25 February 2013

Civilizing with Rum and Whiskey and Debt

The end of the treaties meant the end of treating tribes as sovereign nations. Attempts were made to undermine the power of the tribal leaders and the tribal justice systems. Tribal bonds were viewed as an obstacle to federal attempts to assimilate the Indian into white society. Assimilation of the American Indians would become the basis for much of the government policy toward the Native American from the 1880s to the 1930s.

"It has become the settled policy of the Government to break up reservations, destroy tribal relations, settle Indians upon their own homesteads, incorporate them into the national life, and deal with them not as nations or tribes or bands, but as individual citizens."
    — Commissioner of Indian Affairs Thomas J. Morgan, 1890.
This set the stage for the passage by Congress of the General Allotment Act (the Dawes Severalty Act) of 1887.

Congressman Henry Dawes had great faith in the civilizing power of private property. He said that to be civilized was to "wear civilized clothes ... cultivate the ground, live in houses, ride in Studebaker wagons, send children to school, drink whiskey [and] own property." This act was designed to turn Indians into farmers, in the hopes they would become more like mainstream America.

"The Reservation System"


[Benjamin Franklin] had to go to the frontiers of his State to settle some disturbance among the Indians. On this occasion he writes:

We found that they had made a great bonfire in the middle of the square; they were all drunk, men and women quarrelling and fighting. Their dark-coloured bodies, half-naked, seen only by the gloomy light of the bonfire, running after and beating one another with fire-brands, accompanied by their horrid yellings, formed a scene the most resembling our ideas of hell that could be well imagined. There was no appeasing the tumult, and we retired to our lodging. At midnight a number of them came thundering at our door, demanding more rum, of which we took no notice.

The next day, sensible they had misbehaved in giving us that disturbance, they sent three of their counsellors to make their apology. The orator acknowledged the fault, but laid it upon the rum, and then endeavoured to excuse the rum by saying: 'The Great Spirit, who made all things, made everything for some use; and whatever he designed anything for, that use it should always be put to. Now, when he had made the rum, he said: "Let this be for the Indians to get drunk with." And it must be so.'
And, indeed, if it be the design of Providence to extirpate these savages in order to make room for the cultivators of the earth, it seems not improbable that rum may be the appointed means. It has already annihilated all the tribes who formerly inhabited all the seacoast . . .

This, from the good doctor with such suave complacency, is a little disenchanting. Almost too good to be true.

But there you are! The barbed wire fence. 'Extirpate these savages in order to make room for the cultivators of the earth.' Oh, Benjamin Franklin! He even 'used venery' as a cultivator of seed.

Cultivate the earth, ye gods! The Indians did that, as much as they needed. And they left off there. Who built Chicago? Who cultivated the earth until it spawned Pittsburgh, Pa?

The moral issue! Just look at it! Cultivation included. If it's a mere choice of Kultur or cultivation, I give it up.

Which brings us right back to our question, what's wrong with Benjamin, that we can't stand him? Or else, what's wrong with us, that we kind fault with such a paragon?

Man is a moral animal. All right. I am a moral animal. And I'm going to remain such. I'm not going to be turned into a virtuous little automaton as Benjamin would have me. 'This is good, that is bad. Turn the little handle and let the good tap flow,' saith Benjamin, and all America with him. 'But first of all extirpate those savages who are always turning on the bad tap.'

--Lawrence, D. H., chapter 2 of Studies in Classic American Literature (sound file at Arrowhead Audio)


The primary reason, of course, is that, having come here a long time before us…the Indians do not fit into, for the most part do not want to fit into, the alien life we have brought here. It seems quite self-evident to many of us that ‘the American Way of Life’ is a wonderful thing and that everyone should want to share in it. Why can’t they…become good American citizens, enjoying our privileges and luxuries? Wouldn’t they, obviously, be much better off? Isn’t it the trouble that they are not really up to it? This point of view has always been a popular one….

…the Indian’s relation to the land he inhabits is entirely different from ours. The early Europeans imagined that the Indians of the East were rovers, who lived and hunted at random wherever they pleased. They were mistaken: the tribes had their separate tracts that were marked off by definite boundaries. See, for example, the Six Nations map…which shows how a strip of the Iroquois territory was assigned to each of these nations. But the fundamental difference between the European conception of property and that of the American Indians was that Indian property was held in common. The Indian had no idea of legal title, of the individual ownership of land, and the white man was incapable of thinking in any other terms. In 1879, a General Allotment Act was introduced in Congress. The object, or ostensible object, was to encourage the Indians to engage in farming by breaking up the reservations. The fragments were to be allotted, a hundred and sixty acres to heads of families and eighty to single persons. The remainder could be bought by the government, and the individual owners, after twenty-five years, were authorized to sell their land. A Sioux agent had reported to the Indian Commissioner that ‘as long as the Indians live in villages, they will retain many of their old and injurious habits. Frequent feasts, heathen ceremonies and dances, constant visiting—these will continue as long as people live together in close neighborhoods and villages. I trust that before another year is ended, they will generally be located upon individual land or farms. From that date will begin their real and permanent progress.’ Carl Schurz, then Secretary of the Interior, had recommended the allotment system. ‘The enjoyment and pride of the individual ownership of property is one of the most effective civilizing agencies.’

(Wilson, Edmund. Apologies to the Iroquois, 276-7.)

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