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In June 1876, Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull led an army of Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho Indians to a massive victory over General George Custer and the Seventh Cavalry at the Little Big Horn.
Custer's force was part of an intended three-pronged assault against the Native American coalition that had harassed miners and homesteaders crossing their lands following the discovery of gold in the Black Hills in 1874. Custer chose not to wait for backup from the other two units, led by Generals John Gibbon and George Crook. Partially because he badly underestimated the size of the Native American encampment along the Little Big Horn River, but primarily because he was George Custer and that was just how he rolled. He decided to push the attack. Within hours, Custer and his entire detachment of 210 men were dead.
The Native American victory, however, was short lived. In the wake of "Custer's Last Stand," more federal troops were rushed to the frontier and within a year, Crazy Horse was dead and Sitting Bull had been forced into Canada. In the Dakota Territory, the once triumphant Lakotas, Cheyennes, and Arapahos were forced onto reservations.
In September 1879, Lieutenant Richard Henry Pratt and an assistant named Sarah Mather traveled to the Dakota Territory to recruit students for their new Native American school at Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
Just a few years earlier, Pratt had been, much like George Custer, part of the United States military effort aimed at keeping the Native Americans along America's frontier line bottled up on their reservations. Pratt had been assigned to the Oklahoma Territory. There he had led a company of African-American troops, known as "buffalo soldiers," charged with tracking down the Kiowa, Cheyenne, and Arapaho Indians, who left their reservations to hunt for increasingly scarce game and to raid American settlements in the Red River region.
Frustrated with their inability to contain the Native Americans in Oklahoma, the army had ordered Pratt in 1875 to take 72 Native American prisoners to Florida, where they'd be held as hostages in hopes of coercing more compliant behavior from their kinsmen. In St. Augustine, Pratt experimented with unconventional methods of confinement. He cut the Native Americans' hair, issued uniforms, and subjected them to military drills and instruction. He taught them to read and write and he encouraged them to paint watercolors and make small trinkets. The activities made his prisoners more compliant and he believed, by allowing them to sell their artwork and crafts, they acquired an appreciation for commercial enterprise.
Within a couple years, Pratt's unconventional methods had jelled into a theory about Native American education and assimilation. In the spring of 1879, he convinced the Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz to turn over an old cavalry barracks in Carlisle, Pennsylvania for use as an "Indian School." In the fall, he set out for the Dakotas to recruits student for his new school—recruiting them, not inconceivably, from among the children of the very same warriors who had defeated Custer three years earlier.
The Carlisle Indian Industrial School began instruction in October 1879 with a first class of 82 students. In time, the school would house about 1,000 students a year. Students were taught core academic subjects, like reading and math, as well as more specialized vocational skills. The boys learned carpentry and blacksmithing while the girls learned how to cook and sew.
The school even fielded sports teams—Jim Thorpe, considered by many to be the greatest athlete of all time (he won two Olympic medals in track and field and later starred in both pro football and Major League Baseball), attended Carlisle. The school marching band played at several presidential inaugurations.
But more important to Pratt, who lived on the school grounds and closely supervised every detail of school life, was the overarching ambition of the school's programs. We must "kill the Indian to save the man," he often said. The Native American students at Carlisle were forced to give up their past, renouncing their traditional cultures to learn the ways of Anglo-America. Upon arrival, their long hair was cut and they were issued uniforms. They were told to select an English name and were forbidden to speak their native languages. The children were organized into military-type units and drilled in the school yard. A military-style court system enforced campus rules and offenders served time in the old barracks guardhouse.
To complete the process of cultural assimilation, Pratt hired out the children for a portion of the year to neighboring farmers and manufacturers. The children provided cheap labor to their host families while, Pratt believed, the Native American students received a valuable exposure to Anglo-American culture and lifestyle. Ideally, every Native American child in America would be boarded with a non-Native American family, he argued. The Native Americans would be fully assimilated by placing the nation's 70,000 Native American children in the homes of white families.
Over the school's 39-year existence, between 8,000 and 12,000 students attended Carlisle, representing more than 85 Native American nations.
The school was widely heralded as a model for other institutions, even though its graduation rates were low. Most students stayed only a few years, and, quite possibly, more students ran away than graduated. Pratt, himself, was forced to leave Carlisle in 1904. He had battled the Bureau of Indian Affairs since the 1870s. Now he argued that the bureau-administered reservations only bred dependency and impeded assimilation. In response, the BIA demanded his resignation from Carlisle.
Clearly, the school didn't meet Pratt's grand expectations. Some students did acquire the skills needed to make their way into mainstream American society, but probably more returned to their native communities somewhat marginalized, stuck between the world of their parents and the world Pratt introduced but couldn't fully open to them.
The most significant legacy of the Carlisle School may have been the connections established by the students. Life-long friendships were formed, and more importantly, ties between disparate Native American nations were forged. Pratt noted this unintended consequence of his educational experiment. Launched in the hopes of Americanizing the students, the mixing of 85 Native American nations from all parts of the country had instead the effect of "nationalizing the Indian."
Indian Commissioner Thomas Morgan described this effect more bluntly in 1889. Boarding schools like Carlisle, he said, broke "the shackles of tribal provincialism."
