Another View of the ‘Indian Troubles’
After the Civil War, the nation turned its energies to rebuilding itself and settling the West. Government policy toward the Native Americans still roaming the vast plains left the Indians with only two choices, neither very good. Either accept life on sterile reservations where corrupt Indian agents kept their wards in a state of constant near-starvation, or try to follow the traditional ways off the reservation—in which case the government would label you “hostile” and hunt you down.
Many newspaper editorials in the last quarter of the nineteenth century supported the government’s Indian policy, but occasionally a dissenting voice was heard, such as in the following example criticizing “the wrongs and abuses heaped upon them for years under our so-called Indian policy.” Even here, in a piece sympathetic to the Indians’ plight, note the condescension in such phrases as “civilize our Indians.”
This editorial argues against “the theory that the cannon and the musket are the only effectual means to the conversion of Indians,” and makes this plea: “This outbreak proves the necessity of dealing with the Indians not more rigorously but more wisely, more humanely, and more justly.” It is bitterly ironic that this editorial was published on Dec. 29, 1890—the day of the infamous Wounded Knee Massacre. It was printed by the Daily Inter Ocean (Chicago, Illinois).
So full are the papers just now with reports of Indian hostilities the public possibly thinks only of the red man as a troublesome savage whose extermination would be in high degree beneficial. Especially is this opinion entertained by those who covet the lands the Indians occupy under the uncertainties of government treaties. We have heard a great deal of harping upon Sheridan’s bitter epigram that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian,” and most comment upon the outbreak has been prejudicial of the tribes that have taken up arms to resent the wrongs and abuses heaped upon them for years under our so-called Indian policy.
For all this, there is a view of the case that reflects dishonor upon the United States by demonstrating what may be done with even such red men as are now clustered defiant in the Bad Lands. To the discredit of a Christian government, be it said, there have ever been persons directly and indirectly connected with the management of Indian affairs who have done what they could to keep alive the very erroneous opinion that the civilization of the Indian is a utopian dream, an utter absurdity. It has been urged speciously but disingenuously that immemorial customs, traditions, and habits of life unfit the Indian for domestication, and that any surrender of his hereditary methods and inclinations could be only apparent and temporary. As a matter of fact no honest and sustained attempt to civilize our Indians has been made. They have never been dealt with, as a body, according to any wise, just and equitable system of education and persuasion. Individually they have been approached with understanding of their needs, and individually they have responded so encouragingly that the iniquity of this general plan of dealing with them is made plain.
Take the Sioux Indians of Dakota as the field of inquiry and we shall find results more than enough to justify the belief of genuine friends of the Indians that in time and by right methods all the aboriginal tribes could be won to the ways of peace and industry. Reporting to the Indian Rights Association, Bishop Hare says there are nine Sioux Indians nobly serving in the sacred ministry, with forty Sioux Indians helping them as catechists; that there are forty branches of the Woman’s Auxiliary among the Sioux Indians; that there are 1,700 Sioux Indian communicants, and that these Indians contribute $3,000 annually for religious purposes. Though these facts may weigh but little in the public mind against the conspicuous fact that the present Indian excitement was brought about by heathen Sioux, they disprove conclusively the theory that the cannon and the musket are the only effectual means to the conversion of Indians.
The fact must not be lost sight of that the best service rendered the government in this emergency was by friendly Indians, wearing the blue uniforms of the military police, fighting against their own kindred because they had espoused the cause of government and civilization. Bishop Hare declares the present disturbance would not have arisen had the government wisely consigned to Fort Marion or Fortress Monroe certain ringleaders in the Custer affair. If judicious steps are taken in dealing with the men responsible for the present outbreak future disasters will be prevented. As the good Bishop says: “In dealing with these evil-doers let there be no mere revenge, much less indiscriminate revenge. This has been indulged in in the past and the friendly Indians have already fear of its repetition. It will be an event in Indian life of vast and far-reaching influence for good if, after this outburst, the Indians discover that the power which bears the sword will do it “for the punishment of evil-doers and for the praise of them that do well.”
This outbreak proves the necessity of dealing with the Indians not more rigorously but more wisely, more humanely, and more justly. Treaties made with them must be kept in spirit and in letter. It is no less true today than it was when stated in 1881, by Colonel Carrington, that there has not been a border campaign since 1865 that did not have its impulse in the aggressions of the white man. Indian wars are expensive. Those between the years 1872 and 1882 cost the government over $200,000,000. The methods of peace are cheaper, to say nothing of their moral economy.