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?

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This Day in History 1868: Indian Peace Commission Report Issued (Shows Moral Blindness of the Era)

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.

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Recommended TED Talk on Native American History; This Day in History: Acknowledge U.S. Errors in Indian Policy

Recommended viewing: Kevin Gover (Pawnee), Director of the National Museum of the American Indian has a new TED Talk posted titled, Making History: The Real Story Is Bigger and Better. It runs 15 minutes.

His main point is that: “We need to embrace our entire history and we need not to be afraid of it,” but he salts the talk with a number of interesting little known stories. He notes that for more than a century, the events around the Trail of Tears were not a part of our cultural memory: “No one wanted to talk about it. It wasn’t in the textbooks.”

Here’s the quick reminder about the Trail of Tears from PBS:

In 1838 and 1839, as part of Andrew Jackson’s Indian removal policy, the Cherokee nation was forced to give up its lands east of the Mississippi River and to migrate to an area in present-day Oklahoma. The Cherokee people called this journey the “Trail of Tears,” because of its devastating effects. The migrants faced hunger, disease, and exhaustion on the forced march. Over 4,000 out of 15,000 of the Cherokees died.

Here’s the new piece, provided by Gover: The reason this story re-entered the national memory was “because Cherokee scholars and activists coined this phrase “Trail of Tears” and said, ‘people need to remember this.'” His larger point is that each generation gets to choose what we remember and what we forget. This is an ongoing process and change is possible; we need to be open to the entire range of stories.

This Day in History: Acknowledging Huge Errors in Indian Policy

So while we are discussing the parts of history that we choose to forget, let’s flip the page back to January 7, 1868, when the Indian Peace Commission issued its report to the President of the United States. Congress created the Commission to negotiate peace with warring Plains Indians. The eight-man commission included a number military leaders, such as Lt. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman.

Its report to the President offers a sharp critique of the mistreatment of Native Americans. Here is Wikipedia’s summary of the Peace Commission report:

The official 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. 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.

The report is a painful read and at the same time it offers some very philosophical passages.

The report is unflinching in its characterization of Natives as savage: “When the Indian goes to war he enters upon its dreadful work with earnestness and determination. He goes on an errand of vengeance, and no amount of blood satisfies him.” And at the same time, it includes insights like this:

Many bad men are found among the whites; they commit outrages despite all social restraints; they frequently, too, escape punishment. Is it to be wondered at that Indians are no better than we? Let us go to our best cities, where churches and schoolhouses adorn every square; yet unfortunately we must keep a policeman at every corner, and scarcely a night passes but, in spite of refinement, religion, and law, crime is committed. How often, too, it is found impossible to discover the criminal. If, in consequence of these things, war should be waged against these cities, they too would have to share the fate of Indian villages.

At one point, the report talks about how the commissioners regret for their failure to get a meeting with Red Cloud.

Several causes operated to prevent his meeting us. The first, perhaps, was a doubt of our motives; the second results from a prevalent belief among these Indians that we have resolved on their extermination; and third, the meeting was so late in the season that it could not be attended in this cold and inhospitable country without great suffering.

Those seem like good reasons not to want to meet.

The Commissioners investigated accusations made against Indians and found them wanting: “The testimony satisfies us that since October, 1865, the Kiowas, Comanches, and Apaches have substantially complied with their treaty stipulations…” the report said.

The Commissioners also took testimony from the Indians about why they went to war. They heard stories of how thousands of settlers starting coming through Indian lands, heading west to find gold. While they had a right of pass safely through the land, they began taking land, “for the purpose of mining, and, against the protests of the Indians, founded cities, established farms, and opened roads.

The report includes this powerful finding:

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 b[y] the savage. If the savage resists, civilization, with the ten commandments in one hand and the sword in the other, demands his immediate extermination.

Then after that bit of moral self reflection, the next paragraphs tend to the pragmatic. Keep reading:

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.

These Indians saw their former homes and hunting grounds overrun by a greedy population, thirsting for gold. They saw their game driven east to the plains, and soon found themselves the objects of jealousy and hatred. They too must go. The presence of the injured is too often painful to the wrongdoer, and innocence offensive to the eyes of guilt. It now became apparent that what had been taken by force must be retained b[y] the ravisher, and nothing was left for the Indian but to ratify a treaty consecrating the act.

On the 18th day of February, 1861, this was done at Fort Wise in Kansas. These tribes ceded their magnificent possessions, enough to constitute two great States of the Union, retaining only a small district for themselves … “

Let me go back and pull out one sentence: “The presence of the injured is too often painful to the wrongdoer, and innocence offensive to the eyes of guilt.” How does this speak to our faith communities today about the need for reconciliation? Will we fail to engage in this conversation and truth telling simply because it is too painful?