The words were always there

Every day of reading and rethinking our country’s history brings new ideas; some days, epiphanies. Today’s epiphany is about words—who has them, keeps them, and pays attention to them. What they might mean for tomorrow.

Claudio Saunt’s Unworthy Republic: The Dispossession of Native Americans and the Road to Indian Territory, sparks today’s thoughts. The message of the book is in the title. For approximately ten years, from 1830-1840, the Indian Removal Act legislated and then aimed to carry out the removal of all—supposedly about 80,000—American Indians remaining east of the Mississippi River to the West, to some vague but increasingly real place called Indian Territory. The Act destroyed the lives of scores of tribes and thousands of Indians, while it enriched others.

The others were Southern plantation owners, anxious for new ground to grow more cotton and expand their slaving empire. In 1830, the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Creek Indians still had extensive land holdings—and some of them their own slave-owning plantations! The Southern whites had outsized legislative power—as they had had from the beginning of the Republic, when non-citizen slaves were counted 3/5 for census and legislative representational purposes—and they had Northern friends in the banking business. The Southern Indians were defenseless against this combined economic, legislative, and military power. And so were Northern tribes caught up in the dispossessions. The Shawnees, Seneca and others—many of them successful farmers—were force-marched from Ohio and their lands left to whites as a result of the Indian Removal Act of 1830.

Unworthy Republic taught me about the grip of the South on national politics as it taught me that the Trail of Tears was more than the Cherokees. Author Saunt did so by quoting extensively from primary documents. The words he uses are those of government and missionary actors, especially Indian words captured by government and military clerks and missionaries—ostensibly in the service of executing this inhumane policy. It reminded me of the Nazi notetakers who dutifully described the freezing temperatures endured by experimental subjects, the rosters in concentration camps.

Our standard learning of the place of Indians in American history has them wordless—speaking in foreign tongues and sign language, or in a simplified and guttural English, but in any case, not having written stories. The Cherokees of course did have a written script—and their own newspaper. Photos and drawings of the alphabet and John Ross are common; quotations of the content are not—Indians, as if by definition, did not have written words.

But from South to North, East to West, the prosecutors of Indian Removal quoted the Indians as they recorded their own racist rationale for their actions. It was all, of course, being done in the Interests of the Indians, promising them their own lands away from white settlers and farmers. And to secure broad public support, the entire project was cloaked in a humanitarian message of missionizing and civilizing.

Saunt finds Indian words in the Cherokee newspaper, and in speeches and parlays as they were passed on by whites in letters and official documents. I like this humble and understated quote from the Potawatomi, politely refusing the first orders to move west: “We are poor… but love our little fields in the Country and are not yet willing to abandon them.”

The words have been there all along, saved in letters, papers, and dusty books at the Hudson’s Bay Company, and on shelves of religious and government archives across the country, written down by conscientious clerks and missionizing Jesuits. A look at the notes in Saunt’s book, or in any of the many current books written on Indian affairs—e.g., Pekka Hamalainen’s new Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power—sends one to these old sources.

But they were there when Alvin Josephy published Patriot Chiefs in 1961, and Dee Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, in 1971. They’ve been there—and ignored—forever by textbook writers and popular historians: there when Arthur Schlesinger wrote The Age of Jackson in 1946 and won a Pulitzer Prize for it, omitting Removal and the Trail of Tears; there when David McCullough forgot about Indians in the early days of the nation and won his Pulitzer for John Adams in 2001; there when Jill Lepore published These Truths: A History of the United States, in 2018.

But the dam has burst, not only with Indian stories, but with new treatments of old stories about slavery from Ibram X. Kendi and Isabel Wilkerson, with novels, memoirs, and documentaries describing the American experience of African-American slaves and descendants, of Chinese in mines and on railroads; Filipinos and Cubans as subjects of American empire, allies and opponents in later times; of Japanese in internment camps, and Latinos and the complicated history of shifting Southern borders.

The neat package of American history, as one of expansion, exceptionalism, and triumph of a Declaration and a Constitution gradually bringing a country into compliance with founding documents, is broken. There are too many counter stories of peoples and cultures crushed by this march of exceptionalism—and progress. It’s too soon to say how and if the pieces will be picked up and reassembled into a cohesive American History. Or if there should be such a thing in a nation exposed as complex in its past as it is in its present.

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