Letter: Discussions of American Citizenship and Belonging Must Include Native Populations

A reader responds to a Radio Atlantic immigration roundtable.

Radio Atlantic: Who Gets to Be American?

In a recent episode of Radio Atlantic, three second-generation immigrants—Priscilla Alvarez, Matt Thompson, and Alex Wagner—discussed America’s history with immigration and its immigration politics today.

I just listened to your “Who Gets to Be American” show, and I loved it. I would be curious to see you engage in the same conversation in the context of the native presence in North America. All of North America was indigenous land, and virtually all of the U.S. territory west of the Appalachian Mountains was acquired through a coercive treaty process.

For example, when the Michigan Territory was created, in 1805, native peoples retained title to almost all the land in the state (with the exception of small number of non-native property holders in the Detroit area). A series of 10 treaties negotiated from 1807 to 1842 extinguished the native title to all other lands in the state, except for a handful of reservations, and transferred this land into the public domain. This land was then sold to white settlers at a subsidized price under the laws of the Northwest Ordinance. This was a pretty rapid transfer of land from native peoples to American settlers.

America expanded in this fashion, by converting indigenous homelands into American homesteads. It should also be noted that the Northwest Ordinance allowed immigrants to acquire property and to vote in the newly created territories. Most native peoples, by contrast, did not have U.S. citizenship until the passage of the American Indian Citizenship Act of 1924. So as America expanded into the Old Northwest, newly created states such as Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota retained large native populations who lacked citizenship rights. These indigenous nations did retain their sovereignty, however, and in the late 20th century began to figure out how to exercise that sovereignty. Any discussion of who gets to be American ought to account for the history of native peoples, and what it means that we still have Indian nations—sovereign nations—here. The U.S. may be a nation of immigrants, but it is also a nation of settlers.

Michael Witgen
Professor of History and Native Studies, University of Michigan
Member, Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior, Ojibwe

Ann Arbor, MI