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16th - 17th century
18th century
19th - 20th century
     Cherokees and acculturation
     Indian Removal Act
     The Plains Indians
     Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull
     Indian Territory and Oklahoma
     The 20th century

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Tecumseh: 1791-1813

When the army of General St Clair is destroyed on the Maumee river in 1791, one of the young Indian warriors in the engagement is a Shawnee by the name of Tecumseh. Four years later, in the treaty negotiations at Fort Greenville, he is outraged that the elders of his tribe, along with all the others, cede their ancestral hunting grounds to the Americans.

It becomes his life's work to resist the transfer of land, a concept which he claims to be incompatible with the Indian tradition of shared hunting rights. 'Sell a country!', Tecumseh exclaims in his speeches. 'Why not sell the air, the clouds, and the great sea? Did not the Great Spirit make them all for the use of his children?'


The concession at Fort Greenville is only one in a continuing series. Between 1802 and the Treaty of Fort Wayne in 1809 the governor of the territory of Indiana, William Henry Harrison, uses judicious bribery to relieve Indian chiefs of a further 33 million acres of land north of the Ohio - providing ever more fuel for Tecumseh's passionate oratory as he travels among the Indian tribes preaching the need for resistance.

He is helped in this by the charisma of his younger brother Tenskwatawa, a reformed alcoholic whose evangelical talents earn him the name 'the Prophet' and whose rejection of firewater (one of the standard weapons of the white man in negotiating with the Indians) underlines the message that Indians must remain true to their own traditions. In 1808 Tecumseh and his brother together establish a base in Indiana, calling it Prophetstown.


Tecumseh is in the south in 1811, preaching his pan-Indian theme to the Creek Indians, when his brother unwisely attacks a military expedition led into Indian territory by Harrison. The Indians are defeated on the Tippecanoe river near Prophetstown, their wigwam and log-hut capital.

Tecumseh returns from the south to find Prophetstown burnt and deserted, but he continues with his crusade. In the following year, 1812, circumstances at last seem to help him. War breaks out between Britain and the United States. The deceptive promise of British help becomes a reality.


During 1812 Tecumseh fights in several successful engagements alongside British forces in the region of the Great Lakes, but he is killed in 1813 in a battle against General Harrison on the Thames river east of Detroit. Five months later, far to the south in March 1814, Creek Indians carry into battle the red-painted sticks which proclaim their allegiance to Tecumseh and his cause. They are heavily defeated by Andrew Jackson at Horseshoe Bend on the Tallapoosa river. As in the Northwest Territory, millions of Creek acres pass into American hands.

Such achievements greatly please American voters. Both Jackson and Harrison are future presidents of the USA.


The Cherokees and acculturation: 1796-1828

From the early days of the American nation it is government policy that the Indian tribes should be subjected to a process of 'civilization'. This description, implying improvement, is a highly subjective term for a process more accurately described by the clumsy but neutral word 'acculturation' - meaning the adoption by one group of the customs of another.

In 1796 George Washington selects the Cherokee Indians, living in the western regions of North Carolina and Georgia, for a pilot scheme in integration. He informs their leaders that government policy in relation to other tribes will depend on the success of this experiment.


Funds are provided for Cherokee education. The people of the tribe are shown how to build log cabins. The procedures of western agriculture are demonstrated. Missionaries arrive to explain the mysteries of Christianity.

During the three decades after the introduction of Washington's scheme, the Cherokee people rise magnificently to the challenge. Plantations are established on the southern model. Tribal leaders live on them in elegant two-storied houses. They ride around in carriages. They own slaves. In all this they seem to suggest that they too can be southern gentlemen. From 1819 they have a capital city of their own at New Echota, in northwest Georgia.


1828 is the year in which the Cherokee nation (the Indians' own preferred word for a tribe or people) seems most fully to transform itself into a nation in the western sense. A political constitution is adopted by the tribe. Based on the example of the American republic, it provides for an elected principal chief, a council consisting of two chambers, and a system of courts of law.

In the same year the Cherokees publish the first American Indian newspaper. Using a newly invented alphabet (attributed to Sequoyah), the Cherokee Phoenix is printed weekly in New Echota with adjacent columns in English and Cherokee.


Yet 1828 is the last good year for the Cherokees. Andrew Jackson, beginning his first term in the White House in 1829, is the first president to come from west of the Appalachians. He knows at first hand the aggressive land hunger of the frontier settlers, who view Indian lands to the immediate west as a present obstacle and future prize. He has little sympathy for the protective paternalism of his aristocratic predecessors in the office of president.

To make matters worse for the Cherokees, gold is discovered on their lands in 1829. Swarms of lawless prospectors arrive in their midst.


These events give added impetus to attempts, already initiated by the state government of Georgia, to annexe territory assigned by federal treaty to the Cherokees. State laws are passed in 1829 making it illegal for Cherokees to mine gold, to testify against a white man and to hold political assemblies (except for the single purpose of ceding land).

