The United States has engaged with Indigenous nations on a government-to-government basis via federal treaties representing substantial international commitments since the origins of the republic. The first treaties sent to the Senate for ratification under the Constitution of 1789 were treaties with Indigenous nations. Treaties with Indigenous nations provided the means by which approximately one billion acres of land entered the national domain of the United States prior to 1900, at an average price of seventy-five cents per acre – the United States confiscated or claimed another billion acres of Indigenous land without compensation. Despite subsequent efforts of American federal authorities to alter these arrangements, the weight of evidence indicates that the relationship remains primarily one of a nation-to-nation association. Integration of the history of federal relations with Indigenous nations with American foreign relations history sheds important new light on the fundamental linkages between these seemingly distinct state practices from the beginnings of the American republic.
By the late 19th century, the Indigenous peoples of what became the United States, in an effort to avoid utter genocide, had ceded or otherwise lost their land and control of their natural resources, often through treaties with the United States. Ironically, those treaties, while frequently abrogated by federal fiat, made possible a resurgence of Native nationhood beginning in the 1960s, along with the restoration of Indigenous reserved treaty rights to hunt and fish in their homelands and manage their natural resources. The history of Indigenous peoples and their environments, however, is not a single narrative but a constellation of stories that converge and diverge. Nonetheless, an analysis of the environmental histories of only a fraction of the more than 575 Indigenous groups, including Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians reveals important trends and commonalities, including the stories of dispossession and displacement, the promise of the Indian New Deal, the trauma of the Termination Era, the reemergence of Native sovereignty based on treaty rights, and the rise of Indigenous leadership in the environmental justice movement. This article is, thus, not comprehensive but focuses on major trends and commonalities from the mid- to late 19th century through the early 21st century, with examples drawn from the environmental histories of a fraction of the more than 575 Indigenous groups, including Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians. Topics include dispossession and displacement; the Indian New Deal; the Termination Era; the reemergence of Indigenous sovereignty based on treaty rights; the management of forests, minerals, and water; and the rise of the environmental justice movement. For the period before the establishment of reservations for Indigenous people, see “Indigenous Peoples and the Environment to 1890.”
Native people have appeared as characters in film and television in America from their inceptions. Throughout the 20th century, Native actors, writers, directors, and producers worked in the film and television industry. In terms of characterization, Native employment sits uncomfortable beside racist depictions of Native people. From the 1950s to the present, revisionist westerns come into being, giving the viewer a moral tale in which Native people are depicted with sympathy and white Americans are seen as aggressors. Today, a small but important group of Native actors in film and television work in limiting roles but turn in outstanding performances. Native directors, writers, and documentarians in the 1990s to the early 21st century have created critical interventions into media representations, telling stories from Indigenous viewpoints and bringing Native voices to the fore. The 2021 television show Rutherford Falls stands out as an example of Native writers gaining entry into the television studio system. Additionally, we have several Native film festivals in the early 21st century, and this trend continues to grow.
K. Tsianina Lomawaima
In 1911, a group of American Indian intellectuals organized what would become known as the Society of American Indians, or SAI. SAI members convened in annual meetings between 1911 and 1923, and for much of that period the Society’s executive offices were a hub for political advocacy, lobbying Congress and the Office of Indian Affairs (OIA), publishing a journal, offering legal assistance to Native individuals and tribes, and maintaining an impressively voluminous correspondence across the country with American Indians, “Friends of the Indian” reformers, political allies, and staunch critics. Notable Native activists, clergy, entertainers, professionals, speakers, and writers—as well as Native representatives from on- and off-reservation communities—were active in the Society. They worked tirelessly to meet daunting, unrealistic expectations, principally to deliver a unified voice of Indian “public opinion” and to pursue controversial political goals without appearing too radical, especially obtaining U.S. citizenship for Indian individuals and allowing Indian nations to access the U.S. Court of Claims. They maintained their myriad activities with scant financial resources solely through the unpaid labor of dedicated Native volunteers. By 1923, the challenges exhausted the Society’s substantial human and miniscule financial capital. The Native “soul of unity” demanded by non-white spectators and hoped for by SAI leaders could no longer hold the center, and the SAI dissolved. Their work was not in vain, but citizenship and the ability to file claims materialized in circumscribed forms. In 1924 Congress passed the Indian Citizenship Act, granting birthright citizenship to American Indians, but citizenship for Indians was deemed compatible with continued wardship status. In 1946 Congress established an Indian Claims Commission, not a court, and successful claims could only result in monetary compensation, not regained lands.