Indians in a White World

Native American tribes have each experienced unique episodes in their history. Some have encountered hostilities with the white man, while others lived peacefully with them and even adapted to European lifestyles. Conflicts and developments within our countries rich history have impacted and formed the Native American tribes into who and what they are today. The Cherokees experienced forced relocation during the Trail of Tears. The Plains tribes battled the U.S. Army during the civil war and have battled the Federal Government for their land ever since. Today, Indian casinos dot country giving the American public a forged view that all Indians are attaining great wealth. This piece will analyze these subjects to determine their influence on how individual Native American tribes have established their identities in the twenty-first century.

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Beginning in the 1600s, European settlers established communities east of the Mississippi River. When colonists first arrived in the ‘New World,’ they lived alongside the Indians in relative peace. After the formation of the United States, the government initiated clashes with the natives, making and breaking many treaties. Progressively, the native population was diminished by several methods. They were killed as a result of wars and vigilante violence in addition to their introduction to new types of disease.

Many Indians also died while being forced to relocate, a sanitized way to refer to the ethnic cleansing of tribes that were formerly located in the area east of the Mississippi River.

During the 17 and 1800’s, the Europeans moved west. Trading posts increasingly dotted the land west of the Mississippi which initiated business relationships with the native population. This new relationship introduced tribal members to firearms which aided them while hunting or defending themselves. The association also brought smallpox which devastated the Indian tribes’ population. The trading posts offered provisions outside of what was supplied in nature and enhanced the tribal economies which were previously tied directly to following the buffalo herds. Buffalo provided almost everything the Indians needed including food, clothes, weapons, and shelter until they were nearly hunted into extinction in the 1880s. The natives used several methods to hunt buffalo before the introduction of the horse in America. One method included surrounding a small group of buffalo, forcing them into an ever-tightening circle, then attacking or chasing them over a cliff. After the Indians acquired horses, they mastered riding skills and hunted buffalo on horseback. [1]

The natives lost much of their land due to treaties signed with the government who initiated these treaties to protect settlers and acquire lands. The great loss of lands resulted from agreements made by tribal elders but not all members of the tribes were as gracious.

Many resisted the plundering of their ancestral territory and reacted violently toward settlers. Settlements continued to expand throughout former Blackfoot territories which instigated further resistance. The U.S. Cavalry retaliated against the Blackfoot by indiscriminately slaughtering 173 tribal members including women and children who were camped on the Marias River in 1870. [2] This deplorable act was hardly an isolated incident. Many other such occurrences involving the massacre of innocent Indians by the Cavalry were recorded. Another example was the massacre of a Cheyenne encampment on the Washita River in Oklahoma which was, at the time, located within Indian territory. When Mexico ceded massive areas of the American Southwest to the U.S. in 1848, the government was determined to rid this new region of Indians, concentrating first on the particularly rebellious Plains tribes. This process started as white settlers began inhabiting the region establishing towns and ranches which disrupted the traditional Apache lifestyle and restricted how and where they lived. The Indians, not surprisingly, were opposed to this incursion.

The Plains Indians were well known for their aggressive tenacity directed at those headed west including those planning to man trading posts within their territory. The agreements and treaties led to the tribes relinquishing a majority of their previously held territories. Indian thought was of the land as sacred. The continual loss of territory throughout the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was much more than a loss of property. It was the loss of the spiritual realm which, added to the slaughter of the tribal peoples and buffalo, led to strong feelings of resentment toward the European invaders, a sentiment that is prevalent among those descendants living on the reservations today. These feelings are partially responsible for the Indians of today resisting the idea of conforming to the white culture which has not been beneficial either financially or socially for Indians in general. Those living on reservations experience higher unemployment rates and survive on much smaller incomes than average. Though statistics prove the economic calamity that Indians have suffered from the late 1800s to today, one would only have to visit a reservation to be convinced of the impoverished circumstances.

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In an attempt to socialize Indians, they were introduced to ‘white man’s education in the late 1800s when the tribes were at their lowest emotional, spiritual and physical point as their lands and food source had recently been taken. In addition, they were not acclimated to farming or working for someone else. The white man’s culture was very different and the natives did not integrate well. [3]Indians had two choices; assimilate into the ‘white culture’ by leaving the reservations or to stay and attempt to maintain their thousands of year-old heritage, a heritage that is quickly and sadly fading into obscurity. Indian Reservations as they are commonly referred are not located near economically prosperous locations. Rather, they were intended to be and the vast majority remains well isolated from white society in terms of more than just distance.

