Going Back to the 1800s, U.S. Leaders Have Acknowledged Abuse of Indians

On this day in history, April 9, 1830, U.S. Sen. Theodore Frelinghuysen of New Jersey, a Whig Party member, gave a long and stirring speech on the Senate floor opposing the Indian Removal Act.

Sen. Frelinghuysen is unknown today, but his speech makes it clear that there were voices of conscience opposed to this immoral law, a voice other leaders chose to ignore.

President Andrew Jackson pushed the Indian Removal Act, which eventually passed. It resulted in the massive forced removal of the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Seminoles, Chocktaw, and Muskogee-Creek from the southeastern United States to present day Oklahoma. Most notably, the Act resulted in what is known as the Trail of Tears, referring to the many indigenous people who suffered and died from exposure, disease, and starvation during the long walk.

Frelinghuysen’s speech, excerpted in Paul Prucha’s Documents of United States Indian Policy, begins:

God, in his providence, planted these tribes on this Western continent, so far as we know, before Great Britain herself had a political existence. I believe, sir, it is not now seriously denied that the Indians are men, endowed with kindred faculties and powers with ourselves; that they have a place in human sympathy, and are justly entitled to a share in the common bounties of a benignant Providence. And, with this conceded, I ask in what code of the law of nations, or by what process of abstract deduction, their rights have been extinguished?

Sen. Theodore Frelinghuyseny

Skipping forward to page 13 of the speech:

Every administration of this Government, from President Washington’s, have, with like solemnities and stipulations, held treaties with the Cherokees; treaties, too, by almost all of which we obtained further acquisitions of their territory. Yes, sir, whenever we approached them in the language of friendship and kindness, we touched the chord that won their confidence; and now, when they have nothing left with which to satisfy our cravings, we propose to annul every treaty — to gainsay our word — and, by violence and perfidy, drive the Indian from his home.

The speech went on for 24 pages.

Some people dismiss atrocities against American Indians by using some version of the argument: “you can’t judge past generations based on today’s values.” The underlying assumption is that past leaders simply didn’t see other options or understand what they were doing was wrong.

Sen. Frelinghuysen’s speech challenges that view.

There is a history of political leaders and official reports acknowledging the U.S. government’s treaty violations, its failure to act with” legal and moral honesty,” and the government’s “cruel treatment” of Indians, “corruption,” “paternalism,” “coercive assimilation,” and “mismanagement” of Indian funds.

This blog is not meant to be a “pat on the back” for those truth tellers as much as an acknowledgement that truth telling has not lead to fundamental behavior change. Or if it has, it’s been slow.

Doolittle Report (1867)

Sen. James Doolittle of Wisconsin.

Congress ordered a report to review the condition of Indian tribes and their treatment by military and civil authorities. The 500-page report took nearly two years to complete. It said:

[The numbers of Indians] are rapidly decreasing in numbers from various causes: By disease; by wars; by cruel treatment on the part of whites—both by irresponsible persons and by government officials; by unwise policy of the government, by inhumane and dishonest administration of that policy; and by steady and resistless encroachments of the white emigration toward the west, which every day confining the Indians to narrower limits and driving off or killing the game, their only means of subsistence.”

Full report here.

Report to the President by the Indian Peace Commission (1868)

Gen. William T. Sherman served on the Indian Commission.

Congress established the Indian Peace Commission on July 20, 1867 to negotiate peace with Plains Indian tribes who were warring with the United States. The Commission sent its official report to the President on January 7, 1868.

The report “describes detailed histories of the causes of the Indian Wars including: numerous social and legal injustices to Indians, repeated violations of numerous treaties, acts of corruption by many of the local agents, and culpability of Congress in failing to fulfill certain legal obligations,” according to a Wikipedia summary. “The report asserts that the Indian Wars were completely preventable had the United States government and its representatives acted with legal and moral honesty in dealing with the Indians.”

This is not to say that the report doesn’t include deeply rooted prejudice, such as the following:

If he [the Indian] fails to see the olive-branch or flag of truce in the hands of the peace commissioner, and in savage ferocity ads one more to his victims, we should remember that for two and a half centuries he has been driven back from civilization, where his passions might have been subjected to the influences of education and softened by the lessons of Christian charity.

But it’s significant that even in the 1880s those that held this worldview could still see the deep injustices that had happened. The report included the following conclusion:

But it is said our wars with them [Indians] have been almost constant. Have we been uniformly unjust? We answer unhesitatingly yes.

Meriam Report (1928)

The Carlisle School in Pennsylvania was the archtype for boarding schools. (Photo: courtesy Wikipedia)

The Meriam Report was the first federal report issued to show the travesty of Indian boarding schools. It found that the federal government “was failing at its goals of protecting Native Americans, their land, and their resources, both personal and cultural.” The 847-page report surveyed the current condition of Indian life and concluded that 1) Indians were rapidly decreasing in number from disease, wars, and “cruel treatment by whites,” 2) most cases of Indian wars could be traced to the aggressive actions of lawless white men on the frontier, 3) another cause of their decline was the loss of their hunting grounds, exacerbated by the influx of whites across the Mississippi following the discovery of gold in California. The list goes one.

