Colonization & Native Culture



For centuries, the United States government’s actions and policies actively sought to eradicate First Nations culture and sovereignty, forcing assimilation in what many historians consider a form of comprehensive cultural genocide. Significant portions of the psychological and physical problems First Nations people experience today — widespread poverty, substance abuse, domestic violence, and chronic health problems at significantly higher rates than non-Native populations — both directly and indirectly resulted from the consequential efforts of the US government. Some of the more extreme means of attempting to erase Indigenous culture included the reservation system, Native American Boarding Schools, and the Native Foster Care program.


Prior to Columbus’s arrival, Indigenous culture was self-sustaining; tribal people lived off of the land and traded local goods and services. As more Europeans immigrated and settled further inland, they sought to seize control over Native people and their fertile lands.

In 1851, the Indian Reservation System was established, forcing natives to live on established tracts of land as the settlers took over their homes. The Native people were no longer allowed to hunt or leave the reservation without permission. They were placed on a strict ration system and suffered from malnutrition. Many reservations lacked the natural resources and fertile soil for farmland, further preventing the tribal people from providing for themselves. Under the control of the government, native people were encouraged to assimilate to Protestant culture and pressured to convert to Christianity.


By targeting Native children, the government took a critical step to alienate families and actively purge Indigenous culture. Native American Boarding Schools, also known as Indian Residential Schools, were established in the late 1800’s by the United States government and Christian missionaries. The initiative behind the motto “Kill the Indian, Save the Man,” forced multiple generations of students to attend hundreds of boarding schools around the United States.

With the primary objective to “Americanize” native children, Indian Residential Schools were military-like in nature with strict rules and harsh punishments. Typically, children as young as four years old were forcibly separated from their families and placed in these schools for years on end. They were forbidden to speak their indigenous languages or wear traditional clothing. The were even forced to change their names to “Christianized” names and cut off their long hair. Once stripped of their Native identity, the children were forced to speak English, convert to Christianity, and were taught exclusively Euro-American culture and history.

Though there were thousands of documented cases of mental, physical and sexual abuse at these schools, even children who were not abused by the legal definition spent their formidable years in an environment with little to no affection, stripped of their culture, and then returned to their families years later with no idea of how to relate within the context of their culture or appropriate human connection.


Another means of forced assimilation was through the removal of children from First Nations families and into the Native American Foster Care Program. Beginning in the late 1800s, Native children were taken from their families and communities and placed into foster care with non-Natives. By the late 1970’s, 25%–35% of all Native children were removed from parents and communities and of these, 85% had willing and able relatives available to care for them. Today, Indigenous children are placed into foster care at a rate 2.7 times greater than the non-Native population. In South Dakota alone, a Native child is 11 times more likely to be placed in foster care than a white child.


The Red Road works toward healing through education and alleviating the forced, painful effects of our culture’s past on our people in the present and future.