Taught by the Government that they had rights entitled to respect, when those rights have been assailed by the rapacity of the white man, the arm which should have been raised to protect them has ever been ready to sustain the aggressor.
The testimony of some of the highest military officers of the United States is on record to the effect that, in our Indian wars, almost without exception, the first aggressions have been made by the white man, and the assertion is supported by every civilian of reputation who has studied the subject. In addition to the class of robbers and outlaws who find impunity in their nefarious pursuits on the frontiers, there is a large class of professedly reputable men who use every means in their power to bring on Indian wars for the sake of the profit to be realized from the presence of troops and the expenditures of Government funds in their midst. They proclaim death to the Indians at all times in words and publications, making no distinction between the innocent and the guilty. They irate the lowest class of men to the perpetration of the darkest deeds against their victims, and as judges and jurymen shield them from the justice due to their crimes. Every crime committed by a white man against an Indian is concealed or palliated. Every offence committed by an Indian against a white man is borne on the wings of the post or the telegraph to the remotest corner of the land, clothed with all the horrors which the reality or imagination can throw around it. Against such influences as these the people of the United States need to be warned.
To assume that it would be easy, or by any one sudden stroke of legislative policy possible, to undo the mischief and hurt of the long past, set the Indian policy of the country right for the future, and make the Indians at once safe and happy, is the blunder of a hasty and uninformed judgment. The notion which seems to be growing more prevalent, that simply to make all Indians at once citizens of the United States would be a sovereign and instantaneous panacea for all their ills and all the Government's perplexities, is a very inconsiderate one. To administer complete citizenship of a sudden, all round, to all Indians, barbarous and civilized alike, would be as grotesque a blunder as to dose them all round with any one medicine, irrespective of the symptoms and needs of their diseases. It would kill more than it would cure. Nevertheless, it is true, as was well stated by one of the superintendents of Indian Affairs in 1857, that, "so long as they are not citizens of the United States, their rights of property must remain insecure against invasion. The doors of the federal tribunals being barred against them while wards and dependents, they can only partially exercise the rights of free government, or give to those who make, execute, and construe the few laws they are allowed to enact, dignity sufficient to make them respectable. While they continue individually to gather the crumbs that fall from the table of the United States, idleness, improvidence, and indebtedness will be the rule, and industry, thrift, and freedom from debt the exception. The utter absence of individual title to particular lands deprives every one among them of the chief incentive to labor and exertion--the very mainspring on which the prosperity of a people depends.
Source: Jackson, Helen Hunt. A Century of Dishonor. The American Reader, Edition 1991 p167(4).
Born in Amherst, Massachusetts, Helen (Fiske) Hunt Jackson (1830-1885) was raised to be a conventional wife and mother. Her father taught Latin and philosophy at Amherst College, and she was a neighbor and lifelong friend of Emily Dickinson. Eleven years after her marriage, her husband died in an accident; two years later her second son died. Bereft, she began writing poems and articles for magazines. In 1875, she married William S. Jackson, and they settled in Colorado Springs. After hearing a lecture, she became interested in the plight of the Indians and embarked on extensive research to expose the government's mistreatment of the Indians. In 1881, she published A Century of Dishonor, which she sent to every member of Congress; an excerpt appears above.
A Trail of Tears
As the United States grew in power in the early nineteenth century, several Indian nations such as the Cherokee were overwhelmed and sent on forced marches to the so-called Indian Territory (later Oklahoma) with significant loss of life. The "Trail of Tears" of the Cherokee migration to the Indian Territory in the 1830s became an enduring symbol of white injustice toward the Indians, particularly since the removal was carried out despite the Cherokee Nation's legal victory over the state of Georgia in the Supreme Court. Most of the Indians in the eastern United States now moved West, either voluntarily or under duress, with a few remaining in small pockets near their original homelands.
The health and longevity of the Indians had suffered a steady decline since the arrival of the Europeans, for the whites carried diseases, such as smallpox and measles, for which the Indians had no immunity. The diseases and the numbers affected by them is a subject of intense debate among scholars. Estimates of Indian population before the arrival of whites have increased over the years, sometimes by as much as ten times the earlier estimates. Henry Dobyns put the number at some 10 to 12 million in North America north of Mexico and 90 to 112 million for the entire Western Hemisphere. Most scholars have discounted such high estimates, although conceding that earlier estimates (such as the traditional figure of about 1 million for the present area of the United States) were probably too low. In any event, the steady decline of the Indian population in the United States reached its low point of 228,000 in 1890.
