The relationship between Native Indians and European settlers in America has always been rocky. This began with the Europeans’ arrival on American shores and their assumptions because they had ships and guns that they were the superior race. In the early years, relations were unstable as the Europeans struggled to determine whether they would treat with the Indians as equal human beings or if they would simply destroy them as they would any other beast that interfered with their founding of civilizations.
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By the time of the Revolutionary War, Indian tribes had already been decimated by foreign diseases such as smallpox brought by the European immigrants who also slaughtered the Native Americans so as to steal the lands they occupied. The Europeans went further in spreading misery amongst the Indians by eradicating what once were millions of buffalo that provided food, clothing, shelter and weapons for the tribal peoples in the western areas.
As the country moved into the mid-1800s, the plight of the Indian was becoming dire with the famous “Indian Fighter” Andrew Jackson presiding over the White House. Attempting to call attention to the gross injustices that were taking place against the Indians, several individuals wrote of their experiences and their feelings, providing the modern day with an indication of the degree of racism on an individual and group level that raged during this time period.
Some of the most famous documents of this type are called the Cherokee Memorials. These documents were drafted in order to appeal to the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Congress who were, at that time, anticipating a bill that would forcibly remove all Cherokee from their settled and treatied lands in Georgia where gold had recently been discovered. They attempt to remind the U.S. Government that the Cherokee are not subjects of the United States but are instead a separate people, integrating with the U.S. population but citizens of an entirely separate and equal nation in and of itself.
Both the nation’s independence as well as the U.S. tendency to infringe upon this nation are suggested in the statement, “The power of a state may put our national existence under its feet, and coerce us into her jurisdiction; but it would be contrary to legal right, and the plighted faith of the United States’ Government … Our sovereignty and right of enforcing legal enactments extend no further than our territorial limits, and that of Georgia is, and has always terminated at her limits” (1266).
In spite of amble precedence in treating with other countries and in spite of stated laws within the federal government, the document provides a great number of examples in which the state of Georgia has continued to refuse these rights to the Cherokee people and infringed upon the rights they should have had.
Rather than attempting to argue that the Cherokee should have rights as the new Americans had in fighting the Revolutionary War, the author is attempting to convince the United States to uphold the rights that had already been recognized and, through no fault of the Cherokee, were now being taken away with no Cherokee voice or vote to defend them. Overt racism is evident throughout the document as the various ways in which Indian rights were being refused is outlined in close comparison with the stated protections and rights they had been granted under federal law.
William Apess was known as a powerful orator during the 19th century who struggled for Indian rights as well. Speaking from a Native American standpoint about the plight of the Indians in the wake of the increasing spread of white people, Apess also reveals a frightening and dangerous trend toward overt and destructive racism expressed toward his people for doing nothing more than living according to the agreements reached between the white men and the Indian chiefs.
Like the Cherokee Memorials, Apess attempting to discover ways in which the white man and the Indian had met and behaved like brothers rather than as an adult and rebellious unwanted step-child. Throughout his work, Apess sought to point out the various ways in which Native Americans and white men were alike, including an appeal to a common religion in the form of Christianity. Although he expressed hope in a future of some kind for the Indian in America, including the possibility of intermarriage and equal rights, he understood that the use of reservations, throwing Indians together haphazardly and without benefit of white man’s education, was unjust and dangerous.
In his argument, Apess seems to echo Shakespeare’s famous appeal of the Jew in “The Merchant of Venice” as he points out how, underneath the skin, Indians and white men have the same emotions and desires as well as the various ways in which the Indians have proven good faith where the white man has not. “Can you charge the Indians with robbing a nation almost of their whole continent, and murdering their women and children, and then depriving the remainder of their lawful rights, that nature and God require them to have? And to cap the climax, rob another nation to till their grounds and welter out their days under the lash with hunger and fatigue under the scorching rays of a burning sun?” (1055). This statement clearly illustrates the crimes of the white men as well as the Indians’ feelings of shared experience with the black men against whom extreme racism was well-known.
By illustrating how the free and sovereign nation of the Indians were similarly treated to the status of the black man and by indicating the various ways in which the federal government was failing to uphold the legal rights of this sovereign nation, these documents reveal a strong and disturbing racism against Indians that continues in some areas even today. Indians are still largely confined to the reservations if they wish to express any element of their own heritage and reservations remain plagued by poverty and disease.
The only means of improving these conditions are to send the children to school where they are indoctrinated into the white man’s culture and are frequently required to relinquish their Indian practices and beliefs. The racism and unfair treatment revealed in these documents dating from the mid-1800s could be equally applied to the state of the Indian today with the lone exception being that today’s Indians have fewer legal rights and much less respect than the Black people who were given their freedom, and their citizenship, following the Civil War and, nearly 100 years later, had the strength and cohesion to begin enforcing them.
Indians, in contrast, have been reduced in numbers through death, disease and cultural assimilation into the white man’s world and thus have never had the strength, even in the 1800s when they were more solidly connected, to bring about positive change for themselves. This was not the fault of the Indians, but rather the racist attitudes and willing behaviors of the white men then in power in Washington.
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