In 1783, the United States was a new nation of about 3 million people living, for the most part, along the Atlantic seaboard. Native Americans, perhaps numbering around 600,000, controlled most lands west of the Appalachian Mountains. By 1890, a bit more than a century later, the United States stretched from coast to coast and was home to some 66 million people. Only 250,000 Indians remained, most of them living on reservations holding just a fraction of the land they once controlled.
In the century between, waves of western settlers pounded against the borders of Indian lands. Yet the course of events that led to this narrative of conquest was not inevitable. America's first president, George Washington, and his Secretary of War Henry Knox claimed to respect Indian rights and promised to secure Indian lands for white settlement only through treaty and purchase. Later, politicians and philanthropists also rose to oppose Andrew Jackson's removal policies during the 1830s. Still, by 1840, the great majority of the Eastern Indians had been relocated to lands west of the Mississippi River. And in the second half of the nineteenth century, homesteaders, miners, and railroad companies, assisted by the United States Army, encroached on the lands supposedly set aside for the Indians into perpetuity.
At most every turn, Native Americans found themselves overwhelmed by Anglo-Americans' financial and military resources. But their response to events was neither one-dimensional nor defeatist. Some tried diplomacy. Others turned to religion. Still others tried to deflate white antagonism by embracing the economic and cultural values of their enemies. Some worked the legal system skillfully. Others found success in war. Some even turned philanthropists' well-intentioned but ethnocentric plans for their assimilation into a basis for political organization.
Native Americans suffered a collective tragedy over the course of the nineteenth century. But their stories cannot be simply condensed into one master narrative of defeat and decimation. To understand what happened to "The American Indian," we need to look at the lives of the many Indians––and whites––that contributed to this multi-faceted story.
Native Americans were here first, but those Americans who arrived
later have never gotten their story quite right. From the moment
Columbus stepped off his boat in the Bahamas and called the people he
met there "Indios"—meaning people of India—Native Americans have been
misrepresented, stereotyped, and simplified. Puritans assumed they were
consorting with the devil in the forest. White expansionists branded
them ruthless warriors. Even their nineteenth-century defenders often
described them as "noble savages."
In the twentieth century, many historians tried to correct these false narratives. But they often cast America's Indians as hapless victims—too trusting and too simple to defend themselves against the malevolent forces of white expansion.
But Alexander McGillivray, a Creek chief, was a skilled diplomat. Major Ridge was a committed and talented Cherokee nation builder. Tenskwatawa was a shrewd Shawnee negotiator, skilled at playing competing European powers against one another. Henry Standing Bear was a far-sighted Lakota political organizer. And Wovoka, a charismatic Paiute preacher from western Nevada, inspired a religious-political movement that spread from California to the Dakotas.
The United States Bureau of Indian Affairs currently recognizes 562 different tribes.1Linguists estimate that several hundred distinct Indian languages, falling into roughly 60 language families, were spoken by North America's native populations at one time.2 In other words, American Indian history cannot be fully captured in just a few stories.
But it's the only way to start.