Social History for Every Classroom


Social History for Every Classroom

menuAmerican Social History Project  ·    Center for Media and Learning

Settler Colonialism and Indigenous Resistance

Occupiers standing on the dock at Alcatraz. 1969. Photograph. 
Photographer, Bob Kreisel, Courtesy of National Park Serice U.S. Department of the Interior.

This collection highlights more than a century of Indigenous struggles against settler colonialism in the United States. In order to build permanent settlements in North America, European settlers created political and legal structures that established their domination, invalidated Indigenous sovereignty, and asserted their right to control territory previously occupied by Native populations. Settlers have used physical violence and racial hatred to reinforce these systems and helped justify their claims to control Indigenous people, resources, and territory. Federal authorities and representatives of religious denominations, schools, and social welfare agencies attempted to force Indigenous people to assimilate, using tools such as Indian boarding schools that infamously promoted a mission to “kill the Indian, save the man.”  Together, legal and extralegal measures threatened to eradicate Indigenous communities, along with their cultures, traditions, and languages, and worked to ensure that settler domination could be sustained over time and place.

The documents assembled here present Indigenous perspectives on these processes, showing that settler colonial domination has not been as extensive or successful as white settlers have intended. Indigenous resistance to the settler state has been persistent, even as government and private interests have continuously worked to suppress dissent. These forms of dissent have varied: they include storytelling, documentation of collective protest, art and poetry, testimony before the government, mass protest, and open letters expressing opposition to settler colonialism. Through visual evidence and texts, Native activists have expressed their commitment to the return of Native lands, preserve cultural practices, and protect the wellbeing of future generations. 

Although Indigenous resistance can be traced back to the arrival of Columbus in 1492, this collection starts in the 1880s when state expansion efforts accelerated with land theft and forced assimilation.  Land allotments, boarding schools and family separations forcibly broke apart tribes, squashed political organizing, and threatened the individual and collective identity of Indigenous people and nations. But despite this violence, memories and sacred objects of Indigenous culture continued to circulate within families and tribal communities.  In the 1960s, Indigenous activists overcame divisions and joined together in a Pan-Indian movement, the American Indian Movement (AIM). Through the 1970s, AIM fought against racist violence and for government recognition of Indigenous culture and sovereignty, calling attention to abuses and gaining greater political power. In efforts to protect Native children from being seized from their homes and assimilated through adoption processes, Indigenous tribal leaders, elders, and boarding school survivors testified before the United States Senate on behalf of the Indian Child Welfare Act in 1977, about 100 years after the opening of the first Indigenous boarding school in the country. In response to centuries of land theft, AIM leaders organized the Trail of Broken Treaties in 1972. The struggle over land continues to the present, as the LandBack movement unites Indigenous activists trying to reclaim control over lost territories, and others battle against corporate development and government use of land to support the United States’ economic, political, and military priorities. Artists and cultural leaders have used poetry and visual arts to challenge Indigenous erasure, call attention to the ongoing destruction of culturally significant lands, and nurture pride within Native communities.

The collection encourages students and teachers to consider the following essential questions:

How did federal laws establish the rights of non-Native settlers to occupy and own tribal lands?

How did family separation, transracial adoptions, and boarding schools weaken Indigenous communities and attempt to forcibly assimilate Native peoples into dominant culture?

How have Indigenous activists fought against the colonial state? What forms of resistance have been the most successful and why?

How have generational and tribal differences impacted Indigenous resistance efforts throughout time? 

In This Collection