Part Two of a Series:
The Good, The Bad and The Indifferent – The Parade of U.S. Presidents
If I have not made a case for a foolproof presidency (in my earlier ‘Presidents’ essay), please, choose any time period – early 19th Century, early 20th Century, mid-20th Century – investigate decisions made and the policies implemented by the sitting presidents of that time. But, once you’ve fumed at the scandals, the bone-headed decisions and the overall racist, genocidal and sexist policies, you will, to be fair, need to place the men within the ethos of their times. Not to forgive them but to understand, literally, from whence they came.
For me, that exercise enlarges the question. I’m now asking not just how we survived bad presidents but how we achieved any enlightenment at all when we came from such dark beginnings. How is it that a man who insisted the U.S. Constitution include the Bill of Rights owned over six hundred slaves? And, how did all the high-minded ‘Founding Fathers’ who established a global foundation for inalienable human rights totally ignore women? How could the men who assailed a foreign king for “repeated injuries and usurpations” continually deny the rights of the native population?
Constitutional author, and the first Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, John Jay wrote: “Those who own the country ought to govern it.”
Yet the Declaration of Independence refers to the country’s original inhabitants as “merciless Indian savages.” In his 1963 book, Why We Can’t Wait, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote:
“Our nation was born in genocide when it embraced the doctrine that the original American, the Indian, was an inferior race. Even before there were large numbers of Negroes on our shores, the scar of racial hatred had already disfigured colonial society. From the sixteenth century forward, blood flowed in battles of racial supremacy. We are perhaps the only nation which tried as a matter of national policy to wipe out its indigenous population. Moreover, we elevated that tragic experience into a noble crusade. Indeed, even today we have not permitted ourselves to reject or to feel remorse for this shameful episode. Our literature, our films, our drama, our folklore all exalt it.”
What leadership are we to expect from a ‘nation born in genocide’ – a nation whose constitution was written by slave owners? Focusing on their attitude and policy toward Natives, I’d love to present an argument for our greatest presidents being those that owned up to native genocide and created policies sensitive to Native culture and their right to self-determination. Unfortunately, that would be, at best, a half-truth.
Those deemed great by historians are presidents who either made a name for themselves by leading the genocidal charge or those whose ‘Indian policies’ were ignored in favor of praising their leadership. Let’s first dispense with the famed ‘Indian Killer Presidents’ – a twenty-one year stretch that ran from 1829 with the inauguration of Andrew Jackson to 1850 when Zachary Taylor died in office.
General Jackson led a series of tribal massacres that assured his fame and swept him into the White House. His VP, Van Buren, ascended to the presidency and followed through with Jackson policies by executing the ‘Trail of Tears,’ force-marching the defeated Cherokee to Oklahoma. He then initiated the Second Seminole War. Next came William Henry Harrison who gained his fame with the Prophetstown Massacre of Tecumseh’s people (fortunately he died 31 days in office). John Tyler assumed office, finished off the Seminoles and evicted 4,000 Natives from Florida, sending them west. James Polk, his successor, was a self-proclaimed Jackson disciple; he expanded U.S. aggression westward with the Mexican-American War that brought General Zachary Taylor fame and led him to the White House. After Taylor took office he initiated the Blackhawk War and another Seminole War. His death sixteen months into office paused the twenty-one year rein of terror on eastern Natives as ‘No Nothing’ Millard Fillmore became president.
In their favor, historians rarely rank any of the ‘Indian Killer’ presidents among the top twenty presidents. To their disfavor Jackson is often the exception. In a 2017 poll of ninety-one presidential historians, Jackson was ranked #18 because of his ‘leadership skills’ and his huge popularity while president. Although these polls vary, the top rankings always include Abraham Lincoln and George Washington – the strongest of indications that presidential scholars put little or no weight on policies toward Native Americans.
What we see in George Washington is a smart, prosperous, well educated, man who stepped up in time of need. He met the need his people had for a great leader. His people were not the masses. His people were the other white land-and-business-owning men who sought prosperity in the American colonies. He did not fight for the rights of his African slaves nor for the rights of women – they were his people only in his sense of dominion over them. Natives ‘savages’ were even further outside the definition of ‘his people’, probably beyond his definition of people.
Although Washington fought alongside Iroquois and Cherokee the 1753 French and Indian War, he said of them, “Indians and wolves are both beasts of prey, tho’ they differ in shape.”
He had no compunction about taking their land. Prior to the War for Independence, Washington, who already owned a large Virginia plantation, led expeditions into the Ohio River Valley, the land of the Shawnee. He surveyed 200,000 acres in support of white settlers pushing westward over the Appalachians. Later, as president, he would send troops to finish wiping out the Shawnee, thereby securing the Ohio Valley, including the 10,000 acres he had claimed for himself.
Moving past the man who defined the U.S. Presidency, we find a group of scholarly men – John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe and John Quincy Adams – all with classic educations at Harvard, Princeton or William & Mary – whose only real concern about ‘Indians’ was to clearly define authority over them. They made sure the Constitution gave that power to the Federal, not State government. Though they largely favored ‘civilizing’ Natives, turning them into farmers, they were quite aware of tribal threats to U.S. expansion.
Thomas Jefferson said, “If ever we are constrained to lift the hatchet against any tribe, we will never lay it down ‘till that tribe is exterminated, or driven beyond the Mississippi . . . in war, they will kill some of us; we shall destroy them all.”
Though their philosophy was to ‘civilize,’ the policies of these scholarly Presidents ushered in Jackson and twenty-one years of military men in the White House actively engaged in Indian extermination. Aggression continued during the years leading up to Lincoln – under Presidents Fillmore, Pierce and Buchanan – but the national focus shifted to the issue of slavery.
So, what about the Great Emancipator?
