Native American History
Readings excerpted from A Different Mirror for Young People
adapted by Rebecca Stefoff from Ronald Takaki
The Road to the Reservation
In 1803 President Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to Andrew Jackson, a young political leader in Tennessee. He told Jackson that the government should encourage Native American people to sell their forests and become farmers, like the whites. Three decades later, Andrew Jackson was president. Under his leadership, the government forced thousands of Indians off their land. Farming offered no protection—even Native people who were farmers were removed from land that white Americans desired. Jackson’s relationship with the Native Americans, however, had begun long before he became president. His own fortunes were tied to what happened to the Indians.
Jackson Against the Indians
Andrew Jackson moved from North Carolina to Nashville, Tennessee, in 1787. In Tennessee he practiced law, opened stores, and became a land speculator—someone who buys a lot of land and hopes to sell it for a profit. For example, Jackson paid $100 for 2,500 acres of land along the Mississippi River and immediately sold half of it for $312. Years later he sold the rest of the land for $5,000. The land had once belonged to the Chickasaw people, but Jackson had negotiated a treaty with these Native Americans and opened it to white settlement.
Jackson also had a triumphant military career in wars against the Indians. With the rank of general he led American troops into battle with the Creek people, whom he called “savage bloodhounds” and “blood thirsty barbarians.” When Jackson learned that hostile Creek had killed more than two hundred whites at Fort Mims, near what is now Mobile, Alabama, he vowed revenge.
On March 27, 1814, Jackson took his revenge in the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. At a bend in Alabama’s Tallapoosa River, Jackson and his troops surrounded eight hundred Creek and killed most of them, including women and children. Afterward his soldiers made bridle reins out of strips of skin taken from the corpses, and Jackson sent clothing worn by the dead warriors to the ladies of Tennessee. He told his troops: These fiends . . . will no longer murder our women and children, or disturb the quiet of our borders . . . They have disappeared from the face of the Earth. In their places a new generation will arise who will know their duties better.
Honored as a hero of the Indian wars, Jackson was elected president in 1828.
He supported the state governments of Mississippi and Georgia, which wanted to
abolish Indian tribal units and let whites settle on lands that the tribes had
been farming. The tribes’ ownership of those lands had been guaranteed by
treaties with the federal, or national, government—but the states were breaking
As Jackson watched the treaties being broken, he claimed he was helpless to do anything about it. This was not true. Authority over the Indians lay with the federal government, not the states, and in 1832 the US Supreme Court ruled that states had no power to make laws that affected Indian territories. Jackson simply refused to uphold the court’s decision. Behind the scenes, in fact, he was working to have the Indians removed from their land.
The states’ goal in breaking the treaties was to end the authority of the tribal chiefs, turning them into ordinary citizens who must follow the laws of the whites rather than their own laws. The chiefs could then be bullied, bribed, or persuaded to move off their lands, and the rest of the Indians would follow. All Jackson had to do was stay out of the way.
In Jackson’s view, Indians could not survive within white society. His solution was to set aside a territory west of the Mississippi River “to be guaranteed to the Indian tribes as long as they shall occupy it . . . as long as the grass grows, or water runs.” Jackson advised the Indians to move west.
Beyond the borders of white society, they would be free to live in peace under their own governments. Jackson spoke of himself as a good father, wanting only the best for his “red children.” Taking the attitude that his position was both legal and morally right, he uprooted seventy thousand Native Americans from their homes and ordered soldiers to move them west of the Mississippi. The removal of the Indians, like the importing of African slaves to work as plantation laborers, helped turn the American South into a cotton kingdom. The major cotton-growing states—Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana—were carved out of Indian Territory.
The Choctaw Become “Wanderers in a Strange
The Choctaw of Mississippi were a farming people long before the arrival of whites. They grew corn, beans, squash, pumpkins, and watermelons, and they shared their food freely with tribe members and with neighboring communities that suffered from crop failures. By the early nineteenth century, many Choctaw had turned to raising cows and pigs in enclosed farms, in the manner of white farmers. Some Choctaw grew cotton to sell, and some owned black slaves. The government did not treat the farming Choctaw in the same way it treated white planters, however. Farming Choctaw suffered the same fate as the rest of their people.
