Hubert Shuptrine, The Tribesman (detail), 1982
As North America was colonized by European settlers the US Government sought to eliminate the threat of Native people by enacting laws against them. This “threat” was a thinly veiled cover of the government’s actual desire for more land and their plan to “take care of the Indian problem” through force, unfair laws, and assimilation*. In this module you will learn about the specific acts forced upon the Native Americans and the horrific impact it has had that still reverberates today.
*Assimilation is the process of absorbing a minority group into the dominant culture of society.
Manifest Destiny and the American Indian
Manifest Destiny is the widely-held belief during the nineteenth century in the United States that its settlers were destined to expand across North America. Although this was never a clearly defined policy many Americans thoroughly felt this sentiment and made the move west. They did this not only to expand the country’s land but also as a way of remaking the west to be more civilized, Christian, and under one political realm, feeling it was their God-given right. Most people think of covered wagons moving west through the plains to California when they think of westward expansion. And while this is very accurate, many people also moved south to the region that is now known as Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama. The opening of present-day Alabama to settlement after the end of the Creek war inspired a wave of migration from the eastern United States that foreshadowed the large-scale westward movement of later decades. The early sessions of the Alabama governing body were largely focused on creating counties out of wilderness and land taken from Native Americans and establishing seats of government, court systems, and electoral procedures. It was also a dark foreshadowing of the horrors that would be experienced by thousands of Native Americans in the years to come.
As part of the U.S. “plan of civilization” the federally appointed agent to the Cherokees provided looms, spinning wheels, and plows to encourage Cherokee women to take up domestic arts and Cherokee men to give up hunting for farming and herding. In 1806, as hunting declined among the Cherokees, the U.S. sought and won a land cession, significantly shrinking Cherokee land in Alabama. In 1830, the federal government approved the Indian Removal Act*, which required most eastern tribes to relinquish their lands and move west to Indian Territory, now the state of Oklahoma. John Ross led the Cherokee Nation’s struggle to stay, taking the battle for sovereignty to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1832. Though the court ruled for the Cherokees, then-President Andrew Jackson refused to enforce the decision, and the forced removal of the Cherokees began in September 1838. Approximately 1,200 Cherokees and other tribespeople marched over the John Benge Route, the north Alabama trail to join the mass exodus along the Trail of Tears* to Indian Territory. A year later, 5,000 more Creeks departed. A few who accepted land allotments or evaded removal stayed behind. Some of their descendants have unified as the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, headquartered in Atmore, Alabama.
* The Indian Removal Act- Enforced by President Andrew Jackson: The Indian Removal Act was a document that stated that the federal government had the right to seize or “exchange” Native-held land in exchange for the land East of the Mississippi River. This removal act was set in order to take care of the “Indian problem.”
* The Trail of Tears: A series of relocations for Indigenous People to move from The East side of the Mississippi River to the West, enforced by the United States government between about 1830-1850. This was a major result of the Indian Removal Act. Native Americans were forced to leave with only the clothes on their back and they were not allowed to take any possessions and walk approximately 2,200 miles.
The Dawes Rolls
The Dawes Rolls, also known as “Final Rolls,” were created as a basic head count of Native Americans. Land allotments were issued to heads of the households, and to provide equitable divisions of monies obtained from sold lands. As stated before many Black Natives were excluded from this process. There were many non-native people who paid $5 for their names to be added to the Dawes Rolls in order to be included in land allotments. Many Indigenous* Peoples chose to hide during these times, and some still remain hidden today. Yet, another example of how the US government orchestrated the elimination of Indigenous Peoples and their culture is by the double discrimination to those born to both Native American and enslaved or freed African-Americans. It has been documented that some Natives “owned slaves.” This was due to assimilation and survival. Natives often created a kinship with enslaved people due to similar experiences with the dominating threat, thus resulting in an entire group of people who had their entire history and identity erased, these people are now recognized as Black Indians or Black Native Peoples.
*Indigenous is defined as originating or occurring naturally in a particular place, native.