Cultural Genocide: Isolation of the Indigenous American

Although the isolation had ended in America for many, the Native Americans had become more isolated as they were faced with the horrors of cultural genocide.  Because of the Manifest Destiny the indigenous tribes were dislocated from their ancestral lands as the U.S. Government claimed the land and relocated them on reservations.  Having once been a thriving nation, not only had the land been taken, their culture was looked upon as inferior by settlers, government officials and religious groups, and as in the case of the plains Indians, their means, the buffalo, was carelessly destroyed.  Through the centuries the many tribes, all with their own language and cultures, were displaced over and over again and forced to live like the newcomers. To this day indigenous people struggle to heal the isolation and historical trauma caused by this genocide.

The Manifest Destiny was an effective philosophy behind the expansion of the United States and the cultural genocide of the indigenous people.  Because it was apparent that the expansion would happen the term “manifest” is used.  Because it was inexorable it was seen as “destiny,” and became what Sonja Keohane calls “a philosophy by which the white European invader imagined themselves as having a divine right to take possession of all land and its fruits” (2009. para. 1).  The new hemisphere had the land to expand upon and the railroad played a large role in the opening of territories, but the Indians were in the way and were moved to less fertile land.  The railroad also contributed to the extinction of the buffalo which was an important resource in the life of the indigenous people.

Buffalo hunting was also justified by the Manifest Destiny and the European settlers recklessly slaughtered the herds.  Hunting the buffalo from the trains, while traveling across the plains, became a sport for the passengers. While the Native Americans used every part of the animal, and tribes would become extinct if they did not have this resource, the whites took only photographs, leaving the dead carcasses to rot. The tanneries of the 1870’s also had a large interest in buffalo hides for leather products and killed “up to 3 million buffalo a year” (Bowles, 2011, p. 30). Within thirteen years the buffalo was near extinction and with it the Native American culture as the tribes became unable to live off the land.


   We can see how the Native Americans were treated by the European settlers and later by the Government through several examples in history. After many wars, acts and treaties were created the Natives became wards of the American Government and were place on reservations.  The European settlers were mostly Christian and believed it was by divine intent they develop culturally and have the land to expand on.  They saw the Indians as pagans and inferior (Keohane, 2009). Depending on the territory in the new land, various European governments were involved with specific tribes.  For example, in Florida the tribes belonged to the Spanish, and in the Louisiana territory the tribes were wards of the French government.

John Quincy Adams was not in agreement with the morals of the Europeans who intruded the indigenous people of the new land.  In his oration for the Sons of the Pilgrims in 1802 he says, “their cultivated fields, their constructed habitations, a space of ample sufficiency for their subsistence, and whatever they have annexed to themselves by personal labor, was undoubtedly by the laws of nature theirs” (Royce, 1902).  This thinking was very much in accordance with the thinking of the Native American who within the tribe had no strangers and therefore had no laws.  They saw making a contract as an insult and something that was only done between strangers (Wildcat).  Unfortunately, promises and treaties were broken, there were fraudulent land purchases, and brutal treatment from the governing forces, eventually leading up to the Trail of Tear, a forced death march to remove the Indians from their lands. 

Cyrus Thomas writes in the introduction to Indian Land Cessasion in the United States by Charles Royce: “In all these claims and contests between the civilized nations of Europe, the Indian title to the soil is nowhere allowed to intervene, it being conceded that the nation making the discovery had the sole right of acquiring the soil from the natives and establishing settlements.” (Royce,1901, p.528)  Royce saw the Natives as “fierce savages,” who were as brave as they were fierce, subsisting from the forest.  He writes, “to leave them in possession of their country was to leave the country a wilderness; to govern them as a distinct people was impossible” (1901, p. 532).  The removal of the Natives became increasingly difficult and the lands were needed for the expansion of the United States.  The railroad opened up more territory and more tribes were destroyed through the transferences that occurred from the Indian Removal Act of 1830.

