The history of the United States began with European settlers encroaching upon the lands of native people who were subsequently and brutally removed by force. When colonists first arrived in the ‘New World’, they lived alongside the Indians in relative peace. After forming 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. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 mandated the relocation of many tribes, predominantly the Cherokee Nation, which allowed for a ‘whites only’ America in what constituted the majority of what was the U.S. at that time. The journey out of lands occupied by the Cherokee, comprising thousands of miles and known as the Trail of Tears, is but one example of the injustices suffered by the natives of America brought about by the U.S. government. This distressing episode in American history was not acknowledged by government officials and was not included in school books until somewhat recently. Ethnic cleansing is an act that is now condemned by the U.S. when perpetrated in other regions of the world but is a morbid reality of American history, perpetrated and endorsed by the American Government.
Many Examples of Brutality
A Consistent Excuse
It may be hard to imagine the Government seizing your home and forcing you, your family, relatives, neighbors, and friends to walk halfway across the country in the dead of winter, but that is what happened to thousands of native peoples 170 years ago. The American Government, established by the people and for the people on the concept of justice for all, subjugated these men, women, and children by forcing them off their lands. Those that survived the mass displacement 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.”
In late May of 1938, contrary to the precepts of the country’s founding and a week prior to the imposed deadline for departure, the American Government started the brutal process of compulsorily eradicating people of the Cherokee Nation from their ancestral home. Those who had not yet left were not allowed sufficient time to gather food, clothes, or personal effects before being forced to live in temporary encampments. Many Cherokees, including children, were alienated from their family and their now vacated homes were pillaged by soldiers even as they were being led away at gunpoint. It reminds one of another time in history. Just fast-forward through time about 100 years and replace Indians with Jews and the U.S. government with the Nazis. What social and political events could have led to this cruel action being undertaken by the U.S.? 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, prior to 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.”
Indian Removal Act
Jackson was a heralded ‘Indian fighter’ prior to 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.” 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.
The Indian Removal Act was a priority of the Jackson administration but was passed only following a contentious four-month congressional debate. The Act gave Jackson the authority to negotiate treaties with eastern Indians who wished to retain their sovereignty and relocate west of the Mississippi. However, the Act also allowed those Indians wanting to stay in their homeland in the east full U.S. citizenship rights. At that time, most Americans could not conceive the country ever-extending west of the Mississippi. According to the Act, relocation was meant to be on a voluntary basis; no individual or tribe was to be forced from their home. The Indian Nations in the southeast did not want to be citizens or leave; consequently, Jackson used military force against these tribes. Much of the general public assumed that removing Indians was beneficial to them. “Removal would save Indian people from the depredations of whites and would resettle them in an area where they could govern themselves in peace.” However, some believed the removal policy was just another excuse for Jackson to exercise his long-standing sadistic and inhumane treatment of the native people and vocally objected against this policy.
Opposition to Brutality
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.” 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. Jackson defied this ruling saying that “Well, (Chief Justice) John Marshall has made his decision. Now let him enforce it.” 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’ which has been accurately described as “one of the saddest and most disturbing events in America’s so-called manifest destiny.”
U.S. Betrayal Follows Brutality
The U.S. government had signed a treaty with a small group of white men associated with the Cherokee Nation in 1835, which sold lands to the Government but allowed the Indians to retain much of their territory. This treaty violated Cherokee law thus should have been considered null and void by any standard of law. This small group of white men was eventually killed by the Cherokee after the tribe reached its destination following the Trail of Tears. Though this illegal treaty was signed by the U.S. and did preserve Indian lands in Georgia, when gold was found in Georgia, the state proclaimed that any and all treaties made with the Indians were voided, which resulted in a massive gold rush. Indian lands were raided; many natives were killed or rounded up and sent westward. “For generations, the Cherokee had lived side by side with whites in Georgia. They had devised a written language, published their own newspaper, adopted a constitution and a Christian faith. But after gold was discovered on their land, even they were told they would have to start over again in the west.” The Indians had become Christians, literate, and established a government similar to the white man’s, but they were still Indians which is what ultimately caused their demise by a government that represented a largely bigoted public. According to historian Richard White, “in the end, being Indian is what killed them.”
The Sufferings of the Cherokees
Thousands of troops led by General Scott relocated the people of the predominantly Cherokee tribes from their homelands and into a total of 31 forts located close to Indian encampments in Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, and North Carolina. With very few exceptions, all of the Indians in the eastern U.S. had been forced to move into these forts by July of 1838. According to Burnett, “The trail of the exiles (to the camps) was a trail of death. They had to sleep in the wagons and on the ground without fire. And I have known as many as twenty-two of them to die in one night of pneumonia due to ill-treatment, cold, and exposure.” An eyewitness account by Private John G. Burnett, who was detached to the Mounted Infantry Cherokee Indian Removal Unit in 1838, illustrates the inhumane treatment of the Cherokee at the hands of the Government. “I saw the helpless Cherokees arrested and dragged from their homes and driven at the bayonet point into the stockades. And in the chill of a drizzling rain on an October morning, I saw them loaded like cattle or sheep into six hundred and forty-five wagons. The sufferings of the Cherokees were awful.”
When the first Europeans’ discovered’ the American continent, more than ten million native people called it their home. By the mid-1800s, less than one million had survived white man’s new diseases, greed, and guns, and all had been relocated west of the Mississippi to either remote reservations or Indian Territory in Oklahoma. The atrocities perpetrated on the Indians by the U.S. government were horrendous, but at least these native peoples had Oklahoma to call their own. The Government promised the tribes by treaty and words that this territory was theirs ‘as long as the grass shall grow and rivers run.’ Of course, this was a lie as well because the rivers ran, and the grass grew past 1907, when Oklahoma became a state. Today, people of the reservations are viewed by those outsides to be oppressed and impoverished, an accurate perception, yet few know the extent. Most perceive that the lives of Indians prior to the 1800s were as carefree nomadic hunters that paid no taxes nor breathed polluted air and now are imprisoned by poverty and isolation. 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.
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