You probably know that the US has a pretty sordid history of its behavior toward the indigenous peoples who already lived on the land. It started centuries ago when explorers visited the coastal shores. From then, a series of inhumane treatment ensued for decades from brutal murder to barbaric migration. What you may not be aware of is how much that treatment continues today.
35. The Story of Thanksgiving Was Invented
You probably grew up with a version of the Thanksgiving story that says that when the English Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock, the Wampanoag tribe of Native Americans helped them out. The settlers had a bountiful harvest, which they wanted to share with their Wampanoag friends. At best, that story is a romanticized version of what actually happened.
The Wampanoag were not thrilled that these people had just landed in their backyard, and they were particularly nonplussed about the firearms that the English carried. Both groups were wary of the other, and for a good reason: the Pilgrims would follow in the path of Christopher Columbus and not only begin genocide of the native peoples but also co-opt their history and whitewash it.
33. During the Civil War, Lincoln Established Thanksgiving
President Lincoln thought that setting aside a day for giving thanks would help spur national unity during the Civil War. The narrative of Native Americans and white settlers being friendly with each other seemed to be the perfect way to create a tale of unity in the land that dated back to before its founding. The problem is that the story he used to establish a new holiday was just not true.
32. Many Native Americans Today Celebrate “Un-Thanksgiving”
Un-Thanksgiving occurs on the same day as Thanksgiving, and its main “celebration” occurs at Alcatraz Island in California. From 1969-1971, Native Americans occupied the island, claiming that they saw it first, which was the same logic that the white settlers used when taking the native lands away. They also tried to buy it for $24 in glass beads, the same price that they were paid for the island of Manhattan. Their goal was to turn the old prison into a school for native children.
The occupation at Alcatraz Island did not accomplish its goals. Every year, Native Americans gather there to commemorate a day of mourning for all their countrymen and women who died due to white expansion. They also celebrate the occupation of Alcatraz Island and continue to push for social justice and recognition of Native American rights.
30. The United States Constitution Recognizes Native American Tribes as Sovereign Nations
The United States government is required to deal with native peoples through their own governments as if they were dealing with foreign governments. This concept sounds like a pretty good deal – they get to keep their autonomy and way of life, and everyone can peacefully co-exist. However, we all know that history didn’t happen that way.
Because the United States recognized the sovereignty of the tribes, it could engage in land grabs by buying the land from them to help them pay off the debts that they owed to the US. Keep in mind that the US expanded through this kind of practice with European countries, as well. European countries could not protest against the American treatment of the natives because the tribes were being dealt with as if they were “sovereign.”
28. This Recognition Also Prevented Native Americans From Gaining Citizenship
Following the Civil War, the Fourteenth Amendment allowed anyone born or naturalized in the United States, whether slave or free, to become a citizen. Because the native peoples were sovereign, they were not allowed to become citizens until a new law was passed in 1924. When they did become citizens, it was primarily so that the US government could tax them.
27. The Constitution Was Actually Based on Native American Law
The Founding Fathers may have drawn some ideas from the ancient Greeks, but ultimately, the United States Constitution resembles a written version of the unwritten law that governed the Iroquois confederation. The Iroquois had many different tribes (akin to “states”) that were headed by a “federal” government, and they had things like veto power and representative government.
26. Unfortunately, the Founders Forgot to Give Them Rights
Despite basing the nation’s founding document on Native American laws, the Founders excluded them from being able to attain any rights for centuries. Today, Native Americans continue to fight for recognition of their rights, to be treated as both sovereign nations and as respected citizens of the United States.
25. In 1830, Andrew Jackson Signed the Indian Removal Act
Andrew Jackson had built up his military career during the War of 1812 and by battling Native American tribes in Florida. He ran for the presidency on a campaign of fighting against the Native Americans and, after elected, held to his promises when he signed into law an act that would strip Native Americans of all their lands.
