New Field of Study

At the same time popular sentiment favored exterminating or relocating all the Indians, there were insistent voices calling out to preserve and protect Native American culture. It was during these years that some of the earliest ethnographic studies were done. Almost to a person, the ethnologists who studied and wrote about the Indians were amateurs, and ethnographic studies were a side line to their regular jobs: soldiering, exploring, administering Indian policy, doing mission work, or making surveys. Their work was underwritten by scientific groups such as the Smithsonian Institution, the American Philosophical Society, and the Anthropological Institute of New York. At a time when Indian culture was being ground down and Indian population decimated, ethnologists felt an urgency to work fast before the subjects of their works were no more. Much of what is known today about 19th-century Native American life was collected by those self-taught ethnologists.

Native Americans of the 19th century are thought of today by most people as either obstacles in the way of westward progress or victims of non-Indians. Truth be told, they were never simply one or the other. At the beginning of this era they were still formidable enemies of settlers and the government, in retreat but managing to hold their own in some remote corners of the United States. They were numerous and dangerous enough to be major objects of U.S. policy makers in Washington. At one time or another, Congress, the president, the army, and the bureaucracy all devoted enormous amounts of time and energy, not to mention money, to the problem of what to do with the Native Americans. By the end of this era they had been reduced to such a state of feebleness that Custer's defeat by Teton Lakota and Cheyenne at the Little Bighorn in 1876 was almost beyond the comprehension of most Americans. And Custer's Last Stand was an aberration. Already by 1875 most Indians were on the way to becoming wards of the state or Wild West Show characters. They were on the losing end of a historic clash of cultures.

These Mojave were drawn by an official artist on the U.S. Pacific Railroad survey of the 35th parallel in 1853—54. At this time, the Mojave were a small tribe, living along the Colorado River astraddle one of the major immigrant trails to Georgia. This lithograph appeared in the Pacific Railroad Survey Reports (1856). (Tennessee State Library and Archives)

A Choctaw Indian wears a traditional sash over "a ball player's costume,' ca. 1870. (Courtesy of Mississippi Department of Archives and History)

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