In 1830 the Mississippi state government ended the legal identity of the Choctaw Nation and its ability to govern itself. This meant that individual Choctaw now had to obey state authority. Nine months later, officials from the federal government met with the Choctaw at Dancing Rabbit Creek to negotiate a treaty that would turn their lands over to the government and remove them to the west. The Choctaw turned down the offer, saying, “It is the voice of a very large majority of the people here present not to sell the land of their forefathers.” Thinking that the meeting was over, many Choctaw left. But the federal officials refused to accept no for an answer. They bluntly told the remaining chiefs that the Choctaw must be removed from Mississippi, or they would feel the weight of state law. If they resisted, they would be destroyed by federal forces. Under this threat, the chiefs finally signed the treaty.
The Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek gave more than ten million acres of
Choctaw land to the federal government. Not all Choctaw had to migrate to the
lands west of the Mississippi River,
however. Individuals and families could register with federal agents for a land grant in Mississippi, like any white settler. This made it look as if the program gave Choctaw a fair chance to succeed in white society as individual landowners.
In reality, the Choctaw never had a chance. As soon as an Indian acquired a land grant, a speculator loaned money to the Indian, with the title to the land as insurance for the loan. When the Indian was unable to make enough money to repay the loan, the speculator claimed ownership of the land. In other cases, white settlers simply moved onto Indian land and squatted there, refusing to move. The Indians who had claimed land grants and then lost them had to move west, along with the rest of the Choctaw.
A year after the treaty, thousands of Choctaw began their trek to the Indian Territory across the Mississippi River. On the way, many of them encountered terrible winter storms. French traveler Alexis de Toqueville witnessed the Choctaw crossing the great river and wrote of the conditions they faced:
It was then the middle of winter, and the cold was unusually severe; the snow had frozen hard upon the ground, and the river was drifting huge masses of ice. The Indians had their families with them, and they brought in their train [procession] the wounded and the sick, with children newly born and old men upon the verge of death.
Uprooted, many Choctaw felt bitter and angry. In his “Farewell Letter to the American People, 1832,” Choctaw Chief George W. Harkins explained why his people left their ancestral lands: “We were hedged in by two evils, and we chose that which we thought least.” The Choctaw had chosen to “suffer and be free” rather than remain under laws that would not let their voices be heard. But they left unwillingly, because their attachment to their native land was strong. “That cord is now broken,” Harkins declared, “and we must go forth as wanderers in a strange land!”
The Cherokee on the Trail of Tears
Like the Choctaw in Mississippi, the Cherokee in Georgia were removed from their lands “legally.” The Cherokee faced the same choice: leave or bow to white rule. Under the leadership of Principal Chief John Ross, the Cherokee refused to abandon their homes and lands. They insisted that the federal government must honor the treaties it had made — treaties that had granted the Cherokee Nation ownership of its territory and the right to govern itself. Their appeals fell on deaf ears in Washington. President Jackson sent an official to negotiate a treaty for Cherokee removal.
Not all Cherokee agreed with Chief Ross that they should resist removal. A minority of them supported the idea of removal, and John Ridge, a leader among this group, signed a treaty saying that the Cherokee would leave their land in exchange for a payment of more than three million dollars. For the treaty to take effect, it had to be ratified, or agreed to, by the entire tribe. The federal official scheduled a meeting for that purpose, but the Georgia militia prevented the Cherokee newspaper from publishing an announcement of the meeting. The militia also threw Chief Ross in jail. Only a tiny fraction of the Cherokee Nation attended the ratification meeting, and no tribal officers were present.
Even some federal officials recognized that the treaty was a fraud. Still, President Jackson and the US Congress said it was legal. The treaty set loose thousands of white settlers who seized the Cherokee lands and forced many Indians to abandon their homes. When the Cherokee refused to migrate, the federal government ordered the military to remove them by force. General Winfield Scott, with seven thousand troops, rounded up the Cherokee in a violent, cruel process, treating them as prisoners.
The Cherokee were marched west in the dead of the winter of 1838–1839. Like the migration of the Choctaw, the journey of the Cherokee brought dreadful suffering. One of the dispossessed Indians said, “Looks like maybe all be dead before we get to new Indian country, but always we keep marching on.” By the time the Cherokee reached the new Indian Territory west of the Mississippi, more than four thousand people—nearly a fourth of this exiled nation—had died on what the tribe still remembers as the Trail of Tears.
