When I was growing up, Cowboys and Indians was popular child's game. So was dressing up in cowboy and Indian costumes. We bought into the legendary Thanksgiving that Pilgrims shared with the indigenous people. The word "discover" was used even though no one disputed Native people had already been living for tens of thousands of years on the land when the European ships arrived. The only Native American "Indians" I ever saw were those played by actors on T.V.
Whatever happened to the 600,000 indigenous people from the 570 or so tribes who lived on the land their ancestors occupied for tens of thousands of years (The land that became the U.S.)? Had we known our US history, rather than delight in the horn of plenty, and cowboy and Indian child's play, the truth would have been filled with sadness, horror and shame. In the chilling words of Thomas Jefferson:
"... If ever we are constrained to lift the hatchet against any tribe, we will never lay it down till that tribe is exterminated ... They will kill some of us; we shall destroy them all." - They will kill some of us; we shall destroy them all." - Thomas Jefferson to Henry Dearborn, 28 August, 1807
Eighty years later, in an 1886 lecture, Theodore Roosevelt summed up the frontier anti-Indian sentiment that began centuries earlier with the arrival of the first Europeans.:
"I don't go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of ten are, and I shouldn't like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth." - Theodore Roosevelt, 1886
Not hesitant to stoop too low, for over a hundred years, even germ warfare was being used against Native people.:
“Could it not be contrived to Send the Small Pox among those Disaffected Tribes of Indians? We must, on this occasion, Use Every Stratagem in our power to Reduce them.” - Sir Jeffrey Amherst's July 7, 1763 letter to Fort Pitt.
Every stratagem was indeed used - slavery, ethnic cleansing, warfare, germ warfare. Christopher Columbus's biggest "accomplishment" was getting this ball rolling in the Americas. The United States continued to wage war, perpetrate massacres, and remove Native American peoples from their ancestral lands, cheat them with one-sided treaties and government policies, and later force assimilation.
In 1776, the US Declaration of Independence encapsulated the dehumanizing attitude toward indigenous Americans that the US was founded on.:
"He (the King of Great Britain) has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions." - US Declaration of Independence, 1776
In 1845, "Manifest Destiny", the "design of Providence" supporting the territorial expansion of the United States had serious consequences for Native Americans. The US expansion into the west took place at the cost of their land. The land their ancestors had occupied for tens of thousands of years. Those who had recently immigrated from Europe justified the policy of conquest and subjugation of the indigenous people with the self-serving stereotyped perceptions of all Native Americans as "merciless Indian savages"
Photo: Detail of US History (forgotten).
Oil on canvas and mixed media.
President Abraham Lincoln's legacy is a complicated one. Beloved by many for issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, this signing on September 22, 1862 freed more than 3.5 million enslaved African Americans. This noble act may also have cost Lincoln his life, a few years later.
Showing a side that is less known, was Lincoln's complicity with a genocide of Native Americans. Lincoln's policy towards indigenous nations, his administration's corrupt Indian office (the precursor of the Bureau of Indian Affairs), The Homestead Act and the construction of the transcontinental railroad all demonstrated his lack of concern for the well being of indigenous Americans.
Three months after signing the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln signed off on the execution of 38 men of the Dakota Nation. Lincoln knew that rather than a court, an unauthorized military tribunal, lacking the lawful authority to try the Dakota, had been hastily assembled. The tribunal was biased and the commander who ordered the commission trials lacked the authority to do so. Rather than an appellate court conducting the review, the President of the US reviewed the cases. Originally, 303 men had been sentenced to death, and President Lincoln commuted the sentence of 264 men, leaving 38 to be hanged. Centuries of smear campaign against Native Americans as an excuse to justify stealing their ancestral land was so successful, an estimated 4,000 spectators gathered the day after Christmas on December 26, 1862, in Mankato, Minnesota. There they witnessed the mass hanging of 38 Dakota men in the largest mass execution in US history.