Part of this was, indeed, the very purpose of the schools. They aimed at breaking down tribal loyalties and forging new identities for their students. But these schools aimed at replacing tribal identities with an Anglo-American identity, not a supratribal or Pan-Indian identity.
The institutional expression of this Pan-Indian identity came in 1911 with the founding of the Society of American Indians at Columbus, Ohio. A graduate from the Carlisle School, Henry Standing Bear was one of six founding members. Born near Pierre, South Dakota, he entered Carlisle when he was 14. There, he excelled in speech and debate, and upon graduation, moved to Chicago, lived for a time at Jane Addams' Hull House, and attended night school. He would eventually serve on the staff of a United States Congressman and sit on the South Dakota Indian Affairs Commission.
But in 1911, he joined with other well-educated Native Americans, from Carlisle and similar schools like the Indian Industrial Training School and the Hampton Institute, to found the SAI.
The SAI pursued two primary objectives: (1) advancing educational opportunities for Native Americans and (2) establishing a voice for Native Americans in American politics. Underlying both was the recognition that Native Americans needed to act collectively if they wanted to be heard. Tribal provincialism had to be overcome, and Native Americans needed to look beyond their tribal identities and concerns in order to advance their common interests.
The SAI's approach was both new and problematic. The organization insisted that it didn't advocate simple assimilationism. It was intent, instead, on preserving the cultural distinctiveness of Native Americans. As one spokesman said, the Native American shouldn't "passively allow himself, like clay to be pressed into a white man's mold."
But, the SAI added, Native Americans must make some concessions to the world that surrounded them. The Native American should "accustom himself to the culture that engulfs him [...] become a factor in it [...] [and] use his revitalized influence and more advantageous position in asserting and developing the great ideals of his race for the good of the greater race, which means all mankind."
The organization wouldn't last long. By the mid-1920s, it was divided internally over strategy and had attained only limited support in the broader Native American world. Its demand that Native Americans look beyond their tribal identities and make accommodations to the dominant white culture found little support among the vast majority of Native Americans who still lived on tribe-specific reservations and sent their children to schools located on tribal lands. But it paved the way for later organizations, including the American Indian Federation founded in 1934, and the National Congress of American Indians formed in 1944.
Carlisle graduates played important roles in these organizations as well. And the NCAI proved more effective than its predecessors in carving out a strategy able to win mass support. It sought to advance issues commonly shared by Native Americans across the country, but it also promoted tribal rights and tribal cultures.
More intent on building a Pan-Indian coalition than a singular Pan-Indian identity, the organization explicitly committed itself to defending local as well as national objectives.
Using this two-tiered approach, the NCAI grew within a decade into a powerful force in American politics. In 1946, it pressured Congress to create the Indian Claims Commission, providing a forum for tribes to pursue grievances against the federal government, and it joined local efforts in New Mexico and Arizona aimed at winning voting rights for Native Americans. Most importantly, the NCAI provided the national organization needed to defeat the ominously named "termination" policies launched in the 1950s.
Following World War II, the federal government's unique relationship with Native American nations came under attack. Policy critics challenged the centuries-old policies under which Native Americans enjoyed considerable political and legal autonomy on lands guaranteed to them by the federal government. Using arguments advanced in the 1830s by Andrew Jackson and in the 1870s by Henry Dawes, advocates of termination argued that tribal lands should be removed from collective ownership and parceled out to individual Native Americans.
Jurisdictional autonomy should also be abolished—Native Americans, from this point forward, living on individually owned plots of land should be subjected to all the laws of the states in which they resided. They wouldn't become truly American, it was argued, until they were fully assimilated as individuals and made subject to all the laws imposed by the federal and state governments.
Support for the movement came from a variety of directions. Anticommunist crusaders in that Cold War era complained that the reservations were de facto socialist states—lands were collectively owned and private enterprise was subordinated to communal goals. Others argued that federal assistance bred dependency and stifled individualism. The supporters of termination labeled their proposal the Indian Freedom Program. By instituting these reforms, they argued, Native Americans would be liberated from the oppressive and debilitating collective structures that impeded their full development as individuals and entrepreneurs.
Congress took up the cause in 1953, when it authorized state governments to assume legal and civil jurisdiction over Native American lands. Subsequent legislation also transferred health and education services from the federal government to the states. Congress then began to dissolve, on a tribe by tribe basis, specific federal government-Native American arrangements established decades and centuries earlier, and laid the legal groundwork for the transferal of tribal lands to individual Native Americans.
Native Americans protested these policies for several reasons. They objected to the fact that they'd been largely excluded from the policies' development. They worried about the impact on critical services once transferred to state governments. But most importantly, they objected to the broader goal of their assimilation into American society as individuals and the surrender of their historically protected and shared interests as members of tribes.
Put simply, they didn't want their tribes to cease to exist.
During the ensuing battle, the NCAI emerged as the voice of Native American resistance. Membership swelled, the organization's political power increased, and largely due to NCAI efforts, support within Congress for termination faded quickly. By 1960, Congress had all but stopped restructuring federal-Native American relationships. In 1973, President Richard Nixon formerly repudiated the policy of termination. With the defeat of termination, the NCAI ensured, at least for a time, that Native American lands would remain under Native American control and subject only to federal oversight.