24. Tribes Throughout the South Were Forcibly Relocated
Cherokee, Chickasaw, Creek, Choctaw, and Seminole Native Americans all lived in the American South, and as a warmonger who had built his reputation on fighting them, Jackson forced just about all of them to leave their homes in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida, and relocate to newly-formed reservations in Oklahoma.
In a rare victory for Native American rights, the tribes that were to be forcibly displaced appealed to the Supreme Court, which ruled that they had a right to their land. However, at the time, the court could not enforce its decision. In the winter of 1838-1839, under President Martin Van Buren, the tribes were forced to relocate to Oklahoma in what became known as the Trail of Tears.
22. One-Quarter of the Native Americans on the March Died
The trail from the American South to the reservations in Oklahoma was so devastating for the Native Americans that of the approximately 18,000 that traveled it during the winter of 1838-1839, nearly 5,000 people died. They were plagued with starvation and disease, which continued once they arrived at the reservations.
The Trail of Tears is one of the darkest moments in American history. It shows how far the government will go to degrade indigenous peoples and strip them of their rights. After the Trail of Tears and other abominations regarding the American government’s treatment of Native Americans, President Lincoln used the fabricated story of the natives and white settlers getting along to enact the holiday of Thanksgiving.
20. Americans Wanted to Push West, but Native Americans Were in the Way
The American government did a pretty satisfactory job of getting rid of the Native Americans in New England, the Atlantic states, and the American South by either killing them or pushing them west. As America began to grow more during the 1800s, the people were gripped by an idea known as Manifest Destiny, which basically stated that the whole continent was theirs for the taking. The problem was that the Native Americans were in the way.
19. The Settlement of the West Led to Bloody Indian Wars
The United States needed the lands that it had previously granted as Native American reservations in order to build railroads so that people could settle in the West. As the settlers came in, they wanted the land to make farms and mine for resources that could be financially profitable. The US military, along with settler vigilantes, killed off many of the native peoples that were living in the western territories.
18. General Philip Sheridan Set Out to Destroy Native American Life
He was sent in by the US government as part of a military mission to push out the Native Americans. He burned entire villages, killed their horses, and even decimated the buffalo population because of how essential it was to the native way of life. Though there were an estimated 30 million buffalo in the American Plains at the beginning of the nineteenth century, by the end of the century, the Smithsonian Institute struggled to find 25.
When gold was discovered, the US government decided to ignore the treaties that it had made with the native tribes there. A group of Sioux and Cheyenne people was so incensed that they left their reservations to join the leaders Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, who were encamped along the Little Bighorn River. They defied the US War Department and risked an open attack from the military.
16. Custer’s Last Stand Was Less Heroic Than You Might Think
In 1876, Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer led his regiment of 600 against 10,000 native people who were ready for battle. In a rare victory for the Native Americans, they quickly defeated the American military. Unfortunately, their victory confirmed the popular image that they were bloodthirsty savages, and within five years, nearly all of the Sioux and Cheyenne would be forced to live on reservations.
15. The United States Negated its Treaties with the Tribes
By this point, the United States government had pretty well established the fact that it was bound to renege on the treaties that it had signed with the Native Americans. In 1871, the government completely ended the system of engaging in agreements with the tribes. Instead of using treaties as an excuse for taking the natives’ land, it began taking it outright. It established laws that blatantly took it away.
14. The Dawes Act Gave Native Land to White Settlers
In an attempt to “civilize” the natives and bring them into mainstream culture, the 1887 Dawes Act attempted to end the communal ownership of land by native tribes and instead give allotments to individual indigenous families who settled down and worked the area as farmers. Any reservation land leftover would be considered excess and assigned to the white settlers. Out of the 138 million acres of native land, the natives lost 86 million acres.
13. Native Children Were Forcefully Taken From Their Families
The Bureau of Indian Affairs in the American government established boarding schools designed to civilize native children. They were forcibly taken away from their families and forced to adopt white customs. This practice did not end in the nineteenth century. Instead, with the settlement of Alaska a hundred years later, the method would continue among the Alaska Natives.
