Historic Scoundrels: The Indian Problem and Its Biggest Influences

The 1831 removal of five Indian tribes from the southeastern United States to Indian Territory near present-day Oklahoma is known to us as The Trail of Tears. In Savages and Scoundrels: The Untold Story of America’s Road to Empire Through Indian Territory,Paul VanDevelder follows the stories from this trail, the legal battles, and historical influence that led to the removal of Indians from their homelands. The Trail of Tears and the CarlisleIndianSchool may sound familiar, but many people would be surprised to learn the foundation for the expulsion of Native Americans was set long before 1831. In fact, the imperial system imposed by the Spanish in Latin America is far more similar to Native American relocation politics than we often realize.

VanDevelder traces the influences on Indian removal back to Pope Innocent III and the beginning of the Fourth Crusade in 1202. Innocent III believed as Pope he held a great responsibility: he “told heathens and savages that their refusal to admit Christian missionaries into their countries made him responsible as the leader of Christ’s earthy flock to remedy their ignorance.” Pope Innocent IV furthered this idea calling the Pope’s power to convert heathens “a universal right.” This idea persisted across the centuries and was employed by many rulers, including Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain during the colonization of the Americas. The policy, known as quod super his, evolved to argue that infidels had no right to their land, either to own or to rule, and the Pope could recognize and legitimize conquests made by secular rulers in newly discovered lands.

Secular rulers would later use similar theories to control the colonization and control of new lands. This doctrine of discovery, as VanDevelder refers to it, was first used by King George III of England during the American Revolution in order to control the Native Americans living west of the thirteen colonies. This policy was later adopted by the United States government. The path to removal was not an easy one, however, as the Native Americans and humanist scholars who believed in treating Native Americans with dignity fought to preserve ancestral lands. The struggle was pervasive and ongoing, lasting for generations as tribes were continually pushed west and away from the fertile, mineral rich land. VanDevelder tells the story of Martin Cross, a Native American whose great-grandfather, Cherry Necklace, was present at the Fort Laramie Peace Council in 1851 when eight Indian nations guaranteed safe passage to settles traveling the Oregon Trail in exchange for creating defined territories for each tribe and compensation from the US government for fifty years. Cherry Necklace lived to see these promises broken just as his great-grandson Martin would live to see continued fighting over the rights of Native Americans. Cross acted as a representative for the Three Affiliated Tribes, the Mandan, Hidatsta and Arikara tribes, in Washington, and his efforts helped to bridge the gap between the old-guard politics of the nineteenth century and the new-guard politics of the twentieth. Raymond Cross, Martin’s son, continues the struggle to protect the rights and cultures of Native American tribes today.

Just as the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella used quod super his as a justification for their conquest against the peoples of Latin America, the United States government used Manifest Destiny to justify its own expansion into Indian territory. Although Manifest Destiny may no longer be actively used (or at least referenced) in current US policy, but the memories and effects are still felt by generations of Native Americans who were forced off their land. Time, technology, and culture may have changed since 1831, but the Trail of Tears is still traveled proverbially by millions of indigenous people around the globe whose cultures and lands are disappearing.

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Categories: American History, Law

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