Craig White's Literature Courses

Terms / Themes

American Indians as
minority ( ± immigrant?)

Native American children protest Texas-financed Dakota Access Pipeline
(NYC, August 2016)

thanks to

American Indians as minority or immigrant?

In these multicultural courses, American Indians count as a minority primarily because they generally do not fit the immigrant profile of voluntary migration and assimilation to the USA's dominant culture.

In prehistory, beyond any memory or written record—10,000 to 30,000 years ago—ancestors of American Indians did immigrate from Asia through what is now Alaska. (see Maps of Native America; scroll down to Bering Land Bridge.)

By the modern era of immigration beginning in the European Renaissance (1500s), "Native Americans" had already occupied North and South America for countless generations.

Therefore American Indians are not regarded as immigrants in any modern historical sense, and they join African Americans as the United States' two original, definitive, and enduring minority groups. (Any immigrant ethnic group may be regarded as a "minority," but within a few generations most immigrants are "just Americans.")

Minority experience of cultural devastation and personal exploitation by dominant or "settler" culture > resistance to assimilation.

Involuntary contact

Immigrant cultures see immigration as freedom, opportunity, and the American Dream, but for American Indians, European and Asian immigration meant genocide, loss of land and status to immigrants, devastation of cultural and economic infrastructure—an "American Nightmare" instead of the American Dream. 

Immigrants voluntarily (more or less) abandon local traditional cultures of subsistence and limits to join a universal modern culture of abundance, profit, overproduction, and overpopulation.

African Americans and Native Americans did not voluntarily abandon their traditional cultures. In contrast to "forgetting the past" as immigrants mostly do, minority groups may struggle to maintain or recover the traditional cultures from which they were torn (e.g. American Indian maintenance of land and fishing rights, African Americans' "back to Africa" or "Afrocentric" ideologies).


Forced abandonment or resistance-retention of traditional culture across generations

Immigrants voluntarily leave not only their homelands but also their parents in what is sometimes called "generational mobility." In turn, immigrants' children or grandchildren often leave their parents or their parents' culture behind. For immigrant cultures, generational discontinuity is often interpreted as progress.

American Indians as a traditional culture emphasize "generational continuity." Elders are treasured for their knowledge of traditional ways (in contrast to modern culture's attitude toward elders as obsolete knowledge and baggage), and children are regarded as the future. In contrast to modern society's emphasis on individuals and nuclear or broken families, traditional cultures regard the entire community as "the people" and the basic unit of society.

In these regards immigration and immigrant culture have been doubly destructive to American Indian generational continuity and maintenance of culture.

Immigrant take-over of Indian lands separates tribes from the graves of their ancestors, plus European-American grave-robbers dig up American Indian mummies for display in museums, separating even the dead from their homeland—which is a big "so what" to the dominant culture but grievous to American Indian culture. (Also echoes of this in African American culture in "Elethia" story.)

"Indian Boarding Schools" in USA and Canada took children from American Indian communities to help them assimilate to the dominant culture, further disrupting the generational continuity of American Indian traditional cultures.


Naming issues: As with other minority groups, naming can be a sensitive process that changes with status. Americans of African descent have been called negroes, colored people, blacks, Afro-Americans, African Americans, and Americans of Mexican descent may be called Mexican Americans, Chicanos, Latinos / Latinas, Hispanics.

For the original peoples of the Americas, both "American Indians" and "Native Americans" have problems, with "Indians" based on Columbus's mistaken assumption he had reached India.

"Native Americans" can also be used in reference to any American who is born in the United States. Callers into hate-radio programs will often declare, "I'm a native American!"

I use the terms interchangeably, and Indians grant some acceptance of these names as terms of convenience.

Academics sometimes use pan-Indian names: "Amerinds," "American Aborigines," "First Peoples," or "First Nations."

One simple but challenging resolution is to call American Indians by their tribal names . . . but there are so many tribes, nations, and sub-groups that most people know only a few if any:

Cheyenne, Cherokee, Powhatan, Lumbee, Wampanoag, Nipmuc, Hopi, Navajo, Zuni, Apache, Comanche, Pequot, Delaware / Lenape, Chinook . . . .

Additional problem: Are these even the right names? Often these names derived what white writers learned from tribal enemies or mistranslations.

Iroquois; 5 Civilized Tribes

The diversity of American Indian identities must be acknowledged, but two considerations trend toward a common or "pan-Indian" culture:

Diverse Amerind cultures share many general qualities including spoken culture, traditional culture,

Since Columbus, Amerind cultures that were formerly separate have been forced together by forced migrations, alliances between former enemies, and modern transportation and communication, which allow many different tribes to share information and meet in powwows and other gatherings.

American Indian cultures were not literate—literacy is essential for assimilating successfully to modern American culture—but rather "oral" or "spoken-word" cultures. In contrast to African American literature, which emerges early and fairly copiously, American Indian literature is slow to develop.

Contrast "Model Minorities" or "ideal immigrants" as pre-equipped with literate traditions.

1700s-1800s: missionary literature, some in behalf of Indian cultural maintenance.

late 1800s, early 1900s—children from boarding schools produce early memoirs and fiction.

1960s-70s wave of American Indian poetry and fiction, continuing.

Instead of voluntary immigration, American Indians suffer forced internal migration. (Compare to African America's "Great Migration" and slave escapes from southern slave states to northern industrial cities.)


Trail of Tears

What happened to North American Indians? a.k.a. the myth / history of "the Vanishing Indian" (see Loss & Survival)

Estimates of pre-Columbian Native population in the New World and North America range widely, with perhaps 50 to 100 million in the New World and 10-20 million in North America. Within generations these numbers evidently fell dramatically, though precise numbers will never be available, and estimates are often based on archaeological evidence.

In descending order of magnitude, the following causes are most cited, though they may overlap.

1. Native exposure to European diseases for which Native Americans had little resistance, e. g. flu, plague, pneumonic diseases, yellow fever, smallpox, malaria. Ironically, neither Europeans nor Indians then understood viruses, germs, and microbes. See John Smith, 23 in the ayre, yet invisible and without bodies: and that they by our entreaties, for love of us, did make the people die as they did, by shooting invisible bullets into them.

2. European expropriation and control of Indian lands, leading to devastation of wildlife and Indians' economic infrastructure.

3. Warfare in which European forces enjoyed enormous technological superiority, with occasional-to-frequent massacres.

4. Murder, enslavement leading to early deaths.

5. Forced assimilation and intermarriage. 

LITR 4338 American Minority Literature Detailed Objective 3b.Native American Indian alternative narrative: "Loss and Survival"
Whereas immigrants define themselves by leaving the past behind in order to get America, the Indians once had America but lost most of the land along with many of their people.

Yet they defy the myth of "the vanishing Indian," instead choosing to "survive," sometimes in faith that the dominant culture will eventually destroy itself, and the forests and buffalo will return.

American Indian Movement logo
"Remember Wounded Knee" is a reference to the massacre by the U.S. Army
of 150+ Indians (mostly women and children) at the
Lakota Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota