The Constitutional Principle: Separation of Church and State
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A note on "civilizing" the "American Indian"

Copyright © 1996 by Tom Peters. Originally published on the Separation of Church and State Home Page.


If you are like many users of the World Wide Web, you may by somewhat put off by the words "civilizing the American Indian," as if Native Americans did not already have their own long-standing civilizations, and as if it were not widely known that the term "Indian" is an anachronism that is offensive to many Native Americans.

We want to make clear that we use these words, not because we agree with them, but because these were the words of the framers of the Northwest Ordinance, and because "Indian affairs" was an important concern of 1780s America.

Regrettably, the attitude of many of the framers of the Constitution was that Native Americans were savages in need of Western education. The literary remains of early America teem with references for the need to educate the Indian nations to ensure peace on the American frontier. It was commonly assumed that churches and Christianity would play a major role in Indian education. These attitudes were held even by such progressive thinkers as Jefferson and Madison. We think it's important to be clear about what they believed, and why. Our concern is that the reader understand the social conditions that caused the framers of the Northwest Ordinance to tack on a sentence about education to an Article that was otherwise concerned with Indian affairs, and why that sentence mentioned religion.