The victory ensured that federal guarantees of Native American sovereignty would continue. It may not have been quite as dramatic as the Native American victory over Custer at the Little Big Horn. And between this historic battlefield and the halls of Congress lay a twisting path through Fort Marion, Florida, Carlisle, Pennsylvania and Columbus, Ohio. But in the context of a centuries-old battle for territorial and political autonomy, the victory won by the NCAI has proven more enduring.
At dawn, the young Cherokee John Ridge was pulled from his bed and stabbed to death while his wife and children looked on in horror. A few hours later, his father, Major Ridge, was shot and killed while out for a morning ride. Almost simultaneously, Elias Boudinot, the Ridges' relative, was attacked by three men and clubbed to death with hatchets.
The assassins were never identified, but everyone knew that the three victims had been "executed" for their "treasonous" signing of the Treaty of New Echota in 1835. Part of President Andrew Jackson's campaign to remove all Native Americans east of the Mississippi River, this treaty arranged for the relocation of the Cherokee, the last large tribe remaining in the Southeast.
the agreement wasn't easily reached or universally accepted. In fact,
the great majority of Cherokees rejected the government offer of money
and land in faraway Oklahoma. Instead, they dug in their heels and stood
fast to principle. The government would dislodge them only at the point
of a gun...which happened three years later, in 1838. To the end, most
Cherokees denounced the Treaty of New Echota and had to be force-marched
down the "Trail of Tears"—where almost a quarter of them died.
The "treaty party," led by the Ridges and Boudinot, thus represented a tiny and unpopular minority within the Cherokee community when they surrendered to the federal government and sold off their ancestral lands. Their decision to accept the government's offer of $5 million and close to 14 million acres along the Arkansas River was labeled treason. In 1839, they paid the price.
Major Ridge was born in Tennessee in 1771. His mother was of mixed ancestry. Her father was a Scot, but Ridge's father was full-blooded Cherokee, and the young Ridge received a traditional Cherokee upbringing. He became a skilled hunter, and earned his name, Kah-nung-da-tla-geh ("the man who walks on the ridge") from his hunting exploits. At 17, he joined his first war party, killing a white man during a raid against settlers and soldiers near Knoxville. But it wasn't his last campaign. Ridge fought in many of the skirmishes that filled the Tennessee frontier before a general peace was established under President George Washington in 1794.
At some point during these years, "The Ridge," as English-speakers called him, began to question some of the traditional Cherokee ways. In 1796, he proposed in council that changes be made in the nation's blood law. According to Cherokee custom, when one man killed another, the victim's clan was entitled to compensatory revenge. The law was unforgiving; even if the death was accidental, a price was to be paid. And if the killer—or accidental killer—fled, the life of a relative could be taken in his place. With great eloquence, Ridge convinced the council that this ancient code should be revised. Murder required malice and intention, so an accidental death wasn't a crime, he argued. Furthermore, he said, only the killer's life should be taken—a relative's shouldn't be substituted in his absence.
Ridge and his wife also abandoned hunting and embraced many of the lessons in "civilization" taught by federal agents. Susanna learned to spin and weave. The Ridge learned how to farm. During the 1790s, he cleared land for corn and cotton, planted an orchard, and built a log cabin with a stone chimney. He even bought slaves to work his lands.
Ridge also passed his reformist ways on to his children. He sent his son John and nephew Elias Boudinot to study at the Mission school in Cornwall, Connecticut. There, the two men met and married white women.
Ridge may have challenged certain Cherokee traditions, but there was no questioning his political loyalties. Ridge was a Cherokee nationalist, and in 1807, he proved it by joining in the "execution" of Doublehead, a corrupt Cherokee chief. Doublehead was among the most prominent Cherokee leaders. He carried the title of "speaker for the nation" and was a principal negotiator in many of the Cherokees' dealings with the American government.
But he was also a crook: he sold away Cherokee lands for low prices and received bribes of horses, slaves, and land in return.
Ridge and other Cherokee leaders decided Doublehead must be punished for his crimes against the nation, and so, they assigned Ridge and two others to follow the chief when he left in August to collect the tribe's annuity from the federal government. At Hiwassee, Ridge shot Doublehead through the jaw. Ridge's partner, Alexander Saunders, smashed Doubletree's skull with a hatchet.
The following year, Ridge led the opposition to removal schemes proposed by the federal government and embraced by some Cherokee chiefs. Denouncing these schemes and the chiefs seduced by them, he was elected to the delegation charged with traveling to Washington, D.C. to negotiate with President Thomas Jefferson. There, Ridge made clear the Cherokees' intention of remaining on their historic homelands, but he also told Jefferson that the Cherokees wished to progress further on the path toward civilization by adopting a formal government and laws.
Over the next 20 years, Ridge was among the most influential leaders driving this process of government-building among the Cherokees.
