Native Americans: Then and Now

“I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever”. — Chief Joseph surrendering to America.

Lately, I’ve been watching the show The 100 on Netflix. The series is based in the future, in about 2150, and in this futuristic world, humans now live in space upon satellites after a nuclear war destroyed Earth over a hundred years ago and was inhabitable due to the radiation levels in the air. However, upon the space station where hundreds of humans were living, commanders realized that the oxygen levels upon the ship were rapidly decreasing and the whole ship would soon be unsurvivable. Naturally, they had to figure out a solution to the problem. Their solution? To send 100 juveniles to Earth and have them explore their surroundings and determine if it was safe enough to have the rest of the people in space also come down. Turns out, the Earth was liveable, as demonstrated by people called the “Grounders”, who had been living in the area where the 100 teenagers touched down in. Although the teenagers of the “Sky People” tried to befriend them and promote peace, everything soon goes awry and there’s a lot of killing from both sides. They do make temporary peace, but relations are incredibly strained and both groups do not trust each other. Watching this show has reminded me of when whites came to North America for the first time- the situation is practically the same. An unfamiliar, non-native group of people go to a new territory that’s already inhabited by another group of people and fight to the death about territory and control. Pretty striking similarities, right?

Let’s go back in history a bit. Everyone knows that Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492 and discovered the continent of North America. Of course, with the technology back then, he thought he had landed in India, thus naming the inhabitants already there “American Indians”. But in reality, he had discovered what would come to be the beginning of America (and the entire Western Hemisphere): North America. For centuries, North America had been only inhabited by a myriad of different Native American tribes. From the Iroquois and Apache in the North to the Pueblo and the Cherokee in the South, thousands of tribes spanned across the entire continent. Each group had different characteristics, different cultural values, and different ways of living. Some groups were nomadic, while other groups were more sedentary. My point is, there were so many different groups that each had different traditions, so it makes sense that all of these Native American groups did not ally or even associate themselves with each other; they were each their own separate entity (this is important later on). The only really well-known Native American alliance was the famous Iroquois Confederacy, where five tribes- Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and later Tuscarora- joined together to form “A Great League of Peace”. But other than that, there were many Native tribes associated with each other. Life was good for the Natives- but then the Europeans came.

After Columbus stepped foot on present-day North America, it set off a chain of events that changed history permanently- forever. First off, Europeans had their first contact with Native Americans and vice versa. How did this go? Pretty damn terrible. From the very start, the Natives were doomed. Second off, Columbus set off what is known in history classes as the Columbian Exchange- the transatlantic exchange of people, diseases, food, trade, and ideas between the “Old World” (Europe) and the “New World (the Americas). There was both good and bad involved in this system- maize, corn, and other New World crops were shipped to Europe and led to a huge population increase in the Old World. However, anyone can see that the Natives got the worse of the exchange. While Europeans got new crops and food sources, Natives got diseases. The only good thing they got out of Columbus landing on their land were horses, which changed Plains Indians’ lives for the better. Since Natives were not naturally immune to European diseases such as smallpox, scurvy, and measles, they suffered immensely from these epidemics. These diseases wiped out MILLIONS of Native Americans, decimating whole tribes and permanently changing the way Natives lived forever. But this wasn’t even the worst of it.

We have to understand that although all Europeans in general affected the way Native Americans lived, every group brought different changes to them; the way Europeans treated Natives depended on which country they were from. For example, unlike the English colonists, the Spanish, French, and Dutch attempted to exploit new world resources and form more complex relationships with indigenous people. The English pretty much didn’t interact much with Natives, but it’s not to say they treated them well either, but we’ll get to that later. The English at Jamestown, Virginia did have a brief friendship with the Powhatan Indians (Pocahontas and the First Thanksgiving) where the Powhatan tribe helped the settlers of Jamestown survive in the New World, but this soon turned ugly. The French and Dutch were perhaps the nicest to the Natives, as they traded valuable furs and created trading posts to use with the Natives. They also intermarried with Natives and established pretty friendly relations, which is why France had perhaps the most Native allies in later wars. The Spanish and Portuguese were the worst- although they did intermarry and trade with the Natives, they brutally exploited both their land and their people. Under the encomienda system, Spanish conquistadores forced Natives into slave labor to mine silver and work in sugar fields. The Spanish also sought to convert Native people to Catholicism. When Natives started dying of the European diseases the Spanish brought with them, the then turned to the African slave trade, thus starting the slave trade in North America (triangular trade). Soon, debates occurred over how Native Americans should be treated and how “civilized” they were compared to European standards. In his 1552 novel A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, Bartolome de la Casas criticized the Spanish treatment of the indigenous people. Although de la Casas worked tirelessly to stop the exploitation of Natives, his efforts were disregarded by the Spanish monarchy. Unfortunately, not many people thought like de la Casas; most Europeans thought of Native Americans as “savage” people that had no humanity who could be exploited and molded to fit the needs and expectations of white people- a common theme in American history.

