According to a statement made in her book (A Century of Dishonor, 1881), Helen Hunt Jackson concluded that “there is not one among these 300 bands of Indians one which has not suffered cruelly at the hands either of the government or of white settlers.” Jackson was one of a minority of people at that time that recognized the injustices experienced by American Indian tribes. In response, Theodore Roosevelt argued that Jackson was one of those whom he called “these foolish sentimentalists” (Roosevelt, 1887).
Jackson presents a valid argument that many American Indians of that time period were self-supporting, worked on their reservations, and received nothing from the government except interest on their own annuities held by the government. Based on these premises Jackson argued that the correct conclusion should be that most American Indians do work and are self-supporting. At the time the foregoing conclusion was that American Indians would not work.
The American Indian story is a sad one riddled with injustices. Jackson made many factual claims regarding the treatment of American Indians. She argued against the negative stereotype that the Indians were dependent on government handouts. The inferential claims include the estimate of around 55,000 Indians that never visit any agencies and thus do not receive any type of support from the government. Many of these Indians subsisted by gathering fruits, nuts, berries, and hunting and fishing. Many subsisted by begging and stealing. A minority subsisted on inadequate government handouts. In her opinion the Indians on the pacific coast were faring the worst as there were no laws written to help the Indians deal with the influx of gold seekers who wronged the Indians daily.
In the following expository passage Jackson gives an idea about the state of the American Indian:
“It makes little difference where one opens the record of the history of the Indians. Every page and every year has a dark stain. The story of one tribe is the story of them all varied only by differences in time or place; but neither the time nor place makes any difference in the main facts” (Jackson, 1881).
An illustration of how bad it was can be found in the last chapter of Jackson’s book where she describes in detail the atrocities against the Indian population. Although most of the population of the United States had never seen an Indian they all held preconceived notions of what an Indian was. None of these notions were positive. The best way to explain this notion is that many people had heard horror stories of the first settlers and their negative dealings with the Indians. These stories became embellished over time and became quite harmful to the Indians when the new pioneers ran into the Indians.
Andrew Jackson (a future U.S. President) was tasked with reporting on the Indian condition and the move to permanent habitation. In his report called “A Permanent Habitation for the American Indians” (Jackson, 1835) Jackson (now president) noted that the resettlement of the Indians was not complete but “ought to be persisted in till the object is accomplished” and “all preceding experiments for the improvement of the Indians have failed” (Jackson, 1835). In his writings, Jackson surmises a condition that the Indians need to be forcibly removed. If they did not agree to be moved and continued to persist then their “bloody wars” would come to an abrupt end. Jackson’s statement infers that the Indians will be killed if they did not agree to be moved.
Based upon the government’s past dealings with the Indians Jackson could probably make the prediction that the Indians would not go willingly. He accomplished his mission of moving the Indians with the approval of Congress by passing the Indian Removal Act of 1830.
Although early in his writings Andrew Jackson reported negatively about the condition of the American Indian he ended his report with a statement that showed how he felt about the situation:
“with very general supervision of over them, they ought to be left to the progress of events. These, I indulge the hope, will secure their prosperity and improvement, and a large portion of the moral debt we owe them will then be paid” (Jackson, 1835).
This report does not reflect the opinion held by many at that time that the Indians were savages and had to be removed so that the land could be properly occupied by civilized people. Those who thought their understanding of the Indian condition was based on truths could make sound arguments in favor of moving the Indians and executing those Indians that do not comply with movement orders.
Little compassion existed for American Indians in the early history of the United States. Immigrants to the United States brought more than just their baggage to this country. They brought diseases that the Indians had never encountered. And, they brought away if living that the Indians were unfamiliar with. As far as the new settlers were concerned:
- All Indians were savages
- All Indians needed to be converted to Christianity
- And, all Indians needed to be removed and sent to reservations.
This categorical syllogism represents the common beliefs of early American settlers. The American Indian at that time was more of an unknown that settlers faced when they immigrated in the early years of this country. As stated earlier, most peoples’ ideas of what an Indian was were based upon the stories of those who had encountered Indians.
The Indians’ encounters with the white settlers caused them much pain. The settlers brought diseases such as chickenpox, measles, and smallpox. Although few Europeans died as a result of chickenpox or measles the American Indian population was considerably reduced by epidemic proportions of chickenpox and measles. The Indian population had very little natural immunity to these diseases. A correct generalization is that all American Indians were affected one way or another by epidemic diseases.
During the American Revolution, many Indians sided with the British with the hopes that the westward movement of colonial expansion would stop. Many Indian tribes broke into factions that were either for the colonials or the British. Indian tribes endured a civil war of their own fighting each other over support of either the British or colonials. As a result of the Revolutionary War vast territories were ceded to the colonies without the knowledge of the Indians. Thus the colonies felt they owned the land and removal of the Indians a formality.
In some cases, the removal of the Indians came without warning. No one told the Indians to ‘run for your lives’ or ‘don’t go on the journey west (Trail of Tears), many of your people will die’. One can imagine that the Indians didn’t know what to think about these settlers when they first arrived. To be sure they all probably wish that someone would have advised them against contact with the settlers early on.
