Decentering of the Native American culture

Decentering of the Native American culture in the early nineteenth century

By early nineteenth century, most of Native Americans had been driven out of their homelands by the white settlers and placed in reservations that were set a side by the colonial masters. The white settlers came with their own culture and traditions, which they tried to impose on Native Americans in efforts to alter their culture, language, and religions.

During this period, Native Americans tried to preserve their culture, even though the white settlers tried to influence them so that they could abandon their culture, and these situations sometimes reached high levels of tension, with Native Americans reacting aggressively but the white settlers usually overpowered them with the help from the military and the government (Wilmer, 2002, p.9).

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The Native Americans were observing their culture through performances, rituals, rites, religious and other ceremonies important to their culture identity. During this era, they craved to have their culture intact and untainted by the white settlers way of life as depicted in the performance of Lakota Ghost Dance, which was a performative cultural and religious response to loss of sovereignty and served as request to return to independent Native way of life (Wilmer, 2002, p.9).

Before arrival of the white settlers, the Native Americans were already well-established hunters who hunted to supplement their foods including beans, tomatoes, fish, squash, and berries. With the arrival of white settlers, metal tools and firearms were introduced which altered the way the Natives used to hunt.

The first interactions between the white settlers and the Plains Indians led to emergency of the buffalo-hunting horseman with feathered headdress, which came to be typical representation of all American Indian ethnic groups in the white people’s way of reasoning (Kittler & Sucher, 2007, P.110).

The Native Americans were very hard working people in their culture who engaged in self-sufficient agriculture, trading activities, and livestock grazing. Additionally, most of the groups such as Hopi, Pueblo, and Navajo people engaged in traditional crafts including pottery, weaving, and silversmithing (Kittler & Sucher, 2007, P.111).

The white settlers significantly changed the way of life of the native people by placing them in reservations, while the agricultural, grazing and other socioeconomic activities of their society were greatly reduced, making the Natives even to try to migrate further a way from white settlers civilization in effort to try to consolidate their culture back.

With the colonial masters feeling that Native Americans beliefs and perceptions were incompatible with their own social, political, and religious systems, they introduced missionization to accompany their economic expansion; since they thought that missionaries were necessary to replace Native religions, languages and customs (Warkentin, & Podruchny, 2001, P.34).

The white settlers in this period were in constant effort to change the ideologies, society set up, and religious beliefs of the Natives since they perceived them as inferior thus wanting the Natives to acclimatize to the western civilization, abandoning their culture. This is a thing that the Native resisted though slowly some elements of white people way of life found acceptance in their culture.

Decentering of the Native American culture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century

The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were marked with increased urbanization and industrialization that led to great cultural reorientation in the European system.

The Native Americans were already pacified and confined to reservations or moving around in the white settlements, enabling the whites to feel victorious in pursuit of degrading the Natives culture and established form of government and ideologies (Berlo, 1992, P.89). With this cultural reorientation, the white settlers developed a nostalgic feeling about the Native Americans way of life before their arrival, thus viewing the Natives as noble savages, thereby, developing strong interest in the arts and crafts of the native Indians.

According to Berlo (1992), “this nostalgia for the pure and noble Indian past fueled the curio trade, which at its helm in 1880-1930, filled museums and private collections with staggering amount of native American art and artifacts; with the native men being encouraged to create narrative images of the myths, rituals, and replicas of traditional rituals arts for museum collections” (Berlo, 1992, P.89).

One good example of these efforts was the Culin’s Zuni Exhibitions that consisted mainly of Zuni Indian objects and they were used to represent the Pueblo people in contrast to other Indian people (Berlo, 1992, P.77).

Apart from to trying to alter or influence the natives’ culture through arts, the white settlers also involved religion in their efforts. During this period, most of the Native Americans had refused to embrace Christianity, especially the Navajo, Arizona Hopi, Rio Grande Pueblos, Potawatomi, Lakota, and Dakota, choosing to continue observing their traditional religious values and rituals including the sweat lodge purification rites.

In addition, through the European influence, some religions unique to the Native Americans came to emerge such as Drum Dance cult and the Medicine Bundle religions, which involve spiritual elements from a variety of different ethnic groups (Kittler & Sucher, 2007, P.112). With time, more hybrid religions that involved combining of traditional and Christian beliefs evolved leading to Native Church that achieved significant level of success. In addition, more Natives joined Roman Catholicism and various protestant denominations.

Through white people civilization, religion and education in the Native Americans culture were significantly decentered, with many practicing a mixture of the western and traditional way of life. Others chose to embrace the western lifestyle completely, thus losing their originality, while others chose to continue to observe their traditional values and rituals, though the western influences was somehow trying to alter their beliefs.

Impact of the European expansion on the Native Americans culture in nineteenth century

First, the European diseases associated with forced relocation and massacre led to extinction of around one quarter of the Native Indians groups together with their cultures (Kittler & Sucher, 2007, P.110).

Secondly, the white settlers introduced new farming methods and tools that changed the way the Natives farmed, hunted, and grazed, especially through introduction of ranches and programs such as reindeer domestication programs, and all these activities altered the Natives’ way of life to some extent. Thirdly, through missionary works and Christianity, many of Natives abandoned their traditional beliefs, rituals and values and those who were left observing them still faced more challenges due to western influences.

Fourthly, through the European ecological and economic invasion, the indigenous environment was altered, leading the Native Americans to respond through increased nomadic, equestrian, and bison-hunting activities in the western plains, thus affecting their cultures by removing them from their ancestral land (Isenberg, 2001, P.32).

Additionally, the interaction between the Natives and the white settlers led to emergency of new performing arts, religion, and living of a double lifestyle by the Natives that succeeded in diluting in their culture. Lastly, through education and civilization, most of Natives abandoned their traditional way of life, gradually contributing reduced growth or death of their traditional customs and values.


Berlo, J.C. (1992). The Early years of Native American art history: the politics of scholarship and collecting. Washington DC: University of Washington Press.

Isenberg, A.C. (2001). The destruction of the bison: an environmental history, 1750-1920. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kittler, P.G. & Sucher, K. (2007). Food and culture. OH: Cengage Learning.

Warkentin, G. & Podruchny, C., 2001. Decentering the Renaissance: Canada and Europe in multidisciplinary perspective, 1500-1700. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Wilmer, S.E., 2002. Theatre, society and the nation: staging American identities. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.