It is the ultimate misfortune for the Cherokees, and for other tribes in their position, that the mood of Georgia is now reflected in the White House.


The Indian Removal Act: 1830-1839

In 1830 congress passes President Jackson's Indian Removal Act. It provides for treaties to be made with the Indian tribes if they can be persuaded to exchange their land west of the Appalachians for territory beyond the Mississippi.

Persuasian soons blends into coercion, even though the Cherokees - the most developed of the tribes - take their case with considerable success to the Supreme Court in Washington. The chief justice, John Marshall, rules that the Indian tribes are a federal responsiblity, meaning that any appropriation of Cherokee land by the state of Georgia is illegal. But President Jackson takes no steps to impose this interpretation of the law upon Georgia.


During the 1830s the situation worsens. In 1833 the state of Georgia raises funds by holding a lottery of seized Cherokee property, including even the government buildings of New Echota. Eventually one faction of the Cherokee leadership signs a treaty selling the Cherokee lands to Georgia and agreeing to move west by 1838. The Cherokee council unanimously rejects the treaty, but the senate in Washington ratifies it.

By 1838 the Cherokees have not moved. In that year federal troops are sent to Georgia to enforce the removal of the Indians. The Cherokees are rounded up into camps and are then despatched under guard on a long march to the west.


Of 18,000 Cherokees displaced from their traditional lands in this way, it is calculated that as many as 4000 fail to survive what becomes known as the Trail of Tears to the area now designated as Indian Territory.

Neighbours of the Cherokee are moved at the same time. The chief victims are four other southeastern tribes (Chickasaw, Choctaw, Seminole and Creek) who have also adopted many of the white man's customs. They are described by American settlers, together with the Cherokee, as the Five Civilized Tribes. Their enforced migration in the late 1830s becomes known as the Great Removal. It is calculated that about 100,000 are driven from their land, and that more than 20,000 die on the journey west.


The broad plains of the new Indian Territory are promised to the tribes as their own land 'as long as the grass grows and the rivers run'. But within a few decades the pressure of white settlement sends this agreement the way of earlier treaties. As it turns out, the grass grows and the rivers run only until 1907. By that time so many homesteads have encroached on the Indian Territory that the region is admitted to the union as Oklahoma, the 46th state.

In the slave trade and the Great Removal, the story of America contains two of the three main instances of large ethnic groups being forcibly resettled thousands of miles from home. (Stalin, in the USSR in the 1930s, provides the third.)


The Plains Indians: from the 1860s

The last indigenous Americans to be threatened by white encroachment on their territory are the Plains Indians, in the region between the Mississippi and the Rockies. There are many tribes in this vast area, living in a state of almost permanent warfare among themselves. Young men make their reputation as braves by their skill in combat and in the hunting of buffalo.

The traditional existence of the Plains Indians is under threat by the 1860s from a combination of circumstances. The westward spread of the railways, in itself an intrusion, is accompanied by large grants of land to new white owners. A side effect, profoundly harmly to Indian interests, is decimation of the buffalo herds by ruthlessly efficient white hunters.


An extra degree of crisis occurs every time gold is discovered in the eastern slopes of the Rockies (there are frequent new finds in Colorado and Montana from the late 1850s). Each gold rush brings not only unruly prospectors, but also local militia and federal troops to protect the new settlements from the Indians. In such circumstances violence and disaster is hard to avoid.

The threat from the east brings the Indian tribes into an unprecedented degree of alliance. Disagreement between their leaders is now largely on the issue of whether a peaceful coexistence with the white man is possible.


Black Kettle, a leader of the southern Cheyenne in Colorado, is a chieftain who believes in cooperation. But his experience at the hands of American troops is not well calculated to convince others that he is right.

In 1864, after travelling to Denver to meet Colorado officials, he moves his people to a region where he has been led to understand they will be safe. At dawn on a November morning the Indians are asleep in an encampment at Sand Creek, near Fort Lyon, when they are attacked and indiscriminately massacred by a troop of Colorado militia. Estimates of the Indian deaths vary from 150 to 500.


Black Kettle himself escapes and continues to search for some means of accomodation with the white Americans. Almost incredibly, history repeats itself four years later. One dawn in November 1868 he and his people are asleep in their village of tents, by the Washita river on an official Indian reservation, when federal troops, in pursuit of a raiding party, burst in upon them and slaughter 101 people - on this occasion including Black Kettle and his wife.

The American commander in this atrocity is George Custer. He later plays a prominent and disastrous role in the campaigns against the strongest tribes among the Plains Indians, known collectively as the Sioux.


Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull: 1874-1890

In 1874 George Custer leads a military force into the Black Hills of South Dakota. This is a sacred region to the Sioux tribes and it has been guaranteed to them by treaty, but there are rumours of gold. When Custer's expedition confirms these rumours, a new gold rush begins. As Sioux hostility mounts, the government attempts to purchase from them the mineral-rich Black Hills. The negotiations fail, whereupon the Sioux are ordered to move into specified reservations by the end of January 1876 or be regarded as 'hostile'.

