Land is inherent to Native American people; they often cannot conceive of life without it. They are part of it, and it is part of them. It is their mother.Sinder Larson, Fear and Contempt: A European Concept of Property, American Indian Quarterly
Vol. 21, No. 4 (Autumn, 1997).
The Native Americans’ deep and spiritual connection with Native American land cannot be more beautifully expressed than the above words by the former director of American Indian Studies at Iowa State University. Today the Native tribes of this land are rising up and demanding their lands back, citing that the US government has broken the land rights promised to the Natives over 300 times in their history. However, even in the “woke” culture of today, this burning issue barely receives a mention in the weekly content diet.
Let’s remedy a little bit of that with facts and history that will blow your mind.
How Much Native Lands Did the English Rulers Dispossess?
In the 1970s Sam Hilliard published a series of maps detailing the serial progression of land lost by Native American nations.
Sam Hilliard’s maps show the progression of the inhuman land dispossession by the English settlers. It’s starting, Claims by Tribe map does not show the full picture, as it ignores the East coast lands the original settlers had already usurped arriving from Europe and establishing colonies.
In a new data set, scholars from Yale University quantified and collated the disparate sources only last year, tracing archives going back 300-400 years of treaties made to rope the tribes into giving up their land. The conclusion? Native Americans were dispossessed of an astounding 98.9% of their original land. Geographically speaking, the figure amounts to 93.9% of forced land cessation (discounting multiple tribes occupying the same land historically).
Interested readers should head over to Canada’s interactive resource called Native Land, which charts all those original territories across the whole North American continent. The whole continent was sprinkled with a rich tapestry of indigenous nations with their own cultures, languages, and heritages living in peaceful harmony with nature for thousands of years.
How the Land Was Pried From the Native American Hands: Early Era
Let’s dig into history and find out the strategies the rulers used to encroach and dispossess.
Native American Genocide During the Age of Discovery
Starting in the 15th century Age of Discovery era, the same story repeats again and again: One of several developed European nations (British, French, Danish, Spaniard, Portuguese, Norwegian, or Swedish) “discovering” the East coast along the Americas (including the islands and peninsulas of Central America). Meanwhile, the Russians were busy with the West Coast (Alaska, parts of California, and Hawaii).
The map below shows the extent of European colonization circa 1750 ahead of the War of Independence. Historian David Stannard minces no words in his scholarly work, American Holocaust: Columbus and the Conquest of the New World, when he identifies genocide as the blatant strategy by White settlers in clearing the land of Natives populations along the coast. Apart from battles and massacres, forced labor, and death through European diseases were major causes of death.
According to a recently published study at University College, London, at least 50 million natives lost their lives during 1492-1600, so much that it had a cooling effect on the climate from sheer population loss.
Land Dispossession via Treaties and First Native American Reservations
Until 1750, the settlers had coalesced as a nation and were moving towards independence from mother England. Their needs for expansion were increasing accordingly. Their ping-pong of hypocrisy consisting of treaty formation and broken treaties starts in 1758, with the first-ever Native American reserve: the Brotherton Indian Reservation in Shamong Township, New Jersey.
Until then both the Delaware tribe and White settlers had occupied this area in relative peace. Under an act approved in the British Legislature for this very purpose, an authorized commission drew up a treaty, to resolve mutual conflicts. The Delawares gave up their lands in exchange for a limit where they could stay with relative independence and other benefits from the rulers.
In 1764, the British Board of Trade formed a Plan for the Future Management of Indian Affairs, stating that the natives were to be properly consulted when drawing up treaties and creating boundaries of white settlements. But that’s not how it went.
Treaties became common, including after the independence of the United States in 1776. In 1824, the 7th Vice President John C. Calhoun made 38 treaties with various tribes via the Bureau of Indian Affairs, acknowledging each tribe as an independent sovereign.
In his inaugural address in 1829, President Andrew Jackson vowed to “observe toward the Indian tribes within our limits a just and liberal policy, and to give that humane and considerate attention to their rights and their wants which is consistent with the habits of our Government and the feelings of our people.”
What was his very next horrendously contradictory act? Read on.
The Trail of Tears: Legislated Land Dispossession via the Indian Removal Act
Only 14 months later, the same President backed the Removal Act by Congress, passed into law on May 30, 1830. The Act did not pass without controversy and protest from politicians and missionaries alike.
Read below President Jackson’s response to the protest, recorded in his annual message to Congress. Contrast the thinly veiled eugenics beliefs and climate insensitivity to that inaugural speech before.
“Humanity has often wept over the fate of the aborigines of this country and philanthropy has long been busily employed in devising means to avert it, but its progress has never for a moment been arrested, and one by one have many powerful tribes disappeared from the earth… But true philanthropy reconciles the mind to these vicissitudes as it does to the extinction of one generation to make room for another… What good man would prefer a country covered with forests and ranged by a few thousand savages to our extensive Republic, studded with cities, towns, and prosperous farms, embellished with all the improvements which art can devise or industry execute, occupied by more than 12,000,000 happy people, and filled with all the blessings of liberty, civilization, and religion?”President Andrew Jackson, second annual message to Congress c. 1830, Messages and Papers of the Presidents, Vol. 2, via University of Pennsylvania.
