Craig White's Literature Courses

Terms / Themes

American Indians as
minority ( ± immigrant?)

Native American children protest Texas-financed Dakota Access Pipeline
(NYC, August 2016)

thanks to

American Indians as minority or immigrant?

In the multicultural courses I teach, American Indians count as a minority primarily because they do not fit the immigrant profile of voluntary migration and assimilation to the USA's dominant culture.

In prehistory, beyond any memory or written record—10,000 to 30,000 years ago—ancestors of American Indians did immigrate from Asia through what is now Alaska. (see Maps of Native America; scroll down to Bering Land Bridge.)

By the modern era of immigration beginning in the European Renaissance (1500s Common Era), "Native Americans" had already occupied North and South America for countless generations.

Therefore American Indians are not regarded as immigrants in the modern historical sense, and they join African Americans as the United States' two original, definitive, and enduring minority groups. (Any immigrant ethnic group may be regarded as a "minority," but within a few generations they are "just Americans."

Minority experience of devastation and exploitation by dominant culture > resistance to assimilation.

Immigrant cultures see immigration as freedom, opportunity, and the American Dream, but for American Indians immigration meant genocide, loss of land and status to immigrants, devastation of economic infrastructure—the American Nightmare instead of the American Dream. 

Immigrants voluntarily (more or less) abandon local traditional cultures of subsistence to join a universal modern culture of abundance, profit, and overproduction.

African Americans and Native Americans did not voluntarily abandon their traditional cultures. In contrast to "forgetting the past" as immigrants habitually do, minority groups may struggle to recover the traditional cultures from which they were torn, e.g. American Indian maintenance of land and fishing rights, African Americans' "back to Africa" or "Afrocentric" ideologies.


Immigrants voluntarily leave not only their homelands but also their parents. In turn. immigrants' children leave their parents behind. For immigrant cultures, generational discontinuity is often interpreted as progress.

American Indians as a traditional culture emphasize "generational continuity." Elders are treasured for their knowledge of traditional ways (in contrast to modern culture's attitude toward elders as obsolete knowledge and baggage), and children are regarded as the future. In contrast to modern society's emphasis on individuals and nuclear or broken families, traditional cultures regard the entire community as "the people" and the basic unit of society.

In these regards immigration and immigrant culture have been doubly destructive to American Indian generational continuity and maintenance of culture.

Immigrant take-over of Indian lands separates tribes from the graves of their ancestors, plus European-American grave-robbers dig up American Indian mummies for display in museums, separating even the dead from their homeland—which is a big "so what" to the dominant culture but grievous to American Indian culture. (Also echoes of this in African American culture in "Elethia" story.)

"Indian Boarding Schools" in USA and Canada took children from American Indian communities to help them assimilate to the dominant culture, further disrupting the generational of American Indian traditional cultures.

American Indian cultures were not literate—literacy is essential for assimilating successfully to modern American culture—but rather "oral" or "spoken-word" cultures. In contrast to African American literature, which emerges early and fairly copiously, American Indian literature is slow to develop.

Contrast "Model Minorities" or "ideal immigrants" as pre-equipped with literate traditions.

1700s-1800s: missionary literature, some in behalf of Indian resistance

late 1800s, early 1900s—children from boarding schools produce early memoirs and fiction

1960s-70s wave of American Indian poetry and fiction, continuing

Instead of voluntary immigration, American Indians suffer forced internal migration. (Compare to African America's "Great Migration" and slave escapes from southern slave states to northern industrial cities.)


Trail of Tears


American Indian Movement logo
"Remember Wounded Knee" is a reference to the massacre