Understanding Native American History

American history is filled with glorious accomplishments that Americans love to point out when saying how great a country this is. Certainly, America is a great country, and as countries go, it has probably done enough now to forever remain as one of the great countries ever to exist on the planet. Perhaps it will someday go down in history beside Ancient Rome, Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece and other great civilizations of the past that have made their mark on human history, but along with its greatness, America has enough faults and shame to give pause for thought. In a country of immigrants, America has historically mistreated its immigrants, especially the Chinese, the Japanese and today the Chicanos.

Despite their efforts to get away from religious persecution, the pilgrims were not so eager to avoid religiously persecuting others and forcing their religion upon everyone. Everyone is keenly aware of how America enslaved the blacks and then held them down as second class citizens or less after slavery was more or less begrudgingly abolished. Black Americans were not properly treated in American until the 1970s and even today blacks suffer from the vestiges of past slavery.

Yet, with all of the two-sided treatment and mistreatment of so many cultures that have today merged within the amalgamated American culture, with all of the irony and tragedy of those mergers, perhaps none is any more tragic than that of the American Indian.  With all the Native Americans who lived in this country when Europeans arrived, today there are only an estimated 2.75 million remaining.  They are probably the only ethnic group whose numbers in America have fallen since the arrival of Europeans.

While the number of Native Americans in the country when Europeans arrived is speculative, it is estimated that there were between 60 and 100 million Natives here when Europeans arrived and that by 1650, the Native population had already decreased by 90 percent due largely to the introduction of European diseases into the Native populations. (MacCleery, 2004)

While Black Americans have more or less assimilated into American society despite the mistreatment they suffered, nothing could be further from the truth for Native Americans.  Blacks can be found in large numbers all over the country with few exceptions other than the northwest where there are still areas where people have never seen blacks or rarely do, yet one would be hard pressed to find a Native American in the US away from the reservation.

When encountered, they would usually be mistaken for something other than a Native American and always, always they will be speaking a foreign language, usually English, Spanish or both.

Forced to abandon their native language, many young Indians today cannot speak their native language and others won’t speak it expect to other Natives, and while blacks can occasionally be heard asking for “reparations” for the wrongs that were committed against them during slavery (those who were wronged are dead) such that their ancestors (those now alive) get to reap the benefits for the suffering of their ancestors, nobody is available to speak up for the Native American who still suffers today in ways that blacks and other ethnic groups do not.

Certainly, blacks no longer have their native tongue, but it was not forced out of them in the same way and there was no effort to Americanize blacks.  To the contrary, blacks were maintained separate while the effort towards natives was more like the extermination of the Jews in Nazi Germany.  Whites on the Plains sometimes killed Indians just because they were Indian somewhat like the extermination of the aborigines in Tasmania who were actually, literally hunted down to extinction!

Between 1803 and 1833 the Aboriginal population of Tasmania went from 5,000 to around 300 and by early in the 20th century they became virtually extinct, their original languages lost.  Native Americans were intentionally subjected to a similar fate and today their languages are also being lost, this despite the fact that the language of the Navajo code talkers took part in every assault the U.S. assault in the Pacific war against the Japanese from 1942 until 1945.

The very languages which helped to save America were not allowed to be spoken among the Natives!  What right do blacks and others have for reparations for what their ancestors suffered when Native Americans are still living basically on reservations in the 21st Century and get virtually nothing?

There is no doubt that the survival of the first Europeans to America was due in large part to the ability of the native peoples already here to survive and thrive in this country—in their own land. Even today, each year we celebrate Thanksgiving because we realize that the new visitors to this country owed their survival and existence to the knowledge and ingenuity of the native peoples who were already here.

Yet, most Americans today fail to realize the true diversity of the native peoples who already existed here when Europeans arrived. It is estimated that humans lived in North America up to 12,000 years ago and perhaps as much as 40,000 years ago certainly calling into question Bible stories of Adam and Eve a mere 6,000 years in the past.

When Europeans arrived, the Native Americans were a vast diversity of cultures, nations and religions that ranged from one coast to the other, people living together in harmony with their environment and with their fellow Native Americans at times, living very much out of harmony with their fellow Native Americans at others.  As was true in Europe, all was not always calm and peaceful co-existence between the various a sundry “races” and tribes of the Native countries.

Native nations differed in terms of their religious beliefs, cultural habits, dietary habits, migratory habits, religions and more, sometimes bringing them at odds with one another, especially in terms of competition for food and perhaps at times for living space.

The American mistreatment of the Native peoples they found here began even before the Revolutionary war.  The very natives who saved the lives of the first colonists and pilgrims were treated like second class citizens or not as citizens at all.  By the time of the Revolutionary War, Native Americans had already felt the encroachment of the white Europeans on native lands.  When over two-hundred Iroquois, Shawnees, Cherokees, Creeks and others visited St. Louis in 1784, they were already feeling displaced.

One said, “The Americans, a great ambitious and numerous than the English, put us out of our lands, forming therein great settlements, extending themselves like a plague of locusts in the territories of the Ohio River which we inhibit.” (Galloway, p. 158)  In May 1830, the Indian Removal Act was passed in Congress. It authorized the president to negotiate treaties to remove all Indian tribes living east of the Mississippi.

This led to surveyors, squatters and a campaign of harassment against Natives such as the Cherokee. While the Cherokee Nation brought a suit against the Act, Chief Justice John Marshall declared that the court had no jurisdiction over the case since Cherokees were not U.S. citizens or an independent nation. (Garrison, pp. 1-12)  This is certainly a sad state of affairs for the Native peoples of American, one for which there has never been a true champion and which has great significance for the way in which Native Americans still live today.

