Anthropology and Racial Politics

Bakerbook_fullSerena Golden interviews Lee Bakers, author of the new book Anthropology and the Racial Politics of Culture, in Inside Higher Ed:

Q: You describe a “dramatic shift” in the first half of the 20th century, when the federal government “promulgat[ed]… policies to first destroy and then protect American Indian culture.” This swift change “mirrored shifts in American popular culture, aesthetics, and attitudes toward traditional or authentic Native American cultures.” Can you give an overview of how and why such a dramatic about-face occurred?

A: In 1883, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) developed a policy called the Religious Crimes Code, which authorized agents to use force or imprisonment to repress and stop American Indian religious practices that they deemed subversive, immoral, or an impediment to the goal of “civilizing” the Indian. This followed the much more comprehensive Dawes Act of 1887, which divided up tribal lands into small, individually-owned parcels. This allotment mechanism created a putative surplus of land that was sold to developers, railroads, and ranchers. The idea was to force rapid civilization based on individualism or speed the process of assimilation by destroying communal ways of life, but the amount of land provided to individual families was not large enough to be sustainable. The act and its various amendments were in place for almost a half a century, and American Indian families lost an estimated 90 million acres of treaty land. These two policies reinforced other punitive policies, practices, and violence tethered to an explicit “vanishing policy” — a policy designed to make American Indian culture disappear.

In 1890, Sitting Bull was shot dead, and the army quickly stopped one of the last so-called uprisings with their massacre at Wounded Knee. In 1893, Fredrick Jackson Turner delivered his influential paper on “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” detailing how American culture was tied to frontier expansion, but the frontier was now closed. By the turn of the 20th century, the western frontier was finished and the threat of American Indians diminished.

Americans began to focus on preservation and conservation of land, wildlife, and water, which fueled movements to establish public spaces and establish more national parks. As boarding schools, the Dawes act, and the BIA articulated macabre vanishing policies, early anthropologists like James Mooney and Frank H. Chushing began to practice salvage ethnography. They attempted to preserve and conserve Indian culture by writing and describing the practices that they viewed as quickly disappearing. Tourism to the Southwest, a growing appreciation in Indian art, living ethnological fair exhibits, and wild-west shows all promoted a pacified yet exotic and distinctively American way of life. At the same time, summer camps and organizations like the Camp Fire Girls were promoted, and teenagers around the country began dressing up to play Indian. American Indian culture slowly became America’s exotic but safe “other.”

[H/t: Linta Varghese]