Title Reviewed:
American Indian Policy in Crisis: Christian Reformers and the Indian, 1865–1900

Author Reviewed:
Francis Paul Prucha

Donald J. Berthrong


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 74, Issue 2, pp 172-174

Article Type:
Book Review

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American Indian Policy in Crisis: Christian Reformers and the Indian, 1865–1900. By Francis Paul Prucha. (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1976. Pp. xii, 456. Notes, illustrations, maps, bibliography, index. $15.00.)

After the Civil War ended in 1865, relations between Indian tribes and the United States government were chaotic. On the Great Plains the warriors of many tribes were wreaking vengeance upon emigrants and wagon trains so that programs had to be initiated to bring peace and security to the western frontiers. Missionaries, church groups, and reformers concerned about the American Indians heartily endorsed President Ulysses S. Grant's peace policy and the creation of the Board of Indian Commissioners. At best, however, all United States Indian policy could achieve was an amelioration of the harsh conditions of life for Indians as they were concentrated upon reservations. The reservation system itself, the friends of the Indians beleived, was a barrier to the solution of the "Indian problem." Reservations segregated Native Americans and permitted tribal society and government and communal land ownership to flourish. Unless reservations were destroyed, the American Indian would never become an Indian American.

In the 1880s, eastern humanitarians formed organizations to influence public opinion, the United States Congress, and the executive branch of the federal government. Among the key organizations were the Boston Indian Citizenship Committee, the Women's National Indian Association, the Indian Rights Association, and the Lake Mohonk Conference of the Friends of the Indian. The leaders of these groups, including Lyman Abbott, Amelia S. Quinton, Albert K. Smiley, and Herbert Welsh, were imbued with the values of American evangelical Protestantism. They applied those beliefs in their campaigns to replace tribalism with individualism, tribal membership with American citizenship, communal property with private ownership of land, supernaturalism with Christianity, and tribal lore with American education. The Christian reformers tied individualism, Prucha contends, "closely to the Puritan work ethic. Hard work and thrift were the virtues that seemed to be at the very basis of individual salvation …. Allotment of land in severalty to the Indians was insisted upon because the reformers believed that without the personal labor needed to maintain the private homestead the virtue of hard work could never be inculcated" (pp. 153–54). The Christian reformers attained their objective when Senator Henry L. Dawes managed the General Allotment Act of 1887 through Congress.

By 1900, the Christian reformers "looked at their works and judged them good …. Congress had enacted their legislative program, which they were convinced would quickly Americanize all the Indians. Tribal organization and communal traditions they had dealt crippling if not fatal blows, and they had established programs and structures to transform the tribesmen into individual citizens of a Christian nation" (p. 402). With proper administration of the Dawes Act and its perfecting amendments, the philanthropists were certain that the Indians would rapidly blend into white society. Prucha concludes they were wrong because the reformers did not understand the tenacity with which the Indians would maintain their own culture. He might also have added that the reformers did not give sufficient consideration to the mendacity and greed of whites. Allotments and property were ripped away from Indian citizens by their white neighbors who exploited every opportunity provided by Congress during the Progressive era to appropriate Indian resources.

This is a very significant study of United States Indian policy. The research is thorough, the prose is clear, the exposition of ideas is crisp, and argumentation is skillfully presented. It provides a new understanding of the intellectual and social sources of the assimilationist movement which long dominated United States Indian policy.

Purdue University, West Lafayette

Donald J. Berthrong

Published by the Indiana University Department of History.