In this heart wrenching letter from Hdainyanka to Chief Wabasha written shortly before his execution, Hdainyanka expresses his innocence along with his regrets for trusting the Chief's assessment that the US was good tor their word, would abide by the treaties, would be fair and just. Nor did the US share the indigenous people's desire for peace. He begs the chief to care for his loved ones after his execution.:
"You have deceived me. You told me that if we followed the advice of General Sibley, and gave ourselves up to the whites, all would be well; no innocent man would be injured. I have not killed, wounded or injured a white man, or any white persons. I have not participated in the plunder of their property; and yet to-day I am set apart for execution, and must die in a few days, while men who are guilty will remain in prison. My wife is your daughter, my children are your grandchildren. I leave them all in your care and under your protection. Do not let them suffer; and when my children are grown up, let them know that their father died because he followed the advice of his chief, and without having the blood of a white man to answer for to the Great Spirit."
Countless wars would be fought to steal their ancestral land from indigenous nations, but this was the first time that the US applied criminal sanctions to punish those defeated in war. The Dakotas were convicted, not for the crime of murder, but for killings committed in warfare. Adding insult to injury, the Dakotas were tried for the wrong crimes. Being a sovereign nation at war with the US, the Dakotas should not have been tried for civilian crimes of murder, rape and robbery. (Evidence of these crimes was sparse, not to mention, the defendants did not speak the language so could not offer any defense.) The Dakotas who fought the war did so in an effort to simply defend their homes, their ancestral land. They were entitled to only be tried on charges that they violated the customary rules of warfare, making few of the convictions supportable.
President Lincoln’s commutation of all but 38 of the 303 sentences may have been his attempt to correct the verdicts of the rogue tribunal, but with so many flaws in the proceedings, even his judgements are questionable. Lincoln later explained to the US Senate:
"Anxious to not act with so much clemency as to encourage another outbreak on one hand, nor with so much severity as to be real cruelty on the other, I ordered a careful examination of the records of the trials to be made, in view of first ordering the execution of such as had been proved guilty of violating females."
When only two men were found to be guilty of rape, Lincoln expanded the criteria to include “massacres” of civilians.
2 ½ years after the Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, on April 11, 1865, actor John Wilkes Booth attended Lincoln’s speech at the White House, becoming enraged when Lincoln promoted voting rights for African Americans. Booth said,
“That means nigger citizenship … That is the last speech he will ever give.”
On April 14, 1865, Booth assassinated Lincoln.
Three years after Lincoln's death, the US signed the Treaty of 1868 promising the Sioux Nation could retain their territory, including the Black Hills, in perpetuity. What was supposed to be perpetuity only lasted three years, when gold was found in the hills. In 1927, a sculptor with Ku Klux Klan ties began carving the faces of four white men into the Black Hills, which was renamed Mt. Rushmore. This monument, carved into land the US government had taken from the Sioux Nation, celebrates four white men who were responsible for the killing of Native Americans and the appropriation of their land.
In the Treaty of 1868, the US government promised the Sioux territory that included the Black Hills.
Burial of the dead after the Wounded Knee Massacre. U.S. Soldiers putting Indians in common grave; some corpses are frozen in different positions. South Dakota. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (reproduction no. LC-USZ62-44458)
Black Elk, one of the few Lakota survivors of the Wounded Knee Massacre, recalled in 1931: “I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw with eyes still young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people’s dream died there.”
Black Elk & Elk of the Oglala Lakota in grass dance regalia for Buffalo Bill's Wild West London 1887
In the 1870s, during the decade after the Civil War ended, the US government forcibly separated children from their families and placed them in far-away government-operated boarding schools. They were not permitted to travel home or receive parental visitation. Many children went years without familial contact. The goal was to eradicate any "Indian-ness", and train them as servants. The US government paid Christian missionaries of various denominations to forcefully assimilate them into Christian culture and "civilized" society. The children were forced to abandon their Native American identities and cultures, religious and spiritual beliefs, and they were forbidden to speak their Indigenous languages. Their real names were replaced with European names to both "civilize" and "Christianize" them, and they were forced to have European-American style haircuts. In many schools they were harshly disciplined using chores, solitary confinement and corporal punishment, including beatings using sticks, rulers and belts. In the summer students often lived with local farm families and townspeople, reinforcing their assimilation, and providing labor at low cost to the families.
