Saturday, July 15, 2017

Indian Country by Neil Rolde

“ Half convinced, half constrained, the Indians go off to dwell in new wilderness, where the white men will not let him remain in peace for ten years. In this way, the Americans cheaply acquire whole provinces which the richest  sovereigns in Europe could not afford to buy.” – Alexis de Tocqueville


Lewis Cass, secretary of war under Jackson and Democratic candidate in 1848, stated the matter quite baldly. In order for the Indians not to become extinct, “it would be necessary that our frontiers cease to expand and the savages settle beyond them." – a situation he deemed unlikely.


The east-west frontier expanded right up to the Pacific, every child in America knows. That the Indians never did become extinct (  The death of the last ostensible survivor, a  Mrs. Elizabeth George Plouffe, on 6 June 1973 was a signal for that to happen to the Pequots), we also know as a truism. So what was done with them?


The road to the present in the philosophies and programs of the federal government has used in dealing with the “Indian problem” is littered with milestones – more like gravestones – of policies that didn’t work and took a heavy toll on those they were alleged to help – the Indians. Words like “allotment” and “termination” are now but dim memories, dredged up by historians of the zigzags of federal policy towards the tribes. Who remembers the Dawes Act, named for Massachusetts Senator Henry L. Dawes, who though he was doing the Indians a favor by teaching them the virtues of “selfishness” Carlisle College, if remembered at all, is done so for Jim Thorpe’s football prowess, not as part of a concerted effort to separate Indian children from their parents and drill into them, as if they were juvenile West Pointers, the white man’s superior culture.


John Collier’s name is all but forgotten today, except by sensitive Indians, for he was the BIA director under the New Deal, who strove valiantly to let the Indians be themselves and run their own affairs. Was the Indians Claims Commission, finally established by law in 1946, after many years of trying, really a big step forward in settling Indian land claims, or just an impediment, as it seemed to Tom Tureen in prosecuting the Maine Indians’ claim? Who could believe today that the hated ‘termination’ attempts, started in the Eisenhower administration, of stripping the tribes of their independent status and their link to the federal government would be finally halted by Richard Nixon?



Among the more polemic of current American Indian writers, it is fashionable to accuse white Americans of concerted, deliberate genocide vis-à-vis the native tribes. Certainly, there were those who acted upon the statement that ‘the only good Indian is a dead Indian.”   In Maine we had our James Cargill who, when acquitted of murdering peaceable Indian men, women and children, cynically demanded scalp bounties for his victims. [ Passamaquoddy leader Joseph “Cozy” Nicholas  agreed  that “The Indian population inn the U.S. has increased quite a bit – especially since John Wayne died”).  But in defense the argument is offered that no announced, official intent existed, as in Nazi Germany, to wipe out an entire people, and that many “righteous Americans” were friends of the Indians, like Thomas L. McKenney or Helen Hunt Jackson, author of A Century of Dishonor, who blew the whistle on the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre, or Warren K. Moorehead, the archaeologist who condemned the allotment frauds inn Oklahoma’s and issue A Plea for Justice, his 19124 book detailing his experiences as a conscientious member of the Board of Indian Commissioners.



Even Henry L. Dawes expressed no intent to harm the Indians; he simply believed selfishness was the root of advanced civilization and couldn’t understand why Indians were not motivated to possess and achieve more than their neighbors. His belief in the civilizing power of private property was absolute and, to him, to be civilized was to “wear civilized clothes, cultivate the ground, live in houses, ride in Studebaker wagons, send children to school, drink whiskey, and own property.” On the latter score, his “allotment” scheme was guaranteed to do exactly that. The Indian Country West of the Mississippi given to the displaced “civilized tribes” like the Cherokees, Creeks, Choctaws, etc. was to be broken up into individual allotments, so that each Indian would have his or her own homestead. The “surplus” tribal land not needed for this purpose was to be sold to the U.S. government and redistributed to non-Indians.


Senator Henry Teller of Colorado saw Dawes’s bill in a different light. Its real aim, he argued in debate, was “to get at the Indians’ land and open it up for resettlement.” In February 1887 the Dawes Act became law, was not repealed until after the Meriam Report of 1928, and caused Oklahoma Indians, alone, by 1934 to lose almost three-quarters of their land – a reduction from 138 million acres to 47 million acres. Land theft, yes, but genocide?


The use of such emotional language was concurrent with the rise of Indian activism that emerged inn the 1960s as long-simmering Indian grievances began to come to a boil. In the interim a period of passivity had seemingly set in among the tribes, compounded by a steady loss of population and dependency on others once their traditional modes of living were no longer possible.


Maine, itself, was something of a backwater, and the condition of its tribes and bands in the latter half of the nineteenth century and first half of the twentieth century was close to invisible – a mere curiosity, if noted at all.



Lives of quiet desperation – to use Thoreau’s expression- were being lived among the Penobscots, Passamaquoddy, Maliseets, and Micmacs, and the rest of the state and the world barely noticed.


[The invocation of the Trade and Intercourse Act of 1790- by which no agreement with the Indians could be made without an Act of Congress, which was ignored by Massachusetts and subsequently by the State of Maine from the beginning- in the Land Claims Suit- settled in 1980- changed things but did not solve all the tribes’ problems, e.g. their fight for the environment and the right to open a casino. ]

 The book profiles  Maine Indians, their history  and their leaders in great detail.  He has traveled broadly in the "Fourth World" of indigenous peoples world-wide and has great Bibliography.

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