The Sad State of Indian Affairs Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Although both of these documents address concern for the fair treatment of Native American peoples, the two documents are considerably different. The excerpt from the report of the Indian Peace Commission proposes few specific reforms, but simply expresses dismay at the mistreatment of the Indians and the public's general disregard for Indian affairs. This report argues that, to many Americans, government Indian policy is aimed only at obtaining Indian land. The Peace Commission does recommend education of the Indians as a way of promoting peaceful co-existence between Indians and settlers.

Summary Overview

Although both of these documents address concern for the fair treatment of Native American peoples, the two documents are considerably different. The excerpt from the report of the Indian Peace Commission proposes few specific reforms, but simply expresses dismay at the mistreatment of the Indians and the public's general disregard for Indian affairs. This report argues that, to many Americans, government Indian policy is aimed only at obtaining Indian land. The Peace Commission does recommend education of the Indians as a way of promoting peaceful co-existence between Indians and settlers.

The Report of the Board of Indian Commissioners lays out more specific policy proposals, including dealing with the corruption within the Office of Indian Affairs, advancing education, and promoting the allotment of reservation lands into individual land holdings for Indian families. Both documents envision the ultimate assimilation of the American Indians into the general society.

Defining Moment

In the late nineteenth century, the attitudes of many Americans toward the Native Americans began to change. While in the West–that is, in frontier and near frontier areas–there was still fear and mistrust of Indians, in the urban areas of the East, there was a new awareness that the Indians had been mistreated in numerous ways, and that the violence used against them was often unjustified. The Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado in 1864 and the Washita Massacre in the Indian Territory in 1868 both prompted strong outcries among people in the East. A new movement was rising that would eventually be known as the “Friends of the Indian.” The Friends of the Indian was not an organization, although there were several organizations pushing for reform of Indian affairs in the post-Civil War era. Rather, the Friends of the Indian was an informal network of individuals who worked to change government policy toward tribal peoples. Although they had the best of intentions, the reformers–who were mostly middle class or wealthy white Americans–and, particularly, the reforms they advocated displayed an ethnocentrism that presumed the best course was assimilation, not co-existence or other alternatives.

For a brief time in the late 1860s and early 1870s, these reformers had some influence with the US government. All of the civilian members of the Indian Peace Commission and all of the men appointed to the Board of Indian Commissioners, were reform-minded individuals, who had previous experience in pushing for change in federal Indian policy. Many scholars have argued that throughout most of the nineteenth century, a kind of generic Protestantism was the “unofficial established religion” in the United States. Thus, these reformers had a strong faith in the significance of Christian missions and believed that converting the Indians to Christianity would be an important step toward assimilation.

In the long run, neither the Indian Peace Commission nor the Board of Indian Commissioners lasted very long; nor did either have much of an impact on Indian affairs. The Indian Peace Commission did succeed in negotiating the Medicine Lodge Treaties with some of the Southern Plains Tribes. Disputes between the Board of Indian Commissioners and the leadership of the Office of Indian Affairs led to the entire original membership of the board resigning in 1873. Bureaucratic inertia within the Office of Indian Affairs, as well as rampant corruption, limited any move toward real reform. Some of the ideas promoted by these reformers were adopted, but had tragic effects. “Allotment in Severalty,” the idea of breaking up the reservations into individual homesteads for Indian families and selling land declared “excess” to non-Indian settlers, drastically reduced the amount of land controlled by native peoples.

Author Biography

The collective authors of these two documents are a varied group, but, in general, they represent reformers with an interest in Indian affairs. Congress created the Indian Peace Commission in 1867, headed by Nathaniel G. Taylor (a pro-Union lawyer and congressman from Tennessee), to try to put an end to Indian conflicts in the American West. The legislation creating the commission specifically appointed the four civilian members of the commission, all of whom had some experience in Indian affairs. The commission was also to have military members, who were appointed by President Andrew Johnson. One of these was General William T. Sherman; another was General William S. Harney. Both are remembered, in part, for campaigns against the Indians, and yet both also had an interest in working towards peace.

The Board of Indian Commissioners was created by President Ulysses S. Grant in April 1869. It consisted of nine members, all of whom were Republican men from the North prominent in Indian reform activities and active in their Protestant denominations. The board was to serve without pay, and was to investigate conditions among the Indians and make recommendations to the president on needed reforms.

