Race Conceptions of Native Americans from 1820 until today

Seminar Paper, 2007

21 Pages, Grade: 2,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. A general outline of the history and race conception of Native Americans until 1820

3. A New Policy – The Time from 1820 – 1860

4. Comparison and Conclusion

5. Appendix – Ralph Waldo Emerson, Letter to the Government

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Exactly 400 years ago, English settlers founded the first settlement called Jamestown near the Chesapeake Bay in the state that today is Virginia. The following four-hundred years were filled with battles for land, struggles for independence and the building of the myth of a new, promised land that held life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for everybody.

Many books have concerned themselves with the history of the United States of America, painting a glorious picture of a country which emerged to become one of the world's leading countries in less than 200 years after its foundation in 1789, when the first 13 states formed the United States of America.

Historians work on writing books about great wars like the Civil War, about the great authors and artists that this so called 'New-Republic' produced, about the ups and downs in the economy and the promise of that new 'Virgin Land' which had been given to the Europeans to form a new, better country in which all men are considered equal and possess the same inalienable rights on life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Those books report about the flawed system of the American South, which was based on slavery and therefore on depriving a certain group of humans of just those promised rights. And they report about how the slaves were freed and integrated into the society over a century. They are mentioned as an integral part of this wonderful new country, which, after the civil War ended, managed to unify again into one, becoming today's world's most powerful country.

Undoubtedly, minority problems are mentioned, there are the Jews, the Chinese-Americans, the Hispanics and all the other immigrant groups, which are constantly being discussed in the politics, the media, even at school. Programs are started, bilingual schools are offered and other efforts are made to include those people into the melting pot of infinite possibilities.

But one race, that one which possesses the oldest rights to that land, because they have been there for centuries before the Europeans had even head or dreamed of this so-called 'New World', has constantly been ignored throughout history – the Native American people.

Even today they are merely considered as the 'Indian problem'. Whereas Women, Blacks and Hispanics have long attained the rights that have been promised to them by the Founding Fathers in the famous constitutions, Native Americans today are still considered outsiders, being only rarely mentioned by history books or classes.

Yet, the history of the United States of America is not just the history of some wars for freedom, of depression or World Wars, of presidencies and politics. What most history books fail to mention is, that all of the happenings are based on one basic factor – the constant repression of the original inhabitants of this so-called “Virgin Land”.

The history of the United States for the Native Americans is not one of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but rather one of imprisonment, despair and a constant struggle for hope.

It has been similar for many races since initially the promises of the constitution seemed to be preserved for only one priviledged class of human kind – white males.

The great difference is, though, that today, when all other previously considered inferior groups do possess those rights, the Native American people still seem to be excluded from the great American Dream. They started out as trade partners of the first settlers, they have never been as systematically enslaved as the African American people were, and yet they have not fully been able to ensure the Civil Rights for them.

And despite the numbers of increasing unemployment rates, alcohol addiction and diseases such as diabetes, the US government today doesn't make particularly hard efforts to improve the situation for the people who had inhabited the land for more than thousand years before the first settlers came to Virginia.

So what happened? What was different between Blacks and Native Americans, who initially started out as trade partners and even provided the settlers with food during their first hard winter?

The Native American woman Blackcrowheart says today “African slaves were valued more then our people. Think about it. We were killed without question a lot, and the African slaves were valued to a certain degree, because they did what they were told and worked hard doing it." 1

Is that what happened? Was the concept of an inferior race the same, and just the fact that the few Native American people who were enslaved either did not work or ran away, prevented them from ending up the same as African Americans?

Throughout this paper, I want to examine the history of the Native American people from 1607 until today. I want to have a closer look at how the view of Native Americans changed over time, and whether it were really racial reasons, or rather political ones that led to the constant repression of Native American tribes and culture. In the spotlight will be the time between 1820 and 1860, because that was the time of a radical change in politics and the beginning of a policy of repression and deportation of Native American tribes to reservations.

I will in the end present the conclusion with a brief comparison of Native American and African American people with a hopefully reasonable explanation for the development as it happened.

