory dismisses Native American writing in a single
phrase as “that sad panorama produced by genocide and cultural amnesia
which is beginning to be known as ‘native American literature’” (Owens,
2001, p. 13).
Colonizing powers are a major part in determining who is legally considered a

Native American (and thus who receives the benefits derived from such status). In 1924

the governor of Virginia “decreed that in order to count as an American Indian…it was
Imperialism 27

necessary to have at least one-sixteenth of Indian blood and no African ancestry” (Frantz,

1999, p. 71). This meant that someone who was seven-eighths American Indian would

be listed as ‘colored’ or ‘half-breed’ if they were one-eighth African American (p. 71).

In 1960, the population figures for Native Americans spiked because of the

adoption of the principle of ethnic self-enumeration – meaning that people could declare

themselves to be Natives on the census, rather than being counted as Natives only by

strange government standards (p. 71).

Interestingly, the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ figures on Native population levels

are fairly low, because, as Frantz posits, “each additional Indian puts a new burden on the

BIA’s limited budget” (p. 73). Because of certain nuances in the BIA’s requirements for

being considered a Native American, “Today thousands of people who can give no

evidence of Indian ancestry are officially recognized as American Indians, while…tens of

thousands American Indians, some of them full-blooded, are deprived of this status” (p.


Native Representations of Themselves

In the face of cultural destruction and domination, Native Americans have always

engaged in resistance against this force in various ways. These include representing

themselves in writing to engaging in cultural revival that reinforces their identity.

One way imperialism has attacked Native culture is through colonialism’s effects

on the stories of “oral tradition” – storytelling being the primary way that cultural

knowledge is passed down among Native Americans. According to Dunn (2006),

“creation stories and myths preserve tribal identity” (p. 142). Other stories also help to
Imperialism 28

preserve and evolve tribal identity and Native culture. So important to Native culture are

these oral histories and stories that Dunn says, “if the stories survive, then the people

survive” (p. 142). Nelson (2006) says that pre-colonization stories focused on cultural

topics such as “…people’s origins; describing how to gather plants for food or medicine,

how to prepare for a puberty ceremony, when to plant corn or other crops; or teachings on

ways to govern a village, clan, or nation” (p. 98). The disruption caused by white

colonization caused these traditional cultural stories – critical to the preservation of

Native culture – to be replaced instead with tales of,

The effects of colonization: the boarding school experience, commodity

foods, relocation to urban areas, troubles with the BIA and the allotment
process, alcoholism, diabetes, AIM and Indian activism, loss of language
and native foods…mixed-blood identity, and the challenge of maintaining
indigenous traditions in a Western, industrial world (p. 99).

Today, the Native oral tradition and literature form “an unbroken line…from ‘time

immemorial to the vital now.’ These [act as] instruments of resistance against Western…

occupation. These stories…are a means of survival and recognition of self and

community in the face of Western stereotype of the ‘vanishing/ed race” (Dunn, 2006, p.


Modern Native literature is composed of “stories that incorporate ceremony and

myth and legend with traditional Anglo/Euro American story elements” (p. 140) as well

as novels that are almost entirely made of Native elements, such as Momaday’s House

Made of Dawn. A prevalent theme of Native literature, and one produced by colonialism,

is “the endurance of an existence of two very different worlds: the Indian world(s) and

the Anglo/Euro American world of North America” (p. 141). Even though “the U.S.

government has insinuated itself in determining membership in American Indian tribes”

Imperialism 29

(p. 143) and thus in the legal identity of Native peoples, Native literature helps form and

define a Native identity that predates an identity based on Natives’ relationships to the


Another form of contemporary resistance is cultural revival through Native

education. Heritage University, located on the Yakama Reservation in Washington State,

is a non-profit and accredited school that has among its main goals the preservation of

Native culture. Their mission statement is to deliver higher education to the isolated,

multicultural, and underserved communities of Central Washington. As of May 2006

Heritage University has produced 4,500 students with bachelors and masters degrees – an

important achievement considering that only 8-9% of the population of the Lower

Yakama Valley has a college education compared with the national figure of 24%. The

college offers classes and supports clubs whose goals are the preservation of Native

culture; for instance, a multicultural dance class, and a Nez Perce language class

(NorthWest Indian News, May 2006, Vol. 15).

Cultural revival also takes place on various local levels. At Lake Union in Seattle,

urban Native youth carve their own canoes and form a canoe family with others who

worked on the canoe to be used in the Canoe Journey, an annual gathering of various

tribes and Natives from all along the Pacific coast. According to the Haida Master Carver

Saaduutz, the experience helps Natives learn about their spirituality and brings Native

peoples and families together. The Muckleshoot tribe couples the canoe journey with

wearing regalia, singing songs, dancing, and using traditional drums. The young Native

acting group Red Eagle Soaring (also involved in the Canoe Journey) in Seattle produces

and performs contemporary and traditional Native American theatre, storytelling, and
Imperialism 30

hosts educational workshops (NorthWest Indian News, May 2006, Vol. 15). Blanketing

ceremonies to honor elders, a sacred tradition among many Natives in the Pacific

Northwest, still occur today (NorthWest Indian News, March 2006, Vol. 14). Tribes

trying to preserve salmon and whales for traditional uses are also participating in the

growth of Native culture.


The past two centuries of history in the Pacific Northwest are filled with atrocities

(massacres, forced labor, cultural destruction, rapes, theft, and more) and to many of

those outside of the Native community, these events are not well known. Both outright

atrocities such as the Bear River massacre and slightly more subtle forms of imperialism,

such as boarding school programs aimed at assimilation, permeate Native history. Even

more subtle forms of imperialism, such as denigration of Natives in popular culture and

by scholars, still persist today. These problems are not well known because mainstream

culture and academia in the U.S. do not make them known. Natives, however, are taking

matters into their own hands: they publish books to represent themselves, use legal

avenues, and work at keeping their culture intact. However, Native victimization by

imperialism is still a contemporary problem. While more overt forms of imperialism and

discursive techniques such as boarding schools and land treaties may no longer be

implemented, neocolonial forms of imperialism (such as the pressure to assimilate into

mainstream Western culture and racist representations) plague Native tribes in modern

times. Decolonization and the return of traditional Native homelands is no longer an

option in America and Canada. Instead, forms of neocolonialism must be absolved in

Imperialism 31

order for Native Americans to improve their socioeconomic statuses and subsequent

problems. In addition, Native cultural revival serves as an increasingly important form

of ethnic identity and cultural pride which contributes to Native development and well-

being. Cultural revival serves as the main form of Native resistance when faced with the

omnipresent pressure to fully assimilate in Western mainstream culture. In order for

Native Americans to thrive in contemporary times, the acknowledgement of Native

historical contributions must be recognized as well as historic and contemporary

atrocities against Natives, institutional racism and its representations must be overcome,

and Native cultural revival should take an important role in Native ethnic identity.

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