“What Shall We Do with the Indians?”
The Plains Indians, who lived west of the Mississippi River, also saw their way of life changed forever by the march of white settlement and civilization. The fate of one Plains tribe, the Pawnee, was similar to that of the Southern Indians. Traditionally the Pawnee had lived by farming corn and hunting buffalo in central Nebraska and northern Kansas. The buffalo hunt was a sacred activity, and the number of animals killed was strictly limited to what the Pawnee were able to consume. Then, during the nineteenth century, the Pawnee began to take part in the fur trade. Hunting started to become a commercial activity. Contact with white traders also introduced new diseases like smallpox, which reduced the Pawnee population from ten thousand in 1830 to only four thousand in 1845.
By then, an even greater threat to the Pawnee had emerged. It was the railroad. In his 1831 message to Congress, President Jackson praised science for expanding man’s power over nature by linking the cities together with railroads. At that time the United States had just seventy-three miles of railroad track, but the network of railways would grow. Thirty years later in 1860 the United States would have 30,636 miles of track—more than the whole continent of Europe.
The railroad brought a new, modern era, one in which horses and Indians would
have no place. “In a few years, like Indians, [horses] will be merely
traditional,” declared a newspaper editorial in 1853. The railroads crisscrossed
the Plains and reached toward the Pacific Coast, bringing the frontier to an
end. Another writer asked in 1867, “What shall we do with the Indians?” His
answer was that the Indians must take their place in white society, under white
laws, or be “exterminated.”
Behind the railroads were powerful corporations, deliberately planning the settlement of the West and the growth of their business interests. Railroad companies saw the Native Americans as obstacles. They lobbied the government for rights-of-way that would let them build tracks through what had been set aside as Indian land. The railroad companies also pushed for passage of a law called the Indian Appropriation Act of March 3, 1871, which said “no Indian nation or tribe within the territory of the United States shall be acknowledged or recognized as an independent nation, tribe, or power, with whom the United States may contract by treaty.” As one lawyer for a railroad company pointed out, the Act destroyed the political existence of the tribes. It allowed the companies to build tracks across America, opening the West to new settlement. All this was seen by whites as the progress of civilization.
Indians saw it very differently. They watched the railroad carry white hunters to the Plains, turning the prairies into buffalo killing fields. They found carcasses rotting along the tracks, a trail of death for the animal that had been the main source of life for the Plains Indians. At the same time, white settlers complained that the Pawnee occupied some of the best land in the region. Settlers, their newspapers, and their leaders called on Washington to remove the Indians. The Pawnee also found themselves under attack from the Sioux, a Plains people who had lived to the north. Pushed south by the white settlers moving into their lands and by the decline of the buffalo, the Sioux attacked the Pawnee, burned their crops, and stole their food. In 1873 the Sioux attacked a Pawnee hunting party at what came to be known as Massacre Canyon and killed more than a hundred of them.
Stunned by this tragedy, the Pawnee had to decide whether they should retreat to federal reservations for protection. In spite of the anguish of leaving their homeland, most felt they had no choice. They migrated to a reservation in Kansas. The identity and existence of the Pawnee had depended on the boundlessness of their sky and earth. But now railroad tracks cut across their land like long gashes, and fences enclosed their grasslands where buffalo once roamed. Indians had become a minority on land they had occupied for thousands of years.
A Pawnee named Overtakes the Enemy said, “To do what they [whites] called civilizing us . . . was to destroy us. You know they thought that changing us, getting rid of our old ways and language and names would make us like white men. But why should we want to be like them, cheaters and greedy?"
The world the Plains Indians had known was coming to an end.
A Family’s Terrible Trek
“Long time we travel on the way to new land,” a Cherokee said. “People feel bad when they leave Old Nation. Women cry and make sad wails. Children cry and many men cry, and all look sad when friends die, but they say nothing, just put heads down and keep on going towards West.”
Four thousand Cherokee, including many children, died of cold, hunger, or disease on the Trail of Tears in the winter of 1838–1839. Those who survived would have to make a new life in the unfamiliar land west of the Mississippi River. Leaders among the Cherokee came forward to help their people during and after the trek. Jesse Bushyhead was one of them. His grandfather, John Stuart, had come to North America from Scotland with the British army before the American Revolution. Stuart married a Cherokee woman and spent the rest of his life among her people, who gave him the name Bushyhead because of his distinctive mop of red curls.
