SAN JOSE, November 6, 2012 - In the United States since 1990, the month of November has been designated as American Indian Month. It developed upon the foundation of a number efforts made over time and culminated when a joint resolution of Congress was signed into law which designated the month of November, 1990 as “National American Indian Heritage Month” and since 1994, similar presidential proclamations have been issued each year.
Some may consider the effort to honor the American Indians a bit late, or to be little consolation after years of pain, suffering, and deadly conflict because of greedy white, land-grabbing settlers, or the inconsistent and often aggressive U.S. government. Throughout the past, the poor relations that existed between the American Indians and the European descendants created numerous reasons for distrust and hatred to dominate.
Prior to the 20th century, the different presidents and the federal government had inconsistent priorities regarding the natives. The U.S. Constitution stated little about the Indians, but it did specify that the native peoples were neither to be taxed nor to be included in the populations of the states as part of the electorate. The Constitution did not extend to the various tribes a legal status on par with that afforded to European nations. However, for all practical purposes, the Indian nations were primarily viewed as foreign nations and treated accordingly. It essentially meant that the federal government basically respected Indian sovereignty over their ancestral homelands.
Where ambiguity existed with respect to the letter of the law regarding American Indians, U.S. presidents followed the precedent established by the Northwest Ordinance that was passed by the government under the Articles of Confederation. The essential understanding was that the Indians were to retain dominion over their lands. The first few presidents tended to follow this legal foundation and generally followed the precedent of George Washington, who had initiated a policy of friendship, education, and cultural assimilation into the newly formed American republic.
This precedent radically changed during Andrew Jackson’s administration as there was a fundamental change in the way the native lands were viewed by the old Indian fighter. Andrew Jackson had little respect for the legal precedents established under the Articles of Confederation or the views of previous presidents. He did not accept the premise that the lands belonged to the Indians. He viewed their lands as existing within the boundaries of the sovereignty of the United States, so the ownership of Indian property was up for negotiation.
Not long after his first term commenced, Jackson shepherded a bill through Congress drastically altering the landscape. In 1830, a bitterly divided Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, and a pleased Jackson signed into law orders that would force the indigenous peoples of the southeastern region to relocate to “Indian Territory,” or what is now the state of Oklahoma and part of Arkansas. Sadly, by the turn of the century, most of the original lands belonging to the American Indian had been “purchased” or plundered by masses of encroaching colonists in the early years of colonization, or by land hungry settlers during the years of the nation’s westward expansion.
When viewed through contemporary lenses, Jackson was way ahead of his time. Before the philosophy of Karl Marx and his concept of the nullification of private property, the nation’s seventh president had committed an unprecedented peacetime confiscation of private property. His supporters got their greedy hands on about 100 million acres of traditional Indian lands which was prime real estate throughout Southeastern United States, and Old Hickory was elected president. Jackson and Congress pulled off one of the biggest land grabs in U.S. history.
So the concept of “redistribution of wealth” is not a new concept to Democrats, yet Jackson hadn’t even studied Marx or Saul Alinsky! To Jackson, it was a simple transaction creating a win-win between him and those who elected him and his Democrat Party. They had simply devised a way to redistribute private property to their political supporters. As a result, he became one of the most popular presidents as he figured out a way to give his loyal supporters what they most wanted in exchange for what he most desired: two terms as U.S. president.
A deeper study of history sheds light on Andrew Jackson’s critical departure from the legal, political, and practical precedents regarding the government’s respect for the American Indian ownership of their homelands. This purposeful scheme by Jackson and the Democrats in Congress dispensed with all obstacles in their way creating a shift in the fundamental premise that previously had respected the rights of the Indians and their inherent claims of ownership of private property. Simple common law was suspended and the Indian Removal Act set in motion a new set of precedents in the way the federal government, as well as state governments, could deal with the Indian homes and their lands.
A key in Jackson getting away with something that seems like a story from the old Soviet Union or present day China is that he did not let much get in the way of his objectives and when obstacles threatened his efforts, he removed the obstacles. In actuality, the most serious obstacles were that dastardly document called the Constitution, legal precedent established though the Northwest Ordinance, as well as the previous presidents – especially George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both publically supported Indian retention of ownership of their territorial lands.
The Indian Removal Act was quite divisive and controversial at the time – it still is. Of course, the five Indian tribes protested, some of them even put up a futile fight against the U.S. Army. It didn’t matter. Many Christians and missionaries protested against passage of such legislation; it didn’t matter. There was also significant opposition in Congress as New Jersey Senator Theodore Frelinghuysen and Congressman Davy Crockett of Tennessee spoke out strongly against such objectionable legislation. Even young Abraham Lincoln opposed Jackson ‘s bill, but after incredibly bitter debate, Congress passed the legislation.
Chief Justice John Marshall even ruled that the Native American tribes were sovereign nations and that state law had no jurisdiction over tribal lands, essentially that Jackson’s efforts were unconstitutional:
“The several Indian nations were distinct political communities having territorial boundaries within which their authority is exclusive, and having rights to all land within those boundaries, which is not only acknowledged, but guaranteed by the United States.”
Jackson ignored the Supreme Court ruling, and is reputed to have said: “John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it.”
The president understood that no one really cared enough about the Indians. After all, the Indians weren’t U.S. citizens. Certainly the voters (supporters to whom Jackson channeled the lands) didn’t care whether human beings were being forcibly separated from their property or whether they lost their lives in the process. Not many could comprehend what had happened. The real losers of course were the rightful owners whose ancestors had lived on the land for thousands of years. This period just before and after the passage of the Indian Removal Acts, a time marked forever by the “Trail of Tears,” was one of the darkest periods in the relations between the American Indians and the federal government.
Astoundingly, at the turn of the century, leaders of the American Indians made genuine efforts to reconcile and restore relations with the white people. Leaders within the Indian nations seriously believed in going beyond the distrust, hatred, and resentment that persisted between the two cultures. On September 28, 1915, the Congress of the American Indian Association 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 native peoples. Contained in the proclamation from this respected Indian organization was the first formal indication from the Indian community that they become officially recognized as U.S. citizens.
Some states and some cities actually followed took up the proposal of an American Indian Day. In 1968, Governor Ronald Reagan in California signed into law proclaiming every fourth Friday of September as “American Indian Day” throughout the state. In 1976, Jerry Elliott, an American Indian, also known as High Eagle from the Cherokee/Osage Tribe, authored a bill in Congress that declared the week of October 10-16 each year as “Native American Awareness Week.” Then in 1990, a joint resolution of Congress, signed by George H.W. Bush, designated November, 1990 as “National American Indian Heritage Month.” Since 1994, similar proclamations have been issued each year.
Careful consideration of this process over time reveals that for Native Americans, there were numerous reasons to hate the whites or to forever distrust the U.S. government. A sincere and genuine effort was initiated by a major American Indian organization to not just create a special day of honor, but to purposely forgive an enemy, put the past in its place, and move into the future. This required genuine humility and the capacity of heart to forgive and heal the bitterness, pain, and resentment as a result of such unjustified mistreatment at the hands of the U.S. government. This may be the best lesson from the entire saga of the American Indians living within the United States.
Happy American Indian Heritage Month, 2012…
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