In 1867, Congress created the Indian Peace Commission to make peace with hostile Indian nations on the western plains, secure the safety of frontier settlements, and create a plan to “civilize” the Indians. The Commission was charged with identifying new reservation lands to relocate all hostile Indians east of the Rocky mountains
The Commission issued its first report 150 years ago today and presented it to President Andrew Johnson. While the report acknowledges the government had done great injustices to Native peoples, it’s steeped in the language of Manifest Destiny and white Christian superiority, as well as moral blindness.
Revisiting historic documents such as the Indian Peace Commission report gives us a chance to take a clear-eyed look at our past leaders’ delusions. It’s a way to see how our society today is based on profound injustices.
I’m not claiming our age is enlightened. I have no doubt that people 150 years from now will scratch their heads as they read our words.. Still, the language used in the Indian Peace Commission’s report — written by people who no doubt saw themselves as enlightened leaders — is revealing and disturbing.
One passage in the report summarizes how white fortune seekers violated treaty rights during Colorado’s gold and silver rush. They had a right to safe passage over the land, but then started laying claims to treaty-protected lands — for everything from mining and farming to the establishment of cities. The report continues:
[By] 1861, the Cheyennes and Arapahoes had been driven from the mountain regions down upon the waters of the Arkansas, and were becoming sullen and discontented because of this violation of their rights. The third article of the treaty of [Fort Laramie] 1851 contained the following language: “The United States bind themselves to protect the aforesaid Indian nations against the commission of all depredations by the people of the United States after the ratification of this treaty.” The Indians, however ignorant, did not believe that the obligations of this treaty had been complied with.
If the lands of the white man are taken, civilization justifies him in resisting the invader. Civilization does more than this: it brands him as a coward and a slave if he submits to the wrong. Here civilization made its contract and guaranteed the rights of the weaker party. It did not stand by the guarantee. The treaty was broken, but not [by] the savage. If the savage resists, civilization, with the ten commandments in one hand and the sword in the other, demands his immediate extermination.
One would think the report’s authors would argue next that the United States needed to live up to the treaty. They did not. They offered a weak mea culpa:
We do not contest the ever-ready argument that civilization must not be arrested in its progress by a handful of savages. We earnestly desire the speedy settlement of all our territories. None are more anxious than we to see their agricultural and mineral wealth developed by an industrious, thrifty, and enlightened population. And we fully recognize the fact that the Indian must not stand in the way of this result. We would only be understood as doubting the purity and genuineness of that civilization which reaches its ends by falsehood and violence, and dispenses blessings that spring from violated rights.
This confused thinking permeates the Jan. 7, 1868 report. There are many passages that both to acknowledge mistreatment and all the reasons indigenous people should not have trusted the government, and at the same time the report’s authors seem to expect that Native leaders will trust them this time around:
These … Indians were evidently suspicious of the motives which had prompted us to visit them. Since the preceding April they had committed many depredations. They had been unceasingly on the warpath, engaged in indiscriminate murder and plunder. They knew that our troops had but recently been hunting them over the plains, killing them wherever they could find them. They could not, therefore, appreciate this sudden change of policy.
What’s bizarre is that the report’s authors seem to think that Native leaders should have trusted this sudden change in policy.
Click on the links above for the full report.
Commission’s Second Report
As a Post Script, the Commission issued its second report ten months later, in October of 1868. It indicates that the U.S. government never did have a “sudden change in policy.” Here’s how Wikipedia summarized the Commission’s work:
The Indian Peace Commission was generally seen as a failure, and violence had reignited even before it was disbanded in October 1868. Two official reports were submitted to the federal government, ultimately recommending that the U.S. cease recognizing tribes as sovereign nations, refrain from making treaties with them, employ military force against those who refused to relocate to reservations … The system of treaties eventually deteriorated to the point of collapse, and a decade of war followed the commission’s work. It was the last major commission of its kind.