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Approaches to American Studies: Ethnic Inscriptions on the American Land

North American land is the physical embodiment of its diverse culture, history, tradition, and people. It is a place of encounter, settlement, colonialism, migration, dream, and mixing; one that should be approached with respect to its diasporic nature, rather than as a culture with a single history and tradition. This space has served as a canvas for the various ethnicities and cultures that comprise the United States: from the Native American tribes, who inhabited the country for thousands of years before European adventurers arrived on its shores, to the millions of immigrants who came afterwards and keep coming today from all over the world, in pursuit of the American Dream. The presence of so many ethnic groups within this landscape is a powerful reminder of the country’s rich and complex history. In one of the most famous works on American immigration, The Uprooted (1951), the Social historian Oscar Handlin stated: “Once, I thought to write a history of immigrants in America. Then I discovered that the immigrants were American history” [emphasis added] (p. 3). This article will explore how these various cultures, and particularly within the ethnic group of Native Americans, left their mark on the American land in the form of ethnic inscriptions and how they contributed to re-mapping the American identity.

America has traditionally been referred to as a "melting pot". The comparison of the American space to a pot has long been a standard cliché since the emergence of the metaphor in a play called The Melting Pot (1908) by Israel Zangwill, an English Jewish author. The play celebrates the opportunity for diverse and different backgrounds to be merged by the American crucible. Louis Foley (1945), an American historian who has written extensively about the history of ethnic minorities in the United States, observed that the concept of the American crucible expresses the popular fact that the American population is comprised of many former nationalities and racial strains. Within this concept, America is viewed as a nation that welcomes people coming from different countries, belonging to different religious beliefs and different races; a nation that offers new opportunities, freedom, and a better way of life. It assumes that all newcomers will better themselves in American society and improve their financial condition despite any cultural, social, and ethnic distinctiveness. However, according to the historian, the comparison of America to a crucible is not particularly apt. If “the various elements were really fused together,” Foley (1945) says, “then all of us would have all of these strains in our make-up, proportionately to the number of inhabitants represented by each” (p. 277). This is by no means the case because although many nationalities were thoroughly assimilated, numerous of them also kept to themselves in well-defined communities. As can be seen, the metaphor of the "melting pot" is inextricably connected to the concept of cultural assimilation.

Figure 1: "The Melting Pot", a play by Israel Zangwill, first staged in 1908.

According to Neil Campbell (2012), a professor in American Studies, “the concept of assimilation assert[s] that all ethnic groups could be incorporated in a new American national identity, with specific shared beliefs and values, and that this would take preference over any previously held system of traditions” (p. 50). In other words, within this process, a minority or ethnic group starts to partly or fully resemble the majority, accepting its values, beliefs and behaviors in order to benefit from full citizenship status. The ethnic groups who entered the host nation were encouraged (or expected) to adopt the social behavior, rituals, laws, history, and religion of the dominant culture. This idea stands in stark contrast with that of multiculturalism. Arnold Krupat (1992), an American scholar that developed a particular interest in critical theory and Native American literature, defines multiculturalism as "a cultural approach in which ethnic voices are central, contributing hugely to the ‘polyvocality’ (many-voicedness) that describes a cosmopolitan, multi-cultural America” (p. 72). In contrast to the concept of assimilation, multiculturalism suggests that ethnic groups maintain strong connections to their cultural heritage and recognise these differences as a valuable contribution to the diversity and multiplicity of a successful society. Contemporary scholars in American Studies like Neil Campbell (2012), Louis Foley (1945), and Arnold Krupat (1992) advocate the idea of multiculturalism, not assimilation. The old assimilationist “melting pot” for American ethnicity no longer rings true and has given way to new metaphors that refer to a mixture of various ingredients that keep their individual characteristics, such as “salad bowl” or “mosaic” (Campbell, 2012, p. 74). Instead of being blended together, ethnic groups transform and add value to American society, turning it into a truly multicultural space. Postcolonial critic Homi Bhabha proposes another interesting way of understanding America: through the concept of hybridity. In his work The Location of Culture (1994), he argues that hybridity allows the voice of the Other, the marginalized, to coexist with the superior group within the language of the latter. Hybridity is described as a defining characteristic of postcolonial, syncretic cultures, like the United States, which blend and mix different voices, traditions and beliefs:

Hybridization as creolization involves fusion, the creation of a new form, which can then be set against the old form, of which it is partly made up... as "raceless chaos" by contrast, [it] produces no stable new form but rather something closer to Bhabha’s restless, uneasy, interstitial hybridity: a radical heterogeneity, discontinuity, the permanent revolution of forms. (Bhabha, 1994, p. 25)

Hybridity then is a “merger” or a “dialectical articulation” that pulls towards sameness and fusion and highlights the importance of diversity and difference (Bhabha, 1994, p. 23). It is a mingling of antagonism and coalescence, a blend of voices, some silenced and restricted, others dominant and supreme, and yet all with the hope of finding expression and authority. Nevertheless, what hybridity cannot do is deal with the tensions and deviations between ethnic groups or ideologies. Although it fuses and brings together the minority with the majority, it also maintains separation.

Figure 1: The Meling Pot (Dirksen, 2020)
Figure 2: The Melting Pot (Dirksen, 2020).

Tension and ambivalence have always surrounded the idea of ethnicity. In contemporary America, ethnicity is considered the state of mutual reference between two or more cultures. Michael M. J. Fischer (1986), lecturer in the Humanities and Professor of Anthropology, Science, and Technology, defines ethnicity as a “pluralistic, multidimensional, or multifaceted concept of self” in which a person “can be many different things, and this personal sense can be a crucible for a wider social ethos of pluralism” (p. 196). He assigns to the term "crucible" the sense of a space where gender, age, race, religion, and class can meet and become interconnected with ethnicity. However, as previously mentioned, the traditional and earlier concept of "crucible" refers to a point where a plurality becomes one, where the “melting down” of various cultures into a new, single, homogeneous nation can take place. Ethnic minorities were seen as threats to the creation of American national identity, according to which minorities should forget their cultural practices and abandon their old values in favor of "Americanization" (Campbell, 2012, p. 50). Americanization, or in Neil Campbell’s (2012) terms, “the forging of a ‘true’ American identity” (p. 61), required strict adherence to key areas of the majority culture, such as religion, manners, and language. In this context, ethnic groups were either brought within the acceptable definition of "Americanness" or were excluded entirely from it. Native Americans, in particular, struggled to construct their own identities in the American nation. The cultural deviations between the "civilized" white culture and the "savage" tribal one were too prominent for satisfactory assimilation. Thus, the reservation system was employed, a system that was based on Captain Richard Henry Pratt’s philosophy of Kill the Indian and Save the Man (1892). Captain Richard Henry Pratt was an American military officer who founded the Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania (1879) and is best known for the frequently brutal methods for “civilizing” the “savages”. The following extract is taken from Pratt’s speech in 1892:

A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one, and that high sanction of his destruction has been an enormous factor in promoting Indian massacres. In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man. (Pratt, 1892, pp. 46–59).

The reservation system worked towards the de-Indianisation of the native population and the ideology of “one country, one language, and one flag” (Campbell, 2012, p. 54). Nevertheless, David Theo Goldberg (1995), known for his work in critical race theory, supports that Native Americans were seen as beyond assimilation because their culture and traditions were considered too dissimilar to those of Northern European American culture. In particular, there existed the ideology that a Native’s nature is dual: noble and savage. The noble side of a Native is associated with the freedom and the innocence of the virgin land which he inhabits; the savage side refers to the vulgar and uncivilized behaviour that characterizes him. In his paper, The Whites of Their Eyes: Racist Ideologies and the Media (1981), Stuart Hall, a British Marxist sociologist, cultural theorist, and political activist, aptly confirms the idea that used to lay behind the "native" figure: “The good side of this figure is portrayed in a certain primitive nobility and simple dignity. The bad side is portrayed in terms of cheating and cunning, and, further out, savagery and barbarism” (1981, p. 21). The good and the bad side, then, are both aspects of what he calls “primitivism”, that is “the fixed proximity of such people to Nature” (1981, p. 22).