The reservations were formed in the late Nineteenth Century following the preceding racial genocide with its survivors, in most instances, forced to relocate to what to them were foreign lands. It is hardly surprising that from the beginning, the indigenous peoples of America have displayed decidedly observable cultural differences which persist more than a century after the reservations were established. Those that survived the mass displacement, the ‘Trail of Tears’ as an example, found themselves in unfamiliar territory, a daunting proposition for a people whose survival was entirely dependent on understanding every aspect of familiar territory.

Today, the Trail of Tears incident evokes sympathy from the general public but at that time, 1838 during President Martin Van Buren’s administration, this horrendous crime against humanity symbolized the prevailing attitude towards the native people as represented by government policies directed against them. It discredited the notion that the U.S. was a just and fair nation. “The Trail of Tears represents the lack of responsibility which the Government dealt (and still deals) with Native Americans. Numerous broken treaties and the mistreatment of people consisting of an independent sovereign nation exemplify that the Government’s word means nothing” [4]

Removing the Cherokee people from their native land was a long time in coming. The white man had for some time been steadily intruding on Indian territories. However, before 1828, the right of native people to keep their homelands had, for the most part, been protected by the government through treaties. This all changed soon after Andrew Jackson was elected President and gold was discovered on Indian lands which they had little use for but the white man coveted. “In 1828, with Jackson’s support, Georgia claimed sovereignty over the Cherokee Nation. Not long after this in 1830 Congress, again with the support of Jackson, passed the Indian Removal Act” [5]

Jackson was a heralded ‘Indian fighter’ before his election to the Presidency in 1829. It surprised few that Jackson pushed for the passage of the Indian Removal Act the next year because he had long been a persuasive advocate for the removal of Indians from territory occupied by the whites. “Jackson’s attitude toward Native Americans was paternalistic and patronizing. He described them as children in need of guidance” [6] Jackson had commanded the military units which conquered a group of Creek Indians in 1814 and ‘acquired’ more than 22 million acres of their land which extended through much of Georgia and Alabama.

The U.S. government seized large areas of Seminole Indian land in Florida when Jackson and his troops invaded there in 1818. Jackson justified this action because the Indians had often given sanctuary to runaway slaves. Of the eleven treaties negotiated from 1814 to 1824 that the U.S. made with eastern Indian tribes which offered them greater amounts of land in the west than they presently occupied, Jackson negotiated nine of them.

Among those opposed to the Removal Act was Daniel Webster of dictionary fame, many ministers, and Davy Crockett whose passionate opposition to this government policy and his support of the Cherokee Nation cost him his Congressional seat. According to Crockett in response to his position, “I would rather be honestly damned than hypocritically immortalized” [7] The Cherokee Nation brought a case before the Supreme Court in 1832 (Worcester v. Georgia) which ruled that the Cherokee was a sovereign nation and could not legally be forced to relocate. The State of Georgia also chose to ignore the Court’s ruling. The Cherokees fought removal through the legal system but the President, who is constitutionally bound to enforce the rule of law, instead defied it and in 1938 sent General Winfield Scott to occupy Cherokee lands and begin the forced evacuation to the west. This illegal, immoral act initiated what became known as the Trail of Tears, a ‘death march’ that has been accurately described as “one of the saddest and most disturbing events in America’s so-called manifest destiny.” [8].

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The journey the Indians were forced to take away from their homelands to the government-sanctioned camps of death was just the first part of the Trail of Tears saga. From these forts, numerous groupings of 1,000 Indians, most of which came from the Cherokee tribe, were sent off on the sad trip from the east to Oklahoma which was Indian Territory at that time. The long trip was nothing short of horrific with many dying, rampant disease, exposure, exhaustion, and hunger. The oldest and youngest suffered the highest mortality rate.

Although no official records exist, utilizing accounts of those who were there at the beginning of the journey and the end, it can be estimated that at least 16,000 persons of the Cherokee tribe survived the cruel treatment at the forts to begin the trail, and 14,000 made it to Oklahoma alive. “The Cherokee is probably the most tragic instance of what could have succeeded in American Indian policy and didn’t” [9]. The Trail of Tears reached its conclusion in March of 1839. Because the Cherokee resisted relocation until they were forced to leave, they represented the bulk of those who suffered along the Trail of Tears but were hardly the only tribe who were sent west. No less than 12 different tribes were evacuated from the eastern states in addition to the last hold-outs, the Cherokees. Among the 90,000 Indians forced to leave their ancestral homes in the east, representative tribes included the Ottawa, Chickasaw, Seminole, Shawnee, Choctaw, and Pawnee [10].