2. A general outline of the history and race conception of Native Americans until 1820

To examine how Native American people were seen at a special point of time, it is necessary to investigate at first how they were seen before, in order to understand how that opinion of the race came to exist. Also, in order to examine anything, be it history or culture, that has to do with Native American people, it is imperative to understand that what we refer to as Native Americans, is actually a large group of people who can be divided into hundreds of different tribes, therefore hundreds of different traditions, cultural backgrounds and languages. It is imperative to understand that we are not dealing with just one large group with roughly the same way of living. Only if we keep that in mind, we will see that settlers in different places encountered different tribes, and with that people of different languages and traditions. Some tribes were peaceful, others warfare tribes, some tribes lived in tribal communities and long houses, their governmental system similar to the European system (e.g. The Iroquois did have what we would call a democratic government and elections, just not in a written form), while others lived in a system comparable to a monarchy.

Where some tribes had to form their whole life around the hunting and the pursuit of the buffalo herds, and were therefore living like nomads, other tribes had a fixed region and were specialists in farming the ground and trading their goods with other tribes.

Referring to Native American people and culture without making this distinction would be equally flawed as referring to European people and culture without distinguishing between Germans, French, Greek and English people. And the differences between the numerous tribes were sometimes even larger than those between the formerly named European countries.

Therefore, if we keep in mind those differences, we can easily understand what difficulties both sides were faced with. Settlers in different places encountered different kinds of tribes and tribal families. The cliché of the Indian living in his tipi or tent, is only true for a small part of Native Americans. The first tribes that were encountered by white settlers lived in so-called longhouses made from wood and were mainly Algonquian or Iroquois tribes (those families who were spread throughout the north-east of today's USA. It is important to know that these were the tribes with which white settlers had most contact until 1778, when the thirteen colonies became the United States and the way for westwards expansion was paved.

So how were Native American people treated during those first years of colonialisation?

After reading a little bit into historical happenings of those times, it quickly becomes clear, that, although considered as savages, Native American people were not by nature declared inferior back then. One of the first examples is the settlement Jamestown, which was in contact with people from the Powhatan tribes and soon allied with them. That alliance broke down after 5 years and settlers and Indians started a bloody war, which was ended by a peace treaty that consisted of the marriage of the white settler John Rolfe and chief Powhatan's daughter Matoaka (better known as Pocahontas today). That interracial marriage shows, that the Indians were more valuable trade partners, allies which one needed to survive in that so-called new world. Furthermore it is a proof that the Indians were considered equal in a way – as, if we make a step over to African-American slaves, inter-racial marriages between Blacks and Whites were absolutely forbidden from the beginning.

Of course one has to do justice to the fact that Pocahontas, before marrying John Rolfe, had lived for a considerable amount of time among the settlers and had converted to Christianity. If a marriage would have also taken place if the contrary had been the case, meaning, if Pocahontas had still lived like an Indian girl, is a matter of speculation. But even if that wasn't the case, it would be a proof that Native American people were not considered inferior by race. If any, they were seen as savage and uncivilized due to their way of life, who could be fully accepted by society if adapting to a 'civilized' form of life.

Similar cases of Indian-European interaction repeated itself during the following years. One of the best-known example is the case of the Mayflower, which took over hundred settlers into the new land, who would have starved to death during their first winter if it hadn't been for the generous help of the local Indian tribe who provided the settlers with food and taught them how to grow corn and tobacco. They became trade partners for food, corn, weapons furs and other goods.

So it is safe to say that, with few exceptions, settlers and native tribes lived peacefully together and benefited from each other's knowledge.

Only when the settler's attitude began to change and they grew more numerous, the problems started. Suddenly they were in need of new land, and started wars with Indian tribes.

Native tribes themselves had more and more problems driving the settlers back and remaining on their lands. Diseases, carried in by the settlers helped to further decimate Indian population, so soon whole tribes were either completely wiped out or decimated by up to 90%. The native tribes of course felt a right to remain on the land which they had always been living on. Treaties were made and broken on both sides, so were promises.

Here it is important to understand the difference in the world views of settlers and native people. Although they did sign many of the treaties, exchanging land for some goods, the concept of owning land in the first place was a strange one to Native Americans. In their opinion, no human being owned the land, therefore it couldn't be sold. It was custom among tribes though to trade goods in order to assure alliance or to be permitted to live as a part of the tribal community. It is rather likely that the chiefs who signed the treaties understood the goods they received as that kind of gratitude instead of payment for the land and, in connection with that, losing all rights to remain in the sold region.