By the time of Theodore Roosevelt, there were varying opinions about the Indians and their condition. The Indians saw themselves as landowners who had been pushed off their land and relocated to reservations. Roosevelt considered the Indian condition one of a nomadic people who by temperament had no desire to hold property (Roosevelt, 1889). Roosevelt favored Andrew Jackson’s handling of the Indians and had great disdain for Helen Hunt Jackson. Roosevelt felt that the United State’s handling of Indian affairs was misunderstood by many and he wished that someone would write “a full and true history of our national dealings with the Indians” (Roosevelt, 1889).
Interestingly Roosevelt referred to the Indians as a ‘weaker race’ that was hard to deal with. He described the Indians’ possession of land as the same type of possession of land that a white hunter would have. For example, he stated that “if the Indians owned Kentucky in 1775, then in 1776 it was the property of Boone and his associates”(Roosevethe lt, 1889). Roosevelt based his argument on signs he saw along the way to presidency.
As far as he was concerned his understanding of the Indians (as described to him by others) was one of disdain. He thought their claims to broad stretches of lathe were ridiculous. He referred to Indians as “squalid savages’ and their perceived rights to the land as “a vague prescriptive right to its sole occupation.” Roosevelt pointed out that the Indians’ claims to the land were very much the same as roving hunters of that time who claimed ownership of the land they hunted.
The following is a description of tribes before colonization by white Europeans as described in Morgan Lewis’ ‘Ancient Society’:
- The possession of a territory and a name.
- The exclusive possession of a dialect.
- The right to invest sachems and chiefs elected by the gentes.
- The right to depose these sachems and chiefs.
- The possession of religious faith and worship.
- A supreme government consisting of a council of chiefs.
- A head-chief of the tribe in some instances
Most contemporary Indians live among the rest of the people in the United States. Many still live on the Reservations that their ancestors were driven to. Although the state of the American Indian is not what it was prior to colonization, it is not as bad as it was during the early years of this country. The discovery of this land by those such as Columbus permanently ended the lifestyle of American Indians as they knew it. The Indians waited years for citizenship in a land their ancestors had occupied for thousands of years. Many dialects and languages of the American Indian have been permanently lost.
The United States Census Bureau lists American Indians as comprising 1% of the current population. (Paige, 2007) That is about 2.5 million people. There are arguments about who is/is not an American Indian because of so much intermarriage between Indians and others in American society. The Census Bureau’s listing includes only those who self-identified as American Indian. Although the Census is mandatory for all Americans what you self-identify as is what is counted.
On some reservations the state of the American Indian is terrible. Unemployment and alcoholism are problems on Indian reservations. “For many a Native American Indians living on a reservation is a sad and bleak prospect that represents a long history of loss, violence, oppression, and heartbreak.” (Paige, 2007). But, in contrast, some reservations are doing very well as a result of gaming or casinos run on reservations by Indian leaders. Casinos bring jobs, money for better housing, and better educational opportunities. The overall social condition on reservations with casinos is much better as people no longer feel stuck or hopeless.
The best way to determine how American Indians are currently doing is to ask them as they can speak from authority. The Navajo Hopi Observer is an American Indian newspaper that reports on Navajo and Hopi Indian Nations in the Flagstaff Arizona Area. It looks very much like any other newspaper except when you look at the ‘sections’ portion. The sections are listed as “The Rez”, “Tribal News” and many more uniquely Indian terms. (Navajo Hopi Observer, 2007) The paper is a daily that reports about all aspects of the community. Today’s headline includes a picture and story about a young Indian woman who was recently crowned Miss Indian at the NAU pageant. The picture shows a smiling young Indian woman in a Native American Dress with a crown that is uniquely Native American.
There is another group of Native Americans worthy of mention. The Hawaiian Islands natives experienced American colonialism. The Hawaiian Islands were ‘discovered’ by the English who named them the Sandwich Islands. Later missionaries came to the islands to run missions to convert the Hawaiian peoples. The Hawaiian people were not subjugated by the newly arrived white Europeans or Americans.
The Hawaiian people also were affected by disease and lost about 5000 natives to smallpox. After the missionaries came workers from the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Korea, China, and Okinawa Japan. After several treaties, the Hawaiian Islands became a territory of the United States. In 1959 Congress passed the Hawaii Admission Act to admit Hawaii as a State. The voters of Hawaii approved the Act and Hawaii became a State.
The Native American experience has been one of heartache and despair. Many Native American Indians survived a terrible period in history that included subjugation, prejudice, and dehumanizing conditions. Despite Andrew Jackson’s support of legislation that called for the removal of Indians to reservations, Theodore Roosevelt’s negative stereotyping of Indians as ‘the weaker race’, and Helen Hunt Jackson’s attempt to humanize their situation, American Indians are faring much better than in the recent past. This is in no way an attempt to minimize their current situation or challenges. It is an attempt to show people who have overcome adversity and attempted to recover from a horrible past.
Andrew Jackson ” A Permanent Habitation for the American Indians,” Annals of American History. Web.
Helen Hunt Jackson ” Indians and Whites,” Annals of American History. Web.
Theodore Roosevelt ” False Sentimentality About Indians,” Annals of American History. Web.
Morgan, Lewis H. (1907). Ancient Society. Chicago: Charles H. Kerr & Company, 70-71, 113. Navajo Hopi Observer. 2007. Web.
Paige, Joseph. 2007. American Indian “Always WhiteWolf”. Web.