Letter from American History – June 2009

When Andrew Jackson was elected president in 1828, the eventual extinction of North American Indians seemed inevitable. William Clark, the first Superintendent of Indian Affairs, predicted in a letter to Secretary of War James Barbour that the Indians’ close contact with white men had reduced the once formidable “savage” race to a state of wretchedness so dire that their final curtain call was simply a matter of time. After instituting a policy of Indian removal that triggered what amounted to the ethnic cleansing of native people from Eastern forests, Jackson happily reported to Congress in 1833 that Indians “must necessarily yield to the force of circumstances and ere long disappear.”

“The Indians surprised everyone by surviving,” says author, historian and documentary filmmaker Paul VanDevelder. In his newly released book Savages and Scoundrels: The Untold Story of America’s Road to Empire Through Indian Territory, VanDevelder chroni­cles the broken promises that characterized our march across the continent as Indian peoples were removed from their homelands to make way for white settlement. In this month’s cover story for American History, which begins on p. 30, he examines the unique legal status accorded tribes as sovereign nations by our Founders, and addresses the question: What do we owe the Indians? “Underlying that question is an even more fundamental one: Indians, yes or no?” says VanDevelder. “If we didn’t have these myriad legal responsibilities to the Indians, that question would have been answered in the negative long ago.”

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