Once the Europeans arrived, the Natives’ way of living changed forever. After being wiped out by epidemic after epidemic and brutally exploited, Natives were not happy. At all. Over the next few centuries, Natives would rebel and fight back against colonization in many attempts- with unfortunately limited success. Both sides wrestled for more land, more power, and more control of North America as European colonies grew.

The first major Indian war occurred in 1636 with the Pequot Wars, which involved the Pequot tribe and English colonists. The Pequots were a very powerful tribe in the Connecticut River Valley that raided Puritan settlers often. Naturally, the English weren’t happy with this, so as revenge, they acted on what would become known as the Mystic Massacre of 1637- where whites set fire to palisade as revenge- the Pequot tribe was virtually annihilated brutally, and an uneasy peace lasted for 40 years between the two groups. Then came King Philip’s War in 1675, where Metacom (named King Philip by the English), the son of Massasoit, a prominent Indian chief, expressed his dislike of Pilgrims. One praying town convert told the Pilgrims that King Philip was planning raids, and soon, attacks from both sides began. The New England Confederation declared war, and soon over 52 villages were attacked and Metacom (King Philip) was captured by a praying Indian and was beheaded. The most gruesome part? His head was displayed for two decades at Fort Plymouth. For people to say that Indians were inhumane, this action was pretty hypocritical. The impact these two wars left was astronomical. It was the last major Indian attack in New England, as the Natives realized they couldn’t beat the English (due to the extensive weapons the English had versus the bow and arrows the Natives had), and over 600 colonists and 3000 Natives died. Similarly, down in the South in the Spanish colonies, attempts to change Native American beliefs led to resistance and conflict- known as the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. Another rebellion, Pope’s rebellion, led to the death of hundreds of Spanish colonists and the destruction of Catholic churches in the area. Native Americans were determined to maintain their political and cultural autonomy, but unfortunately, they were not able to do so.

Problems with Native Americans also caused problems with Britain and its colonies. When bordering Natives along the Western frontier started attacking colonists (such as Pontiac’s Rebellion), Britain closed down the western frontier and declared the Proclamation of 1763, which mandated that colonists were not to settle in the West to “protect” them from Indian attacks. The colonists were of course angry, and many ignored the proclamation, which was one of the first steps leading up to the Revolution. In both the 7 Years’ War and the Revolutionary War, Native Americans took sides of both the British and French, but these alliances were evanescent. Bloodshed and attacks from both sides eased until the 1790s, where Native American tribes affiliated with the Western Confederacy (including the famous Indian chief Tecumseh) and their British allies fought against the nascent United States for control of the Northwest Territory. General “Mad Anthony” Wayne led American troops and defeated the Natives in both the Battle of Tippecanoe and the Battle of Fallen Timbers. As a result, the Treaty of Greenville was signed, which redefined the border between Native territories and U.S. territory in the Northwest region. The situation seemed to ease down a bit- until President Andrew Jackson took office in 1828.

Now, Jackson is what I call a “nineteenth-century” Donald Trump. I guess Jackson did some things for America as a president, but as a person, he was a god awful. Jackson believed that the land of America was for white settlers only, and he wanted more land for growing America. As a result, in 1830 Jackson issued the Indian Removal Act, which mandated that the tribes living autonomously in the South had to relocate to the far West. It’s important to note by this time, most tribes knew they couldn’t defeat the Americans, so most didn’t even try and agreed to be relocated. In 1831, the Choctaw were the first to be removed and became the “model” for other tribes to follow their lead. The same year, the Cherokee went to the Supreme Court in what came to be known as Cherokee Nation v. Georgia. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Cherokee Nation was sovereign, which meant that Georgia had no right to enforce state laws in its territory. The Court (under Chief Justice John Marshall) ruled that it lacked jurisdiction (the power to hear a case) to review claims of an Indian nation within the United States. Then John Marshall decided on the 1832 case Worcester v. Georgia that only the federal government could make deals with Native Americans, and also held that the Georgia criminal statute that prohibited non-Native Americans from being present on Native American lands without a license from the state was unconstitutional. Unfortunately, Jackson decided to ignore this decision and went on ahead with Indian removal. By 1835, Cherokee removal started. However, this same year, the Seminoles, who rejected forced removal, began a series of two wars (the 1st and 2nd Seminole Wars) in which they lost both. So, by 1835, all tribes- Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee Creek, Seminole- were relocated to Western lands. The long and grueling journey to the West began. Known as the Trail of Tears, the journey over 60,000 Native Americans took was difficult and deadly. Over 3,000 Natives died on the journey of starvation and exhaustion. You would think this would be the end of the sufferings Native Americans had to face because of white people, right? Wrong.

