Frederick Hoxie’s A Final Promise: The Campaign to Assimilate the Indians, 1880-1920 argues that the attitudes and goals of policy reformers, educators, and politicians involved in Indian assimilation at the turn of the century changed radically in 1900. From 1880 to 1900, the assimilation campaign combined ethnocentric intolerance with a “racially optimistic” belief that Indians should and could fully assimilate with American culture; after 1900, this optimism shifted to a pessimistic view that Indians and other “backward” people could never become fully equal to whites. By contextualizing assimilation policy within a broader context of social upheavals and reform at the turn of the century, Hoxie links this shift in policy to a growing pessimism in American culture about the value of racial diversity as a result of economic expansion, industrialization, immigration, and urbanization. He argues that with social institutions straining to serve increasingly diverse populations, after 1900 the old goal of maintaining cultural homogeneity and equality was replaced by a new social order that connected race and ethnicity with economic class. Assimilation from 1900 to 1920 thus meant assimilating into society as the other to American whiteness.
Sidenote: Hoxie calls his method an “ethnohistory of Indian policy,” and he connects legal decisions, contemporaneous anthropology, popular fiction, representations of Indians at the World’s Fair in 1893, and archival sources from government agencies and the Bureau of Indian Affairs into an interdisciplinary anthropological framework.
The first assimilation phase, the “Dawes era,” started in 1879, hard on the heels of antislavery zeal and the failure of Reconstruction. Land policies were designed to slow settler assaults on Indian lands, and the campaign itself emphasized egalitarianism. Moves toward Indian citizenship and the development of an Indian education system indicated sincerity of the American “final promise” to compensate the victims of American expansion by giving them “full membership in a ‘civilized’ nation.” However, this pledge only lasted a generation, and from 1900 to 1920 the rhetoric of assimilation was undermined by eased access to Indian lands and decreased funding for full assimilation. Rather than full citizens, Indians became nominal citizens as well as fully-regulated wards of the state.
Ironically, if the Dawes era assimilation policies had been aggressively pursued, Indian cultures would have been all but obliterated – though setting Indians spatially outside the United States and forcing them to retain their traditional ways destroys their culture as well. Hoxie doesn’t pursue this tension, nor does he include many Native American voices or provide a particularly nuanced account of why, exactly, 1900 is THE year. He does, however, provide detailed discussion of assimilation policy throughout the whole period, and he shows how Native American policy became integrated into a larger project of statemaking in a newly diverse industrial society.