Document Analysis

The 1868 report of the Indian Peace Commission did little in the way of making specific policy recommendations, but pointed to the causes of Indian conflicts and bemoaned the public's lack of concern about Indian affairs. Neither political leaders nor the general public showed much concern for the Indians. Even American churches and missionary groups seemed more interested in overseas efforts than in work among the Native Americans.

The commissioners believed that Indians and whites had to learn to live together peacefully. If the groups peacefully coexisted, it was believed the Indians would be civilized by this contact with white society. Of course, the commissioners viewed this ethnocentrically, and tended to define civilization as learning to live as white Americans did. Three problems are listed that had prevented this peaceful co-mingling: racial “antipathy” or prejudice, cultural differences, and the language barrier. The commissioners further state that, if the Indians had been taught English and educated in schools conducted by the government or by missionaries sanctioned by the government, all of these barriers could have been removed. Moving beyond stereotypes and treating individual Indians as friends is also mentioned. Despite the rather ethnocentric approach, the Commissioners do suggest that peace could be maintained if white settlers and railroad workers treated the Indians fairly, if nothing else. Thus, they reiterate that much of the violence in the West was being caused by the white man's mistreatment of the Indians.

The Board of Indian Commissioners laid down more specific proposals for reform. Like the Peace commissioners, the members of this Board admit that much of the trouble among Indians in the West was caused by whites. As solutions to these problems, the Board recommended several policy proposals, all of which were common among those pushing for reform of Indian affairs in this era. One was confining the Indians to reservations, where the tribal lands should, as soon as possible, be turned into individual allotments for Indian families, thus breaking down the communal bonds that hindered assimilation. The Indians should be considered wards of the government, but at the same time, they should be prepared to eventually receive American citizenship. Payment of cash annuities to the tribes should end, because this led to dependency rather than self-sufficiency. Treaty making should be ended, not only because previous treaties had failed to protect the Indians, but also so that Indians could be brought under the jurisdiction of the laws that applied to all other Americans. Finally, Christian missions and schools among the Indians should be encouraged. Indians generally had little interest in these proposals, but the paternalistic approach of the reformers led them to believe they knew what was best for the Indian better than the natives peoples themselves did.

Essential Themes

One of the most remarkable themes that is present in both of these documents is an admission that much of the Indian conflict in the West was due to mistreatment of the Indians by the government and white settlers. Even when the government had made formal treaties and established reservations, settlers often encroached on the lands that were supposedly “reserved” for the Indians. When native peoples attacked in retaliation against these intrusions, the military was sent to put down the uprising, and warfare was the result.

The members of both of these commissions were aware that regrettable mistakes had been made in the government's dealings with the Indians in the past, with tragic consequences. They genuinely wanted to bring about reforms to prevent recurrence of such tragedies. But their reform ideas were expressed in ethnocentric, paternalistic terms. They believed that the ultimate assimilation of the Indians into the general American society was the only alternative to the literal extinction of the native peoples. But convinced that they had the best interests of the Indians at heart and knew what was best for them, the reformers promoted policies that often had disastrous impact on the Indian's culture and ways of life. Education and allotment in severalty were preeminent examples of this. While many Indian parents wanted their children to learn something about the ways of the American people, they did not realize that, as these educational programs were implemented in the late nineteenth century, the goal would be to break down cultural attachments and traditional ways of life, and to virtually force assimilation on the native pupils. In a similar way, allotting reservation lands into individual homesteads for Indian families was also seen as a way to distance the native people from their tribal communal lifestyles; holding their land as private property was thought to be an incentive that would lead to assimilation. Because reservation lands declared “excess” were open to sale to non-Indians and because many Indians sold their land as soon as they were legally able to do so, allotment resulted in the loss of millions of acres of Indian-held land.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Mardock, Robert Winston. The Reformers and the American Indians. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1971. Print.
  • Milner, Clyde A. and Floyd A. O'Neil, eds. The Churchmen and the Western Indians, 1820–1920. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1985. Print.
  • Prucha, Francis Paul. The Great Father: The United States Government and the American Indian. 2 vols. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984. Print.
Categories: History Content