When European colonists first landed in the New World, they found it considerably more occupied than expected. The entire continent was populated by a variety of Native American cultures that were distinctly alien to the settlers. The relations between the natives and the newcomers was a roller coaster of diplomacy and violence from the very beginning and only increased in extremity as the latter encroached on the lands of the former. As the Europeans gained a foothold and brought industry, technology, and government to America, there became less room for the indigenous people. The march of progress would not be stopped and the Native Americans suffered for it. By degrees they were displaced, repressed, and decimated, both culturally and literally. The process of modernization, from the Native American perspective, was characterized by deceit, betrayal, and brutality, agitated in part by Native American responses and mostly by the intolerance of entrepreneurs, settlers, and politicians.
People and a Nation describes the diverse and wide-spread nature of the various Native American people who predated European arrival. Different regions necessitated different lifestyles, resulting in some Native Americans establishing permanent settlements while others were migratory; some depended on farming and herding while others were hunter-gatherers; and all enjoyed similar but distinct languages, religions, art, and foreign policy regarding their neighbors (Norton 434). While the Native Americans might have appeared savage to the white colonists, they were far more sophisticated than the simplified view of history portrayed for many years. In terms of technology, the Europeans had a clear advantage. But the Native Americans were clearly established all over the North American continent. That position of superiority waned quickly as the settlers gained a foothold in the New World and brought their ambition and experience with colonization to bear. The commerce and diplomacy between settler and natives, and the occasional armed dispute, withered into economic and territorial oppression by the increasingly powerful colonists.
The Native Americans themselves were aware of the shift in power as the white settlers became more powerful and more established. In a memorial letter to the United States Congress in 1829, the Cherokee Nation pled their case:
“When the ancestors of the people of these United States first came to the shores of America, they found the red man strong—though he was ignorant and savage, yet he received them kindly, and gave them dry land to rest their weary feet… At that time the Indian was the lord, and the white man the suppliant. But now the scene has changed. The strength of the red man has become weakness. As his neighbors increased in numbers, his power became less” (Memorial).
By this time the option of armed resistance in Georgia had long passed and the Native Americans were hoping to play the government’s game according to the rules of the white man. Unfortunately, the government chose to choke the Cherokee into submission on lands largely unsuited to their previous lifestyle. Despite even a Supreme Court ruling that it was unconstitutional to forcibly remove them, President Jackson disregarded this and still proceeded with the Indian removal policies that he so vigorously enacted.
Not all Indians were willing to relinquish their land so peacefully. Black Hawk was a noted resistance leader who fought on the side of the British in the War of 1812 and later waged his own campaigns against the Illinois and Michigan militias when he removed his people from the Mississippi territory in search of a new home (Black Hawk). Unfortunately, he suffered the same complications that plagued so many other Native American resistance leaders. His leadership was repeatedly challenged from within his own tribe; consequently, others could not set aside long-standing disputes and often ended up fighting each other (Black Hawk). It was difficult for the Native Americans to form a cohesive front against the settlers or for them to earn any respect from the white invaders who saw as much in-fighting as anything else. This lack of cohesion was, therefore, a major contributing factor to the downfall of the Indians.
The fine distinctions between tribes in close proximity to each other and even the more dramatic differences between the various regional groups were largely lost on white settlers. The common impression of the Natives was one of simplicity and savagery because those were the tales borne by frontiersmen, “In saloons and cabins, men boasted about fighting Indians and showed off scalps and other body parts from victims” (Norton 436). These men became pioneer heroes and their actions were romanticized. “Such contempt made exploiting and killing natives easier, further justified by claims of threats to life and property” (Norton 436). After being exposed to the rhetoric of the savage native by heroic frontiersmen returned from the wild, those who had never encountered an Indian naturally assumed that violence and ruthless cruelty was waited at the hand of any Native American who was not shot on sight. This response to a potential Native American threat was defensive-reactive by white settlers; that is, they were prompted to shoot the Native Americans because of the potential danger that they perceived from their initial behavior.
A considerable amount of rhetoric in the time tried to correct this, but most of it was either misdirected or poorly received. President Monroe invited Petalesharo, a Pawnee Chief, to speak in Washington D.C. and while Petalesharo spoke eloquently and was given much consideration, he did not speak on behalf of all Native American people, as was likely interpreted by many listeners. He said of the Great Father, “He made the whites to cultivate the earth, and feed on domestic animals; but he made us, red skins, to rove through the uncultivated woods and plains; to feed on wild animals; and to dress with their skins” (Petalesharo). He represented a tribe that favored a migratory, hunter-gatherer lifestyle while many were considerably more invested in agriculture and permanent settlements. The impression he gave was one of primitives. Contempt and confusion about what suited particular tribes in different regions was inevitable, making it more likely that all would be abused in the making and keeping of treaties.
Some white men were concerned about the well-being about the image of Native Americans. Elias Boudinot spoke regarding the quality of the Cherokee as a people and their advances toward fitting into white culture. He said, “What is an Indian? Is he not formed of the same materials with yourself?” (Boudinout). He believed in equality of spirit. Of course his words were arrogant and patronizing as he was speaking in terms of the Cherokee’s ability to fit into white culture. As can be seen in Ishi in Two Worlds the general awareness of native cultures decayed rapidly throughout the 19th century. Ishi was met with curiosity, but not as harshly regarded as many would expect of people in that time (Kroeber). By the 1900’s the Native Americans had been so thoroughly oppressed they were simply not a concern any longer.
What had early on been relatively peaceful, mutually beneficial arrangement between underprepared settlers and native inhabitants decayed over the course of a century into a tyrannical oppression of an entire population. Though natives in other countries around the world have been dealt with as harshly and worse as the Native Americans, the shift from economic and political interaction as equals to dictatorial herding of Native Americans onto reservations was a shocking and devastating twist in the story of the United States. The conflicts were not crystal clear every step of the way, but it can be said with reasonable authority that the U.S. government, in a position of power as it was toward the twilight of the Native American people, abused its role as a protector of the people.
Boudinot, Elias. “An Address to the Whites”. Baym, Nina, and Mary Loeffelholz. Norton Anthology of American Literature. 7th ed. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Co., 2007. 577-579. Print.
Black Hawk. Life of Black Hawk. Baym, Nina, and Mary Loeffelholz. Norton Anthology of American Literature. 7th ed. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Co., 2007. 570-573. Print.
Kroeber, Theodora. Ishi in two worlds; a biography of the last wild Indian in North America.. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1961. Print.
“Memorial of the Cherokee Citizens, December 1829”. Baym, Nina, and Mary Loeffelholz. Norton Anthology of American Literature. 7th ed. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Co., 2007. 580-584. Print.
Norton, Mary Beth. "17." A people and a nation: a history of the United States. 9th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2001. 432-457. Print.
Petalesharo. “Speech of the Pawnee Loup Chief”. Baym, Nina, and Mary Loeffelholz. Norton Anthology of American Literature. 7th ed. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Co., 2007. 577. Print.