In 1891, the government issued a “compulsory attendance” law that enabled federal officers to forcibly take Native American children from their home and reservation.
The Carlisle Indian Industrial School was founded by the Civil War Lieutenant Richard Henry Pratt. The Carlisle school's motto was, “Kill the Indian, Save the Man.” Pratt said in a speech in 1892, "A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one. In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead." Despite this murderous philosophy, the Carlisle school, a former military installation, became a model for others established by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA).
In 1895, nineteen men of the Hopi Nation were imprisoned at Alcatraz Island, San Francisco, Ca. because they refused to send their children to boarding school.
By 1902 there were 25 federally funded non-reservation schools in 15 states and territories, with a total enrollment of over 6,000 students. The 1928 Meriam Report noted that infectious disease was often widespread at the schools due to malnutrition, overcrowding, poor sanitary conditions, and students weakened by overwork. The death rates for Native American students were six and a half times higher than for other ethnic groups.
The last residential schools closed as late as 1973. Not until 1978, did the Indian Child Welfare Act give the Native American parents the legal right to deny their child's placement in the school. Since those years, tribal nations have increasingly insisted on community-based schools and have also founded numerous tribal colleges and universities. Generations of this inhuman cruelty has left an impact to this day.
Carlisle, Pennsylvania. c.1900.
Members of the Native American tribe were killed after discovering oil on their reservation and striking it rich. The murders attracted the attention of the newly-created FBI.
The Osage Indian murders were a series of murders of Osage people in Osage County, Oklahoma during the 1910s–1930s; newspapers described the increasing number of unsolved murders as the "Reign of Terror," lasting from 1921-1926. The estimated Osage death toll is in the hundreds, though reported numbers are much less and investigated deaths far fewer. Some sources report that 60 or more wealthy, full-blood Osage Native Americans were killed from 1918 to 1931. However, newer investigations indicate that many more suspicious deaths during this time could have potentially been misreported or covered up murders, including the deaths of heirs to future fortune. The murders appear to have been committed by people intent on taking over the great wealth of the Osage, whose land was producing valuable oil, and who each had headrights that earned lucrative annual royalties. Investigation by law enforcement, including the predecessor to the FBI also revealed extensive corruption among local officials involved in the Osage guardian program. Most of the murders were never prosecuted, but some men were convicted and sentenced.
Document in the "Hale–Ramsey Murder Case", Oklahoman Collection at the Oklahoma Historical Society
Sitting Bull, Hunkpapa Lakota chief and spiritual leader, 1884.Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
Content Under Construction
US assassinates Miniconjou Lakota chief and peace diplomat Sitanka (Spotted Elk)
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1971, Dee Alexander Brown
The United States - Dakota War Trials: A Study in Military Injustice. Stanford Law Review, November, 1990, Carol Chomsky
Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI. 2017, David Grann
History of the Sioux War and Massacres of 1862 and 1863. New York: 1863, Harper & Bros., Isaac V. D. Heard
The Osage Indian Murders: The True Story of a Multiple Murder Plot to Members. 1998, Lawrence J. Hogan
The Dakota Trials: The 1862-1864 Military Commission Trials : Including the Trial Transcripts and Commentary. 2012, New Ulm, MN: Brown County Historical Society, John Isch
Black Elk Speaks. (book) by John G. Neihardt, Subject: interviews with the Sioux Holy Man
Black Elk Speaks. (play, based on John G. Neihardt's book), adapted by Christopher Sergel
History of the Santee Sioux; United States Indian Policy on Trial. 1993, Lincoln: University of Nebraska, Roy Willard Meyer
The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 9 vols. 1953-55, New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, P. Roy
Away From Home: American Indian Boarding School Stories
Killers of the Flower Moon, 2020, Leonardo DiCaprio, Martin Scorsese, Robert DeNiro