This article will feature in Issue 35: Fractured Nations (March 2020)
“They made us many promises, more than I can remember. But they kept but one. They promised to take our land and they took it”– attributed to Red Cloud.
The history of relations between the United States and the indigenous nations of America is a long and violent one. In their quest to fulfil America’s ‘manifest destiny’, Euro-Christians were determined to spread their influence from sea to sea of the “New World”. The brutally violent policies enacted against the indigenous nations are evident in the ever-changing series of land treaties signed between the newly-formed USA and the indigenous nations. But the United States’ repeated failure to respect these treaties made them worthless: they were eventually referred to as “bad paper”. Unlike the settlers, the indigenous nations had little understanding of the concept of individual ownership, a concept that was incompatible with ‘mother earth’, and did not realise that signing these treaties meant the acquisition of their ancestral homeland.
The legal framework for land seizures and treaties between white settlers and the indigenous nations was established in 1823 when the Supreme Court ruled that the Native peoples’ right of occupancy was subordinate to the United States’ divine right of discovery. The 1830 Indian Removal Act, the heart of Andrew Jackson’s political agenda, initiated a removal process that threatened the survival of the indigenous peoples by driving them off their ancestral homeland. The controversial Indian Removal Act of 1830 continued this trend and divided the country.
This process accelerated from 1849 when the California Gold Rush triggered a mass migration of Europeans westward, resulting in violent clashes between indigenous peoples and the new arrivals. Two years later, the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie was signed between the United States and the Sioux nation. Other Northern Great Plains nations were also signatories. The treaty was designed to reduce the warfare between the tribes and the US, and while it did not establish a reservation in full, it was the first step in the process of defining and confining the territory in which the Sioux were allowed to live and hunt. With the subjugation of indigenous peoples proving harder than initially assumed, the US, for the first time in its history, sought a peace deal with some of the indigenous nations. This agreement, known as the Second Treaty of Fort Laramie, signed in 1868, led to the establishment of the Great Sioux Reservation, which included the Black Hills of Dakota, which were to be left for the “absolute and undisturbed use and occupation of the Indians […] No white person or persons shall be permitted to settle upon or occupy any portion of the Indian territory”. This was the beginning of the process of forcing these nations into small, confined patches of land, a completely foreign way of living for them.
However, this treaty was broken in 1874 when General George Custer illegally trespassed on the Lakota territory in pursuit of gold. This violation of the Second Fort Laramie Treaty led to the mass migration of settlers into the Sioux Reservation, and in 1875 the US demanded the indigenous nations sell the sacred Black Hills to white settlers. The refusal of the indigenous peoples was used by the US as a justification for the declaration of war. The army initiated a mass invasion of the reservation, with generals recognising that only the annihilation of the native peoples would secure for the US the Black Hills. The victory of the Sioux nation at the Battle of Little Bighorn led to furious US retribution; the army unleashed total war and withheld rations in a bid to coerce the indigenous peoples to sell the Black Hills. Despite rife starvation, the Sioux refused to sign the agreement and, unable to gain the legal consent required, the US violently seized the Black Hills in blatant violation of the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie.
In the twenty years that followed, the US approach to the indigenous nations shifted. The government attempted to generate an ideological shift in Native American attitudes towards land ownership. In 1886, John Oberly, the US Commissioner of Indian Affairs wrote: ‘The Indian must be imbued with the exalting egotism of American civilisation so that he will say “I” instead of “we” and “this is mine” instead of “this is ours”’. By labelling the indigenous nations as ‘uncivilized’ and ‘savages’, the Euro-Christians justified their genocidal war against them. To leave the land to the native peoples would be to leave the country in a “wilderness”. Through this ideological shift, the Europeans vindicated the possession of the land, arguing that no one was being dispossessed and that the indigenous peoples were in fact barriers to European prosperity and civilisation.
This discourse led to the 1887 General Allotment Act, which granted Congress permission to divide the communal land of the Sioux Reservation into private, individual property. In 1889 Congress passed an act to divide the Reservation into five separate and smaller reservations. This Act allowed the public purchasing of sacred lands and burial sites. With the decimation of the buffalo population and the withholding of rations, by 1890 the Lakota people were almost entirely dependent on the US government in order to survive. US control over indigenous peoples was cemented in 1903 when the US Supreme Court granted Congress the unlimited authority to unilaterally break Indian treaties. In 1934, President Roosevelt and Congress passed the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA), which was an imprudent attempt to politically and socially ‘fix’ the indigenous nations that had been broken through decades of forced settlement and violence. Despite opposition from elders, and in violation of the 1868 Treaty, John Collier and Harold Ickes illegally approved the IRA Oglala Sioux tribal council, with the support of only 1348 tribal members out of around 12,000.
After just five decades, two thirds of Native American land, so sacred to their way of life, had been seized. In a quest to ‘civilize’ the Native Americans, the Euro-Christians instead revealed their own barbarity through the blood-thirsty violence that is all too common in Western colonial history.