In the ensuing war the first two encounters are victories for the Sioux, one of them dramatically so.


On 17 June 1876 a Sioux chieftain, Crazy Horse, drives back an American army under George Crook at the Rosebud river in southern Montana. Crazy Horse then joins a much larger Sioux force, of possibly as many as 10,000 people, led by Sitting Bull and encamped on the Little Bighorn river.

This camp is reached on the evening of June 24 by George Custer with a contingent of the US 7th cavalry. Rather than wait for reinforcements, he leads a surprise attack with 263 men on June 25. The result of this reckless act is that not one of his force survives. Indeed the only survivor on the federal side is a single horse, Comanche, which for years appears as a saddled but riderless guest of honour on 7th cavalry parades.


It is impossible for the tribes to maintain this level of success against the might of the United States. Gradually they surrender and move, as required, into reservations. Crazy Horse gives himself up in 1877. Sitting Bull remains free, by retreating into Canada, until 1881 (after which he spends much of his time in Buffalo Bill's Wild West show as the most famous Indian chieftain). Both men are eventually killed, in custody, in struggles with American soldiers or police.

Sitting Bull's death, in 1890, is shortly followed by the final shameful massacre of Indians by American troops - at Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota.


Hundreds of Sioux, including women and children, die at Wounded Knee Creek on 29 December 1890 under a hail of machine-gun fire when they are already surrounded and are being relieved of their arms (an unexpected rifle shot begins the panic and the slaughter).

Wounded Knee and the death of Sitting Bull make 1890 seem the last climactic year of tribal resistance in north America. But the federal government has recently passed an act which does more fundamental damage to Indian interests. The General Allotment Act of 1887 (also known as the Dawes Severalty Act) is intended by its sponsor, Henry L. Dawes, to benefit the Indians by settling them on the land and integrating them in American society. It has a very different effect.


The act stipulates that the Indians shall give up their joint right to their tribal lands and instead have individual holdings of up to 160 acres (the amount of land allotted to white homesteaders). Any surplus land in the territories will be sold, with the purchase money going to the tribes.

This ostensibly worthy scheme fails in the short term because it overlooks the disinclination of hunting people to transform themselves rapidly into farmers. And in the long run it has the effect of depriving the Indians of two thirds of the 138 million acres reserved for them in 1887. The vigour with which white settlers grab the spare land is vividly seen in the Indian Territory, the first of the reservations.


The Indian Territory and Oklahoma: 1872-1907

In 1872 a railway (the Missouri, Kansas and Texas railroad) is completed through the Indian Territory. It soon brings would-be settlers, known as 'boomers', into an area not as yet assigned to particular tribes. They are removed by federal troops until such time as the government in Washington has formally revoked any Indian rights to this part of the territory. This is achieved by 1889.

There is then launched the first example of an extraordinary method by which the government allows settlers to compete for homesteads in the newly opened region. This is the dramatic event known as a 'run'.


The starting time for the first run is declared to be noon on 22 April 1889. The competing settlers line up on horseback. When the gun is fired at noon, they gallop into the territory to seek out the best plot of land on which to stake their claim for a homestead. Thousands select their site in this way on this opening day. By nightfall, arriving to register their claim at a government office in a railway siding, they establish the tented town which develops into Oklahoma City.

The success of this first run soon prompts others, but now there remain only regions already allocated to tribes - most of whom have recently been moved here. This is not allowed to dampen enthusiasm for this new form of settlement.


There are runs in 1891, 1893 and 1895. Subsequently it is considered better to adopt a less chaotic method of distributing the land. Homestead plots of 160 acres are marked out and are assigned to owners by lottery in 1901 and by auction in 1906. By now the only part of the original territory still reserved for Indians is the east, an area occupied ever since the Great Removal by the Cherokees and others of the Five Civilized Tribes.

In 1907 the entire region, including the diminished Indian Territory in the east, is admitted to the union as Oklahoma, the forty-sixth state.


The 20th century

In the early decades of the 20th century the American Indians suffer the long-term effects of the treatment suffered in previous generations. They become increasingly impoverished. Their numbers fall.

The situation improves gradually during the rest of the century, beginning with the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 which restores tribal ownership of land in the reservations. In 1946 an Indian Claims Commission is set up to consider claims in cases where Indian land has been lost by government malpractice. By the 1990s more than $1 billion has been granted in compensation.


Nevertheless the original inhabitants of north America remain, at the end of the century, the most deprived community in the world's richest nation.

But the civil rights movement (of which the American Indian Movement, founded in 1968, is a part), combined with an increased awareness of past injustices, ensures that the plight of the American Indians is now very much on the political agenda. And the Indians themselves are more condident in pressing their case, with a keen awareness of the emotive potential of their past history. The American Indian Movement wins world-wide attention in 1973 when it occupies the village of Wounded Knee and survives a ten-week siege by the authorities.


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