The process proceeded slowly at first. Cherokee reformers began by transferring tribal police powers from the clans to "lighthorse patrols." Early on, they also convinced the federal government to grant the Cherokee council more control over the roads, mills, and trading stations on their territories. But during the 1820s, institution-building proceeded rapidly, and by 1825, the Cherokees had established a bicameral legislature and a judicial system. A written legal code had replaced ancient oral traditions and a government bureaucracy administered a complex body of economic and social regulations. In 1827, the Cherokees took a final step in this nation-building process by drafting a constitution formalizing the governmental reforms of the previous years.
In the new government, Major Ridge served as First Councilor to the new president, John Ross. The new government was clearly progressive and non-traditional. Care had been taken to weaken the towns—the traditional center of political power and the stronghold of conservative resistance to change—by drawing regional electoral districts that bypassed town boundaries. The constitution also incorporated language that was Christian-like.
The overarching purpose of the constitution and new government, however, was essentially nationalistic. To advance Native American ownership of the mills and trading posts on Cherokee lands, white traders were charged much higher licensing fees. Traditional ideas about property were also retained—that is, land was to be held collectively by the nation. Individuals could own improvements to the land but not the land itself, and even these improvements could be sold only to other Native Americans, not to whites.
The fiercely nationalistic purposes of the new government were reflected perhaps best in the law authored by Major Ridge on unauthorized land sales. Native Americans that sold away the nation's property without the approval of the national government would be put to death.
Ridge and other reformers among the Cherokees believed that their new government would deter white expansionists intent on their removal. But in many ways, the achievements of the Cherokees served only to frighten American expansionists and accelerate efforts in Georgia to remove the Native Americans before they became even more entrenched.
Expansionists also recognized that with every new governmental reform, the Cherokees were becoming philosophically invulnerable to removal. How could expansionists justify removal if the Cherokees were so responsive to government efforts to civilize them? How could expansionists claim that only they served the forces of progress if the Cherokees built farms, businesses, and democratic institutions?
Georgia's attempts to open up Cherokee lands before the Native Americans nation grew any stronger led to a series of legal battles between 1828 and 1832. These culminated in a ringing victory for the Cherokees in Worcester v. Georgia, a landmark Supreme Court case. But the short version of that story is that even though the Cherokees won the case, they were unable to exploit their victory, largely because even their former supporters in the white community abandoned them. The Presbyterian missionaries who'd launched the suit against Georgia refused to petition the Supreme Court to enforce its ruling because they feared a constitutional crisis between southern states claiming states' rights and federal authorities insistent on enforcing federal power. With South Carolina already threatening secession in response to unrelated recent tariff legislation, and Georgia threatening to join their ranks if pushed too hard over Native American policy, most of the Cherokees' white supporters withdrew from the legal fight.
Astute observers of the debates in Congress over Andrew Jackson's removal proposal similarly came to realize that many of the Native Americans' defenders were suspiciously soft in their support—more political than principled, more concerned with the details of removal than the fundamental question of justice lying underneath.
For example, Henry Clay opposed removal, but he was planning a race against Andrew Jackson for the presidency and was looking for a wedge issue to exploit. William Wirt opposed removal—in fact, he served as a lawyer on the Cherokee cases heard by the Supreme Court––but he also nursed political ambitions and believed that a confrontation between Jackson and Chief Justice Marshall would hurt the president (an ally) at the polls.
Other critics were less transparently political in their opposition, but for the most part, they quibbled with the logistical details of the proposal: how the Native Americans would be moved, how carefully the western lands had been selected, and how much this all would cost.
In short, by the mid 1830s, despite the nation-building achievement of the Cherokees and their legal victory in the nation's highest court, their prospects for staying in Georgia looked dim. The vast majority of the Cherokees resolved to fight on. But Major Ridge, John Ridge, and Elias Boudinot decided the situation was hopeless. Moreover, further resistance, they concluded, was counterproductive. Jackson was intent on removal. The missionaries and politicians who supported the Cherokee in the past had abandoned them. Georgia was rapidly surveying and selling off Cherokee lands and white settlers were pouring across the old border.
"We all know that we cannot be a nation here any longer," The Ridge said, "I hope we shall attempt to establish it somewhere else."
And so, Ridge and his small group of followers signed the Treaty of New Echota. They accepted the government's money and land in Oklahoma, along with mandatory removal to these new territories, as the only way to preserve the nation they'd so carefully built. Elias Boudinot, a newspaper editor and translator educated in Anglo-American schools, offered one perspective on the decision, saying, "An intelligent minority has a moral right, indeed a moral duty, to save a blind and ignorant majority from inevitable ruin and destruction."
The Ridge may have agreed, but he was less philosophical in his comments. "I have signed my death warrant," he supposedly said after signing the Treaty of New Echota. He was right. But he didn't really possess gifts of foresight, just a good memory of what had happened to Doublehead a generation earlier. He wasn't really a prophet—just a historian.
In 1932, Jack Wilson died quietly in his sleep. Spending the last years of his life living in a tent in the Native American colony near Yerington, Nevada, the death of the poor Paiute Indian wasn't even mentioned in the local papers.
But 40 years earlier, Jack Wilson had changed the world. His preaching had launched a religious movement that swept the Great Plains, raised fears among white settlers of a Native American insurrection, and prompted one of the most horrific massacres in American history.
