Red Cloud spoke the truth

U.S. soldiers put Native Americans in common grave after the 1891 massacre at Wounded Knee, South Dakota. Some corpses are frozen in different positions. About 140 of the dead — an estimated 250 to 300 in all — were buried in a single mass grave. (Public domain photo — Northwestern Photo Co., United States Library of Congress)

On July 2, 1776, John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail that Independence Day “will be celebrated by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival … from one End of this Continent to the other.” While the Declaration of Independence and Revolutionary War that resulted in the creation of the United States are most certainly worthy of celebration, not all “Americans” benefitted from this new republic. Ironically, the biggest losers were Native Americans.

Much of the cruelty and violence inflicted upon Native Americans is rooted in land. Settlers, railroads and governments — both state and federal — wanted Indian land and would do almost anything to acquire it. In an 1823 Supreme Court case (Johnson v. McIntosh), the justices ruled that as a consequence of the historical precedents established by the European discovery and conquest of North America, the title to land rested not with Native Americans but with the nations that “discovered” and conquered them. This meant that upon expulsion of European powers, the United States government had title to Native American land. Seven years later, President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act.

The first Native Americans targeted for removal were members of the Five Civilized Tribes residing in the Southeast: the Creek, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Cherokee and Seminoles. Between 1831 and 1842, an estimated 45,000 to 60,000 were removed from their centuries-old homelands, and approximately 25 million acres (about four times the size of the Adirondack Park) opened for settlement by whites and, in many instances, their black slaves. 

The Choctaws were relocated in 1831. The winter trek over snow-covered trails with inadequate food resulted in the deaths of hundreds. It was from this tragic event the name “Trail of Tears” was derived. More Choctaws would be expelled from their lands in 1832 and 1833.

The Muskogee or Creek nation was next with some members of this tribe refusing to leave, igniting the Creek War of 1836-37. Under the command of General Winfield Scott, more than 14,000 Creeks were marched to Indian Territory, present-day Oklahoma. By one estimate, about 2,500 Creeks made the arduous journey in chains. Hundreds died along the trail, and approximately 3,200 perished of exposure and diseases shortly after their arrival in Indian Territory.

Historian Frederick Hoxie states the Cherokees suffered in turn, also grievously, as over 85 percent of tribal members opposed relocation and refused to leave. “Georgia militia invaded the Cherokee Nation, destroying crops, burning homes, and scattering families. To control the militia and bring order to the removal process, federal troops rounded up the remaining Cherokee and herded them into concentration camps.” Many died in the camps, and others were sick and weak when they began the trek to Indian Territory. Approximately 4,000 Cherokee perished on the journey, mostly from the frigid winds, too little food and disease.

The Seminoles fiercely resisted the loss of their homeland and fought the U.S. government from 1835 to 1842. When the fighting was over, fewer than 500 Seminoles remained in Florida, the rest having been killed in the war, succumbed to starvation and disease, or forcibly relocated to Indian Territory. 

The Chickasaws likely had the least painful removal as fewer resisted relocation and tribal members were better prepared for the journey. Still, many died, at least 500 from smallpox.

According to historian Donald Fixico, by the end of the 19th century the U.S. government had authorized more than 1,500 wars, attacks and raids on Native Americans. Two of the most despicable incidents of this conquest and removal policy were the massacres at Sand Creek and Wounded Knee. 

The Pikes Peak gold rush of 1858 attracted get-rich-quick miners and settlers as the newcomers moved across lands controlled by the Arapaho and Cheyenne in present-day Colorado. After numerous clashes between Native Americans and settlers, Colorado soldiers began attacking Cheyenne villages in April 1864. On Nov. 29 a force of approximately 675 members of the Colorado U.S. Volunteer Cavalry (and a few soldiers from what is now New Mexico) attacked and destroyed a village of Arapaho and Cheyenne near Sand Creek. The cavalry leader was John Chivington, described by historian Guenther Lewy as a passionate Indian hater who “had urged war without mercy, even against children.” 

Estimates made shortly after the slaughter of the number of Native Americans killed at Sand Creek ranged from 70 to 600, with contemporary scholars stating the actual number was between 120 and 150. Virtually everyone — then and now — agree the majority of victims were women, children and the elderly. 

The slaughter of Native Americans was investigated by a number of government committees, and numerous people testified to what they witnessed. Speaking of the victims, John Smith, an interpreter who rode with the soldiers, stated, “All manner of depredations were inflicted on their persons; they were scalped, their brains knocked out; the men used their knives, ripped open women, clubbed little children, knocked them in the head with their guns, beat their brains out, mutilated their bodies in every sense of the word.”

In his book, “Massacre at Sand Creek,” historian Stanley Hoig stated soldiers cut off the fingers and ears of murdered Native Americans to obtain jewelry. The body of Cheyenne Chief White Antelope was a prime target: “Besides scalping him the soldiers cut off his nose, ears and testicles — the last for a tobacco pouch supposedly.” 

Tensions were high between settlers and Native Americans on Dec. 29, 1890, when a force of 500 U.S Army cavalry descended upon an encampment of Lakota people near Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota. In a struggle to disarm a deaf warrior, who did not hear the command to drop his rifle, the weapon discharged and the slaughter began.

When the carnage was over, between 250 and 300 Lakota men, women and children were dead, and more would die from their wounds. Approximately 140 of the dead were buried in a single mass grave, and 51 survivors (four men and 47 women and children) were taken to an Episcopal mission to escape the bitter cold. In his classic work “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” historian Dee Brown notes that hanging above the pulpit at the mission four days after Christmas was a banner proclaiming: “PEACE ON EARTH, GOOD WILL TO MEN.”

Summarizing the treatment of Native Americans by white people and the U.S. government, Oglala Dakota Chief Red Cloud (1822-1909) stated, “They made us many promises … but they never kept but one; they promised to take our land, and they did.”

The final indignity suffered by Native Americans is that many were denied citizenship until passage of the Indian Citizen Act of 1924. The 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution defining citizens as persons born in the United States did not apply to Native Americans as noted by an 1870 Senate Judiciary Committee stating this amendment “has no effect, whatever upon the status of the Indian tribes within the limits of the United States.” In 1938, seven states still denied Native Americas voting rights, and it was not until 1948 that Arizona and New Mexico withdrew their prohibitions against Native American suffrage, the last states to do so.

George J. Bryjak lives in Bloomingdale and is retired after 24 years of teaching sociology at the University of San Diego.


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Carter, J. (2011) “Wounded Knee Massacre,” Encyclopedia of the Great Plains, University of Nebraska at Lincoln, www.plainshumanities.unl.edu 

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