What followed was the forced expulsion of Native Americans from the then United States in what is today rightfully recognized as an atrocious act of ethnic cleansing. Around 60,000 people from Five Civilized Tribes (Cherokee, Muscogee, Seminole, Chickasaw, and Choctaw) were thus removed from the Southeastern United States, forced to relocate west of the Missippi rivers where settlers hadn’t expanded to yet.
Thousands died before ever reaching the destination due to exposure, disease, starvation, and other hardships of the journey. Historian Jeffery Ostler has noted that the threat of a more direct genocide was an oft-used incentive for submission. People who escaped relocation also went through cultural genocide via forced assimilation, according to scholar Patrick Wolfe.
Land Dispossession in the Reservation Era: More of Treaties, Trials, Trails, and Tears
The discovery of gold in California in January 1848 turned the land dispossession game more brutal than it already was. The same year in February, the US won the California Republic following the Mexican-American War (1846-48) and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.
Land Dispossession Through a Native Lens: Dr. Karina Walters’ Reservation Era Timeline
Dr. Karina L. Walters, a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, is the principal investigator for the Indigenous Wellness Research Institute, University of Washington. Her research has put together an interactive, detailed, and tragic timeline of the Reservation Era atrocities. The list of the atrocities is so long and detailed that we can only skim the surface here, with the promise of a detailed follow-up on the topic later in this blog.
1851: California Genocide begins with the Governor’s 1851 extermination order, killing tens of thousands until 1873.
1850s-90s: Scalp Industry: Mexican leaders’ scalp hunting laws gained popularity and many white settlers made a living as bounty hunters, taking the Natives dead or alive for prize money.
1852: Mormon militia in Utah exterminates hundreds of Timpanogos on the Governor’s orders.
1854: Millions of acres were purchased in Arizona and New Mexico leading to the policy of allotting small pockets of lands to individual tribe members. This allowed the government to control most of the land and build rail tracks and roads intruding into Natives’ habitats.
1855-56: Rogue River War, Oregon. Prompted by gold discovery in Jacksonville, Thousands died in the war. Survivors were forced to relocate to far-removed Coast reservations.
1862: Dakota Wars and Trials in Minnesota and Minneapolis were prompted to curb protests and raids by starving tribes due to unfulfilled treaty conditions. Hundreds were executed or died in internment camps.
1863: Bear River Massacre – Hundreds of Shoshone natives murdered by the military in Idaho.
1864: Civil War Sacrifices of the Navajo (Dines people). Thousands died on their forced relocation journey to internment, where another thousand died of disease and starvation.
1865-1903: The Great Buffalo Hunt was an army strategy to clear the Plains Indians out of their regions for Union Pacific and Kansas Pacific Railroads. Over 30 million bison were annihilated.
1866: Southeastern Five Tribes forced into “Reconstruction Treaties” snatching their lands for siding with Confederation Army.
1868: Gold discovery in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains prompts the government to break the Treaty of Fort Laramie and commit Cheyenne massacres.
1871: Indian Appropriate Act removed the need for treaties by removing Native nations’ “sovereign rights.”
1872: The General Mining Act allowed individuals and merchants to stake claims to lands (violating treaty rights) for mining resources.
1876: Great Sioux War follows illegitimate eviction order by President Grant on miners’ demand after the Black Hills gold discovery.
1870s: Northern Cheyenne already relocated decades before from the north were forced from their Dakota and Nebraska states into military internment in Oklahoma for perishment through disease and cold.
1876-86: The Apache resisted forced relocation to the Gila River Indian Reservation, with Geronimo at last surrendering on terms that were never honored.
1887: The General Allotment (Dawes Act) was the final nail in the coffin of Natives’ landholding. Now the government proceeds with further dividing up the existing reservations, alloting parcels to individual families and utilizing the remaining land.
1890: Wounded Knee Massacre. The military butchered hundreds of the Oglala-Lakota tribes in “fear” of the Ghost Dance rituals the tribes were performing to ward off the settlers’ evils.
Land Dispossession After the Reservation Era
This era depicts the picture that the white settlers had been trying to achieve for nearly a hundred years as they used one strategy and trickery after another to dispose the Natives of their ancestral lands. The government was in total control of the land, the Natives had been completely removed from the country’s economic and political system, and a new policy of forced assimilation had emerged. Whereby, Native children were to be removed from reservations, and Christianized and raised in residential schools.
The Indian Reorganization Act (1934) stimulates a brief reprieve for reservation life with the building of roads, medical clinics, and opportunities to rebuild tribal communities. However, the discovery of coal and uranium on Reservation lands reignites a new wave of forced relocation to clear the mining areas of tribal communities at the false promise of urban relocation.
Despite a new consciousness emerging among the Natives communities to re-energize the fight for Native rights and lands, land dispossession and treaty violation continue. The Hopi Land Settlement Act (1974) forces 12,000 Dines to give up the lands with strip-mining interests. In 2010, the US government appropriated Yucca Mountain, part of the designated land for the Western Shoshone for disposing of high-level nuclear waste.
The struggle continues to this day. It is estimated that only 238,000 Natives were left alive at the end of the Indian Wars in the late 1880s. Today there are about 5.2 million registered members of Native nations, making up about 2% of the country.