Jesse Bushyhead, Stuart’s grandson, was raised in the traditional Cherokee culture, but he also attended schools run by white missionaries. By the time the US government began removing the Cherokee from their land, Jesse Bushyhead had become a Baptist minister, a missionary to the Indians, and an interpreter who helped Indians and government officials communicate.
Bushyhead opposed the government’s removal of the Cherokee. When he realized that it could not be avoided, he gathered together his family and about a thousand other Cherokee, mostly Christians, and led them west. The journey lasted six months. By the time Bushyhead and his followers reached the Indian Territory in Oklahoma, eighty-two members of the group had died—but this was a better record than many of the bands that traveled the Trail of Tears.
One person lost from Bushyhead’s group was his seventeen-year-old daughter, who died soon after the travelers had crossed the Mississippi. Other Bushyhead children survived. They would follow in their father’s footsteps by becoming leaders and helpers of the Cherokee people.
In the tribe’s new home, Jesse Bushyhead served as an elder of the Baptist church and had the responsibility of distributing food sent by the government to the Indians. His son Dennis left the reservation to attend Princeton University and then to join the California Gold Rush in 1849, but he later returned and took up his role as a chief in Cherokee politics.
One well-known member of the Bushyhead clan was Jesse’s daughter Carrie, who
was four years old when the family set out on the Trail of Tears. Carrie
survived the journey. After the family reached Oklahoma, she attended a
school for Cherokee
girls, then went on to teach many Cherokee children at another school, the
Baptist Mission. Long after her death in 1909, this survivor of the Trail of
Tears was remembered by her students and others in the community as Aunt Carrie.
Dealing with the Indians
One of the most significant events of the 1890s in the United States was the end of the frontier. In 1891 the US Census Bureau announced that Americans had settled the entire continent, and that the frontier had come to an end. Two years later a historian named Frederick Jackson Turner published a thesis that would make him famous.
Turner’s thesis was titled “The Significance of the Frontier in American
History.” It said that America and its people had been shaped by the great
historic movement of advancing the frontier, which Turner called “the meeting
point between savagery and civilization.” Conquering the frontier had made
Americans strong and self-reliant, producing a new civilization that was
different from any other.
These ideas supported the popular but inaccurate story that says that the United States was settled by Europeans, and that Americans are white. With this view of history, it was inevitable that the Native Americans would be overcome and replaced by white Americans. The conquest of those first inhabitants was a necessary part of the taming and civilizing of the land.
The official closing of the frontier in 1891, many people thought at the
time, marked the triumph of civilization. An event the year before, however, had
showed the tragic cost of that triumph.
The Massacre at Wounded Knee
In 1889 an Indian prophet emerged from the shores of Pyramid Lake in Nevada. He was Wovoka of the Paiute tribe, and he called on Native Americans everywhere to perform a ceremony he called the Ghost Dance, wearing “ghost shirts” decorated with sacred symbols of blue and yellow lines.
Wovoka claimed that the Ghost Dance would bring about the return of Indian ways, the restoration of the buffalo, and Indian control of their former lands. “All Indians must dance, everywhere, keep on dancing. . . . The game [will] be thick everywhere. All dead Indians [will] come back and live again,” Wovoka said. His vision of a world without whites spread like a prairie fire through Indian country. Ghost dancing seized hold of the Sioux reservations. In the winter of 1890 a government agent at Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota told his superiors in Washington, “Indians are dancing in the snow and are wild and crazy. We need protection and we need it now.”
The Indian Bureau in Washington ordered the army to arrest several Sioux leaders, including Chiefs Sitting Bull and Big Foot. When Indian policemen arrested Sitting Bull, a scuffle broke out with his followers, and the police shot and killed the chief. Alarmed by this news, Big Foot tried to escape with his people. When the cavalry caught them, the Indians surrendered. The soldiers took them to a camp near a frozen creek called Wounded Knee.
The following morning the Indians were ordered to turn over their weapons. Then soldiers began searching the tepees, and the situation grew tense. When a medicine man began dancing the Ghost Dance, a shot rang out, and suddenly the soldiers were firing on the unarmed Indians. “There were only about a hundred warriors and there were nearly five hundred soldiers,” a survivor named Black Elk recalled. “The warriors rushed to where they had piled their guns and knives.”
