Skip to Main Content

Book Displays: Equal Justice Initiative 2023: Mar

March's Topic - Federal Destruction of Indigenous Cultures

Andalia Davis stands on the Jicarilla Apache Indian Reservation in New Mexico on January 1, 1992

Calendar photo caption: Andalia Davis stands on the Jicarilla Apache Indian Reservation in New Mexico on January 1, 1992. (Peter Turnley/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

Calendar Text

In the 19th century, the U.S. government systematically carried out cultural genocide by forcing Indigenous children into boarding schools, outlawing cultural practices, and violently quashing attempts to preserve Indigenous customs.

Through the Civilization Fund Act, passed on March 3, 1819, the government partnered with missionaries and churches to "Christianize" Indigenous children by sending them to off-reservation boarding schools where they were given English names, forced to cut their hair, forbidden from speaking their Native languages, and left vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse. The federal government made attendance at such schools compulsory in 1891. 

The 1883 Code of Indian Offenses further targeted entire Indigenous populations, banning all Indigenous dances and ceremonies, potlatch gift-giving gatherings, and practices of medicine persons, among other customs.

By 1885, 48 of the 60 federal "Indian" agencies had established police units that supplanted federal troops and sought to sow divisions by using Indigenous officers to police their own communities. Agency police were responsible for rounding up children to be taken to boarding schools - though some resigned instead - and for arresting people who practiced Indigenous customs.

In 1890, agency police fatally shot Lakota Chief Sitting Bull while attempting to arrest him for his involvement in the Ghost Dance, a spiritual movement against assimilation. Days later, federal troops massacred over 300 Lakota women, men, and children at Wounded Knee Creek.