Progressivism and Indians
By the late nineteenth century, Native Americans had become a problem to Progressives—not only because of their actions but because they had one resource coveted by white Americans: land. The confluence of two desires present in American politics—the access to land held by tribes and a desire to melt Indians into mainstream society—resulted in federal assimilation policies in the 1870s and 1880s and found its ultimate expression in the Dawes General Allotment Act of 1887. Assimilationist sought to dismantle collective Indian land holdings and dissolve tribal culture through the education of Native children in schools and the introduction of private property. The results of such a course of action, according to the logic of Progressives, would be individualistic, hard–working citizens. Dividing up reservation land into individual parcels, Progressives hoped, would advance their goals.
The dissolution of tribal land was not the only Progressive strategy for forming good citizens out of Native Americans. In the late 1870s, federal policy dictated that Native children would be educated in schools and taught the necessary skills to flourish in the modern world. In 1879, under the leadership of Captain Richard Henry Pratt, the government established Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania where Native children, forcibly taken from their families, were sent to learn skills in a curriculum that included subjects in English, mathematics, history, drawing, and composition.
Religious education also forced itself upon Native American communities. Religious Reformist Progressives sent Christian missionaries to Indian reservations to educate Native peoples about their heathen practices and the true path towards righteousness. Convinced they were burdened with the task of assimilating Indians as Christian farmers and businessmen, Quakers, Catholics, Episcopalians, and other "friends of the Indian" groups began educating Indian children in religious and vocational instruction. Other altruistic missionaries were humanitarians genuinely concerned that Indian culture and religion continue to exist and often underwent more change themselves than their congregations did.
By 1900, the policy of assimilation disappointed Progressives. The land–hungry among them found themselves wishing for quicker access to Indian land while those more sympathetic to Indians wrung their hands over the lack of Western ideals being adopted by tribal communities. Among three–thousand Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians located in western Oklahoma, only twenty percent were raising their own crops by 1900. Land allotments at Fort Hall Reservation in Idaho, noted progressive journalist Ray Stannard Baker, left Indians "exactly as before, looking on imperturbably, eating, sleeping, idling, with no more thought of the future than a white man's child."
The Progressive idea of full assimilation began to shift after 1900. If Indians could not become fully American, they reasoned, then perhaps the best alternative for their survival was to keep them completely separate from the rest of society. To this end, President Theodore Roosevelt pursued a new federal Indian policy along thoroughly Progressive lines. In his annual message to Congress in 1902, Roosevelt explained that "our aim should be their [Indians] ultimate absorption into the body of our people. But in many cases this absorption must and should be very slow." With the appointment of Francis Luepp as Commissioner of Indian Affairs in 1905, Roosevelt would find the clearest expression of his ideas. Under Luepp's leadership the BIA radically altered its policy towards assimilation. Reservations began emphasizing vocational training on reservations rather than boarding schools. Leupp also scaled back the program of placing Native Americans in white public schools.
Citizenship likewise became an issue of reform. Convinced that Native Americans were not "fitted for its [citizenship's] duties," the Roosevelt administration passed the Burke Act in 1906 that eliminated a clause in the Dawes Act that conferred citizenship upon Indians who took an allotment. Indians could no longer become citizens by default and would only become citizens in twenty–five years or until determined ready for the duties of citizenship by the Secretary of the Interior. In the face of legislative and legal challenges, more and more Indian land was opened to white settlement. In a single month in 1908, the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River Reservations in South Dakota lost 2.9 million acres that were opened up to white settlement.
Throughout the remainder of Roosevelt's administration and continued through Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson, Native Americans were placed in a limbo between segregation and assimilation. Not able to reject U.S. federal policy nor become full citizens of the nation, Native Americans were left in a precarious mode of dependency.