Figure 2: Native American (Cummings, 2014)
Figure 3: Benjamin Hawkins explains the advantages of settled agriculture as part of a plan to promote “civilization” among Native Americans (Unknown, 1805).

During the acculturation process proposed by George Washington, Native Americans were encouraged to drop their “savage” side and adopt European customs. The Washington administration's policy toward Native Americans was enunciated for the first time in June of 1789. For the president, a just Native American policy was one of his highest priorities. He even declared that "the government of the United States are determined that the Administration of Indian Affairs shall be directed entirely by the great principles of justice and humanity" (1789, p. 392). Based on this policy, Native Americans were forced to convert to Christianity and abandon "pagan" practices. The meaning of 'conversion' in the American Indian context is central to many scholars as well as to other fields such as religious history. Michael McNally (2000), professor of Religious Studies at Carleton College, describes the contact between the Europeans and the Native people as a "'collision' of two ostensibly well-bounded systems of belief: Protestant or Catholic 'Christianity' on the one hand and tribe-specific traditions on the other" (p. 836). In this concept, according to the professor "Christianity's gains were unequivocally the losses of traditional religions [or the] persistence of traditional religions signaled a lack of inroads on the part of Christianity" (2000, p. 837).

Apart from conversion, Natives were also required to learn, speak and read English, which was seen as a tool of empowerment for the majority culture and the foundation of a unified nation. There was a close link between language and expected patterns of political and social behavior. One way to prevent America from becoming “a polyglot boarding house” (Campbell, 2012, p. 61) was to promote schools as “the melting pot[s] of the nation, where Americanism is molded and formed, a great factor of [their] national life” (p. 61). A solution was the promotion of American Indian boarding or residential schools which were established from the mid-17th to the early 20th century. Carlisle, which opened in 1879, was one of the first and most well-known boarding schools for Native children, and its operational model set the standard for most boarding schools across the country. The purpose of Carlisle, as well as other boarding schools across the nation, was "to remove Native Americans from their cultures and lifestyles and assimilate them into the white man’s society" (Pratt, 1892, p. 59). They strived to civilize the savage Native American children into European American culture and provide them with Western education. Not only it was forbidden to speak any language other than English, but they were brutally forced to abandon their Indian identities, their traditions and culture: their long hair was cut short, their tribal names were replaced with English ones and they were dressed in American-style uniforms. The cruelty of cultural deprivation and identity loss is illustrated in Louise Erdrich’s 1988 novel, Tracks. Erdrich’s book is an attempt to articulate the predicaments of Native Americans in the first half of the 20th century, including the cruel removal from their ancestral land, the resettlement onto reservations, the extreme poverty, the numerous diseases, the denial of access to quality healthcare and other basic services, and the failure of the educational system reflected in boarding schools. In the story, Nanapush recounts to his granddaughter Lulu the fall of the Anishinabe tribe of North Dakota. Lulu is one of the many children that was sent to a boarding school and was forced to assimilate into mainstream society. In the following extract, Nanapush describes the moment he meets her after a long time, observing her overall transition from a tribal, traditional girl to a civilized, well-mannered person:

Your braids were cut, your hair in a thick ragged bowl, and your dress was a shabby and smoldering orange, a shameful color like a half-doused flame, visible for miles, that any child who tried to run away from the boarding school was forced to wear. The dress was tight, too small, straining across your shoulders. Your knees were scabbed from the punishment of scrubbing long sidewalks, and knobbed from kneeling hours on broomsticks. But your grin was bold as your mother’s, white with anger that vanished when you saw us waiting. You went up on your toes, and tried to walk, prim as you’d been taught. Halfway across, you could not contain yourself and sprang forwards. Lulu. We gave against your rush like creaking oaks, held on, braced ourselves together in the fierce dry wind. (Erdrich, 1988, p. 226)

Figure 4: Captain Richard Henry Pratt established Pennsylvania’s Carlisle Indian Industrial School in the Cumberland County seat (circa 1890).