Wounded Knee was a site on a Lakota reservation in the Plains. The US military was disturbed by the burgeoning ghost dance movement that many natives had adopted. They arrested the chief, Sitting Bull, whom they mistakenly believed to be a ghost dancer, increasing tensions. When a shot was fired, a massacre broke out, and 150 (but possibly as many as 300) natives were killed with half of them being women and children.
11. By 1890, the Native Americans Had Been Defeated
Despite the decisive native victory at Little Bighorn, or perhaps even because of it, the Native Americans ultimately lost the Indian Wars. With that loss came the loss of virtually all of their land, and they were pretty much all confined to reservations. Much of their culture was lost, as they were no longer free to roam the plains and hunt buffalo or engage in other practices that connected them with their ancestral land.
10. The Settlement of Alaska Brought a New Era of Violations of Native American Rights
In 1867, William Seward purchased Alaska from Russia. The problem with the purchase is that Russia didn’t own Alaska – it had settled the land that was already occupied by tribes of Alaska Natives. The US paid money for something that the other person didn’t actually have. The area of Alaska belonged to the Inupiaq, Athabascan, Tlingit, and many other tribes.
9. The US Used Many of the Same Tactics on Alaska Natives
Alaska Native children were sent to boarding schools to become “civilized,” where they were not allowed to wear native clothes, speak their native languages, or engage in any aspects of indigenous culture. Additionally, the diseases that the white settlers brought into Alaska wiped out many of the native peoples. So many people died that bodies were put into mass graves.
8. The Discovery of Oil Led to Mass Settlement in Alaska
When oil was discovered in Alaska’s North Slope, oil companies began pouring into the state. Drilling for oil damages the natural environment; the natives were adamantly opposed to this practice. Additionally, the construction of an 800-mile oil pipeline through the state cut through many native lands. The Alaska Natives protested this and, in 1971, won something called the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.
Alaska’s constitution required that the state protect the native lands, but the boundaries to the native land had never been drawn. ANCSA drew clear boundaries as to what the Alaska Native land was and also compensated the native tribes for land that had been taken away from them. They walked away with 44 million acres – about 10% of Alaska – and nearly $1 billion in compensation.
The Alaska Native tribes had to come together as corporations to negotiate with the government and with the oil companies. The land was transferred to the corporations, and the tribal members became shareholders in the corporations. If those corporations are not managed well, they can be overtaken by the government, which would mean the land could be permanently lost.
Oil has a way of really messing up the environment. Drilling for it poisons water supplies and catastrophically disrupts local ecosystems. Transporting it leads to oil spills and burning it for fuel is a leading cause of climate change. When major oil companies tried to build a pipeline through Sioux territory in North Dakota, the native people fought back.
Native Americans have long had ties to the land and the environment that non-natives can scarcely comprehend. They understand how much our future and survival is intertwined with the ecosystems that we inhabit. As such, they came together to resist the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline.
3. They Camped Out on the Territory To Be Taken For the Pipeline
The Native Americans who resisted the pipeline gathered together in an effort to protect Mother Earth, especially the water system that they rely on, the Missouri River. They sang songs that celebrated the importance and beauty of nature and engaged in peaceful demonstrations against the proposed pipeline.
2. The Protestors Were Met With Harsh, Fierce Resistance
Bulldozers destroyed the land that is considered by the Sioux to be sacred ground. Peaceful protesters were met with water cannons, and in October 2016, the military arrived with full riot gear. At least 300 people were injured in the violence, and nearly 500 were arrested.
Though President Obama said that he supported the native rights to the land, and tried to delay the progress, he helped push through the Keystone Pipeline project. When President Trump took office in 2017, one of the first things that he did was make the construction of the pipeline through Sioux territory even easier. Almost immediately, there was an oil spill that, as predicted, poisoned native lands.
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