Black Indians: How NOT to Celebrate an Anniversary

by William Loren Katz on January 16, 2012

As 2011 ended the U.S. Senate voted 92 to 6 for the McCain-Levin amendments [S 1867] to the National Defense Authorization Act. In the name of fighting terrorism, an astounding majority of Democratic and Republican leaders granted unlimited authority to the President [and future Presidents] and the Army to arrest anyone, citizen or foreigner, here or abroad, and imprison them in Poland, Pennsylvania, or Guantanamo or anywhere else—indefinitely. 92 of our Senators agreed the detained could be denied access to attorneys and loved ones, and “enhanced interrogation” rather than legal procedures would determine if they are guilty of terrorist plots. True, some rigid Constitutionalists and Libertarians from Senator Rand Paul on the right to the ACLU on the left have condemned S 1867 as a threat to our core beliefs and democratic system. But S 167 swept through on the 135th anniversary of our Declaration of Independence.

Actually celebrating our founding document while undermining of its principles also marked the Declaration’s Centennial year of 1876. That year what might be called a federal-state task force that included a majority of members of Congress and the Supreme Court, and the President chose to override the Declaration’s bold assertion of liberty, the Constitution’s “more perfect Union” and Abraham Lincoln’s “new birth of freedom.” They did so to serve an unholy alliance of northern railroad builders and land speculators, unrepentant former slaveholders and assorted white supremacist—and their obedient lobbyists and media. What followed was a severe and simultaneous assault on the basic rights of Native Americans and African Americans that sent the country careening in a new direction.

It all began in late June 1876 as Americans prepared a massive coast to coast July Fourth celebration. But as the bunting went up, bands rehearsed and corks began to pop, shocking news came from the Little Big Horn.

2000 Lakota and Cheyenne commanded by Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and Rain In the Face surrounded a dashing, brilliant and somewhat arrogant George Armstrong Custer and the 226 men in his Seventh Cavalry. Not one Bluecoat survived.

Custer was not on a peaceful mission but seeking to open the Black Hills to white gold prospectors, teach the Indians a lesson, and make a media splash during the summer’s Presidential nominating conventions. If logic had ruled government officials would have exploded in anger at Custer. On his own he choose to ignore the U.S. Treaty of 1868 stating “no white person or persons shall be permitted” to “enter” the Black Hills. He knew the Lakota loudly proclaimed this was their sacred ground. He was aware that President Grant publicly pledged, “it is secured to the Indians.” And he chose to ignore Sitting Bull’s flat warning, “If the whites try . . . I will fight.”

The dashing officer Native Americans called “Long Hair” instead relied on what he called “Custer luck.” Though he did not survive, “Custer luck” did. No white voices rose to censure this officer who flaunted treaties and Presidential pledges, and showed exceptionally poor judgment. Political leaders of a white nation united to cast Long Hair as a martyr to Indian savagery. Administration figures rose not to castigate Custer but to demand revenge for this defeat of national power. Politicians cagily added, for the benefit of land-hungry easterners, it was time for Indians to surrender their lands.

In the centennial Fourth of July public grief mixed uneasily with greed, anger and glorification, and behind closed doors leading politicians and generals planned to complete the grim work Custer began.

By mid-July War Department orders that nullified the Treaty of 1868 sent General William Sherman riding off with a mandate to treat Lakota reservation families as belligerents or prisoners of war. By mid-August US officials demanded the Lakota surrender their Black Hills and Powder River lands. U.S. troops began a march that would not stop until the Wounded Knee massacre.

Sitting Bull seemed to know this in 1877 when he spoke to fellow commanders at the Powder River Council. He began by recalling the earliest white invaders as “small and feeble when our forefathers first met them, but now great and overbearing.”

Then he began to speak of their character. “Strangely enough, they have a mind to till the soil, and the love of possession is a disease in them.”

“These people have made many rules that the rich may break, but the poor may not. They have a religion in which the poor worship, but the rich will not!They even take tithes from the poor and weak to support the rich and those who rule. They claim this mother of ours, the Earth, for their own use, and fence their neighbors away from her, and deface her with their buildings and their refuse.”

Sitting Bull reached a despairing conclusion:

“We cannot dwell side by side. Only seven years ago we made a treaty by which we were assured that the buffalo country should be left to us forever. Now they threaten to take that from us also. My brothers, shall we submit? or shall we say to them: ‘First kill me, before you can take possession of my fatherland!’”