“The isolation and concentration of American Indians began very early, but it received its first legal justification in the Indian Removal Act of 1830” (Sandefur, n.d., p.1).  While laying out the policy for the Indian Removal Act, Andrew Jackson recognized the problems of the Natives as they became surrounded by the civilized life of the whites and by destroying their resources, which forced the tribes to move to new land and in effect caused tribes to fight with each other.  Jackson and others saw that many tribes were becoming extinct.  He also saw that they lived a wretched existence, deprived of rights, when surrounded by and mixing with whites.  In order for the Government to help the Natives develop beyond their barbaric ways and enjoy the prosperity of civilized life, and in general to survive beyond extinction, the Indian Removal Act was enforced.  The Act provided the United States Government the law to exchange land with a tribe, removing them at times forcefully, and relocate them to the new land, usually inferior to their original land.  If they were to become extinct, the land would be returned to the Government and while living on the exchanged land the President continued to have authority over the tribe (DocStoc, n.d.).  The Indian Removal Act was the first legal justification of Indian isolation and genocide of Native culture.

In 1868 the treaty of the Souix Indians was written where the Black Hills of Dakota were recognized as part of the Great Souix Reservation.  This land was set aside for the exclusive use of the Souix until 1874 when General Custer led an expedition into the area.  With him came miners who found gold, began mining and soon demanded protection from the Army as they mined the hunting grounds of the Souix (Clark, n. d.).  Custer led his army into the Battle of the Little Bighorn, also known as Custer’s Last Stand, where his troops were annihilated.  Sitting Bull is known to have had a vision or dream that prepared him for the onslaught.  The Government confiscated the land in 1877 and Sitting Bull retreated further into isolation into Saskatchewan until surrendering to the United States in 1881 and was later killed for practicing the Ghost Dance, a Native American ritual. It was events such as these that contributed to historical trauma. 

In an article by Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart, Ph. D., and others (2011), we learn of the historical trauma amongst the indigenous tribes in America.  Much of this trauma was caused, not only by the isolation of the Indians from their native lands to the reservations, but also when Native Americans were sent off to boarding schools. Although many brave Native leaders did all they could to protect their tribes and their way of life, they also saw countless violent acts on their lands and to their people.  Many Natives suffered from historical trauma because of the violent wars that came after treaties were broken. These were the new stories to be passed down from generation to generation. There were no more stories of brave victories, only those of an annihilated culture. Sitting Bull and his tribe were a harsh story as they had become victims to wars and broken treaties in a brave attempt to continue on the path of the Indian.  They suffered from hunger and cold after isolating north, only to surrender to becoming isolated prisoners of war.

Many of the whites thought that the Natives were ignorant, knowing nothing of educating their children.  They believed an intelligent man would be able to find comfortable support on a small piece of land and that intelligence promotes thrift and prosperity.  In the 1870’s, while still at war, Indians were sent to off-reservation boarding schools where it has been reported that students did not learn basics in math, English and grammar, but were taught trades such as housekeeping and carpentry. They were often abused and malnourished as well as not being allowed to speak their native language or practice spirituality (Bear, 2008). There were over 100 boarding schools on and off reservations where the intent was to totally transform the native, inside and out.   The most hostile of the tribes and the children of leaders were targeted for recruiting into the schools as an attempt to keep the Indian community pacified.  The mistreatment in the schools often resulted in historical trauma causing emotional and psychological injury over the life span and across generations (Brave Heart, 2011).  Forcing the children to be separated from their families and culture was not an act of intelligence. Floyd Red Crow Westermen, a songwriter, performer and Indian activist, said his school experience taught him the “white man rule, to be a fool” (Bear, 2008).

The whites saw Indians as wild barbarians who were wasteful and extravagant, needing thousands of acres to live (Keohane, 2009).  However, this was not the case, unbeknownst to the white settlers, the Native American’s lives were in connection to the earth and very practical.  Natives shaped their lives to fit with nature; modern man reshapes nature to fit our convenience.  We see now with the present environmental situations that the new settlers may have been the ones who were ignorant and could have learned from the indigenous people.  Unfortunately this was not the case and the following quote from an NPR report shows us how the Government retained control of indigenous children:

“Compulsion through the police is often necessary, and should this be required during the coming year, it will be heroically resorted to, regardless of results. The treaty with the Indians gives the children to the Government, for school purposes, nine months in the year,” John P Williamson, Dakota Agency (NPR).  If children did not attend the families ration tickets were taken away from them.  Williamson continues to say “to compel attendance through the police than taking up ration tickets for non-attendance.” (Bear, 2008)

