In a recent speech by one of the presidential candidates who will remain unnamed he cited the practice of assimilation as one of the best ways to help immigrants to make a successful transition into the dominant society. For Native Americans, and I dare say for all people of color, this has never worked.
For our people our first exposure to assimilation and acculturation, which is the policy of making another ethnic group conform to the values, traditions and beliefs of the dominant society, was the boarding school experience. Three generations of our people were forcibly removed and ordered to attend school far away from their home. In this very harsh environment these children were not allowed to speak their own language, had their hair cut, were punished when they sang their traditional songs and they had to dress like they had to wear clothes and uniforms which were foreign to them. In addition to all this they were punished because of who they were and not because they had done anything wrong. Sexual, physical and emotional abuse were the norm for many of these children. Dr. Maria Braveheart states that the source of all our dysfunctional behavior in Tribal communities comes from the boarding school experience and I have certainly found this to be true from my work in Indian country. This was a devastating policy and we are still dealing with the effects of this traumatic experience. This occurred from the 1870’s until the 1960’s.
The next attempt to accelerate the assimilation process was the termination period in the early 1950’s. The U.S. government decided to terminate a number of reservations as they decided that the reservation was a barrier to success and if they were terminated then those Tribal members would assimilate into the larger society and their lives would improve. What happened is the exact opposite as the quality of life for those whose Tribes were terminated became much more difficult. All the social indicators including unemployment, health, housing became far worse. After a few years this experiment was stopped but it took years for those Tribes to become federally recognized again and more than a few Tribal members ended up homeless in urban communities.
In the 1980’s and the 1990’s there was a push to have English only as the law for certain states. This not only impacted Native Americans but a number of other foreign born citizens. Some of those in state leadership positions felt that the sooner that all Americans spoke English the sooner they would be successfully integrated into society. The research, however, demonstrates that youth who are bilingual are more successful than those who are not. Language is the very heart of a culture and if you lose your ability to speak your own language it can have a major negative impact on your identity as a member of that Tribe or group. When I have done training on historical trauma one of the major issues of grief people experience is not being able to speak their own language. Speaking English is necessary to function in this society but when you know another language it opens up your soul to the world and enriches your life in immeasurable ways.
So the melting pot theory is alive and well. There continue to be attempts to make everyone in the United States conform to some American ideal of who we should be based on one set of values, language and beliefs. What makes our country so great is the incredible diversity we have among our people. We need to continue to celebrate our differences and realize that we are all part of a beautiful tapestry that is still being created.