American Imperialism and Indigenous Nations: Inquiry through the Lens of Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden”

Janie Hubbard

Click here for link to Inquiry Based Lesson activity

A country’s exploitation of another is a defining characteristic of imperialism. Consider how exploitation affects one small subset of human interactions, both historical and contemporary. For example, terms such as economics may involve
extracting resources and human labor, politics concerns control and power over others more vulnerable, and social relates to the many ways one
country takes measures to change or expunge the original society.

Historians generally consider that the era of American imperialism began with the 1898 Spanish-American War (Odom, 2015) primarily because of its international context. In defeat, Spain relinquished claims on Cuba and ceded sovereignty over Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines (U.S. Department of State, n.d.). The next year, the British writer, Rudyard Kipling, wrote his now famous 1899 poem, “The White Man’s Burden: The United States and The Philippine Islands.” Approaching an imperialist point of view, Kipling’s verses, at the time, seemed, to many individuals in
the white world, to evoke a transcendent and noble cause (Foster & McChesney, 2003). Subsequently, the phrase “White Man’s Burden” came to symbolize the need for white supremacy over indigenous peoples, particularly black- and brownskinned people, around the world.

The “White Man’s Burden” is a concept used to justify imperialism – the underlying theory being paternalism. Paternalism is the idea that colonized native peoples are like children and cannot properly care for themselves. Thus, the task is for so-called superior races to civilize them (Loewen, 2010; Manner, 1998). Identifying
American imperialism a “Burden” validated it as a benevolent cause and in Filipinos’ best interests. “By accident and design – the U.S. recreated the racial climate of North America in Asia” (Van Ells, 1995, p. 621). While race discussions infused late 1800s arguments about annexing the Philippines, the United States eventually did so to continue expansionism. Regarding the imperialism debate, at the time, 1898 U.S. imperialists saw invasions as part of the “mission” of Christian colonialism—
originating with the Pilgrims in 1620, while “antiimperialists argued as if America had never been an imperialist power” (d’Errico, 2017, para. 7). After annexation, Americans viewed Filipino resistance to U.S. sovereignty as insolence by uncivilized people, and U.S. forces eventually extinguished Filipino rebels. Invasions of the southern Tagalog provinces of Luzon in the Philippines (Ileto, 2001) closely resemble those of the Arizona and Dakota Native American Territories in North America, just
decades before (Van Ells, 1995).

As Van Ells (1995) implies that imperialism tactics were used to dominate native peoples in North American territories early in American history. In this article, I describe some of these events, particularly related to the White Man’s Burden ideology. The University of Washington’s Burke Museum describes tips for teaching about Native Americans. Regarding sensitive terminology, they state, “Native American, Native, American Indian, Indian, First Peoples, and Indigenous are all terms used by both Native and non-Native people. When possible, most Native
people prefer being identified by their specific community” (n.d., section 3). Note, some terms are used interchangeably in this narrative, particularly when other writers are quoted.

Impact of American Imperialism on Native Americans

Paul Odom (2015) states, “American imperialism was born as white settlers moved onto land ceded to Native Americans in treaties with Britain” (para. 2). U.S. President James K. Polk’s administration (1845 to 1849) did not formally sanction an imperialistic regime, though systematic invasion of native territories by white settlers and Polk’s campaign to seize much of Mexico’s remaining territory made imperialism evident. “He was a champion of manifest destiny–the belief that the United States was fated to expand across the North American continent” (History, 2019, section 4). Through various means, including the MexicanAmerican War (1846-48), the U.S. acquired territories in what are now known as Texas, California, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, Washington, Oregon,
Idaho, and parts of Montana during Polk’s one-term administration (History, 2019). This great government-backed expansion took a tremendous toll on indigenous peoples in these territories.