Before the Civil War (and after) there was a massive increase in Western settlement as a result of America acquiring California from the Mexican-American War. Once settlers struck gold in California, thousands flocked westward to try and find gold and wealth. However, this was a huge problem because the resettled Native Americans were also on these lands. Multiple treaties were made but were always broken by white settlers. So, once again, Americans and Native Americans were at war again over land. In the famous Battle of Little Bighorn, General George Custer and his army were decimated by the Lakota and Sioux tribes of the Great Plains. These two groups fought back and forth battles for years with a lot of violence on both ends. The famous chiefs of this time- Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Geronimo, Chief Joseph- refused to surrender their ancestral lands. However, the last major Indian war that would occur in history was the Battle of Wounded Knee in 1890. In an attempt to preserve their culture and usher away the white men, Natives participated in “ghost dances”, which was a religious movement where tribes would dance ritually in an attempt to scare the evil spirits away. Unfortunately, the ghost dances were unsuccessful as each Native chief eventually surrendered and their tribes were relocated to reservations, which were special lands put aside for Natives. These reservations were extremely small and had generally horrible conditions. A woman named Helen Hunt Jackson wrote A Century of Dishonor, a book that focused on the injustices Natives faced. Influenced by this book, the U.S. government soon passed the Dawes Act, which allowed the government to subdivide land for reservations and help Native Americans assimilate into American culture better, which they thought was a great idea, but what they didn’t understand was that Native Americans wanted to keep their own culture, not be more “American”. Americans just think that they’re superior to any other culture and just assume that other cultures want to be more like them. As a result of the Dawes Act, assimilation was pretty successful, with schools such as the Carlisle School educating Native Americans about American culture. Thus, Native culture and tradition soon started to fade away from many tribes.

After decades of living on reservations and having their culture stripped away from them, President Franklin D. Roosevelt passed the Indian Reorganization Act, which aimed to restore tribal lands. However, this caused even more problems than solutions, as Many large tribes, such as the Navajos, rejected the Indian New Deal because it did not address the very real economic and resource management issues on large reservations. most Native Americans continued to be suspicious of government programs to aid them. Later, in the 1970s, a movement called AIM (American Indian Movement) emerged. This group sought to bring national focus on the problems of American Indians. AIM, which is still a group today, achieved many successes in their protests, such as the occupation at Wounded Knee in 1973. In fact, its website states “AIM has repeatedly brought successful suits against the federal government for the protection of the rights of Native Nations guaranteed in treaties, sovereignty, the United States Constitution, and laws. The philosophy of self-determination upon which the movement is built is deeply rooted in traditional spirituality, culture, language, and history.”

And now we’re here today, almost 500 years later. How far have we come to reform the lives of Native Americans, whose land we so selfishly stole over many centuries? Who we took their land, culture, and tradition from? The answer? America has done almost nothing. Today, only about 5 million Native Americans live in the United States, one of the smallest groups of people population-wise, and only 22% live on reservations to preserve their tradition. The overall percentage of American Indians living below the federal poverty line is 28.2%, and the disparity for American Indians living below poverty on the reservations is even greater, reaching 63%. One legislator also deplored the fact that “there are 90,000 homeless or under-housed Indian families, and that 30% of Indian housing is overcrowded and less than 50% of it is connected to a public sewer.” About 40% of on-reservation housing is considered inadequate. Furthermore, the average life expectancy for Native Americans still trails that of other Americans by almost 5 years. About 55% of American Indians rely on the Indian Health Service for medical care, yet, the Indian Health Care Improvement Act only meets about 60% of their health needs because they are so underfunded. These statistics are heartbreaking. For these people who America took everything from, shouldn’t we at least be helping them? Shouldn’t we thank them and give them everything they need and give back to them? After all, America wouldn’t even exist without the Native Americans having to give up their land. Was it worth it, America prospering and growing, while in return Native Americans had to give up their way of living?

To be honest, finding out about the statistics about how Native Americans today shocked me. My eyes were only first opened when I read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexei. The life Junior had on the reservation with his family was shocking; his life was extremely difficult. I think the fact that I was ignorant of these facts is the failure of the American education system to educate its students about Native Americans. Sure, we do learn about the history of Natives, but we aren’t taught that we took their land from them in violent and gruesome ways. It wasn’t our land in the first place, yet we preach about liberty and freedom and justice for all. Where’s the justice for the millions of Native American deaths we were responsible for? When I was a little kid, my teachers made it seem that Native Americans simply didn’t exist anymore, that they were wiped off the face of the Earth. What I didn’t know was that Native Americans didn’t stand a chance. Their beautiful culture and way of life were ripped away from them- forever. There’s a reason they’re called Native Americans- they’re the ones native to America, not white colonists.

To repay Native Americans for everything and how American has wronged them from the very start, the U.S. government should do more to recognize Native Americans, such as increased funding for reservations, better resources for people living on reservations, and to spread a greater awareness to the public about Native Americans. A step that we need to take is to change “Columbus Day” to “Indigenous People Day” officially. Instead of recognizing the man who would ultimately start the destruction of an entire group of people, we should recognize and honor the people America wronged so greatly in history- and today. Second, the American education system and the general public need to educate the future generation about Native Americans so they don’t grow up ignorant and unaware as I did. Kids are the most open-minded out of any age group, so they’ll be more aware and more likely to understand. Naming high schools and camp groups after Native American groups isn’t enough; they deserve so much more than that. Although we can’t take back all the horrible things that happened to Native Americans in history, we can at least educate others and advocate for change for Native Americans today.

Thank you for reading.

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Amy Zhang

Injustice from the eyes of a high schooler. Activist. Lover of history. Here to educate and inspire.