Kindred Spirits: How the Choctaw Responded to the Irish Potato Famine

In the early 1830s, the United States forcibly removed nearly 15,000 people of the Choctaw Nation from their homeland in the deep South to what was called “Indian Territory” (now Oklahoma). Along their Trail of Tears, 2,500 died, Wikipedia said.

About 15 years later, the Choctaw people learned about the Irish suffering from the Great Potato Famine and scraped together $170 to send to alleviate their suffering, a gift memorialized in 2015 in Ireland with a beautiful sculpture. Continue reading

Tubman the New Face of the $20; Jackson Moves to Back of the Bill

Harriet Tubman
Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman will replace Andrew Jackson as the new face of the $20, according to the Star Tribune and other news outlets. Unfortunately, Jackson will still be portrayed on back. (The back of the $20 currently shows the White House; a smaller image of Jackson will be added.)

Jackson does not deserve even that honor. He was the driving force for the Indian Removal Act, which not only displaced tens of thousands of Native Americans from their homes, but also resulted in the deaths of thousands of Native Americans in the forced relocation known as the Trail of Tears.

Still, not surprisingly, Jackson’s defenders are emerging. Continue reading

This Day in History: The Battle of Horseshoe Bend and the Creation of Alabama

Map of the Battle of Horseshoe Bend
Map of the Battle of Horseshoe Bend

On this day in history, March 27, 1814, the Upper Creek Indians suffered a decisive loss at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, or Tohopeka to the Creek Indians. This is probably not a battle you learned about in school but it was immensely significant. It represented the single largest loss of Indian life in any single engagement with U.S. forces, some 800 dead. The battle effectively created the state of Alabama  through the Treaty of Fort Jackson. In that treaty, the Creek were “forced to cede 23 million acres … —half of central Alabama and part of southern Georgia,” according to Wikipedia. The battle also propelled Andrew Jackson into national prominence, and the spotlight followed him all the way to the White House.

A description by the National Park Services said the Battle of Horseshoe Bend could best be described as a slaughter. Forces led by Andrew Jackson of the Tennessee militia outnumbered the Creek fighters by about three to one. Jackson’s forces also had the advantage of two small cannons and Native American allies. Continue reading

On St. Patrick’s Day, Remembering the Choctaws Gift to the Irish

An 1847 image from the Illustrated London News shows a starving boy and girl in Cork in search of a potato.
An 1847 image from the Illustrated London News shows a starving boy and girl in Cork in search of a potato. (Wikipedia)

On St. Patrick’s Day, it seems a fitting time to remember an incredible gesture made by the oppressed Choctaw Indians during the Great Irish Potato Famine.

The year was 1847, in the middle of the Irish Famine. The Choctaw people collected money to send overseas to feed the starving men, women and children of Ireland. The amount has been reported as both $710 and $170, but the amount is irrelevant. Consider that the Choctaw made this donation only 16 years after they (and other Indian nations) were brutally  relocated from their ancestral homes in the southeastern United States and moved into present day Oklahoma. Continue reading

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?

The Art We See But Don’t Really See; This Day in History: The Cherokee Removal Census

Knute Nelson
Knute Nelson (Courtesy/Photo Phiend)

I’ve walked up and down the Minnesota State Capitol steps hundreds of times as a state employee, reporter, and visitor. I had some vague awareness of the statue there honoring some 19th Century leader, but I never really paid attention. I am paying attention now.

Fast forward to Friday. I had the pleasure of attending a fundraising breakfast for The Circle newspaper at All Nations Church. Winona LaDuke was the keynote speaker. I spoke to her briefly after the event, talking about some of the controversy around art in the Capitol and Healing Minnesota Stories’ work in this area. She was most fired up about the Knute Nelson statue, honoring a man who stole Ojibwe land. I was taken aback. Knute’s statue was not on my radar. Healing Minnesota Stories doesn’t include Knute’s statue in our presentation.

Now I had read about “The Nelson Act” but I had never put two and two together, that the Nelson of the Nelson Act was the guy on the pedestal in front of the state Capitol.