Today, people of the reservations are viewed by that outside to be oppressed and impoverished, an accurate perception yet few know the extent. Most perceive that the lives of Indians before the 1800s were as carefree nomadic hunters that paid no taxes nor breathed polluted air and now are imprisoned by poverty and isolation. Though tribes did war against each other and life was harsh compared to European standards, their existence has indeed been much less palatable over the past 150 years than it was for thousands of years before the arrival of white settlers.

Life on the reservation has been described as ‘desperate,’ ‘degrading,’ and ‘horrible’ with a high rate of unemployment and alcoholism along with poor medical and educational facilities. “Reservations were described as having the worst living conditions in the nation, substandard housing conditions, little medical care, and high rates of unemployment, less than the American norm, much more poverty. Much more unemployment, lots of early death” [11]. The degree to which Indians have been able to retain their cultural integrity within this environment varies. It has in many instances been destroyed, in others somewhat crippled or existed under severe assault and in some cases is experiencing a resurgence. Those individuals who have completely assimilated into mainstream culture do not live in the reservation because this would be impossible given the vast difference in economic and geographic distances between the two cultures.

Casinos are an anomaly in the world of Indian. On one hand, they are a tremendous source of income for people who are in desperate need of everything money can buy. On the other, the image of slot machines complete with flashing lights, blackjack tables, and roulette wheels hardly coincides with the common image of traditional Native American values. This conflict of the image has not been lost on much of the tribal community. The trade-off seems justified, however, if the people that need the Casino profits are receiving them. Casinos have provided jobs to people on the reservation but the bulk of the profits generated enhance the economic conditions of the tribal councils who own the Casinos, not the general population. Of course, levels of corruption differ from tribe to tribe.

On some reservations, the resulting flow of Casino money has allowed for improved healthcare and a reduction of property taxes in addition to many other improvements such as day-care centers, parks, and educational needs. Currently, the number of Casinos/bingo halls operated on reservations exceeds 175 and is growing in popularity. “Indian tribes started offering games similar to those being offered by charities, such as bingo. To gain a competitive advantage, some tribes began offering high-stakes bingo, an option that was not available to the charities because of state laws” [12]. It is suspected that the indignity suffered by the majority of tribal peoples by having the tackiness of Las Vegas associated with their spiritual culture is not balanced by the positive effects of the enormous flow of money generated by Casinos. Because the powers and finances of the tribes are principally unchecked, corruption runs rampant among the tribal elders of many reservations.

Even on reservations, absolute power corrupts absolutely.

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The future of Native American culture can be determined by examining the past. The culture, customs, language, religion, and other traditions of many tribes have already died out. What most mainstream Americans know of the Indian culture was written in the history books which consist of stories regarding the heroic U.S. Cavalry fighting the savage Indians so that America could grow into the prosperous, freedom-loving nation it is today. Little importance is placed on learning about the Indian heritage by the public school system which has allowed for little interest to be generated regarding the culture of the people that have lived in America long before Stonehenge was built on the Salisbury Plain in England.

To most, Indians are thought of in the past tense, not the present, their culture dismissed as primitive and well outdated. The lack of crossing cultural lines has been a two-way street. It is in the interest of both cultures to learn the values and merits of the other. If Indians completely assimilate into white society, the largest part of America’s rich history will be lost. To save it would take economic reparations in the form of employment opportunities, compensations that are well overdue and well worth the effort.

References

  1. Abbott, John S. C., David Crockett: His Life and Adventures. (New York: Fictionwise Classic, 2003).
  2. Berry, Christina. “The Trail of Tears.” (All Things Cherokee, 2007).
  3. Casner, N. “The Rape of the Native American People.” Disasters. (1997). Boise State University.
  4. Dunstan, Roger. “Gambling in California.” California Research Bureau: California State Library. (1997).
  5. Ewers, John Canfield. “The Blackfeet Raiders on the Northwestern Plains” Norman, OK: (University of Oklahoma Press, 2003).
  6. Indian Removal: 1814-1858.” Judgment Day. (PBS Resource Bank, 2007). Web.
  7. “Quotations from The Trail Where They Cried.” Cherokees of California. Sugar Land, TX: (Powersource, 2005).
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