The boarding school experiences affected family, individual and community relationships. Communication was also affected as the distance grew between parents and children.  Brave Heart states that the lack of involvement of the parents developed into neglect and abuse in the family causing lack of trust, poor relationship building, and poor parenting and communication. “Most students failed to develop appropriate nurturing and discipline skills” (2011, p.6).  This is quite a contrast to the original culture in Native American societies, where everything was passed down orally and extended families lived in significantly large and comfortable lodges.  (The Plains Indians lived in comfortable, architecturally developed, grass lodges 50ft in diameter and 30ft high (Wildcat, 2007)).  A division from the family was also likely to occur if the student had troubles at home while having a positive experience in the boarding school. The other students and staff would acquire the role of family and the original family would be divided adding more trauma and dissolution of the culture, the languages and ceremonial practices. The student who experienced abuse at home and in school often continued the pattern of abuse and were more likely to develop alcoholism and drug abuse.  

Daniel Wildcat says that there is no such thing as Indian Religion.  Because there are so many different tribes, there are equally many different practices (2007).  The Ghost Dance is an example of traditional Native American ritual. It had been used since prehistoric times and spread through the different tribes, each one integrating it with aspects of their tribal beliefs. Prevention of practicing the ritual was enforced by the American officials and was the tragic reason for Sitting Bull’s death.  The Sun Dance was another extreme ritual, involving piercing the skin and hanging from a tree, viewed as savage and pagan by the new American inhabitants. As the Natives struggled to maintain identity with their decaying culture they used these rituals and turned them into religions such as the Native American Church where the use of peyote was legalized, through the protection of their rights to free religious activity.  Before that the Peyote cult and other rituals were in strong opposition by missionaries and governmental groups (Schultes, 1992).  It is Indian Law, as Wildcat explains, for an Indian to be connected to their culture, know their language, and have the tribe recognize you (2007), such as the recognition from performing the Sun Dance.  It is a biological birthright and being able to practice the rituals within the various tribes is what secures the indigenous person’s identity, experiencing less isolation. 

Social problems such as poverty, alcoholism, and domestic violence, that began to dominate the Native American life still plays a large role today.  Gary Sandefur calls the reservations “the first underclass areas” which suffer economic isolation because they were isolated far from major population centers, trails and transportation routes (Sandefur, n.d.).  He goes on to tell how the efforts of economic development on reservations were difficult because the policy which created the reservations was successful in “the removal and isolation of the Indian population away from the major growth and development of American society” (Sandefur, n.d., p.4).   Although kinship, social organization and community were strong, isolation produce extreme poverty, unemployment, alcoholism and drug abuse, and low rates of high school graduation.  Trauma, passed down through generations, was caused by the “genocide, racism, forcible expulsion from ancestral land, and removal of children from the Indian homes” (Jones, 2008, p.4).  Alcohol and drugs were used for self-medication, further adding to the problems of domestic violence.  With a domino affect the problem was perpetuated as the children take on the responsibility for the abuse rather than distinguishing it as their parent’s problem. Isolation made it difficult for health services to be provided and is the main reason for so little intervention on the reservations (Jones, 2008); it is a main ingredient in the cause of cultural genocide amongst the various tribes. 

In the study of historical trauma by Brave Heart and others, indigenous people are seen to have severe problems with chronic depression and bereavement trauma, and a high percentage of PTSD.  Historical trauma response (HTR) is associated with group trauma and the component of this response, historical unresolved grief, is “the profound unsettled bereavement resulting from cumulative devastating loses, compounded by the prohibition and interruption of indigenous burial practices and ceremonies” (Brave Heart, 201, p.2).  Those who were direct descendants of a historical event had more severe trauma.  The study states that “many indigenous communities experience multiple traumatic deaths with frequency due to elevated morbidity and mortality rates, lowered life expectancy, and high accidental death rates”(Brave Heart ,2011, p.3).  The Indigenous Peoples of America Survey (IPS) was designed to inform clinical practices and research of the person’s background to better identify with the trauma so the healing can be tailored to the tribal community. Successful treatment for those suffering reconnected the Natives with their culture and empowering indigenous survivors by reducing stigma and isolation (Brave Heart, 2011).

