By 1940, Native Americans had experienced many changes and counter-changes in their legal status in the United States. Over the course of the nineteenth century, most tribes lost part or all of their ancestral lands and were forced to live on reservations. Following the American Civil War, the federal government abrogated most of the tribes’ remaining sovereignty and required communal lands to be allotted to individuals. The twentieth century also saw great changes for Native Americans, such as the Citizenship Act and the Indian New Deal. Alison R. Bernstein examines how the Second World War affected the status and lives of Native Americans in American Indians and World War II: Toward a New Era in Indian Affairs. Bernstein argues that natives’ experiences in the military and munitions factories reduced isolation by getting them off of reservations and increasing their contact with mainstream American society. Native American contributions to the war effort led both Indians and whites to reconsider the future of Indians’ political and cultural autonomy. “By war’s end,” the author states, “Indians were part of the American political process, their economic, social, and cultural status irrevocably altered by the conflict.”
The book’s seven thematic chapters form a roughly chronological narrative. The first chapter introduces the state of Indian affairs prior to World War II, following the Indian New Deal of the 1930s. Chapter 2 deals with Native American responses to the institution of American’s first peacetime draft in 1940, including legal challenges based on tribal sovereignty. Chapters 3 and 4 examine Indians’ experiences at war and on the home front. The remaining chapters deal with the political repercussions of the changes in Americans’ perceptions of Indians caused by the war, including efforts to end the reservation and integrate natives fully into mainstream society.
The Dawes Act of 1887 began the process of allotment. By trying to force Native Americans to become farmers, the federal government cast many groups into poverty. The land which the United States held in trust for Indians was usually not choice farmland. Those trying to make a living off the inhospitable lands of the West found little success. During the interwar period of the early twentieth century, the government made new efforts to alleviate Indians’ position as a marginalized group. Over 10,000 Native Americans volunteered and served with distinction in the armed forces during World War I. In recognition of their efforts, Congress passed the Indian Citizenship Act in 1924, making all American Indians United States citizens.
In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed John Collier Commissioner of Indian Affairs. Collier was a longtime advocate for native rights. Collier called for the Dawes Act to be repealed, insisting “that minority groups must be permitted cultural autonomy and political self-determination analogous to the legal rights of...