Artillery guns fired from a ridge overlooking the camp took a terrible toll
on the Indians. Those who fled from the camp were chased down by soldiers. “Dead
and wounded women and children and little babies were scattered all along there
where they had been trying to run away,” Black Elk reported. “The soldiers had
followed them along the gulch, as they ran, and murdered them in there.”
When the guns stopped spewing their deadly fire, a terrible silence descended on the bloody scene. Hundreds of Indians lay dead or wounded on the icy ground, along with many soldiers, most of whom had been shot in the chaos by weapons fired by their own side. Heavy snow began to fall. After the storm passed, the soldiers threw the Indian bodies into a long trench for mass burial, stripping the ghost shirts from the dancers’ bodies as souvenirs.
Custer and the Frontier
Before Wounded Knee there was the massacre at the Washita River in Oklahoma, in the winter of 1868. Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer and eight hundred soldiers had been tracking a band of Cheyenne Indians when they came upon an Indian camp in the darkness. Custer ordered his men to surround it. At dawn they attacked, destroying the lodges, killing more than a hundred men, and capturing more than fifty women and children. Custer and his men marched triumphantly back to their own camp waving the scalps of the Cheyenne men and their leader, Chief Black Kettle.
Eight years later, Custer—who had been promoted to general—met his own violent death at the Battle of the Little Big Horn River in the Montana Territory. Surrounded by the Lakota and Cheyenne warriors of Chief Crazy Horse, Custer refused to surrender. He and all his men were killed.
Custer was famous as an Indian fighter, yet he identified with the Indians in
many ways. He loved the freedom of the frontier and the beauty of the Western
wilderness, and he wrote that if he were an Indian, he would choose the “free
open plains” rather than the “confined limits of a reservation.”
The Reservation System
Unlike Custer, Francis A. Walker tried to avoid using armed force against the Indians. Walker was the federal government’s Commissioner of Indian Affairs in the 1870s. He recommended that soldiers should not surprise Indian camps at night and should not shoot down men, women, and children.
Instead, he wanted the government to pursue peace by buying off the Indians to avoid violent conflict. Walker had little experience with Indians, but he had confidence in the civilizing forces of technology and commerce. He saw that progress was bringing an end to the frontier, as railways crossed the continent and Americans migrated in ever-larger numbers into the Great Plains. Indians faced a grim future in this rapidly changing world. Walker felt that his mission was to save the Indians, making sure that they survived until they were ready to enter civilization. He believed in social engineering—in other words, he thought that the government should scientifically manage the welfare of Indians, for their own good.
Industrial progress had cut off the Indians from their traditional ways of making a livelihood. So, Walker argued, the government should support them temporarily until they mastered new ways. His plan for this transition was to move the Indians of the West into one or two large reservations, leaving the land outside these reservations open for white settlement. Indians outside the reservation boundaries would be fair game to be attacked by the military at any time.
The long-term goal, Walker explained, was to help the Native American people assimilate. He pictured the giant reservation as a place where Indians would have to work, learn industrial skills, attend school, and generally do as they were told. A program of education and work would turn the former wanderers into settled laborers. Trained and reformed on the reservation, the Indians would be prepared to enter civilized society.
The Dawes Act
Other white reformers had a different solution to the question of what to do with the Indians. In their view, reservations only kept Native Americans apart from the rest of society and delayed their assimilation. This view became official policy in 1887, when Congress passed the Dawes Act.
The Dawes Act reversed Walker’s Peace Policy. It was designed to break up the reservations that already existed and to turn Indians into individual property owners and US citizens. Reservation lands belonged to tribes, not to individuals, but the Dawes Act gave the president the power, without tribal consent, to give land to individual families in plots of up to 160 acres. These parcels were called allotments. Any “surplus” reservation land that was left after individuals had received their allotments could be sold by the government to white settlers. Profits from these sales would go toward educating the Indians, who would become US citizens when they accepted their allotments.
Senator Henry Dawes, the author of the act, believed that for the Indians to be civilized the tribal system must be destroyed. Owning communal land led to savage habits and laziness. By creating private property holders, the allotment system would make Indians independent and self-reliant. Selling the “surplus” reservation land to whites would help the Indians, too. Native American farmers would learn good work habits from the white farmers who would be their neighbors.