The US Census informs us of the increased migration to urban area by the Native Americans with approximately 60% of them living in cities in 2006 (US Census Bureau, 2006).  Not as isolated as they were, many live in middle class neighborhoods and have average jobs.  The contemporary Indians are invisible amongst Americans, who only recognizing the stereo type of the American Indian, do not recognize that they are people like us, in the midst of society.  Daniel Wildcat calls them the “Vanishing Americans” (2007).  Through powwows and other traditional ceremonies they have reconnected with their ancestral culture.  They have even held on to their language and recognize Indian Law (Wildcat, 2007) and their biological birthright as the generations relearn the connection to nature.  Although the development of Casinos has increased financial statistics and employment for some there is still hunger, poverty and alcoholism amongst the Native Americans.

It is hoped that Americans now recognize the trauma caused to the indigenous people from the philosophy of the Manifest Destiny.  Now with the problems in the environment perpetuated by the exponential growth of American society, the tables may be turned.  It is the whites who may need to look at the philosophy of the Native American and its connection to nature.  It may be time to shape our lives to fit with nature rather than reshape nature to fit our convenience.  The Native Americans learned to hunt from the wolves and knew to live on the riverbanks after the floods, growing gardens, harvesting and then moving on.  They never built on the flood plains.  No tornado destroyed an earth lodge and they were not the wasteful and extravagant people the white settlers perceived. As we can see from the history of the buffalo it was the newcomers who made sport and commerce, to the point of near extinction, of the extravagant and wasteful buffalo hunt.  Arrogance and ignorance are the characteristics behind the actions of the whites who sincerely thought that it was the Indian who needed education, forcing their children to boarding schools in order to isolate them from their language and culture, their families and the ceremonies which kept them psychologically balanced.  It was isolation that caused the cultural genocide of the indigenous people of America who were skillful hunters, architects, weather men, and healers.  They knew the land and their connection to earth.  That connection nearly became extinct, like the buffalo, and in some areas it has become extinct and replaced with the use of the alcohol, refined sugar and floor introduced by the Europeans. 

The Manifest Destiny was used to confiscate the lands that were discovered, that, by divine intent, the settlers believed they were entitled to.   Acts and treaties were made by the American government, disguised with compassion for the Native’s wretched existence of deprived rights and racism, defining where Native Americans could or could not go.  Seen as fierce savages who were impossible to govern they were forced to relocate on reservations in isolated areas with very little to offer.  Their resources were carelessly destroyed, treaties were broken and in the case of Sitting Bull, they were made prisoners. Native American offspring grew up in a world of war in addition to the isolation from off-reservation boarding school, where their attendance was policed and rations were taken away from families if there was truancy.  This injustice perpetuated poverty, alcoholism, and domestic violence throughout the various tribes living in isolation from the prosperity of our Nation.  Where the people once lived in harmony with the earth and sky, ancestral knowledge was destroyed by cultural genocide.






Bear, C. (2008). American Indian Boarding Schools Haunt Many. NPR. Retrieved from:

Brave Heart, M. Ph. D., Chase, J. Ph.D., Elkins, J. Ph.D., & Altschul, B. Ph.D. (2011). Historical trauma amongst indigenous peoples of the Americas: concepts, research and clinical considerations. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, 43 (4), 282–290, doi:10.1080/02791072.2011.628913

Clark, L. (n.d.).  Teaching with documents: the Souix Treaty of 1868. National Archives. Retrieved from

DocStoc (n. d.)  The Indian Removal Act of 1830. Retrieved from

Keohane, S. (1999-2009). The Reservation Boarding School System in the United States, 1870 -1928.  Retrieved from:

Jones, L. (2008). The distinctive characteristics and needs of domestic violence victims in a Native American Community.  Journal of Family Violance.  23:113–118. doi 10.1007/s10896-007-9132-9.

Royce, C.C. (1901).  Indian Land Cesssion in the United State. Library of Congress.  A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774 – 1875.  U. S. Serial Set, Number 4015.  Retrieved from:


Sandefur, Gary D. (n.d.) American Indian reservations: The first underclass areas? Retrieved from:

Schultes, R. & Hoffman, A. (1992). Plants of the Gods, Their Sacred, Healing and Hallucenogenic Powers.  Healing Arts Press, Vermont.  Retrieved from

Wildcat, D.(Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History). (2007, July 12). Nature, Culture and Native Americans [Audio podcast]. Retrieved from

U.S. Census Bureau  (2007).  Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2006.  Retrieved from



About pamelavk

"When you become you, Zen becomes Zen. When you are you, you see things as they are, and you become one with your surroundings."
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