By Keith Nobles
December 29th is the anniversary of two incredibly important events: the signing of the Treaty of New Echota and Wounded Knee. These events occurred 55 years apart (to the day) but really are of the same origin. Some people may be thinking, “I am not an Indian, why should I care?”
Let me explain why I think you should care quite a bit, if you are an Indian or not.
Lets go back to George Washington being elected President of the United States and forming the very first Indian Policy this country ever had. Washington’s Indian Policy was called “Acculturation” and it was less a ‘policy’ than it was a notion. The notion was to try to discover a way that Indians could be incorporated into the United States as Americans while still being Indians. These were rather smart men who understood that the answer could only come in co-operation with the Indians and that the answer to how that was done would most likely be different from tribe to tribe. In retrospect, after all we have experienced and seen the last 225 years, this was an incredibly rational policy.
In 1794 we, the Cherokee, signed the Treaty of Tellico Blockhouse ending twenty years of war with the Americans. We had reached the conclusion that we could not win a war with the United States and we could not prosper without peace with the United States. This caused us to go down the path of searching for a means to where we could still be Cherokee, still be a coherent group of people, while having to co-exist with the United States. As a result we listened to what Washington had to say about ‘Acculturation’. In a time when messages between the Cherokee and Washington had to travel by horse and by foot it took more than ten years for these conversations about how we might do this to occur.
In 1807 we sent Major Ridge to Washington, where he went to the White House and told Thomas Jefferson that the Cherokee wanted to step through this door of acculturation and become Americans. We were the first Indians to do that. The next twenty years we set about becoming Americans while still being Cherokee; the United States government was actually supportive and useful in assisting us in figuring that out. We Cherokee were incredibly fortunate to have leaders like Major Ridge and Charles Hicks – men who saw the goal as the infinite continuation of the Cherokee into the future and were able to devise a system for that to happen (the same basic system we exist under today).
I like to tell people that we are Cherokee, we are different than any other Indians and any one else in the world. We are different because we made different decisions than anyone else made and we reached an entirely different outcome than anyone else reached. Most of those decisions were made between 1807 and 1827. What we did from 1807 to 1827 no other people in the history of the world ever did. The Cherokee went from being an illiterate people with loose bonds based on language and a shared culture into a constitutional republic with a literacy rate north of 90%. In 1822 John Ridge went to the White House and told President James Monroe that the Cherokee Nation wished to pursue statehood within the United States. Being ‘Cherokee’ went from being based on who your mother was to being a nationality independent of blood and as such we went from being a tribe to being a nation. This is exemplified by Elias Boudinot, a nephew of Major Ridge, who gave speeches to Americans saying “…she pleads only for assistance to become respectable as a nation, to enlighten and ennoble her sons, and to ornament her daughters with modesty and virtue” and “I now stand before you delegated by my native country to seek her interest, to labour for her respectability, and by my public efforts to assist in raising her to an equal standing with other nations of the earth” in this timeframe.
The concept here was of the Cherokee as a nation and as a Cherokee Nation demanding equality with all other nations of the world – a demand for equality made through the virtue of our nationality being morally equal to all other nationalities, our republic being entitled to a seat at the table with all other republics (or states), our moral standing not being inferior but equal to that of any other state. It is a concept that, 190 years later, is embedded in us as Cherokee. We are a sovereign nation. We are citizens of a sovereign nation. It defines us.
What happened in 1828 altered this path completely. Andrew Jackson was elected President. Jackson’s Indian Policy refuted the Acculturation Policy which each President since Washington had continued. Jackson’s policy was fundamentally that Indians could not become Americans and indeed could not co-exist in proximity with Americans. The United States government discontinued the efforts to incorporate the Cherokee (and indeed other Indians) into the United States as Americans while still being Indians. In 1830 the Indian Removal Act was passed requiring the Indians in proximity with other Americans to move west or just disappear as a coherent people. The Cherokee Nation and Samuel Worcester (a missionary imprisoned by the state of Georgia for his refusal to abandon ministering to the Cherokee people – which was a violation of Georgia state law) believing in the justice promised by the Constitution of the United States then sued. In Worcester v. Georgia the Cherokee and Samuel Worcester were handed an absolute victory by the United States Supreme Court which ruled that the policies of Andrew Jackson and the state of Georgia were indeed unconstitutional. Andrew Jackson’s response was allegedly “John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it.”
Let that sink in a bit. The United States Supreme Court ruled that the Federal and state governments policies and laws were unconstitutional and the Federal and state governments utterly and completely ignored the ruling. This is why everyone should care.