Early North American Indigenous Population and Nations

For years, researchers have tried to estimate the native population numbers before European arrival on the continent during the 1400s. One of the earliest estimates came from George Catlin, an artist who traveled the western continent to paint about
600 portraits of native life from 1830 to 1838 (Lord, 1997; Smithsonian Museum of Art, n.d; Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, n.d.). Catlin’s diaries claim there were around 16 million natives before 1492. Regarding the number of actual indigenous nations, Hansi Lo Wang (2014) writes about a modern-day mapmaker and part Cherokee, Aaron Carapella, who designed a map of indigenous nations’ locations, which existed before contact with Europeans on the continent. The map contains both the original and commonly known names of some 600 nations. Additionally, though estimates of
how long indigenous peoples lived on the land vary, archaeologists have found substantial evidence of human presence more than 12,000 years ago. Some claim that natives may have lived there as long as 40,000 years (Calloway, 2019).

The White Man’s Burden

Each incident, from the beginning, involving U.S. government exploitation of natives for possession of their lands are too numerous to describe here, though the imperialist White Man’s Burden label is certainly fitting in this context. To illustrate George Washington’s shifting dialogue about indigenous nations, I offer two primary
sources to compare. First, the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at The University of Texas in Austin recently acquired an original letter written by George Washington to John Armstrong on August 24, 1769 discussing the murder of three
members of the Mingo nation. The letter describes the killings by whites as “villainy” and “mischief.” Washington vowed the U.S. government would not support “wanton quarrels with the Indians.” However, by May 31, 1779, Washington wrote a letter to General John Sullivan giving him orders for “…total destruction and devastation of their settlements and the capture of as many prisoners of every age and sex as possible” (National Archives, 2018, para. 1). Sullivan’s army marched through
Iroquois land, burned around 40 villages, and destroyed all food sources. They left only bare land and timber (Calloway, 2019). These letters illustrate one reason primary sources, including documents deemed dear to our country must be critically
analyzed for recurring signs of discrimination and imperialism.

The U.S. Declaration of Independence (1776) eloquently speaks of “all men being created equal.” However, Grievance 27 in the document, sent to Britain’s King George, III, states, “He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has
endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare, is undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions.” Adrian Jawort (2017) argues the statement summons “…the image of ferocious warriors propelled into action by a tyrannical monarch” (para. 4). Thus, this representation ensured memories and conceptions of the natives’ role in the American Revolution, which they [Americans] believed justified their subsequent treatment of them (Jawort, 2017). It is true that most nations sided with the British during the war, because they hoped a British victory would stop settlers’ persistent intrusion on their lands (Calloway, 2019). Some nations (e.g., from Stockbridge, Oneida, Tuscaroras) fought alongside the American Patriots or tried to adapt to the Anglo Saxton lifestyle (e.g., Cherokees), yet, in time, even they became victims of Americans’ insatiable desire for land (Calloway, 2019). The U.S. government continued to assert their self-proclaimed authority and westward expansion.

There are countless stories about the U.S. government’s power over indigenous nations on the continent – removal by force (e.g., Trail of Tears), land cessions and seizures, starvation/destitution, broken treaties, illegal land deals, incarceration,
lawless discrimination, anti-Indian racism, cultural ethnocentrism, trickery, military defeat, establishment of the reservation system, taking their autonomy, and so forth. Imperialism in the name of saving souls, civilizing “backward savages”, God-given rights to progress (The White Man’s Burden) shielded the economic, political, and social gains made by defeating the continent’s original inhabitants. Note that natives were not allowed U.S. citizenship until 1924, and they were not allowed to vote in every state until 1962 (Little, 2019). James Loewen (2007) discusses Cherokee removal as just one example of Americans’ attitudes regarding “…unacculturated aborigines helpless in the ways of progress” (p. 132). Loewen states, “Casting
Indian history as a tragedy because Native Americans could or would not acculturate is feelgood history for whites” (2007, p. 131). However, he warns, “…wallowing in the inference that America or whites are bad does not explain the historical complexities of Indian-white relations that dominated our history, particularly between 1622 and 1890” (2007, p. 131). Loewen (2010) argues the inability to know your own history and think critically about historical claims, leaves one powerless to discern truth from fiction. Thus, authentic history learning must include content, critical thinking, and interpretative skills.