In boarding schools, the cultural traditions of the Native children were entirely discarded. Emphasis was placed on American ideas of civilization and refinement. David Wallace Adams has provided one of the most useful overviews of Indian boarding schools in his history book Education for Extinction: American Indians and the Boarding School Experience, 1875–1928. The book explores and covers the history of assimilation and acculturation era American Indian boarding schools. According to the critic Julie Davis, the strength of Adam's book lies in its focus on several key aspects of the history of boarding schools across a wide spectrum of educational institutions. "Through the boarding schools", the author of the book argues, "reformers, educators, and federal agents waged cultural, psychological, and intellectual warfare on Native students as part of a concerted effort to turn Indians into "Americans" (1995, p. 20). He continues by pointing out that "[s]chool administrators and teachers cut children's hair; changed their dress, their diets, and their names [...] introduc[ing] them to unfamiliar conceptions of time and space [and] subject[ing] them to militaristic regimentation and discipline" (1995, p. 20). These institutions clearly served as a means of cultural loss and embodied both victimization and agency for the ethnic minorities.

Within the context of “nation building” (Campbell, 2012, p. 59), Native Americans faced near genocide, as their national consciousness started to disappear. However, they fought to preserve their ethnic identity, maintain their culture, and keep informing each generation about their history through the act of oral narration and storytelling. Leslie Marmon Silko, a Native American storyteller, explains in her novel Ceremony (1977), the significance of storytelling in her life. She says that it is “our way of passing through or being with [our ancestors], of being together again” (Silko, 1977, p. 70). The present and living are interconnected with the past and the dead and telling stories functions as a circulation of the tribal life-blood. Native American culture is known for its rich oral tradition. In particular, instead of documenting their story through written texts, Native Americans relied on their spoken language to share and pass down their customs, rituals, and legends to the younger generation. In other words, storytelling was not merely used as a source of entertainment. One of the basic functions of storytelling has always been to unify the tribe. It was a site of cultural preservation and an assertion of visibility against the dominant culture’s denial of native life, an empowering way to articulate the unspoken and re-imagine the Native American culture. Stories, thus, “[were] all [they had]” and to “destroy the stories”, says Silko, entails making Native Americans “defenseless” (Silko, 1977, p. 71).

Figure 3: The Blackfeet Nation (Mahoney, n.d)
Figure 5: Oral histories play an integral role in Indigenous cultures (Weiss, n.d.).

In Erdrich’s novel, Nanapush’s task is to share the tribe’s history with his granddaughter through the act of storytelling. He outlines how their tribe “unravel[s] like a coarse rope” (Erdrich, 1988, p. 2) losing their land to government taxes and corporate America. According to the General Allotment Act of 1887 (also known as the Dawes Act named for Senator Henry Dawes of Massachusetts, the Act’s lead proponent), tribal land should be divided into allotments. Countless federal laws and legislative acts have led to the fractured state of Indian land tenure in the Indian country. However, it is the General Allotment Act that is considered the single most devastating federal policy. So in 1887, Congress passed the General Allotment Act that authorized the president (at the time Grover Cleveland) to survey Indian tribal land and divide the area into allotments for individual Indians and families. Proponents of allotment supported the policy for a variety of reasons. In particular, many of them believed that the Indian way of life was primitive and outdated.

On the contrary, because private ownership of property was considered more civilized it would lead to Indians settling down, breaking away from their tribes, and taking on the values, customs, and activities of the American settlers. Additionally, some felt that Indians had too much land and wanted to make it available for settlement, as well as for transportation, mining, logging, and other industries. In order to preserve their land, Native Americans were forced to pay taxes to the government. However, the majority of them were not able to pay and consequently ended up landless and destitute, due to this policy. Along with land dispossession, Indians lost their tradition and their grip on history. This process of physical and psychological relocation evoked feelings of despair, bewilderment, fear, confusion and disappointment. Natives were inherently attached to nature and their land. They had built a deep emotional relationship with their environment (emotional space) and this justifies the great impact that the loss of land has had on the fragmentation of Indian society. In turn, the displacement caused by the loss of land provoked the displacement of their ethnic identity. Since the land represents the traditional natural home, its deprivation results in the change of prevailing traditional values. By narrating this land dispossession to his granddaughter, Nanapush wants to remind her of her roots in the land. He wants her to hold onto their traditions and history that constitute the sense of the Native American self. It is an attempt to reestablish the lost bond of the young generation with their history, language, culture and heritage.