This decline coincided with the loss of tribal lands and tribal authority, particularly under the General Allotment Act (Dawes Severalty Act) of 1887. This act imposed a system of individual land ownership upon many of the Indian tribes with the government selling off the surplus lands to white settlers for the presumed benefit of the tribes (some western tribes were exempted or not forced to comply). Contemporary Indians often cite the Dawes Act as legislation that could and should have been avoided, but that is probably an unrealistic assessment. The vast landholdings of small impotent tribes simply could not have been maintained against the millions of well-armed whites moving west. The land rush in 1889 into the Indian Territory (which became Oklahoma as a result) is an example. Even the staunchest friends of the Indian were convinced that the tribes could not survive unless they gave up much of their land claims and secured a portion in severalty (individual allotments) with the security of a "white man's [fee simple] title."
Although the popular impression during those years was that the Indians were a "disappearing race," the twentieth century saw a dramatic reversal of almost all indexes of decline. Health problems came under increasing control, and diseases like tuberculosis were nearly eliminated. But alcoholism, or alcohol-related events such as car accidents, became the principal cause of death among Indians: no one has determined why Indians seem to be so susceptible to alcoholic stress, and the debate between those favoring a genetic explanation and those a cultural one continues.
The gradual loss of Indian tribal authority was suddenly reversed in 1934 with the passage of the Indian Reorganization Act, which addressed the strengthening of tribal life and government with federal assistance. Although it was subject to bitter debate both at the time and later, the evidence is conclusive that the act, the product of the thinking of John Collier, commissioner of Indian affairs, put Indian communities, then nearing political and cultural dissolution, on the road to recovery and growth. Collier, struck by the strength and viability of Indian communal societies in the Southwest (e.g., the Hopis) and appalled by the destructive effects on tribal societies of the allotment system, sought to restore tribal structures by making the tribes instrumentalities of the federal government. In this way, he asserted, tribes would be "surrounded by the protective guardianship of the federal government and clothed with the authority of the federal government." Indian tribal governments, as Collier foresaw, now exist on a government-to-government basis with the states and the federal government. Although they are financially and legally dependent upon the federal government, they have been able to extend their political and judicial authority in areas nineteenth-century politicians would have found unimaginable.
American Indians, now a rapidly growing minority group, possess a unique legal status (based on treaties and constitutional decisions) and arc better educated, in better health, and more prosperous than ever before (despite the persistence of high levels of unemployment, poverty, and disease). The causes of this "Indian Renaissance" have been the subject of much dispute, some attributing it to the well-publicized activities of Indian radicals, others to the commitment and decency of the larger society. Nevertheless, the popular stereotype of the impoverished, drunken, abused Indian has continued to cloud Indian life.
Contemporary issues being fought out in the courts, legislatures, and tribal councils have concerned Indian religious freedom, water rights, and land claims. Demands in the 1980s and 1990s for the return of Indian skeletal remains in museum collections pitted some white museum administrators and archaeologists against. Indian religious and political leaders. The Indians seemed to be winning, as the Smithsonian Institution, Stanford University, and other groups promised the repatriation of Indian remains and accompanying grave goods to the tribes claiming them. Water rights continued to bc a bitter issue affecting western tribes, but Supreme Court decisions in the 1980s dampened the more optimistic Indian hopes for an increased portion of the limited water resources in the West. Land claims, although settled for the most part by the defunct Indian Claims Commission, were occasionally reasserted in specific instances in the 1980s, as among the Iroquois of New York State.
It has often been assumed that acculturation was a one-way street - that Indians were shaped by whites and not the other way around. But it is clear that the process was one of "transculturization," as the anthropologist Irving Hallowell put it. Not only did whites adopt aspects of Indian material culture (e.g., maize, moccasins), but spiritually and psychologically the transplanted European society acquired an Indian cast, particularly a taste for individual freedom and a distaste for the constraints of civilization, as D. H. Lawrence, James Adair, Carl Jung, and James Fenimore Cooper all noted. It was not because Indians were despised but because they were admired that their symbolic powers were often appropriated and celebrated by their former foes.
Bibliography: James Axtell, The European and the Indian: Essays in the Ethnohistory (Colonial North America (1981); Francis P. Prucha, The Great Father: The United States Government and the American Indians, 2 vols. (1984); Wilcomb E. Washburn, The Indian in America (1975).