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In 1830, the Indian Removal Act was passed, and President Andrew Jackson began negotiations to acquire native land and move the Indians to the west. From 1838 to 1839, Cherokee and Choctaw natives were forced to march 1,000 miles to present-day Oklahoma in what is called the Trail of Tears. While traveling, several thousand Native Americans died and many were mistreated. Since the start of American colonization, the Cherokee and Choctaw Indians, among other tribes, faced numerous hardships. Research demonstrates that the Indian Removal Act and the brutal Trail of Tears journey that followed embody the excessive unjust treatment of Native Americans throughout history.
After the Indian Removal Act was signed into law, the Indians did not give up their culture and lands easily. In the letter of one of the Cherokee chiefs, Onitositaai, also called Old Tassel, he noted the greed of the whites who cried for “”more land”” (Ehle, 1989, p. 18). He also chided the whites about their process of acquiring additional land, which was not “”by right of conquest”” but rather a “”bare march”” or “”reconnoiter,”” plus a sense of self-entitlement, that became the grounds for ownership (Ehle, 1989, p. 18). Likewise, Old Tassel contradicted the notion of the Indian’s lack of civilization and laziness in cultivating the land. He did not “”see the propriety”” or “”practicability”” of being more like whites when the Indians are a “”separate people”” who have rights over their own lands and resources (Ehle, 1989, p. 19).
How it works
This message from an Indian chief indicates the inhumanity of the whites who thought that merely seeing any land would grant them the right to own it and drive away the original owners. At the same time, it demonstrates racial discrimination against a foreign culture and then using this thinking to assert that since the Indians cannot be civilized, they must be thrown out, even if it meant killing them all. President Andrew Jackson would disagree that the Americans were only greedy and ruthless because, in his mind, the government repeatedly negotiated for a peaceful relocation program. He even promised to provide money and support to the Indians who left their lands, as if his generosity would be enough to placate the Native Americans who were being dispossessed of their human rights to live where they please and to continue their cultural identity.
Although the government offered financial compensation, resources, and relocation, it still forcefully removed Native Americans from their lands by justifying it with the argument of their absence of civilized culture and feigning lack of control in the violent clashes between the Indians and the white American settlers. In the letter dated March 16, 1835, “To the Cherokee tribe of Indians east of the Mississippi River,” President Andrew Jackson wrote to the Cherokee Nation in the hope of convincing them to give up their land and move.
On the one hand, Jackson did not simply ask them to leave without offering anything in return. In fact, he promised not only financial compensation for their lost properties but also social welfare provisions and political rights, provided that they relocated to the west of the Mississippi River. On the other hand, Jackson argued that the cultural habits of the Indians resulted in this decision. First, he criticized their “peculiar customs” that he felt they should give up because they were all “subject to the same laws which govern the other citizens of Georgia and Alabama” (Jackson, 1835). Jackson exhibited racial and cultural discrimination by seeing the Indian culture as peculiar enough to be secondary to their own.
Second, Jackson accused the Indians of “offences” due to broken laws. He did not even analyze the deep social causes of these offences, including how the whites mistreated the Indians, the original landowners in America. Third, Jackson described the Indians as mostly “uneducated, and are liable to be brought into collusion at all times with their white neighbors” (Jackson, 1835). Again, he demonstrated discrimination in that he only saw American education and culture as more valid than the Indian culture.
Moreover, the tone of the letter suggests that Jackson blamed the Indians for their own downfall due to their uncivilized culture, rendering them unfit to live among the educated, civilized whites. He likewise noted that the matter of their relocation was out of his hands as if he was disempowered and the Indians had lost any hope of defending their lands. Fourth, Jackson (1835) complained about why most of them had not begun cultivating the lands when the game had been lost. Clearly, he failed to acknowledge that the game is part of Indian identity.
The concept of private property and living in one parcel of land to cultivate it permanently are non-existent in their culture. From this letter alone, Jackson manifests deep racism against the Indians, who fiercely fought for their lands, a position that clashed with the whites’ desire to own more property and gold. As a result, the government used the cultural and physical conflicts as the rationale for justifying its inhumane removal of the Indians.