Figure 4:  There are over 500 federally recognized tribes within the United States, about half of which are associated with Indian reservations. The terms Native Americans, American Indians or Indigenous Americans exclude Native Hawaiians and some Alaska Natives (Gull G., 2019).
Figure 6: Native American Art Portrait (Gull, 2019).

Understanding the culture of Native Americans today means understanding their whole historical background and how it continues to affect them and their families. Ethnic minorities still suffer the negative effects of cultural and social changes due to the advent of the Anglo-American culture in their society. The loss of their land; the abandonment of old values; the 500 years long genocide; the dislocation; the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual violence have caused a deep split in their identities. They are still dealing with collective and individual trauma caused by the violence of European expansion across the continent, the inhuman and discriminatory policies of the 19th and 20th centuries that prohibited any ethnic and religious expression, the brutal removal of Native children from their homes to boarding schools to the societal discrimination, inequity, bias, and injustice that persist to this day. All this historical destruction keeps feeding the desperation, grief and hopelessness experienced by numerous Native Americans in the 21st century. Nonetheless, even after the extraordinary challenges they had to endure, their story has survived. Through the traditional act of oral narration and storytelling, they managed to articulate, voice, and promote indigenous people’s culture within the contemporary United States, creating a new sense of a plural, multicultural society. They successfully adapted to the changing world around them, establishing their own tribal governments in order to maintain their sovereignty, beliefs, and tradition. Thus, it is important for them to avoid seeing themselves as permanent victims of history. Only through understanding the way their ancestral wounds and roots of historical trauma affected today’s contemporary communities will they manage to take a step toward growth and healing.

Bibliographical References

Bhabha, H.K. (1994) The Location of Culture, London: Routledge.

Campbell, N., & Alasdair K. (2012). American Cultural Studies: An Introduction to American Culture.

Davis, J. (2001). American Indian Boarding School Experiences: Recent Studies from Native Perspectives. OAH Magazine of History, Vol. 15, 20-22.

D. W. A. (1995). Education for Extinction: American Indians and the Boarding School Experience, 1875-1928 (-1st ed.). Paperback.

Erdrich, L. (1988). Tracks, New York: Harper Perennial.

Fischer, M.M.J. (1986). ‘Ethnicity and the Post-Modern Arts of Memory’ in J. Clifford and G. Marcus (eds) Writing Culture, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Foley, L. (1945). Melting-pot myth. The Modern Language Journal, 29(4), 277–281.

Goldberg, D.T. (ed.) (1995). Multiculturalism: A Critical Reader, Oxford: Blackwell.

Hall, S. (1995). ‘New Cultures for Old’ in D. Massey and P. Jess (eds), A Place in the World?, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Handlin O. (1951). The Uprooted, New York: Grosset and Dunlap.

Krupat, A. (1992). Ethnocriticism: Ethnography, History, Literature, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Leslie Marmon Silko Ceremony: Silko, L.M. (1977). Ceremony, New York: Penguin.

Malle, L. (1986). And the Pursuit of Happiness [Film]. Nouvelles Éditions de Films.

Mariani, P (ed.) (1991). Critical Fictions, Seattle: Bay Press.

Pratt. R.H. (1892). “The Advantages of Mingling Indians with Whites,” Americanizing the American Indians: Writings by the “Friends of the Indian” 1880-1900.

Ryan, M.-L., Foote, K., & Azaryahu, M. (2016). Narrating Space / Spatializing Narrative: Where Narrative Theory and Geography Meet. Ohio State University Press.

Silko, L.M. (1977). Ceremony. Viking Press.

Washington, George. (1789). Commissioners to the Southern Indians. Founders Online, National Archives,

Young, R.J.C. (1995). Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture and Race, London: Routledge.

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