Jack Wilson was born "Wovoka" in western Arizona. According to most accounts, his father died when he was 14. According to another report, his father lived to be more than 100. But all agree that at some point, the young Paiute took on the English name of the farmer on whose land he worked and lived, and at some point he learned to speak English and was exposed to Christianity.
In 1889, Wovoka claimed to undergo a mystical experience. Briefly dying, he ascended into the heavens where he saw his dead ancestors and received the message he was instructed to disseminate among other Native Americans. According to Wovoka, history was approaching a watershed. God was preparing to cleanse the earth of evil and introduce a period of peace and abundance. The now-scarce game would return and Native Americans and whites would live in harmony.
Wovoka's message was clearly influenced by the Christian teachings of his youth. His own claims of death and resurrection mimic the Christ story, and his prophecy of temporal cataclysm and renewal echo the apocalypse and millennium of Revelation. Like the Christian gospels, Wovoka preached that to ensure the arrival of this new age, Native Americans must reform and prepare. They should lead moral lives, they must not lie or steal, they should avoid alcohol, and they should be kind to one another and practice peace.
But Wovoka's message was also shaped by Native American traditions and beliefs. He urged Native Americans to rid themselves of the impurities introduced by white civilization. For example, they must stop wearing white men's clothes. Furthermore, to connect with their dead ancestors and hasten the approach of the new time, he urged Native Americans to perform the Ghost Dance. This dance was a variation on the round, or circle, dance, an ancient ritual that had experienced a revival during the 1870s.
At that time, a different prophet, Tävibo, predicting a very similar resurrection of Native American power, had inspired a movement among the Paiutes of western Nevada. Like Wovoka, he urged Native Americans to dance the Ghost Dance in preparation. During the Ghost Dance—a five-day ritual—participants danced in a circle, often until they reached states of exhaustion or ecstasy.
Wovoka's hybrid Christian-Paiute message found a receptive audience among Native Americans confined to reservations and struggling with poverty, disease, and alcoholism. It spread first to the West, where reports of Native Americans dancing the Ghost Dance came in from California and Oregon. Then, Wovoka's message and the Ghost Dance made their way to the Great Plains.
There, however, among tribes still reeling from the devastating wars of the 1870s, they took on a more militant and apocalyptic tone. Among the Sioux, in particular, Wovoka's promise of a new historical age was turned into a hope for temporal revenge. The cleansing of the earth, Wovoka promised, was interpreted to include the destruction of the white race. Reflecting this more militant version, participants wore "Ghost Shirts" during the dance—shirts which, once sanctified, were believed to be impervious to the bullets fired by whites' guns. The Ghost Dance, in other words, became a political as well as a religious celebration. It promised to reverse centuries of maltreatment by whites and to ensure the restoration of Native American control over the North American continent.
Tävibo wasn't Wovoka's only predecessor. 85 years earlier, a formerly unaccomplished Shawnee drunkard emerged from a seizure with a message of judgment and renewal sent to him by the Master of Life. This man—Lalawethicka—changed his name to Tenskwatawa, renounced his former ways, and began preaching a message of reform and redemption among the Native Americans of the old Northwest Territory.
Much like Wovoka's message, Tenskwatawa's prophecies reflected both Christian and Native American beliefs. He described a future of judgment, heaven, and hell, and warned that people's fates would be determined by their behavior. They must give up alcohol, avoid tribal conflicts, and live monogamously. Practices learned from whites, like buying and selling private property, should be abandoned. Instead, they should return to the values and ways of their ancestors–no more hunting with guns, no more domesticated animals, no more bread, no more metal pots, no more European dress.
Tenskwatawa's message spread throughout surrounding villages, especially those most influenced by white society. Native Americans who'd adopted Christianity became symbols of white corruption, were labeled witches, and were tortured and killed. In response, other Native American leaders and white authorities unnerved by the size and behavior of Tenskwatawa's following, challenged him to prove his prophetic powers. Tenskwatawa answered that his authority would be confirmed by the appearance of a "black sun" on June 16th, 1806. He summoned believers and skeptics to Greenville, a village he and his followers had established in western Ohio, to witness the event.
On June 16th, while Tenskwatawa waited in his tent, a full eclipse darkened the sky. His critics tried to point out that the event had already been predicted by astronomers, many of whom had established observation centers in the region. But Tenskwatawa's followers—old and new—were convinced only of the prophet's religious power.
Over the next five years, Tenskwatawa's movement spread through the Northwest Territory, but it ended tragically at Tippecanoe in 1811. Native Americans with a sense of their distant past may have asked if Wovoka's movement would end the same way.
As the Ghost Dance spread among the Lakota Sioux, white observers grew increasingly worried. The apocalyptic message was unnerving, and the frenzied, seemingly uncontrolled demonstrations of emotion unleashed during the dance conjured images of Native American rage let loose against white settlers. When the legendary chief Sitting Bull embraced the Ghost Dance, and followers flocked to his camp to participate in the daily dancing and purification baths, white leaders feared that the final ingredient for a major Native American insurrection was in place.