I am sure you could stop people on the Capitol steps and few if any could identify Knute Nelson and fewer would know what he did. Here’s the story of the man with one of the most prominent statue sites at our state Capitol.

Knute Nelson was a U.S. Representative, Senator and Governor for Minnesota. He is the namesake of the Nelson Act: “An act for the relief and civilization of the Chippewa Indians in the State of Minnesota.” It passed January 24, 1889.

According to Wikipedia:

[The Nelson Act was intended] to relocate all the Anishinaabe [Chippewa] people in Minnesota to the White Earth Indian Reservation in the western part of the state, and to expropriate the vacated reservations for sale to European Americans. … These actions were illegal and violated the treaties which the US had made with the tribes, but the government proceeded anyway.

Like the federal Dawes Act passed two years earlier, the Nelson Act divided communally-owned tribal lands into individual plots for Chippewa households. The process, called “allotment,” was to encourage subsistence farming and assimilation. Perhaps most importantly, allotment made it easier for European settlers to buy Indian-owned property.

The Nelson Act passed just seven years after the Dakota-U.S. War of 1862. While the Ojibwe had nothing to do with the 1862 war, Minnesota white residents wanted to reduce Indian-controlled lands and push them west.

Some Ojibwe didn’t relocate to White Earth. For instance, the Rad Lake band was able to keep the southern portion of its reservation next to the lake. The Sandy Lake Band in Aitkin County was not so lucky. Members had stayed neutral in the 1862 war, but Wikiepdia says they still were pressured to move. Some did stay in Sandy Lake with their individual land allotments, but they were in the minority now. “[F]orced land-sales illegally erased the Reservation off the maps,” Wikipedia said.

A couple of questions arise.

One: Why do we still have this massive statue to Knute Nelson on the front steps of the Capitol when for all practical purposes, no one knows who he is or what he did?

Two: Let’s say we did a really good job of interpreting this statue and telling this story, would this still be a man we would want to honor with such an important space?

Three: How can we still tell this important part of Minnesota history without giving the impression that we think these were honorable acts? Could the statue be moved to another location?

My theory: While almost no one could identify Knute, any effort to de-Knute the Capitol steps would raise an uproar. Still, my vote is to move the statue and find new more inspiring and inviting art for the Capitol’s front door.

This Day in History: The Cherokee Removal Census

Like the Nelson Act which ignored treaty rights and taking Indian land, the Cherokee Removal Census is part of a larger story of the government ignoring the law and taking Indian land — this time, on a national level.

Let’s start with the background. According to a National Archives report:

From 1831 to 1840, Choctaws, Chickasaws, Creeks, Seminoles, and Cherokees were forced to migrate to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), in a process then called “Indian Removal,” but now better known as “The Trail of Tears.” This was done despite a decision of the United States Supreme Court in Worcester v. Georgia (1832), in which the Indian Removal Act was declared unconstitutional. President Jackson ignored this ruling and was said to have remarked, “Justice Marshall has rendered his decision, now see how he enforces it.”

During the fall of 1835, the Superintendent of Cherokee Removal, Benjamin F. Curry, appointed officials to count all Cherokees residing in Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Alabama–their historic homelands. The Census would determine the number of Indians and value of their property in preparing for their removal.

The final census, submitted on this day in history, December 12, 1835, is contained in a large, leather-bound volume, 66 pages long. It is chilling to think of such an official document, carrying out an unconstitutional act, having people “removed,” and in many cases, killed in the process. The Census listed 16,542 Cherokees and 201 intermarried whites. They owned 1,592 black slaves. The Census was taken in advance of the Treaty of New Echota, “negotiated and signed by a small faction of Cherokee tribal members, not the tribal leadership,” according to Wikipedia.

The Trail of Tears refers to a series of forced removals of Native American peoples following the Indian Removal Act of 1830; this Cherokee relocation was one part of that series. According to Wikipedia’s Trail of Tears entry: “The relocated peoples suffered from exposure, disease, and starvation while en route, and more than ten thousand died before reaching their various destinations.”