Native American population recovery

In the referenced chapter, the last of a section on Native Americans titled ‘Zurück zu Manitu’ Ross visits a Navajo reservation in northern New Mexico. He briefly relates the vicissitudes of the American native populations as a result of two fateful, federal  laws: the 1887 Dawes Act and the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act (IRA). Parenthetically, the word Manitou, designating a spiritual life force, is a misnomer, as it comes from Algonquin, a language group not found in the southwest.

The chapter opens with a drive through desert landscape on a road that is in increasingly bad repair, until it is not much more than a rocky track. An Indian reservation, obviously, Ross writes: no tourist is supposed to visit, no inhabitant is expected to leave. He sees this circumstance as a measure to attain Native Americans’ racial demise, as the reservation has become the enclave for those the Dawes Act had failed to reach or support in its program of assimilation. In its own way, in fact, the Act had tried to attain the same goal by actually moving those Native Americans it did reach out of the reservations and into white society. Despite all that, their population has been recovering ever since the early 20th century. The population of the Navajo Nation’s reservation, for instance, in adjacent parts of New Mexico and Arizona, jumped back from 8,000 in the mid-19th century to 40,000 in the 1930s.

The chapter gives a condensed history of recent US governments’ Indian policies, from the Dawes Act’s deliberate attempt to incorporate what was then considered a negligible remnant of Native Americans (with an aggregate population of a mere 250,000 people), up to the Indian Reorganization Act. Ross’s brief overview, however, omits to explain what actually caused the Navajos’ population growth, let alone that of Native Americans in general. Although the increase is factually true—in recent times this recovery has been called “the most significant demographic development of the 20th  century”1 —, Ross’s customary neglect to mention his sources renders his claim inconclusive. In fact, reliable statistics were hard to come by, as the decennial US Census didn’t include Native Americans until 1850, while for decades subsequent surveys only counted “Indians who were considered assimilated”, i.e. defined in—and anticipating—the spirit of the Dawes Act by landownership and off-reservation life. Only as late as 1890 an attempt was made to include all Native Americans.2

Nico de Klerk

Colin Ross. Die Indianer sollen wieder Indianer werden. In: Amerikas Schicksalsstunde. Die Vereinigten Staaten zwischen Demokratie und Diktatur. 12. Aufl. Leipzig: F.A. Brockhaus; 1942 [1935]; 186-191.

Topic: Indigenous peoples
Case: American journeys


1 Nancy Shoemaker. American Indian population recovery in the twentieth century. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press; 1999; 99.

2 Shoemaker. 1999; 105-106; Yolynda Begay, Historic and demographic changes that impact the future of the Diné and developing community-based policy. [master’s thesis]. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico; 2011 May;  13-14,

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