To ensure that the Native American hero of the Little Big Horn didn't launch another rebellion, U.S. Indian Agent James McLaughlin stationed at Standing Rock ordered the Indian Police to arrest Sitting Bull on December 15th, 1890. At first, Sitting Bull seemed prepared to surrender quietly, but after his 17-year-old son Crow Foot attempted to intervene, Sitting Bull called on his followers to defend him. In the fight that followed, Sitting Bull and 13 others were killed. In his official report, the Indian Agent lamented the loss of life but branded the action a success.
"Great good" had been accomplished by "the ending of Sitting Bull's career." He expected to quickly round up the Native Americans who'd fled following the battle in Sitting Bull's camp. And with the influential chief dead, the "Messiah Craze" would end and calm would be restored to the region.
But McLaughlin's belief that the episode was essentially over proved horribly wrong. Sitting Bull's followers fled toward the Pine Ridge Agency, where they hoped to find protection under Chief Red Cloud. But while en route, they were intercepted by 500 American soldiers of the Seventh Cavalry. The soldiers were ordered to march the Native Americans to the railroad for removal to Nebraska. They made camp the first night along the banks of Wounded Knee Creek and, to prevent trouble, the soldiers mounted Hotchkiss guns along the camp's perimeter.
The following morning, tensions in the camp mounted quickly. As soldiers searched the Native Americans for weapons, a medicine man named Yellow Bird began to lead some of the Native Americans in the Ghost Dance. Another crowd gathered around Black Coyote when he refused to surrender his weapon. During his dance, Yellow Bird threw some dust in the air—a signal, white soldiers believed, to commence an attack.
In a matter of moments, shots were flying from all directions. The soldiers sprayed the surrounded Native Americans with small arms fire while the Hotchkiss guns launched their explosive shells at a rate of almost one per second. When the brief battle ended, 300 Native Americans were dead, including 200 women and children. 29 white soldiers were also killed.
Following the massacre at Wounded Knee, armed Native American resistance to white expansion came to an end. The Ghost Dance also faded quickly in the aftermath of this tragedy in the Dakotas. Spreading rapidly between 1889 and 1890, it surfaced over the next century only sporadically among small groups of believers. Today, the Ghost Dance and Wovoka are most commonly explored as 19th-century curiosities—historical artifacts rather than the ritual and prophet of a living religion.
But almost exactly 1900 years before Wovoka's anonymous death, the death of a young Jewish prophet merited barely a mention by the local authorities. Over the next few centuries, his followers—calling themselves Christians—struggled to perpetuate their faith and defend their communities against persecution. But in 312 CE, a Roman general credited his victory at the Battle of Milvian Bridge to the intervention of the Christian God.
Soon emperor of the western half of the Roman Empire, Constantine issued the Edict of Milan protecting the Christians from persecution, granted imperial land to the church, and supported the construction of churches. At the time of Constantine's ascendance, Christians represented about 5% of the empire. By the time of his death, Christianity was the favored religion of the Roman Empire.
In other words, history suggests that we shouldn't rush to judgment about the fate of small religious movements. The destiny of the Wovoka and the Ghost Dance may not be fully known for another few hundred years.
Henry Knox sat on one side of the table. Alexander McGillivray sat on the other. For almost a month, Knox, George Washington's Secretary of War, and McGillivray, the Chief of the Creek Nation, hammered out the details.
Earlier negotiations at Rock Landing—in what's today central Georgia—had failed. That's why Washington urged McGillivray to come to New York for a summit of principals. Washington personally greeted the Creek chief before turning over negotiations to his most trusted advisor. And soon, they reached an agreement. The Treaty of New York was ratified by the Senate on August 7th, 1790.
Had it been successfully implemented, American history might have turned out quite different.
We often assume a certain inevitability in the way we think about America's relations with Native Americans; we assume that relationships between the two peoples were unvaried and that the course of events was more or less fixed. Americans, driven by greed and racism and notions of "manifest destiny," marched inexorably westward toward annihilation of Native Americans. And Native Americans, decimated by disease and overwhelmed by American power, were forced into unbroken retreat from the day Europeans set foot on their continent.
But the truth of the matter is that in 1790, the course of future events wasn't fixed. History's path hadn't been set. In fact, while Native Americans had been largely driven from the eastern seaboard, they still retained firm control over territories in the interior. Moreover, the relationship between Anglo-Americans and Native Americans was complex and fluid—U.S. policymakers hadn't yet established a consensus about how to move forward, and Native Americans were also debating what strategies to employ in defending their lands.
McGillivray and Knox personified the complexity of American-Native American affairs. The Creek chief was of mixed blood—his father was a Scot and his mother was half French. This meant that the powerful Creek leader was really only one-quarter Native American. But since his grandmother was Creek, and according to Native American custom, identity was passed matrilineally, so McGillivray was considered Creek.
McGillivray's atypical bloodlines were echoed by his unusual upbringing and wealth. He was educated at British schools in Charleston and spoke five languages. As a young man, he used his skills and connections to build a thriving commercial empire among the southern tribes. By the time he was 30, he lived in a large home, owned more than 50 slaves, and was recognized as the Creeks' power-to-be-reckoned-with by the British, Spanish, and Americans.
