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Time to confront U.S. destruction of Indigenous people

Amid weeks of reckoning with America's history of white supremacy, protesters have brought down monuments to the Confederacy and statues of Christopher Columbus. This week, demonstrators tried to topple the most well-known statue of Andrew Jackson, featured on horseback in military attire, in Washington, D.C.'s Lafayette Square.

President Donald Trump called it an attack on a "great monument" and said of the protesters, "They're bad people, they don't love our country, and they're not taking down our monuments."

But Jackson's legacy is worth examining closely. Known to Creeks as "Sharp Knife" for his viciousness during the 1814 Creek War, Jackson went on to become an advocate of removing eastern Indians to west of the Mississippi. Elected president in 1828, he moved quickly to secure the Indian Removal Act and signed it into law on May 28, 1830.

The Jackson monument at Lafayette Square has copies that can be found in Nashville (Jackson's hometown), New Orleans and Jacksonville, Fla. The statue's immediate reference is to Jackson's victory over the British in the 1815 Battle of New Orleans. More broadly, however, the statue celebrates the violent dispossession of Native Americans.

When President Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, he claimed that moving dozens of Native nations west of the Mississippi was an act of benevolence. Speaking before Congress, he called the policy "generous." Instead of "utter annihilation" — the future Jackson foresaw if Indians remained in the East — his policy "kindly offers . . . a new home."

Native people disagreed. Creek elders informed the president that eviction would be the "worst evil that can befall them." Cherokees saw "nothing but ruin before us."

The Creeks and Cherokees were right. The policy of removal had a catastrophic impact on these two Native nations and on dozens of other Native nations, both North and South.

North’s trial of tears

Many Americans have heard about the Cherokee Trail of Tears and the removal of the other "Civilized Tribes" — Choctaws, Creeks, Chickasaws and Seminoles — from the South. But removal was not just a project of white southerners to expand cotton production based on enslaved labor. In the free labor states of the North, federal and state officials, supported by farmers, speculators and business interests, evicted Shawnees, Delawares, Senecas, Potawatomis, Miamis, Wyandots, Ho-Chunks, Ojibwes, Sauks and Meskwakis. College-level textbooks touch on the southern removals but are silent about the northern trails of tears.

A few removals took place without great loss of life, but most were terribly deadly. Of the 80,000 Native people who were forced west from 1830 into the 1850s, between 12,000 and 17,000 perished. The U.S. Army and state militias killed some in wars to break the resistance of noncompliant communities, but the large majority died of interrelated factors of starvation, exposure and disease (malaria, cholera, typhus, smallpox and dysentery). To put this in perspective, the death toll would be equivalent to between 46 million and 62 million of the current U.S. population.

The story of removal does not end with the trails of tears. West of the Mississippi, the catastrophe continued. Conditions were worst for the northern nations that were squeezed into eastern Kansas. The joint populations of these nations after first arriving in Kansas in the 1830s and 1840s was around 17,000. On poor land with few resources, lacking clean water, subject to alcohol pushers and suffering severe social stress, these nations were vulnerable to a constant onslaught of multiple diseases.

Low fertility and high infant mortality made it impossible to rebuild battered populations. By 1860, their numbers had been cut in half. Conditions were not as bad for the southern nations, who were moved to Oklahoma, but they, too, experienced a further decline of between 13% and 19% from the 1840s to 1860s.

That's not all. The trails of tears did not end in empty wilderness. The areas west of the Mississippi River were home to other Indigenous nations— Osages, Kanzas, Omahas, Ioways, Otoes and Missourias. To make room for thousands of people from the East, the government dispossessed these nations of much their lands, subjecting them to similar forces of destruction that hammered the removed eastern nations. The combined population of these western nations was 9,000 in 1840; 20 years later, it had fallen to 6,000.

Genocide?

Historians have been unsure about what to call Indian removal. Specialists have begun to propose alternative terms - eviction, expulsion and deportation — that more forcefully convey the policy's brutality. Some scholars have referred to the policy as "ethnic cleansing." Since ethnic cleansing is recognized as a crime against humanity under international law, this is a serious allegation.

But was removal genocide? Americans have been reluctant to consider this possibility.

The most authoritative definition of genocide, adopted in 1948 by the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, defines genocide as any of several acts "committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group." The U.N. definition identifies "killing members of the group" as one of these acts, but other acts are identified, including "causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group" and "deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction."

The policy of Indian removal resulted in all these harms. Some members of Indigenous nations were directly killed in war. All suffered "bodily and mental harm," and the policy created adverse "conditions of life" that resulted in "physical destruction." The consequences of the policy were clearly genocidal.

Countries like Canada and Australia have had serious discussions about their similar histories of dispossessing Indigenous peoples and whether it constitutes genocide. Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission indicted Canada's Indian Residential Schools system as "cultural genocide." Australia formally apologized to its Indigenous peoples for the Stolen Generations removed from their families.

But the United States has avoided these tough conversations about genocide in its history. A discussion of Jackson's statues, which honor martial conquest, would ask our nation to grapple with its deadly policy of extermination that took tens of thousands of lives and threatened the extinction of several Native nations. It would require coming to terms with the fact that United States was built on stolen lands.

At a time of growing awareness of systemic racism, it is important to challenge a monumental landscape that celebrates Confederate leaders and European colonizers. To fully reckon with our past, however, will require a deeper understanding of the actions and policies of U.S. presidents.

Other presidents — George Washington and Thomas Jefferson — were slaveholders and guilty of crimes against Native Americans. Even revered opponents of slavery – Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses Grant — authorized genocidal warfare against Native Americans.

We will need to examine their actions and policies. Sharp Knife is a good place to start.

Jeffrey Ostler is Beekman Professor of Northwest and Pacific history at the University of Oregon and the author of "Surviving Genocide: Native Nations and the United States from the American Revolution to Bleeding Kansas."

 

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