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[Detail] Chilkat dancers, Alaska, 1895

"The Indian Problem": Euro-American Attitudes

In 1816, the American Colonization Society was founded to help relocate free African Americans to a colony in Liberia, Africa. For, while some felt that African Americans should be integrated into Euro-American society, even some abolitionists doubted the transition could be made.

"The Indian Problem" entailed a similar ambivalence. Francis Haines defines "The Indian Problem" in her article, "Problems of Indian Policy":

"The Indian Problem of the Pacific Northwest is an integral part of a national problem inherited from the colonial period. From the landing of the first colonists on the Atlantic Coast, the dominant white invaders have debated over the handling of the primitive native people who occupied the country... Some groups have worked to exterminate the Indian people, while others have tried to assimilate them. Some say we should teach them to be like white men; others want to keep the remnants of the tribes as separate cultural entities. Much confusion has resulted from the clash of these two fundamentally different schools of thought regarding the Indian."

(Page 203, "Problems of Indian Policy")

Other secondary as well as primary sources pertaining to “The Indian Problem” can be found by searching on race relations or by using Subject Index headings, Indians of North America--Colonization, Indians of North America--Cultural assimilation, and Indians of North America--Legal status.

Primary sources reveal contemporary attitudes and illustrate the ongoing debate over "The Indian Problem." For example, a newspaper report expresses many settlers' belief in the inevitability of extermination:

"'... the purposes of the red man's creation in the economy of nature are well nigh accomplished, and no human hand can avert his early extermination from the face of the North American continent. Silently but irresistibly the purposes of Providence take their way through the ages...'"

(Page 32, "American and British Treatment of the Indians in the Pacific Northwest")

In his 1866 report, Dennis Cooley, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, expresses an equally fatalistic, but less drastic view of the situation, while John Smith reveals his own views in a report from the Warm Springs agency:

" ... the large amount of iron which was used by former agents to make handcuffs to iron prisoners with has been used by me in the manufacture of plows and wagons. The guard-house likewise has fallen, and is in ruins. The Bible and the plow are the great causes of all this. Compare the cost that this agency has been to the cost of one month's extermination policy, and no other argument need be produced in favor of the humane and Christian policy of our President. I am confident that a like result may be obtained with any tribe of Indians, by a kind and patient treatment. They should be regarded and treated as children -- with firmness and kindness."

(Page 320, "No. 72: Annual report of Warm Springs agency")

George P. Castille, the author of "Edwin Eells, U. S. Indian Agent, 1871-1895," intended his article to provide a portrait of an assimilationist.

  • What opinions did Euro Americans have about what ought to happen to the Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest?
  • What concepts and factors entered into these positions?
  • What does the language of some of these documents reveal about how Euro Americans regarded and treated Native Americans?
  • What positions would you expect missionaries, settlers, and Indian agents to take? Are there variations of attitudes and opinions within each group?
  • How did different opinions play out over time as Native American populations were decimated and moved onto reservations?