But McGillivray was also a physical mess. Alcoholism, rheumatism, and syphilis wracked his body. Though shrewd—and wealthy—he was the physical opposite of the giant he faced during treaty negotiations. Henry Knox weighed more than 300 pounds. (As did his wife—collectively the quarter-ton duo was known politely as the "largest couple in the city.") But sheer mass aside, Knox was in many respects as unlikely a secretary of war as McGillivray was a Native American chief. Born in Boston, he left school at age 11 to clerk in a bookstore. He owned his own shop by the time the first fighting of the Revolutionary War broke out in 1775. All that Knox knew about warfare was what he'd learned in books, but he impressed General Washington and over the course of the war, rose to become one of the general's most trusted officers.
McGillivray and Knox, therefore, although physically quite different, shared atypical paths to power. More importantly, they agreed that the earlier policies of the federal government had been horribly misguided.
In the Treaty of Paris, which ended the American Revolution, Great Britain ceded to the United States all of its territories south of Canada and east of the Mississippi River. For Native Americans, the treaty was a colossal catastrophe.
For starters, it represented a huge betrayal of their interests by the British. Many tribes had formed alliances with the British, but now they saw their lands signed away with a scratch of the pen. Nor did this simply mean that one white nation had replaced another. Native Americans had managed to carve out a relatively balanced relationship with the British, and by the end of the French and Indian War, the British had conceded that the Native Americans possessed "the right of the soil" as prior occupants. This meant that the British couldn't simply take Native American lands—they could only be acquired through treaty and purchase.
But now this legal status was signed away by the defeated British. Americans were granted Native American lands through "conquest" and Native Americans were reduced to a defeated, "subject" people. This was bad enough for those tribes who'd allied with the British, but the treaty failed to differentiate between these and other tribes. Many had carefully carved out neutral positions during the war, and many had actually sided with the Americans. In the war's aftermath, these profound differences proved meaningless. All Native Americans and their lands were lumped into the same category of the "conquered."
Adding to the confusion was the simple fact that even among those tribes siding with the British, few had experienced any sort of massive military defeat, any sort of battlefield failure that would make understandable their new status as a defeated and subject people. In other words, for Native Americans, the world had changed enormously on paper, but nothing in their own experience confirmed this parchment defeat.
And so, American attempts to implement the Treaty of Paris were met with confusion. Representatives were dispatched to the major tribes of the South and West to secure treaties acknowledging the Native Americans' loss of land and status. At Fort Stanwix in 1784 and Fort McIntosh in 1785, the tribes of the Ohio Valley, or at least some tribal members, were bullied into land cessions based on these premises.
As an American negotiator explained when Native Americans balked at the terms being offered, "You are mistaken in supposing you are a free and independent nation. [...] You are a subdued people, you have been overcome in war in which you entered into with us."
But the impossibility of securing lasting treaties founded on such unreal premises was quickly proven. Tribes immediately denounced the bogus treaties and launched attacks against the equally deluded white pioneers entering their territories to settle on theoretically empty lands.
This was the situation that McGillivray and Knox set out to correct.
They approached these events of the 1780s from different angles, but they both recognized that the approach taken by the United States after 1783 was badly flawed. For McGillivray, American policies simply didn't square with realties on the ground. In the vast Creek territories, he led a nation of 25,000 people. If it came to war, he could deliver 5,000 Creek warriors to the field and an equal number of Cherokee, Choctaw, and Chickasaw allies. Moreover, he'd cultivated a strong relationship with the Spanish, who were willing to provide any Native American alliance with the materials it needed to keep the Americans away from their own holdings to the southwest.
Knox also recognized the strength of the Creeks in the Southeast. He was a military man and realized that controlling the southern tribes by force would be costly. He calculated that war against a Southeastern Native American alliance would cost close to $15 million.
But Knox's position was philosophical as well as pragmatic. He believed that the principles of the Revolution for which he'd fought were being tested. Republics didn't impose their will on people through brute force—they respected human rights and followed natural law. American policy, therefore, should be guided by a different set of principles. Native American rights of soil should be acknowledged—their legitimate claims as first occupants should be recognized. Native American lands should be protected from white encroachment, with federal troops if necessary.
The Treaty negotiated by McGillivray and Knox incorporated these principles. The Creek chief tempered his original demand and accepted an eastern border of the Oconee, rather than the Ogeechee River. But in return, Knox acknowledged that vast lands to the west—present day Alabama and parts of Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Florida—belonged to the Creeks and guaranteed that their border would be policed by federal troops. The United States also promised to provide the tools and livestock needed to turn the Creeks from hunters into farmers. In this way, they would advance toward a "greater degree of civilization."
Implicit within this clause was Knox's belief that as the Creeks progressed, their territorial needs would diminish. Excess lands could then be sold to the federal government for resale to white settlers. With the proceeds, the Creeks would be able to build roads and schools, and progress still further on the path toward "civilized life."
It's easy to be cynical about this final clause, and tempting to find in Knox's civilizing scenario a thinly veiled scheme to deprive Native Americans of their lands.
