SAN JOSE, Calif., Nov. 9, 2015 — The Indian Removal Act of 1830 was one of the most divisive and controversial pieces of legislation to be passed by the Congress of the United States, and it created severe ramifications throughout both the Indian nations and the white society. As explained in the first part of this entry, it was not acceptable to many members of Congress and some saw it as a serious break from the cornerstones of the republic.
Jon Meacham’s recent book, “American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House,” details the drama of the controversy and serious efforts of Jackson in forcing the legislation upon the nation.
This single act of legislation forced these five “civilized” Indian tribes off their home lands and into the artificially created “Indian Territory” in Oklahoma and parts of Kansas. The Indians never forgot this moment, and for the Cherokee, it became the time of the Trail of Tears, on which thousands of their people died on the long trek across the Southeast, across the Mississippi River and across the Missouri River to Oklahoma. Word spread from one Indian nation to another, and the Indians realized that it was unwise to trust the U.S. government. More and more the distrust grew, and Indian resistance increased.
Citizens saw that the president got away with grabbing Indian land and realized that there would be very little opposition to their squatting on it; when Indians got hostile, the cavalry would come to the rescue. This scenario became commonplace and set in motion a more pervasive effort on the part of greedy, land-hungry settlers to claim their own stake wherever it became suitable. The breaking of the law of the land set in motion a larger breakdown of the potential healthy relationships that could have existed between the whites and the Indians. The period of conflict and hostilities lasted until the 1890s, when the last Apache chief, Geronimo, finally surrendered.
This period is truly sickening, but another gap in American history occurs around the turn of the century. It is rather unlikely that a majority of Americans are aware that there was a major reversal of the horrible reality of the 1800s – not brought on by the U.S. government, but by a new generation of Indian leaders. By the early 1900s, it could be observed that the very actions recommended by George Washington had occurred naturally. The assimilation of the native peoples had occurred in America simply by contact and interaction with the dominant white population. Amazingly, natural leaders sprang up in the Indian communities who had a different take on their future.
Natural Indian leaders, who had gone to American schools to get a good education, who had become Christians of one denomination or another, became leaders who wanted a better future for their children. These Indian leaders were not the colorful and fearful chiefs of the 19th century; they were regular people in the society who had been educated in white schools. For the most part they seriously believed in ending the gap of distrust, resentment and hatred that had persisted between the two cultures.
In the early 1900s, many genuine efforts were initiated by the new generation of Indian leaders to extend the proverbial olive branch to their “conquerors.” This history is essentially ignored today. The Indian leaders had become doctors and lawyers and leaders of their people who made serious and sincere efforts to reconcile with the dominant white culture. One significant act in 1915 has been practically ignored by contemporary historians, maybe because it was overshadowed by the Great War.
On Sept. 28, 1915, the Congress of the American Indian Association made an official proclamation that signified a dramatic change in the relationship between the American Indians and the American government. The proclamation of representatives from this official all-Indian association represented the first formal indication from the Indian community that they could accept citizenship within the United States. The message was sincere, and the appeal noted that their forefathers had fought against domination “for home, for family, for country, and the preservation of native freedom…” but recognized that they needed to turn their attention to look to the future of their people.
The Congress of the American Indian Association had made their appeal so that American Indians could “live in greater fullness” and “to move forward and acquire those things that make races and nations more efficient and more noble…” In considering these words, it seems, that although they were still fighting for family, for home and for their survival as people, they had determined a more peaceful pathway to pursue their fight. Additionally, the Congress called upon “every person of American Indian ancestry” and all Americans to observe each second Saturday in May as a national “American Indian Day” as a way of honoring the memory of the indigenous peoples.
American Indian Day became a reality state by state during the 1900s and evolved over time to the present National American Indian Heritage Month. Since 1990, about 100 years after the last battles were fought, the month of November has been designated to honor the American Indians. It developed upon the foundation from the Indian representatives in 1915 and through efforts made over time. It culminated with a joint resolution of Congress that designated the month of November 1990 as “National American Indian Heritage Month.” Since 1994, similar presidential proclamations have been issued yearly.
Careful consideration of Indian intent in the early 1900s reveals that there was a sincere effort to not just create a special day of remembrance, but also to forgive an enemy, to put the past in its place, and move on with their lives. It demonstrated genuine humility and the capacity of heart to forgive an enemy, and an attempt to heal the bitterness, resentment and the deep wounds of the past. This may be a greater victory than what Andrew Jackson won in 1830.