The Removal Acts

“We got off the boat and murdered a civilization.”   ‑ Jim Harrison

President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act this week (May 28) in 1830, which led to a number of “treaties” that accommodated land-hungry white settlers by “removing” Native-Americans, in particular “The Five Civilized Tribes”—the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole—from their native lands in the Southeast  through forced emigration and resettlement.  I say “forced” because most of the affected tribes never even saw, let alone signed, these “treaties.”

The Cherokee are a case in point.  Ordered to leave their homeland Georgia and resettle in what is now Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska, the Cherokee appealed to the Supreme Court, and to everyone’s surprise the court sided with them, ruling that Cherokee Nation was, legally, a sovereign nation, meaning that U.S. laws, including treaties, did not apply.

Unfortunately, President Jackson (for all his populist virtues, a racist and rabid Indian hater) ignored the court’s ruling, and his chosen successor, Martin van Buren, used the U.S. Army to initiate a series of forced marches that “removed” the Cherokee to the Midwest.  One particularly perilous march along the famous “Trail of Tears” caused the deaths of nearly 5,000 Cherokee out of a total of approximately 14,000, and when they finally reached their destination—present-day Kansas and Nebraska—they found it so cold and inhospitable (have you ever weathered a Nebraska winter?) that many more died in the first year alone.

Other tribes with less faith in the sanctity of America’s legal system fought a series of wars against this white encroachment. The Seminoles in particular, helped by the fact that much of their homeland was mosquito-infested Florida swamp, held out until the early 1840s, but eventually they too succumbed to the sheer numbers and power of the U.S. Army.

To conclude, these removal treaties, which decimated some of the greatest tribes ever to roam this continent, are among the blackest marks on America’s history.  We called it “manifest destiny” and “nation building,” but it was closer to genocide, and in intent, if not in magnitude, it rivaled the pogroms of Adolf Hitler.  Of course, Hitler lost his war and so became a monster. We won our war against the Indians and so got to write a “Disney-fied” version of the facts.

But there is one ironic, yet uniquely American sidebar to this shameful episode in our history.  Although we nearly destroyed many of these once-proud Indian tribes, their memories live on in major league sports towns and college campuses where the “Braves,” the “Indians,” the “Redskins,” the “Seminoles,” the “Blackhawks” and many others go to “war” for the greater glory of their legions of (mostly white) fans.