That difference in world views caused a row of misunderstandings between settlers and Native American tribes. During the 17th and 18thcentury, several wars raged, between tribes as well as between tribes and settlers, and, last but not least, between different colonies and their attached European countries. During all of those wars, Europeans and Indians didn't hesitate to ally with one another in order to defeat their enemies. So for example in the infamous French and Indian War, which raged from 1754-1763, the French colonies allied with the Algonquian tribe, the Ottawa and the Ojibwa, to name only a few of them. Their enemies, the British (and therefore also the American colonies) allied with the Iroquois confederacy, which itself had an interest in winning the war to establish a monopoly in fur trading. (The Iroquois people were always competing with the French settlers to establish a monopoly in fur trading.)

These named occasions prove, that initially the contact was less about a race which considered another one inferior, but an encounter of two different cultures who became trade partners and allies on more than one occasion.

With the decimation of the Indians due to diseases and also due to the wars, which were fought with the new mechanical weapons brought in and sold to the Indians by the Europeans, the settlers slowly started to outnumber the Indians. That offered whole new chances for the Europeans. Instead of exchanging or buying lands in long negotiations, they were now in the positions to win wars over the tribes and to violently claim the lands they wanted.

The American Revolutionary War finally offered a chance for native tribes to stop the colonial expansion westwards – or so they thought. Therefore, many Indian tribes allied with England and fought against the American colonies in violent battles in order to stop the new nation from forming and inevitably demand more land.

There were of course few Indian nations who allied with the colonies, such as for example some members of the Iroquois Confederacy, which was thrown into a Civil War by the conflict. Yet, those tribes who allied with the colonies were a minority, and what the settlers experiences during that time were Indian tribes who forcefully tried to gain a victory for England and prevent the colonies from becoming an independent nation. Because it could be foreseen that, once an independent country, more Europeans would come to America and the westwards expansion would go on more rapidly and more violently.

And that was what happened after the new country of the United States had won the war and peace between the British and American was re-established in the Treaty of Paris. The newfound republic established their very own constitution which promised life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for the European white male, and further repression and wars for the Native American tribes. The fact that the majority of the Native tribes had been fighting for the British side during the Revolutionary War was of course not seen in their favor. On the contrary, during that big war, many American settlers had come to find the Indian tribes as enemies against them. Many civilians became victims in battles and the survivors told the stories of the cruel and savage way of Indian warfare. The image of the heartless savage grew in the mind of the majority of the American population.

The victory of the United States of America opened the gates to the westwards expansion, which could fully begin after the Louisiana Purchase in 1802, when the US bought all land east of the Mississippi from Napoleon (France) and nearly doubled her territory. And with that expansion began a whole new series of battles, that the Indians had already lost before they began, due to their decreasing number.

Rage was fueled on both sides as more and more innocent civilians like Indian women and children who were attacked by soldiers, or settler families who were attacked by Indians, became victim of this ongoing war. The image of the cruel, savage Indian had been born decades before, but it was the first time that the United States had to face the Indians as a young republic without having England and it's large fleet behind them.

That most significant reason for those conflicts was the growing need for new land and the inevitable expansion westwards to claim the 'virgin territory' that this vast continent had to offer, without paying attention to the tribes and nations that were already living there. Just that reason turned the whole America-Indian conflict into a political issue and the first presidents of the United States were faced with the question of how to deal with those continuing fights over land. It is of course clear that, for political interests, no president could actually take position for the Native Americans – although for example president Jefferson can be considered a friend of the Native people. But in the first place, those presidents had to decide in favor of their country, and being faced with the increasing number of immigrants, they had to make sure to obtain more land.

The choice of warfare against the Indians was now becoming a political one, and of course, in a land which promised life and liberty, and propagated that all men were created equal, one couldn't just repress other human beings and their rights on property (Indian land). Therefore the Native people were more and more declared as an inferior race, comparable to children who had to be taught to make proper use of their land and live in a 'civilized' way before finally becoming equal. Of course that change in attitude towards Native American tribes didn't just happen over night, there had always been voices who had considered Native Americans to be part of the wilderness, which needed to be tamed, but those had always been religious convictions.


1 Original statement as given in an online interview by myself with a Native American woman who wants to be mentioned under the pseudonym Blackcrowheart.

Excerpt out of 21 pages


Race Conceptions of Native Americans from 1820 until today
Free University of Berlin  (John-F. Kennedy-Institut für Nordamerikastudien)
Slavery and Race in the Period before the Civil War (1820-1860)
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Race, Conceptions, Native, Americans
Quote paper
Katharina Reese (Author), 2007, Race Conceptions of Native Americans from 1820 until today, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/163260


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