Native American Land and Autonomy Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Americans had long wrestled with the question of how to best manage their relationship with American Indian tribes. By 1800, many of the eastern tribes had either moved westward or been reduced to a very small number. When the Louisiana Purchase doubled the size of the United States and settlers began pushing further west, however, they inevitably came into conflict with the American Indians who occupied the land. Indian claims to land were repeatedly subverted in the interest of settlement. Treaties were negotiated and then violated with little repercussion, and when these conflicts turned violent, retaliation was severe and the land often forfeited as punishment. The rhetoric of the time described American Indians as savages, beast-like, and therefore not able to make good use of the land. Others took a paternalistic approach to resettlement, which they said would allow the tribes to remove themselves from the influence of uncouth settlers, and enable them to live as they wished and protect themselves from dangers such as alcohol and enslavement.

Native protest came in many forms. Some tribal leaders sought to settle the land issue legally by negotiating advantageous treaties, which were often disregarded. Some other leaders, such as Tecumseh, advocated military action, and took up arms against the United States during the war of 1812. His speeches, first to Indiana territorial governor William Henry Harrison and then to the British General Henry Procter, eloquently describe his frustration with European and American betrayals and broken promises. Tribal leaders do not own land, he argued, so any treaty that gave title to it was bogus. He believed that all tribes held land in common, so it was not possible to buy or sell it, and leaders that did so were traitors. Even if treaties were valid, however, the Americans were untrustworthy and had proven themselves treacherous many times. In Tecumseh’s opinion, the only option for the disparate tribes was to band together and drive the white people off the land.

William Apess, a Christian minister and native New Englander of mixed Indian and European heritage, took a different approach, arguing that the abusive treatment of Indians was un-Christian, and pointing out the hypocrisy inherent in the relationship between the two peoples. Apess blamed white Americans for many of the problems that Indians suffered. He argued that though Indians were called savages, it was the white man who enslaved millions. Indians were called lazy, he said, by those who enslaved them or treated them like children or gave them alcohol. He pointed out that there had been Christian Indians since the early days of the nation, and that they were capable of sincere belief, rational thought, and good citizenship. Indeed, many of the virtues associated with Christianity and democracy were present in American Indian culture. Americans who took Indian land and abused their people were the true savages. Though Apess gained a wide audience for his protest, American Indians of the eastern United States were ultimately removed to land west of the Mississippi, often by force.

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