To what extent were United States policies towards the Native American justified?
America’s policies towards native Americans has been filled with
broken promises and lies. It seems clear that for a good portion of
our history the following words clearly did not apply to the native
American: “All men are created free and equal, that they are endowed
with certain inalienable rights and that among these rights are life,
liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
1787 – The Northwest Ordinance – The ordinance stated that
Indians were to be treated with the “utmost good faith” and
specified that “their lands and property shall never be taken away
from them without their consent.” As settlers pushed forward into
occupied Indian territory, however, they received military
protection. As governor of Indiana William Henry Harrison
threatened, bribed and purposely intoxicated Indians. He was opposed
by Tecumseh who began to organize an Indian Confederation. In
1811 and 1812 Harrison fought and defeated Tecumseh at the battle of
1819 – The purchase of Florida – For years Indians had fled
south to Florida to escape American authorities. There the Spanish
were powerless to control the Indians where a new tribe was formed
called the Seminoles. The Seminoles, comprised of both native
Americans and escaped slaves began to raid American settlements and
then escape back into Spanish territory. In 1818 Andrew Jackson led a
raid on Florida, captured two Spanish forts and crushed the
Seminoles. Fearing the loss of their territory without compensation
the Spanish sold Florida to the United States whereupon the Seminoles
were swiftly moved to a reservation in central Florida.
1828 – Cherokee Nation vs. Georgia – In 1828 the Cherokee,
a “civilized” tribe who had lived in peace working as farmers,
building houses and roads found gold on their land. As a result white
settlers moved in and the State of Georgia claimed jurisdiction over
the Cherokee. The Cherokee sued claiming they were independent from
Georgia. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Cherokee. The
victory was short lived, however, as President Andrew Jackson in
response to the Courts decision is reputed to have said, “John
Marshall has made his decision. Now let him enforce it.” Instead
the federal government removed the Indians to Oklahoma.
1830 – Indian Removal Act – This act authorized the
President to negotiate treaties and remove the remaining Eastern
Indians to lands west of the Mississippi. Under Presidents Andrew
Jackson and Martin Van Buren, federal agents again used threats,
bribes and liquor to secure Indian consent to one sided treaties. The
federal government removed thousands of Indians, some in chains, on a
trip marked by hunger, disease and death. This became known as the
“trail of tears.” By the late 1840’s almost all native
Americans had been moved to lands west of the Mississippi.
1877 – President Rutherford B. Hayes in a message to
Congress said, “Many, if not most of our Indian wars have had
their origin in broken promises and acts of injustice on our
part.” In 1881 Helen Hunt Jackson further helped awaken
white Americans to their shameful treatment of the Indians through
her book A Century of Dishonor.
1860 – 1890’s – Plains Indians Wars – During this period
Americans and plains Indians clashed as Americans attempted to force
Indians onto reservations. The battles are highlighted by the
Battle of Little Bighorn, where Lt. Col. George Armstrong
Custer and his regiment of 250 where all killed by approximately
4500 Sioux and Cheyenne warriors and the battle at Wounded
Knee where thousands of Cheyenne men, women and children were
slaughtered by the American Calvary. Wounded Knee represented the end
of any real armed resistance on the part of the Native American.
1887 – The Dawes Act – The act provided for the following:
1. Each Indian family head be allotted a 160 acre farm
out of reservation lands.
2. Each new land owner who abandoned tribal practices and adopted
the “habits of civilized life” would be granted American citizenship.
3. “Surplus” reservation lands would be made available to sell to
The Dawes Act, while well intentioned, did not benefit the
Indians. The lands they were assigned were poor and the concept of
“Americanization” led to a destruction of Indian culture and
the destruction of the traditional status of Indian women in tribal
life. Finally, as a result of the “surplus” land provision the
Indians lost 90 million out of 140 acres of reservation land.
1924 – Snyder Indian Citizenship Act – Granted American
citizenship to all Indians born in the United States. This applied to
about 1/3 of the Indian populations as the others had already applied
1934 – Wheeler-Howard Indian Reorganization Act – This act
provided the following:
1. Ended land allotments and returned unsold lands to the Indians.
2. Authorized tribes to form corporations and launch businesses.
3. Provided for elected tribal councils with
significant powers. This represented a reversal from previous policy
and the restoration of tribal power.
1953 – Termination Policy – This was a new sharply
different policy that ended the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and
all of the programs that went with it. It divided tribal property
among the tribes members thus subjecting them to taxation. It also
curtailed tribal self government and relocated many Indians to the
cities where jobs were available. The Termination policy also ended
federal responsibility and social services – education, health and
welfare, to the Indians.
1970 – President Richard Milhouse Nixon recommends self
determination for Indians. Indian tribes were once again brought
under federal funding with the promise that federal control would be
1974 – Iroquois Nation vs. The State of New York – Claiming
they have been using certain lands since 1805 Indians sue and win in
federal court. The federal government is forced to be responsive to
their treaty claims.
1980’s – Several Indian nations, most notably in
Connecticut and New York, sue to gain autonomy (independence) on
tribal reservation land. Indians win these cases paving the way for
the creation of gambling operations on reservation land. Today there
are casinos on several reservations providing millions of dollars of
income for those tribes.