The Dawes Act gave Indians what they already owned: their land. But it also took land away from them. White farmers and business interests were well aware of the economic advantages they stood to gain from the allotment program. In 1880, Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz predicted that the allotments would “eventually open to settlement by white men the large tracts of land now belonging to the reservations, but not used by the Indians.”
Railroad companies also benefited from the policy of breaking up
reservations. In 1886–1887, Congress made six land grants to railroad interests,
giving them the right to build railways through Indian land and to claim
property along the railway lines. During the next two sessions of Congress, the
nation’s lawmakers granted another twenty-three railroad rights-of-way through
Land Changes Hands
Four years after the Dawes Act became law, Indian Commissioner Thomas Morgan calculated that in the year 1891 alone, one-seventh of all Indian lands were sold to non-Indians. While Morgan admitted that this might look like a rapid loss of land, he explained that the Indians had hardly used it and did not need it.
In 1902 Congress passed a new law that sped up the transfer of land from Indians to whites. The law said that when the Indian owner of a land allotment died, the property could not be left to the owner’s heirs but had to be sold at open auction. Unless the heirs were able to buy their own family land, they would lose it. A government official assured President Theodore Roosevelt that under this system “it will be but a few years at most before all the Indians’ land will have passed into the possession of the settlers.”
Native Americans resisted these efforts to take their lands away. Chief Lone Wolf of the Kiowa, for example, insisted in court that an 1868 treaty required that all deals involving tribal land must be approved by the whole tribe. The US Supreme Court ruled against him, saying that the federal government had the power to change or cancel the provisions of an Indian treaty. This decision allowed the government to dispose of Indians’ land without their permission. One Indian Affairs official greeted the decision with relief, saying that without the Supreme Court it might have taken as long as fifty years to get rid of the reservations and free up the land for white farmers.
By 1933 the Native American peoples of the United States had lost about 60 percent of the 138 million acres they had owned at the time of the Dawes Act. The policy of allotment had been turning the Indians into a landless people.
A Change in Direction
The allotment program was halted suddenly in 1934 by a new law called the Indian Reorganization Act. This Act was the creation of John Collier, who had been named Commissioner of Indian Affairs by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Collier admired the sense of community he found among the Native American peoples of New Mexico. He declared that only the Indians still knew the secret of building character through communal life. Collier wanted to let Indians remain Indians and allow them to enter modern life without giving up their heritage and culture. “If the Indian life is a good life,” he wrote, “then we should be proud and glad to have this different and native culture going on by the side of ours.”
In Collier’s view, allotment was destroying the Indian communal way of life.
His Indian Reorganization Act represented a complete change in direction from
the Dawes Act. It not only ended the allotment program but also authorized the
use of federal funds for tribes to buy land and establish their own local
self-governments. This reorganization, though, would apply only to tribes in
which a majority of members voted to accept it. No tribe would be forced to
reorganize. Collier felt that letting the tribes choose whether or not to change
from one system to the other was a way of giving Indians some say in their
destiny. A year after the new law went into effect, 172 tribes with a total of
132,426 members voted to accept reorganization. Another 73 tribes with a total
of 63,467 voted not to be included in the reorganization.
The Navajos’ Long Walk
The Navajo of the Southwest were one of the tribes that turned down the offer of reorganization. To them, Collier represented a long tradition of white people telling Indians what was in their best interest. The Navajo remembered decisions that whites had made for them in the 1860s. For several centuries, ever since they acquired sheep from the Spanish, the Navajo had been herders. After the United States won the Southwest in the war against Mexico, whites began intruding on Navajo lands. Conflict followed.
In 1863 the Navajo surrendered to an army scout named Christopher “Kit” Carson after his troops destroyed their orchards and sheep herds. The Indians were rounded up and marched to a reservation called Bosque Redondo. They called this event the Long Walk. Five years later, the government moved the Navajo again—to a reservation in their original homeland. The Indians also received sheep to replace the livestock Carson’s forces had destroyed.
