History

Although American Indians of the lower 48 United States and Alaska Natives are separated by at least a thousand miles, these groups share a set of common historical experiences. Both have suffered decimation of their people, loss of ancestral lands, and destruction of language, culture, and religion at the hands of U.S. citizens or others visiting or settling their land (Norton & Manson, 1996).

It is estimated the American Indian population before European contact numbered approximately 9 million. In 1900, approximately 400 years after contact, 240,000 Indians remained. This loss of over 95% of the population is attributed to wars, genocide, and diseases such as smallpox and influenza (Nies, 1996; Trimble, Fleming, Beauvais, & Jumper-Thurman, 1996). In Alaska, the statistics are similar. For example, in the first 50 years after contact with Russian explorers, the Aleut population (one of the Alaska Native groups) experienced a 90% reduction from 16,000 to 1,600 individuals (Krauss, 1980). By 1900, American Indians also lost over 95% of the land holdings they held in 1800 (Nies, 1996).

These losses of life and land both contributed to the destruction of traditional ways of obtaining food, governance, and practicing religion. For example, the Sioux, traditionally nomadic hunter-gatherers, were relocated onto reservations in the late 1800s and forced to rely on commodity foods distributed by government Indian agents. In addition to replacing tribal leaders as the source of authority, Indian agents often banned traditional religious ceremonies such as the Sundance. The aftereffects of European diseases also have been linked to conversion to Christianity (e.g., Paniagua, 1994). Besides killing leaders and elders who practiced traditional religions, the "failure" of the "old" ways to stop the epidemics might have increased openness to other faiths. Religious conversion, however, was not all voluntary. Also in the 1800s, boarding schools were created as part of a federal policy of Assimilation and Civilization. Indian children were subsequently forced to attend these schools and required to speak English, follow Christian teachings, cut their hair, and wear "citizen" clothing (Nies, 1996).

Although reservations were not created in Alaska, Alaska Natives experienced similar losses of land to settlers (e.g., Russians) as well as comparable losses of culture. Missionaries, for instance, arrived in Alaskan lands in the late 1700s (Nies, 1996) and created English-only boarding schools that persisted in suppressing Native languages until the 1960s (Krauss, 1980).

More recent history depicts continued attempts at assimilation by the U.S. government. In the 1950s, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) relocated more than 35,000 American Indians from reservations to urban areas. The aim of this urban relocation movement was the integration of American Indians into the larger capitalistic society through vocational training and assistance (Olson & Wilson, 1984). For some, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 (ANCSA) provides another example. Although ANCSA compensated Alaska Natives monetarily for lands that were lost and set aside some subsistence land, this compensation was given to corporations that were required to develop a business. Beyond forcing adherence to capitalism, the traditional lifestyle organized around hunting and fishing was further jeopardized as ANCSA failed to provide fish or wildlife rights (Berger, 1985; Nies, 1996).

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