With some minor alterations Sitting Bull’s words could have been addressed to African Americans. The 90% of African Americans in the southern states faced a powerful planter class committed to white supremacy and control of those they had recently enslaved. Their chance came later that year in November when a disputed Presidential election left the country in turmoil. A special federal commission equally divided between Democrats and Republicans reached a “bargain” that forever changed racial relations. The Commission awarded the White House to Republican candidate Rutherford Hayes and he in turn promised to recall the last Federal troops from the South. In that simple decision, the party of Lincoln, emancipation and three new Constitutional Amendments, handed the welfare of former slaves to their former masters. Southern legislatures swiftly moved to install rules of white supremacy that nullified emancipation, the Amendments, and locked free women and men into a new slavery.

For generation after generation and through two world wars a one-party white dictatorship governed the states of the old Confederacy, and reduced Black families to landless peasants. Southern bigots who controlled the Democratic Party used their political clout to advance white supremacy nationally. No national anti-lynching bill ever passed Congress, and no President after 1876 made any effort to see the Constitutional rights of people of color were enforced in the southern states. Night riders killed Black leaders, attacked schools, churches and communities.

Simultaneously, Native Americans suffered a similar fate. The Supreme Court declared Indians “wards of the state” who must bow to rule by the US cavalry and a culture imposed from outside. President Chester Arthur’s Secretary of the Interior indicated what was on the way when he announced his plan for Native Americans would outlaw customs deemed “contrary to civilization” and ban traditional ceremonies, dances and songs.

In 1887 Congress mounted a multi-pronged attack on Indigenous life through Senator Henry Dawes’s General Allotment Act. First, the law mandated the largest American property transfer in history. In less than half a century Indigenous Americans lost two thirds of what they still owned—90,000,000 acres of land. Almost a hundred thousand people became landless peasants in the home of their ancestors. Though some plots passed to eager white homesteaders the largest gainers were railroad builders and unscrupulous speculators.

Speaking for a superior, wiser and triumphant Christian nation Senator Dawes explained his aim was to civilize and reform “savages.” Indians had to “learn selfishness” and this meant “cultivate the ground, live in houses, ride in Studebaker wagons, send children to school, drink whiskey, and own property.”

In the name of a grand march toward white, Christian ideals and the sanctity of private property, the Dawes Act declared its goal of assimilation and education required the end of Native American identity, religion, and society. The Act authorized placement of Native children in schools conducted by Protestant missionaries. There brother was separated from brother, sister from sister, and children were kept from those who spoke their language. Contacts that reinforced their parents’ heritage were banned. Severe punishment awaited anyone speaking a Native American language. Far from home and family, children were taught to embrace the values of Christianity and private ownership.

Lest pupils slip back to “Indian ways” with their parents during summers, they were apprenticed to Christian families in order to practice hard work, discipline and “American values.” In Indian schools or white homes children often suffered abuse that was largely unreported and rarely corrected.

By 1889 Commissioner of Indian Affairs Thomas Jefferson Morgan exultantly announced a great victory over Native Americans — “socialism destroyed.” Then he offered new goals and new threats:

“The Indians must conform to ‘the white man’s ways’ peaceably if they will, forcibly if they must. They must adjust themselves to their environment and confirm their mode of living substantially to our civilization. . . .They cannot escape it, and must either conform to it or be crushed by it.”

As the Bureau of Indian Affairs moved to control Native American life in the West, southern planters pursued a similar path. Their tools were legally imposed segregation and discrimination laws passed by state legislatures. These were buttressed by a new form of slavery known as the “convict lease system” in which courts sentenced thousands of innocent men to labor for southern planters, mine companies, railroads and local governments. In addition there was the extra-legal terror of lynching. Southern legislatures quickly moved to deny African Americans the right to vote, hold office, bring suit or testify against whites in court, serve on juries, or exercise other human rights. Independent farmers lost their land, communities lost schools, and the skilled and professional people of color were restricted to their own communities. Families and the young began to lose hope.

Then in 1896 in the Plessey case an eight to one Supreme Court vote made segregation the “law of the land.” Less than a decade later, in 1903 Justice Edward White, forever proud he rode with the Ku Klux Klan, wrote the majority opinion in the Lone Wolf (Kiowa) case. Indian treaties could be broken by Congress, he proclaimed, “if consistent with perfectly good policy toward the Indians.” Seven years later White was elevated to Chief Justice where he lived out his life deciding what was American and legal [he died in 1921].

Beginning in 1876 African Americans and Native Americans learned—again—the words of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution did not apply to them.

One of the gifts I received as an historian was an attractively encased red, white and blue Centennial banner. 1776 appears on the top left, 1876 on the top right, and a large “United We Stand” is the center. What irony!

This essay is adapted from William Loren Katz, Black Indians: A Hidden Heritage, [New York, Atheneum Publishers, revised and expanded 2012 edition]

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