And indeed, in the years following the treaty, Anglo-American settlers poured into the Creek territories and the federal government didn't do nearly enough to stop them. Urged on by more overt expansionists like William Blount, Governor of the Southwest Territory, settlers ignored the barriers defined by the 1790 agreement.
Knox and President Washington were unequivocal in identifying who was at fault. "A lawless set of unprincipled wretches" were running roughshod over the "most solemn treaties," Washington complained. But in sending only a scanty force of federal troops to police the border, the administration's actions failed to match its rhetoric.
Certainly, McGillivray lost faith in Knox and the integrity of the administration's commitments. Angered by the government's failure to enforce the treaty terms, he reached out to his old Spanish allies. In 1792, he signed a treaty with Spain that pledged both the Creeks and the Spanish to resist American encroachment on Creek territories.
It's even easier to be suspicious of the Washington-Knox Native American policy as it was applied in the Northwest Territory. Initially, they introduced the same philosophical principles in their dealings with the Native Americans of the Ohio Valley. In 1789, at Fort Harmer, American ambassadors signed new agreements providing compensation for the lands bullied away from the Native Americans at Forts Stanwix and McIntosh a few years earlier. American commissioners followed up with offers to buy "surplus" Native American lands to absorb the flow of western migrants. But when the Native Americans of the Ohio Valley rebuffed these offers––at least in part because British forces occupying Canadian forts near the Great Lakes encouraged them to do so––Knox authorized territorial governor Arthur St. Clair to launch a small punitive expedition.
The St. Clair expedition backfired horribly. Caught completely by surprise in a pre-dawn raid, St. Clair's force of 1,400 suffered more than 900 casualties. Only 580 men eventually made their way back to Fort Washington. Aimed at making the Ohio Indians more compliant treaty partners, the St. Clair expedition instead served to stiffen Native American resistance. The Ohio Valley Indians now drew an even harder line on white expansion and insisted that the line of settlement be pushed back several hundred miles to the Ohio River.
Facing entrenched opposition, and simply unwilling to surrender lands already surveyed and sold at auction to land speculators and farmers, Knox and Washington sent an army of more than 5,000 soldiers under General Anthony Wayne to the Ohio Valley. At Fallen Timbers, Wayne routed the coalition of Shawnee, Miami, Delaware, Ottawa, and Ojibwa Indians who gathered to fight him. The following spring, the defeated tribes were forced to sign the Treaty of Greenville, surrendering most of present-day Ohio to the United States.
In both the Northwest and the Southeast, Knox's rights-based approach to the nation's "prior occupants" ultimately failed. Treaty agreements were violated, borders weren't policed, and military power was used to force land cessions. If Knox and Washington were sincere in hoping to place U.S.-Native American relations on a more just footing, why did they fail?
Part of the problem for Washington and Knox was practical. The Creek border, for example, was more than 500 miles long. Policing it effectively would require 10,000 troops and a new string of federal posts. But the entire U.S. Army at the time totaled just over 1,000 men and, given Americans' preference for militias over standing armies, it's doubtful that the public would've tolerated a ten-fold increase in its size.
Another part of the problem was political. The relationship between the federal and state governments was still being worked out. In the Southeast, Georgia was anxious to reduce the autonomy of the Native Americans living within its boundaries, and the state was also interested in acquiring and selling the lands protected by the federal government. A clash with Georgia at this particular time, on this particular issue, would be risky for the new government.
And finally, the problem was also philosophical. The revolutionary principles that guided Knox and Washington ultimately proved a poor basis for a more progressive Native American policy. Knox and Washington were committed to human rights and natural law, but they also were committed to the enlightenment-based understanding of progress that went hand-in-hand with these principles. Within this broader philosophical construct, "civilization" assumed only one form. It was characterized by farming, not hunting—by the extension of commerce, not the preservation of a wilderness existence. Washington and Knox wanted to preserve Native American rights, but this goal couldn't be separated from the advancement of a European-based understanding of progress—of the movement westward of roads and bridges, churches and schools. They believed that the Native Americans possessed rights to the soil, but they also believed that history followed a specific course.
As offensive and unruly as the white settlers could be, in the eyes of Knox and Washington, they were advancing the frontier of civilization—they were extending farming and commerce into the interior. Moreover, they too were living out principles of the Revolution. They were exploring the liberty and unfettered opportunity made possible by independence. On the other hand, when Native Americans rebuffed American advances or conspired with America's enemies, they simply failed to fit into the optimistic scenario laid out by Knox. When they rejected his generous overtures and turned instead to the Spanish or British, they fell outside his too-optimistic sense of the historical process. When they refused to sell the "surplus" land that he predicted would become available as civilization advanced, their claims under natural law became tenuous.
In the final analysis, the diplomatic route to a different course of events was doomed by the very principles that inspired it. In 1790, Knox believed that all the parts of his vision could be neatly reconciled. A child of the Enlightenment, he believed that there was a grand symmetry to the great ideals and truths of the universe. Rights, Liberty, and Progress were all part of a beautifully crafted fabric; Native American rights, American liberty, and the advance of "Civilization" could be simultaneously pursued.
He was wrong.