In the educational arena, it recommended:

  • Abolishing the “Uniform Course of Study”, which taught only majority American cultural values;
  • Having younger indigenous children attend community schools near home, though older children should be able to attend non-reservation schools; and
  • Ensuring that the Indian Service provided Native Americans with the skills and education to adapt both in their own traditional communities (which tended to be more rural) and the larger American society.

Full report here.

The Kennedy Report on Indian Education (1969)

The most serious review of Indian education since the Meriam Report, the Kennedy Report found that federal policies toward the American Indian had strong negative influences on national attitudes towards Indians and disastrous effects on the education of the Indian child. The report recommended the development of effective educational programs for Indian children become a high federal priority.

The report’s primary recommendation was to increase Indian participation and control over their schools, according to an article published by the National Indian Education Association.

The report offers the following acknowledgement of the U.S. government’s bad-faith dealing with Indian people:

A careful review of the historical literature reveals that the dominant policy of the Federal Government toward the American Indian has been one of forced assimilation, which has vacillated between the two extremes of coercion and persuasion. At the root of the assimilation policy has been a desire to divest the Indian of his land and resources.

Full report here.

Final Report of the Indian Education Task Force (1976)

This 371-page report reviewed 400 years of Indian education from federal, state, local, and private records, public hearings, conventions and meetings, site visits, surveys, and interviews with officials, educators, and parents. Its summary says:

Education is the arena in which not only academic and vocation skills but culture, mores, and social values are transmitted to the student. These institutions are molded clearly according to the American society’s values and goals. Instead of education being used as a tool for developing the goals, aspirations, and skills of Indian people for themselves and their communities, American Indians have found themselves attending institutions organized and operated either by the federal or state government. Many of the social and economic ills prevalent in the Indian communities today, and attendant problems of Indian students can be clearly traced to such educational institutions.

Full report here.

Final Report of the American Indian Policy Review Commission (1977)

The report offers 206 recommendations. It opens with this question:

Today we must ask the central question: Is the American nation—now 200 years old, and 100 full years beyond the era of the Little Big Horn — yet mature enough and secure enough to tolerate, even to encourage, within the larger culture, societies of Indian people who wish to maintain their own unique tribal governments, cultures, and religions? …

The question goes far beyond that of “restitution” for past wrongs. From the misdirected present, can the United States Government re-direct its relations with the American Indians to enable them to determine their own lives now, and in the future? The question is ringing loudly in our ears today. Nor will it be stilled — today or tomorrow — until it is answered.”

Full report here.

Indian Nations At Risk Report (1991)

This U.S. Department of Education report opens with the following statement:

The Task Force identified four important reasons the Indian Nations are at risk as a people. 1) Schools have failed to education large numbers of Indian students and adults; 2) The language and cultural base of the American Native are rapidly eroding; 3) The diminished lands and natural resources of the American Native are constantly under siege; and 4) Indian self determination and governance rights are challenged by the changing policies of the administration, Congress, and the justice system.

It included an “Indian Student Bill of Rights,” saying every Indian student is entitled to:

  • A safe and psychologically comfortable environment in school.
  • A linguistic and cultural environment in school that offers students opportunities to maintain and develop a firm knowledge base.
  • An intellectually challenging program in school that meets community as well as individual academic needs.
  • A stimulating early childhood educational environment that is linguistically, culturally, and developmentally appropriate.
  • Equity in school programs, facilities, and finances across Native communities, and in schools run by the federal government and public schools in general.

Full report here.

White House Conference on Indian Education (1992)

The Conference was designed to find solutions, “not revisit and redebate known problems.” The goal was to find holistic solutions in Indian education, health, and cultural needs. It put forward dozens of recommendations on the governance of Indian education; the well being of Indian communities, and service delivery. “Culturally relevant and accurate information and materials was an overwhelming concern on all fronts,” the report said.

Full report here.

Mismanagement of Indian Trust Lands (1992)

A U.S. House of Representatives Committee released the report: “Misplaced Trust: The Bureau of Indian Affairs Mismanagement of the Indian Trust Fund.” Problems with the Trust Fund had been ignored for decades, the report said.

The Bureau’s management of the Indian trust fund has been grossly inadequate in numerous respects. The Bureau has failed to accurately account for trust fund monies. … the Indian trust Fund is equivalent to a bank that doesn’t know how much money it has. … As noted by Representative Bustamante, had this type of mismanagement taken place in any other trust arrangements such as Social Security, there would be war.”

Full report here.

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