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Immigrants and Native Americans

Kevin Kenny is Professor of History at Boston College where he specializes in eighteenth and nineteenth-century Atlantic migration. His most recent book, Peaceable Kingdom Lost: The Paxton Boys and the Destruction of William Penn’s Holy Experiment Kenny explains how Penn’s “kingdom” disintegrated at the hands of greedy frontier settlers and the events of the French and Indian War. In the article below he looks at why it is so important to study Native American history.

Why do historians of American immigration need to study Native American history?

The standard answer is that Native Americans were here before Europeans and Africans. We need to study their early history as migrants, insofar as we can. We need to understand their economies, societies, and cultures prior to contact, and the cycles of negotiation, war, and catastrophic diseases that followed.

But Native American issues are relevant not just to this early period but to all of American immigration history. Some aspects of Indian history – from forcible removal to “civilization” programs – have strong echoes and parallels in subsequent immigration history. Japanese-American internment in the 1940s takes on a new, maybe even more ominous meaning in light on the “Trail of Tears” a century earlier. The Progressives’ earnest efforts to Americanize the “new immigrants” become all the more revealing when studied alongside programs to “civilize” Indians in the nineteenth century. The similarities are only partial, but all of these events are part of an American whole and are best approached in that larger context.

Studying the Native American past adds new meaning to the ideas of sovereignty, belonging, and exclusion that lie at the heart of American immigration history. Who is an American? This is the central question of immigration history, and specialists approach it from a variety of angles – the nature of subject ship and allegiance in the early British imperial world; the creation of American citizenship; naturalization law and federal immigration policy; and race-based subjugation of African-Americans and Asian-Americans. But these questions take on new dimensions when studied in tandem with Native American history.

What is the place of Indians in American society? Sometimes they have been excluded altogether from American-ness, most notably through the terrible massacres and forced removals of the colonial era and the nineteenth century. Other times they have been incorporated into American society through “civilization” programs, land allotment policies, the wholesale adoption of their children, and confinement in punitive boarding schools – all designed to rob them of their culture and force them to assimilate. Although the Native American story is unique, an ongoing tension between exclusion and assimilation also lies at the heart of immigration history.

All along, American Indians have tried to preserve their political and cultural identities. Today about 4.5 million people identify themselves as Native American. The federal government recognizes more than 500 Indian tribes and nations, whose political existence lies somewhere between or beyond the dual sovereignty of state and national power. The status of Indians status as Americans nonetheless remains highly ambiguous, as it always has. But this ambiguity once again takes us back some of the central concerns of immigration history.

American national identity built on the destruction of native cultures. To study these cultures and how they changed and survived over time is to confront in an unusually stark and tragic form the question of what is means to be American. And that is the question that all historians of immigrant ask about the past.

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Recent Comments

  1. Wes

    Postings like this are funny. First of all, anyone born in America is a native American. Second, who says the Indians have always been on this continent? Didn’t their ancestors come and conquer whoever was here before them? And they wiped out or made slaves of other tribes and took over their land. Furthermore, see my website for an in-depth background on the Japanese in the US during WWII. You’ll see the real “ominous meaning.”

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