The sainted image of Abraham Lincoln often obscures the fact that he did not outlaw slavery out of purely humanitarian principles but to save the union. Even more obscured is his disregard for native lives when he gave the order for the largest mass execution in U.S. history.
In the aftermath of the 1862 Lakota (Sioux) uprising known as the Dakota War, thirty-nine Lakota were tried and found guilty of murdering white settlers along the Minnesota River, one was pardoned. With the Civil War in progress, Lincoln needed the Minnesota Militia to bolster the Union Army. Minnesota threatened to withhold their troops if he did not meet their demand. So he ordered all thirty-eight warriors – men guilty of nothing more than defending the land granted to them by earlier treaties – to be hanged en masse on December 26th, 1862 in Mankato, MN.
To be fair, Lincoln commuted the death sentence of a couple hundred other convicted Lakota warriors before the final thirty-eight were hanged. He made it clear that his compassion took a back seat to his primary goal of saving the union. He was, for example, well aware of rampant government corruption that led to starvation and suffering among Natives already confined to reservations. He promised, “If we get through the war and I live, this Indian system will be reformed.” With all U.S. Presidents, including our greatest, the plight of Native Americans was always a secondary concern.
Never a priority, the ‘Indian Problem’ was always an issue, debated continually in Congress with ever changing policies hatched by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Originally the Office of Indian Affairs, under the Department of War, in 1849 the BIA became part of the Department of the Interior. That shift is consistent with changing Indian policies, from extermination, to exile (to the west), to management. The same government branch that is responsible for National Parks and Natural Resources is responsible for Native Americans. In the flow of these policies acting presidents weighed in, but were largely ineffective.
While Ulysses S. Grant showed genuine concern for Native tribes, he lacked both insight and the power to stop the inevitable. Oblivious to the Lakota’s dependence on them, he personally killed two hundred buffalo while ‘vacationing’ in the Black Hills. During his administration white westward expansion, backed by the U.S. Cavalry, part of the massive Army he helped train and direct during the Civil War, escalated Native genocide. From 1869 when he began his presidency through the rest of the 19th Century – presided over by Presidents Hayes, Garfield, Arthur, Cleveland, Harrison, and McKinley – American troops fought and killed the Lakota, the Cheyenne, the Navajo, the Paiute, the Shoshone, the Yakima, the Nez Perce, the Apache, the Yaqui, the Crow and on, and on and on — over thirty-two separate wars against hundreds of tribes. Those that weren’t decimated were herded into reservations, each getting smaller and smaller via broken treaties, until Grover Cleveland signed the Dawes Allotment Act, giving each Native family their own small plot of land. White speculators applauded the new policy as a new means of exploitation: Through the 20th Century the plight of most Native Americans was in the hands of the BIA, with heavy-handed support from Missionary and secular institutions that ripped children from their families forcing them into schools designed to ‘beat the Indian out of them.’ Through various policy changes, most to the ongoing detriment of the Natives they were intended to help, some presidents were more enlightened than others.
In 1924 Calvin Coolidge signed the Indian Citizenship Act which finally gave Native Americans the right to vote. Hoover, his successor, chose Kaw Native Charles Curtis as his VP and initiated policies of greater tribal self-determination. FDR, Truman, Kennedy, Johnson and most of the presidents who followed were generally sympathetic to Native rights. One of the surprising standouts was Richard M. Nixon who strongly supported the ‘Indian Self-Determination Act’ (signed in 1975 by Ford) saying, “I am committed to furthering the self-determination of Indian communities but without terminating the special relationship between the Federal Government and the Indian people.”
Less surprising, Barack Obama supported $492 million judgment the Blackfeet Tribe had won against the Federal Government. When he ordered it to be paid, his Interior Secretary Sally Jewel noted, “Settling these long-standing disputes reflects the Obama Administration’s continued commitment to reconciliation and empowerment for Indian Country.” At the end of his administration Obama also tried to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock.
The reality is that ‘Indian Policy’ through this country’s history has been as quixotic and unpredictable as its presidents. The 20th Century began with Teddy Roosevelt saying, “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of ten are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.”
At the end of the 20th Century Bill Clinton backed a ten-fold expansion of Federal investments into Native American small businesses.
And here we are in the 21st Century with President Trump welcoming WWII Navajo Code Talkers to the White House saying, “You were here long before any of us were here. Although we have a representative in Congress who they say was here a long time ago. They call her ‘Pocahontas.’
Inconsistencies indeed. Along with the heightened awareness of Native Rights generated by the American Indian Movement (AIM) in the ‘60s and ‘70s Tribal Councils across America garnered greater sovereignty. But, while tribes came together in unified protests like the protracted #NoDAPL resistance at Standing Rock with eventual support from the Obama administration, under Trump tribal lands, water rights and sacred burial grounds are more threatened than they have been in decades.
Trump cut $300 million from the Indian Affairs budget, including money for education, housing, healthcare and human services. His Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has called for an “off-ramp” for taking native lands out of trust. Native Americans have endured presidential policies that included:
- Extermination: wholesale slaughter before and after 1776
- Manipulation: recruiting tribes to fight U.S. wars
- Removal: Trail of Tears and reservations.
- Civilization: aimed at wiping out their culture.
- Allotment: small plots of land, easily stolen by white speculators
- Termination: initiated by Eisenhower, renewed by Trump
Like Ike in the 1950s, Trump wants to removed tribes and reservations from federal protection – terminating the policies written into the U.S. Constitution by Madison, Monroe, Jefferson and Adams.
Policies of treatment toward a weakened, conquered people have always been the standard by which we judge the humanity of a nation and its leaders. Native Americans – their opportunity to thrive or their further diminishment – is again the litmus test for American ideals under a tyrannical president.