In truth, my elementary school learning simply and briefly focused on Cherokees,
Chickasaws, Creeks, and Chickasaws, which were known, in early times, as four of the five “civilized tribes.” The fifth nation was the Seminoles (Florida). Evidently, colonists and early federals adopted the term “civilized tribes” to denote the degree to which nations tried to conform to European ways. The term “civilized tribes”
(especially in our teaching resources) underscores roots of ethnocentrism (Burke Museum, n.d.; Loewen, 2010).

Lovely stories, from textbooks, about the four nations’ lifestyles framed my miniscule understanding of natives. Yet, Moundville is located only a few miles away. Moundville is the secondlargest site in the United States of the classic Middle Mississippian era (approximately 800-1600), from which various indigenous nations
developed and flourished (see Blitz, 2017). Afterwards, more than 30 organized nations lived within the geographic area (Alabama Digital, 2020). For me, no knowledge occurred about the nations or their eventual fates.

Inquiry Lesson

With these thoughts in mind, I wish to emphasize two primary purposes for the lesson. First, the lesson is meant to expand students’ interests and motivation to learn about indigenous people and events, outside their immediate states and territories. Second, it is meant to engage features of the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) C3 Framework (2013):

1.Developing questions and planning inquiries;

2. Applying disciplinary concepts and tools;

3. Evaluating sources and using evidence; and

4. Communicating conclusions and taking informed
action (p. 12).

The lesson follows the C3 Inquiry Design Model (IDM) Blueprint (Grant, Swan, &Lee, 2014) as an organizer. Through involvement in this historical inquiry, students may develop sophisticated thinking about complex history and
causation connections (Barton & Levstik, 2004; Beal & Bolick, 2013; Loewen, 2010).

In this lesson, students predominantly focus attention on concepts and questions regarding the Lakota and Dakotas’ long time resistance to the U.S. government. The essential idea is inspired by a trade book entitled, Sitting Bull: Lakota Warrior and Defender of his People by S.D. Nelson (2015), a member of the Standing Rock Nation in the Dakotas. Nelson (2015) writes, “Although of mixed blood, I am a direct descendant of Sitting Bull’s people, who were forced onto a reservation at the end of the nineteenth century” (p. 52). The Burke Museum at the University of Washington in Seattle (n.d.) suggests teachers use books presenting Native perspectives written by Native authors. S.D. Nelson, also an illustrator, combines archived photographs
and his own art inspired by nineteenth century Lakota ledger-art drawings (see McKosato, 2018; Nelson, 2015). This teaching-ready lesson, in the next section, targets 5th– 8th graders using the IDM Blueprint, though it may be adapted for other students.

Inquiry Design Model


There is much recorded and archived U.S. history, which illustrates the often-quoted adage, “history belongs to the victor.” Colin G.Calloway (2019) states that indigenous civilizations “were built on something other than colonialism and imperialism” (p.16). They offer “examples of international relations developed from values other
than personal possessions or competitive consumption of resources” (p. 15). Indigenous civilizations, living on the land thousands of years,
vastly predate America’s entrance into a wider
world in the 1500s.

More inclusive histories do not need good guys and bad guys. We can openly discuss causes and effects of exploitation and bias, for instance why the “The White Man’s Burden” ideology or the, currently, much discussed “white savior” mentality (see Ash, 2015; Blow, 2016; Johnson, 2018) still exist. Calloway (2019) argues that “adding Indian America to the map of global history reorients perspectives, generates new narratives, and encourages new interpretations and comparative studies” (p. 15) – he notes, too, that today’s archaeologists are locating and restoring lost histories. Consequently, more archived records, regarding the 600 or so nations, will be available for history and social studies students. Knowledge about “Native Americans as the “savage” stereotype thrived primarily from dated textbooks and popular culture – especially from Western movies and novels” (Loewen, 2007, p. 116). Using our own, updated media, we can help dispel those images and recognize that indigenous people were and still are not one culture – they are many. Further inquiries might introduce students to the nearly 600 contemporary nations within the contiguous 48 states, Alaska, and Hawaii.


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Beal, C., & Bolick, C. M. (2013). Teaching social studies in middle and secondary schools. Boston, MA: Pearson.

Blitz, J.H. (2017, August 18). Moundville Archeological Park. Encyclopedia of Alabama. Retrieved from

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