Early in the 20th Century, Joseph Dixon wrote an aptly named book entitled The Vanishing Race that detailed many of the struggles and travails of the Native American. With all of the struggles and travails of the Native American, it was not until December 8, 1911 that President Taft signed a bill passed by Congress granting a United States Reservation and the erection of a National Indian Memorial (Dixon, p. xx).

Dixon speaks of an “Expedition of Citizenship to all tribes of American Indians”, an effort to extend friendship to all Indians and to have them unite so as “to raise the same flag and sign the same pledge of loyalty and receive at the hands of his representative an American Flag…that they might call their own.” (Dixon, p. xxii), but while at the time, this might have been viewed as a sign of advancement by white America, it was no more than further evidence of the forced assimilation and continued mistreatment of the Native Americans who were being robbed of their land, their customs, their language, their religion and forced to assimilate into and assume the American culture strange to them and certainly not their own.

For example, Calloway speaks of how the far ranging Comanche bands came together as a nation in the 1870s after they were confined to a reservation. (pp. 339-40)  These nomadic people became a “Nation” more or less because they were forced to do so.

In the 1870s and continuing through the 20th Century, native Americans in defense of their homeland who had once suffered military attacks (and still did in the 1870s and beyond) from invading Europeans suffered a different king of attack, the efforts to Americanize the Natives, an effort to reform the native “savages” as they were called by forcing them into the European ways of life.  Indians were relocated, forced to wear European attire, to cut their hair and to speak the European languages.

Christian missionaries played a large role in this effort as the missionaries simultaneously tried to convert the “savages” to Christianity and to Christ.  As reformer Helen Hunt Jackson put it in her 1881 book, A Century of Dishonor, those who believed that the United States should extend their blessings to the Natives could see that what was happening was just the opposite. Natives were being “(shot)…down in the snow.” (p. 335) It was a concerted effort to remake the Natives by transforming them into the image of white America and it was met with resistance by the natives.

Natives, many of whom migrated with their food supply, the weather and the seasons, were forced to adapt to and adopt strange, European ways. While Europeans claimed a kinship to the land, that kinship was very different from that of many natives. The idea of owning land seemed strange to the natives, and being tied to a specific region to till the soil as farmers was not the native idea of kinship to the land.

As Europeans pushed West in their quest for “Manifest Destiny,” they progressively displaced the natives by killing their food supplies, searching for yellow iron (gold), stealing the Natives’ horses and more. Chief Joseph said, “For a short time, we lived quietly. But this could not last…The white men told lies for each other. They drove off a great number of our cattle…

We had no friend who would plead our cause before the law councils.”  What Chief Joseph saw happening was common all across the new continent—new to Europeans.  After the Civil war, the efforts at Manifest Destiny continued and increased. “Winning the West” was a national goal that led European settlers to move into native lands in greatly increasing numbers.

So, the native peoples were being robbed, displaced, involuntarily acculturated, tied to the land in ways that were very un-native, and more. While Europeans forced natives into one compromise after another, the growing sentiment among the invading Europeans was that Indians should be treated as wards of the government rather than as independent nations. (Galloway, p. 271) Today Indian tribes enjoy the unique political status as sovereign nations within the United States, a status they already enjoyed before the arrival of Europeans. They have managed to regain what they lost at the hands of the Europeans, but only after paying a terrible price and being nearly exterminated and what they have today is only a shadow of what they had in the past.

Certainly, Americans are essentially oblivious to the plight of the Native Americans.  There has never been a successful spokesman for them, no eloquent Martin Luther King and Cesar Chavez for the American Natives.  Those who existed in the 19th century were quickly killed, imprisoned or ignored as were the few whites who stood up to champion the cause of the Natives, among them former President Herbert Hoover.

Therefore, today, while many Americans are at least vaguely familiar with the plight, suffering, indignity suffered and torture of the African slave, few Americans know the true story of the Native Americans and their suffering, suffering that continues even to the present time.  We need a better understanding of what they have suffered in the past and what they continue to suffer even in the present, how they were dispossessed from their lands, moved elsewhere and basically ignored even to the present.

Finding a reasonable way to compensate them will not be easy.  Indeed, compensation is probably impossible.  Who can compensate the Tasmanian peoples now that they have been exterminated?  Likewise, who can compensate the Native Americans not that they have been dispossessed and nearly wiped out?  Their story is one that is seldom told even today and is generally distorted when told.  Can we as Americans continue to live with this situation?  Perhaps we can, but should be?  I believe that the answer to that question is, “No!”


Dixon, Joseph Kossuth.  The Vanishing Race. The Last Great Indian Council.  Philadelphia, PA: National American Indian Memorial Association Press, 1925.

Galloway, Colin.  First Peoples: A Documentary Survey of American Indian History. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s Press, 2004.

Garrison, Tim Alan.  The Legal Ideology of Removal:  The Southern Judiciary and the Sovereignty of Native American Nations.  University of Georgia Press, Athens, GA, 2002, pp. 1-12.

Jackson, Helen Hunt.  A Century of Dishonor: A Sketch of the United States Government’s Dealings With Some of the Indian Tribes.  New York, NY:  Harper & Brothers, 1885.

MacCleery, Doug.  The Role of American Indians in Shaping The North American Landscape, Forest History Society, 2 November, 2004, 12 June, 2007.

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