Letter from Wild West – October 2008

The Shabby Indian Policy of the 1800s
Not even the "enlightened" could patch it up

In this issue, historian Robert Utley examines how the white men in charge made a mess of relations with Indians on the Western frontier. Extermination, if never an official policy, was in fact the order of the day in mid-19th-century California and elsewhere. At the same time, Utley points out, many reform-minded, humane and enlightened white people were seeking to resolve the so-called Indian problem. In the end, none of their programs or solutions saved the day, but not because these palefaces didn’t try or didn’t care.

If U.S. relations with Western tribes were cruel and unjust—and by today’s standards, it’s hard to argue otherwise—how might things have been different? Is it realistic to consider that white “invaders” might have left all land west of the Mississippi to the original inhabitants? Not really. Even absent a California Gold Rush or a Homestead Act or a transcontinental railroad or the near-extinction of the buffalo, the newcomers would have encroached on the native neighborhoods in time. The concepts of Manifest Destiny and “civilizing” were at the forefront, and one way or another, regardless of native resistance, the frontier was bound to be transformed and then eliminated.

The good news is that today many Indians are prospering, and they are allowed, if they so choose, to celebrate their roots and traditional cultures. Yes, unemployment, alcoholism, lack of health care and other issues continue to plague certain reservations, but Indians aren’t the only ones suffering from social, economic and environmental malaise. Whatever problems still exist in the early 21st century can hardly be blamed anymore on the mistakes and misguided notions of 19th-century Indian policymakers.

In considering how natives were treated elsewhere in the world, Utley suggests that Canada, for one, used many of the same approaches. Canadian policy like American policy included treaties, reservations, government handouts and civilization programs. But the North-West Mounted Police, not soldiers, handled enforcement north of the border. If you were an Indian out on the Plains, would you rather face Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer of the 7th Cavalry or Major James Morrow Walsh of the Mounties? The Indian wars of the 1860s had cost the U.S. government many lives and many dollars. Canada wished to avoid that scenario. It activated the Mounties in 1873 in part to establish friendly relations with the Indian tribes in advance of settlement.

When Sitting Bull took his people to Canada in 1877, Walsh spoke to the great Lakota leader about justice for all, regardless of race, and he meant it. “Yesterday I was fleeing from white men, cursing them as I went,” Sitting Bull was quoted as saying. “Today they erect their lodges by the side of mine and defy me. The White Forehead Chief [Walsh] walks to my lodge alone and unarmed.” So perhaps a kinder, gentler approach worked better with the likes of Sitting Bull…or maybe just in Canada, where he hadn’t yet defied anyone and where Indians (First Nations) and land-hungry whites were fewer. Still, Sitting Bull was not given a reservation in Canada and in 1881 came south to surrender. And four years later, Saskatchewan saw the North-West Rebellion, in which Crees sided with the Métis (mixed bloods, usually Indian and French Canadian) against an influx of settlers streaming by rail to western Canada.

How about relations south of the U.S. border? “In Mexico, Spaniards warred with natives but ultimately merged with them to become Mexicans,” writes Utley. But did intermarriage between Europeans and Indians to form a mestizo nation ultimately solve the Indian problem in Mexico? Hardly. Only about 60 percent of Mexico’s people are considered mestizo today. Nine percent are white, including many of the rich and powerful, and 30 percent are considered Indian.

The non-Spanish-speaking Indians of southern Mexico have long been poor and exploited. Over the course of some 500 years, they have not assimilated into Hispanic culture.

Gregory Lalire

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