The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1988, Volume 34, Number 1
Thomas L. Scharf, Editor

Book Review

Raymond Starr, Book Review Editor

The Indians in American Society: From the Revolutionary War to the Present.

By Francis Paul Prucha. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985. Index. 127 Pages. $15.95

Reviewed by Clare V. McKanna, Jr., Lecturer in American Indian Studies, San Diego State University.

Historians spend a good deal of time reading books that pertain to their specific research interest. We seldom have time to read essays that are out of our historic field. Francis Paul Prucha has provided the layman and historian alike with a concise essay on American Indian policy. Some may disagree with his viewpoint, but this volume provides the reader with a statement of the Prucha perspective.

In this series of short essays, Prucha provides a convincing argument that the United States unwittingly developed a policy of “paternalism” that plagues Indian-white relations to this day. Tracing governmental policy from the revolutionary war to the present, he suggests that whether they were Jeffersonians or followers of John Collier, Indian reformers failed to make their wards self-sufficient. During the early period reformers tried to turn the Indian into a red, white man. The Dawes Act of 1887 brought about an allotment system that was designed to break up the reservations, place Indians on small plots of land, subject them to white laws, and educate their children in English-speaking schools. Prucha thinks that the reformers intended the legislation to make the Indian more self-supporting, thus eliminating the “Indian Problem.” They failed.

Governmental policy seemed to make the Indian more dependent with each step toward the twentieth-century. Officials, who often viewed all Indians as being alike, focused their efforts on trying to assimilate them into the mainstream of American culture. Reformers believed if they would adopt the white man’s ways dependency would end. In the 1920s John Collier set out on a crusade to champion Indians’ rights. By 1934 he gained enough attention to be appointed as Commissioner of Indian Affairs. The “Indian New Deal” that followed seemed doomed to the same fate as earlier proposals. Indians did not become less dependent on the government any more than the needy whites of the depression era. Termination in a later decade also failed.

So what can we conclude from this brief volume? Prucha has written a useful synthesis of United States official attitudes towards Indians. The problem, however, is he seems to forget that it was “white man’s” policy (whether it was Jefferson or Collier makes no difference) toward Indians, not “Indian policy.” You cannot teach Indian children to follow white ways by taking them from their reservation homes and forcing them to learn English. The lack of sufficient input by Indians certainly helps to explain government failure. The same can be said for Indian history written from a white perspective. We need more research and analysis of events by Indians, not because they are Indians, but by virtue of their better understanding of the culture.