Now, in the 1930s, the Navajo were getting instructions not from a soldier
like Carson but from a government administrator. Although Collier wanted to give
the Indians self-rule, he was also trying to socially engineer their world—he
even called it an ethnic laboratory. The Navajos rejected his reorganization
plan because they did not want an outside “guardian” telling them what was best
The reorganization vote was only one of Collier’s interactions with the Navajo. In 1933 he decided that the Navajo owned half a million more livestock than their reservation could support. Overgrazing by their sheep and goats, he claimed, was causing severe soil erosion. Unless the problem of erosion was solved, and soon, the sheep-raising Navajo would experience great hardship and suffering.
Collier was worried about Navajo survival, but he was also worried about white interests. He had received reports that silt fro erosion on Navajo land was filling the Colorado River and threatening to clog Boulder Dam (now called Hoover Dam), a huge hydroelectric project that was being built to supply water to California’s agricultural heartland and to provide electricity for Los Angeles. The United States Geological Survey identified the Navajo reservation as the chief cause of the Colorado silt problem.
The solution, Collier decided, was to reduce Navajo livestock by 400,000
animals. Over a five-year period he flew to the reservation seventeen times to
explain and promote the stock reduction program, but the Navajo did not accept
it. “In my long life of social effort and struggle,” Collier later wrote, “I
have not experienced among any other Indian group, or any group whatsoever, an
anxiety-ridden and anguished hostility even approaching that which the Navajo
For the Navajo, sheep and survival were the same Raising sheep was their way of life. Boys grew up caring for the flocks, and herding represented the closeness of the family and the passing of values from one generation to the next. Reducing their herds went against everything they believed, everything they had learned from years of living on their land.
But Collier carried out his program to remove livestock in order to stop erosion. Agents removed sheep and goats while the Navajo wondered how they would live without their stock. After his sheep had been taken away, one herder cursed the officials: “You people are indeed heartless. You have now killed me. You have cut off my arms. You have cut off my legs. You have taken my head off. There is nothing left for me. This is the end of the trail.”
Meanwhile, the Navajo found themselves increasingly living on wages, mostly from temporary government employment. The stock reduction program had reduced many Navajo to dependency on the federal government. To the Indians, Collier’s project was the most devastating experience in their tribal history since the Long Walk.
Tragically, the stock reduction program was not even necessary to control erosion. After more research on soil erosion, scientists would discover that overgrazing was not the source of the problem. The Navajo had know that all along, and had tried in vain to tell the government. They knew that erosion had occurred many times in the past. It was part of a years-long cycle of dry weather, erosion, rainfall, and recovery. The problems of erosion and silt had more to do with drought than with the number of Navajo livestock.
The 1930s had brought years of little rain. The Indians predicted that the
dry rangelands would covered with fresh new grass when the drought ended. But by
that time, sadly, their herds and their way of life would be eroded along with
The Last Arrow
“Last-Arrow Pageants” were events that the federal government organized to symbolize the Native Americans’ shift from their old way of life to a new life as landowners and farmers. An article from the Gettysburg Times of January 5, 1917, describes how the Department of the Interior held these ceremonies “to modernize the race” of Indians:
The Indians who are to be honored with the confidence of
the government are selected by a “competency commission” of three men . . . who
go through a reservation from house to house, reporting on the progress of each
family—the condition of the house and farm, the way the children are cared for
and their general economic status. . . . [T]he Indians selected
are invited to a public meeting. . . .
There a representative of the department of the interior tells them very solemnly that the president has heard that they are ready to leave the control of the Indian bureau and become free American citizens. . . . He then calls the English name of the first man on his list—James Robinson, it may be, whose Indian name, perhaps, was Rain-in-the-Face. . . .
[T]he official hands him a bow and arrow, telling him to shoot the arrow. The Indian complies.
As the arrow strikes the ground the representative of the government says: “Rain-in-the-Face, you have shot your last arrow. That means that you are no longer to live the life of an Indian. You are from this day forward to live the life of a white man. But you may keep that arrow. It will be to you a symbol of your noble race and of the pride you feel that you come from the first of all Americans.
“James Robinson, take in your hand this plow.”
The government official then told the Indian that the plow represented work. Another gift, a purse, represented savings, and the official urged the Indian to work hard and use his earnings wisely. The third gift, a flag, represented American citizenship.“The general effect of the ceremonial has proved most happy,” says the final sentence of the article, “and the honor of participating in it has served as a stimulus to many of the Indians to work harder for the privileges of citizenship.” Nowhere does the article say what the Indians themselves thought about this ceremony, or of the way it required them to give up the names and customs of their people.