During the Trail of Tears, the Cherokee and Choctaw Indians experienced inhumane treatment and lost thousands of their people. John G. Burnett (1890) remembered he was a Private of the American Army when he was tasked to accompany them during the relocation in 1838 because he lived with the Indians prior and knew their language. He could not forget how the Cherokees were “”loaded like cattle…into six hundred and forty-five wagons”” (Burnett, 1890). By these words alone, he personally saw how the Indians were forced to leave their homes without sufficient transportation.
Likewise, Burnett (1890) noted that most of the Indians were not even given blankets and footwear despite the winter season. In a way, it could be surmised that the government knew the journey would kill them, suggesting a plan for genocide so the whites can easily take Indian lands and gold. Burnett (1890) highlighted gold as one of the main drivers of white greed. He narrated that when whites discovered gold in Indian territory, they decided to displace the Native Americans. Once in these lands, the whites “paid no attention to the rights of the Indians…Men were shot in cold blood, lands were confiscated.
Homes were burned and the inhabitants driven out by the gold-hungry brigands” (Burnett, 1890). The life of hardships began and continued due to the white man’s greed. Burnett recalled children dying from the cold without proper burial and the soldiers mistreating the old and the wounded Indians until many of them also withered and died. As the Native Americans walked in the “trail of death,” around four thousand perished, many of them from the biting snow storm, physical maltreatment from the soldiers, and untreated illnesses and injuries (Burnett, 1890).
Burnett’s (1890) heart broke for the gentle people whom he had lived with. What Jackson called as uneducated, peculiar, and violent, Burnett (1890) depicted as “”noble,”” “”beautiful,”” “”kind,”” and “”tender-hearted””, people who did not deserve the harsh treatment they went through and dying in the road, far away from home without proper burial rites. Up until his older years, he criticized the injustice befalling the Indians. He shared his own analysis of what happened in the Trail of Tears:
Murder is murder, and somebody must answer. Somebody must explain the streams of blood that flowed in the Indian country in the summer of 1838. Somebody must explain the 4000 silent graves that mark the trail of the Cherokees to their exile. I wish I could forget it all, but the picture of 645 wagons lumbering over the frozen ground with their cargo of suffering humanity still lingers in my memory. (Burnett, 1890).
He was right. The government and the whites who supported this relocation murdered the Indians because, from the very start, they knew the relocation would kill thousands, weakening the forces of the Indians they detested for their gentleness and lack of concern for property ownership and gold. The Trail of Tears was a genocidal act, one that the government pursued for the sake of land and gold.
The deaths of thousands of Indians in the Trail of Tears did not mark the end of their tribulations under the American government. For decades, peace became erratic and brief. In 1868, the Indian Peace Commission concluded that violence between the whites and the Indians mostly came from the U.S. government’s own violations of the signed treaties (Kowalski, 2015, p. 8). To make matters worse, the government disempowered the Native Americans further through the Indian Appropriation Act that declared them as “”wards,”” which removed their “”sovereign powers to negotiate treaties”” (Kowalski, 2015, p. 8).
Furthermore, the whites discovered gold in the Black Hills, thereby forcing the Indians to move outwards once more (Kowalski, 2015, p. 8). Instead of supporting the Indians whom the lands they stole and the games they made extinct by turning them into their livelihood, the whites merely wanted the Indians who survived to assimilate. Those who fought back the injustice were killed, such as what happened in 1890 during the Wounded Knee Massacre when around 225 and 250 Lakota Sioux men, women, and children were brutally killed (Kowalski, 2015, p. 8). The Native Americans truly suffered never-ending inhumane ordeals due to American colonization.
The Cherokee and Choctaw Indians endured discrimination and brutal treatment after being forcefully removed from their land and relocated to where the United States government saw fit. The Trail of Tears marks one of the saddest days in American history because thousands of Indian men, women, and children died on the road without even being properly mourned and buried, simply because the whites wanted their land and gold. The white people’s materialism overtook their humanity and decency. The Trial of Tears is a metaphor for the lifetime of injustice that the Indians experienced under American colonization which desired to erase their history and culture by driving many lives and tribes to extinction.
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