In the United States, relationships with Indian nations are regulated at the federal level by Congress and are administered through the Department of the Interior. Congress is, of course, composed of elected officials who are supposed to represent the people. In 1873, Indians could not be American citizens and, therefore, could not vote. While Congress regulated Indian affairs, it did not represent Indians, nor did it solicit Indian testimony regarding bills which impacted Indians.
In 1873, the United States government viewed Indians as living in a state of “barbarism.” Government policies were based on the fantasy that American Indians were nomadic hunters and gatherers and ignored the fact that most Indians at the beginning of the European invasion of North America were farmers. They ignored the accounts of the early French and Spanish explorers who described Indian cities and the monumental architecture which they constructed. In 1873 the president of the Chicago Academy of Sciences declared that the idea that Indians had constructed the great mounds of the Mississippi river drainage as “preposterous”.
Briefly described below are a few of the events relating to American Indians and the American government 150 years ago, in 1873.
Commissioner of Indian Affairs
Within the Department of the Interior, Indian affairs were managed by the Commissioner of Indian Affairs. This position was a political appointment and any experience with actual Indians was not considered important in being appointed to the position. In 1873, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs was Francis A. Walker, who had been a political economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. According to his writings, he felt that the success of the United States was due to the racial superiority of Europeans, particularly those of Germanic heritage.
Regarding the termination of Indian treaties, Commissioner of Indian Affairs Francis Walker wrote:
“In abruptly terminating thus the long series of Indian treaties and forever closing the only course of procedures known for the adjustment of difficulties, and even for the administration of ordinary business with Indians tribes, Congress provided no substitute, and up to the present time has neglected to prescribe the method by which, after the abrogation of the national character of the Indians, either their internal matters or their relations with the general government are to be regulated.”
Francis Walker also characterizes Indian treaties as:
“…a mere form to amuse and quiet savages, a half-compassionate, half-contemptuous humouring of unruly children.”
A Division of Medicine and Education was organized within the Office of Indian Affairs (later known as the Bureau of Indian Affairs).
In a report regarding the Shoshone, Ute, and Paiute, the Indian commissioners recommended:
“Next to teaching them to work, the next most important thing is to teach them the English language. Into their own language there is woven too much mythology and sorcery that a new one is needed in order to aid them in advancing beyond their baneful superstitions; and the ideas and thoughts of civilized life cannot be communicated to them in their own language.”
Guns and Ammunition
The Indian Trade Act was revised by Congress to permit the Secretary of the Interior to prohibit the sale of guns and ammunition on the reservations. Since only licensed traders on the reservations were under federal control, Indians easily acquired firearms off the reservation and from unlicensed traders.
In Texas, the Army asked the Tonkawa scouts to turn in their Spencer repeating rifles for single-shot Sharps. The Indian scouts protested and asked to obtain Winchester repeating rifles at their own expense. The Army allowed them to retain the Spencers.
The Army had abandoned the Spencer repeating carbines and reverted to a single-shot, breech-loading carbine. The Army felt that the Spencers were not rugged enough for military service and that they tempted the men to waste ammunition. As for the Indians, historian Thomas Dunlay, in his book Wolves for Blue Soldiers: Indian Scouts and Auxiliaries with the United States Army, 1860-90, notes:
“The Indians were undaunted by such considerations and were glad to use repeaters when they could get them. They seem to have kept them functioning even when their condition would have horrified an ordnance officer, and with an ammunition supply even more precarious than that which prevented the army from engaging in target practice until the 1880s.”
Visiting Washington, D.C.
In Arizona, a delegation of Navajo leaders was selected to travel to Washington, D.C. to meet with President Ulysses S. Grant. Among those selected was Manuelito who hoped to persuade the President to grant the Navajo more land. Juanita, Manuelito’s wife, also accompanied the group.
Great Basin Indians
John Wesley Powell was appointed as Special Commissioner of Indian Affairs to investigate the conditions and needs of the Indian tribes in the Great Basin. He made contact with the Ute, Gosiute, Northwestern Shoshone, Northern Paiute, Nevada Shoshone, and the Chemehuevi.
In Utah, a special commission looking into non-reservation Indians recommended that the Gosiute be removed to the Uinta Reservation. They noted that some of the Gosiutes were farming and that non-Indians were encroaching on their lands. The commission was instructed to proceed with their removal. In his chapter in A History of Utah’s American Indians, Dennis Defa reports:
“The Goshute people did not remove to a reservation, however, despite the report of the Special Commission.”
Dennis Defa also writes:
“The annuities promised in the treaty of 1863 stopped, while whites invaded the choice areas of land. The Indians were destitute, and it seemed that few white people actually knew of their existence.”
In South Dakota, the Dakota Territorial legislature asked the U.S. Congress to approve a survey of the Black Hills which would open this area up to exploitation and settlement. This was in direct violation of the treaties with the Sioux, but Americans were not generally known for their respect for laws or treaties, particularly when these things might interfere with their ability to acquire personal wealth.
The Congressional commission investigating the Kickapoo war on Texas concluded that the war could best be settled by the removal of the Kickapoo from Mexico and their resettlement on a reservation in the United States.
In Arizona, Mount Graham, the Apache’s sacred Dzil Nchaa Si An (“Big Seated Mountain”), was removed from the boundaries of the San Carlos Reservation and placed in public domain.
In California, the commission investigating the 1872 Modoc War reported:
“The causes leading to war were the dissatisfaction of Captain Jack’s band of Modocs with the provisions and execution of the treaty of October 1864 and refusal to abide thereby” and “The immediate cause of hostilities was resistance by the Indians to military coercion.”
More American Indian histories
Indians 101: American Indians in Montana and Washington 150 years ago, 1873
Indians 101: American Indians and the Army 150 years ago, 1873
Indians 101: Indian reservations 150 years ago, 1873
Indians 101: Indian Reservations 150 years ago, 1872
Indians 101: Southwestern Indian Reservations 150 years ago, 1873
Indians 101: Indian reservations in Washington, Oregon, and California 150 years ago, 1873
Indians 101: American Indians and religion 150 years ago, 1873
Indians 101: Visiting Washington, D.C. 150 years ago, 1873