The signing of the Treaty of New Echota on December 29, 1835 was a surrender to the state of Georgia and the Federal government. In a Cherokee Nation which at this point was violently divided and under relentless pressure from the state of Georgia with unconscionable laws passed specifically against the Cherokee; some members of the Cherokee government signed a treaty in defiance of their own Cherokee government that surrendered our land in the east. What was primarily received in exchange for that surrender was a promise from the Federal government that the Cherokee Nation would receive a seat in the United States House of Representatives and a path to statehood.
This brings us to 55 years later and Wounded Knee. When Andrew Jackson repudiated Washington’s policy of Acculturation; it did not just effect the Cherokee. It effected all of the other Indian nations that had also started down this path after the Cherokee and more profoundly it effected all of the other nations considering this path. Contrary to what you may have learned if what you primarily know about Indians is what you learned from television or the movies; we are not stupid people. Indians were desperately looking for a solution to the problem of how they could continue to survive as coherent members of their tribe; Washington’s policies were not perfect (and inherently unfair at the negotiating in that the power of Washington far outweighed any power any individual tribe could bring to the table) but as the Cherokee demonstrated, with great sacrifice, they were workable. Andrew Jackson destroyed the trust, hope and sacrifice that had been made over the preceding thirty years. Ignoring Worcester v. Georgia sent the message that even the United States government would not follow its’ own laws in regard to Indians. What Andrew Jackson brought was the brute force of government in violation of the Constitution.
All that happened between the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and Wounded Knee in 1890 did not have to happen. It happened because the United States Federal government violated its’ own constitution. None of this had to happen.
There is a consistent story I hear that goes along the lines of “The Indians were just an inferior people who lost to a superior power.” This is pretty much the story from television and movies, over and over. It utterly ignores what actually happened. Most conflict was a result of a violation of treaties. These treaties by and large were real estate deals with the Indians as the seller and the Federal government as the buyer and in almost all of these deals the Federal government reneged on the terms and failed or discontinued to make payment. When the Indians protested they were usually met by force. When the Indians responded with force, they were crushed. That is a gross oversimplification but by and large it is true. As a prime example, us Cherokee are still waiting for our seat in the United States House of Representatives and a path to statehood. We have no repossession rights when terms are reneged on.
When people try to go with the “The Indians were just an inferior people who lost to a superior power” story they inevitably leave out the part where the Indians demanded the constitution be followed, sued to have the constitution be followed, won a Supreme Court decision requiring the Federal government to follow the constitution and the Federal government telling both the Supreme Court and the Indians to basically “go to hell, we are going to do what we want.”
There are real life consequences to violating the constitution. The farther down the road we went from Worcester v. Georgia the greater the deviation from the constitution became. The End of Treaties, The Dawes Act, the Curtis Act, The Indian Reorganization Act, the Oklahoma Indian Welfare Act, on and on and on. What started with an unconstitutional policy became the belief on behalf of the Federal government that the constitution did not apply to Indians, even though constitutional rights are explicitly called out for Indians in the constitution.
I did not write all this down to refight old battles, I wrote it down to hopefully be instructive. The history between Indians and the United States does not fit into a tidy little box. There is virtually nothing you can say that is always correct in all situations at all times. There were Americans who behaved atrociously, there were Indians that behaved atrociously. There were Americans who behaved heroically (like Samuel Worcester) and Indians who behaved heroically. There were people with great vision and people with no vision at all. You cannot divide it up by race, tribe or ethnicity. By and large it comes down to individuals doing what they felt was best at that time with the information that they possessed and exposing their true character in the process.
This is why we have a constitution rather than relying on the character of the individual to do the right thing.
The real lesson here is that the Constitution was intended to protect all of us and protect the least of us. We had a President who willfully violated the Constitution and was able to do so because it was politically popular. As a result trust and hope was irrevocably broken.
This caused death and misery far beyond any foreign war the United States ever fought and beyond the American Civil War.
The era of military conflict ended with Wounded Knee 128 years ago. This did not bring an end to death and misery just to military conflict. This did not bring an end to the abandonment of the constitution, in regard to Indians that continues to this day and is ever expanding to non-Indians.
What I am really hoping you do with this information is ponder how not protecting the least of us, not applying the constitution as it was intended, leads to tragedy for years and decades and centuries to come. I am really hoping you realize it is not too late to apply the constitution to where it has been abandoned and when you think of that, you think of applying it to Indians as it was intended.
If you managed to read all of this – then thank you. Wado!
Keith Nobles novel, “Our Dogs Did Not Bark A Politically Incorrect Dystopian Tale”, is now available on Amazon, buy it here!