On a Policy that Never Happened

The racist hatred that white/European settlers in the early days of colonial settlement of North America would probably surprise even the most strident Klan member today. Governmental policy as practiced first by the British Parliament and then by the United States throughout much of early American History pretty much subscribed to the “good Indian is a dead Indian” philosophy even that that wasn’t overtly stated.

Not that it needed to be. In our national conversations about race, we carefully work our way around how native tribes were treated throughout the history of North America because we don’t want to address the facts of that hatred. Broken treaties. Unprovoked attacks and wars. Theft. Let’s not even get into the rampant abuses of the current reservation system. Terrible and disturbingly racist governmental policies. For only one example, look up what Andrew Jackson did to ignore a Supreme Court decision by using the US Army to remove the Cherokees from land in Georgia. It’s genocide, folks, and we have pretended it wasn’t for so long by casing it in language shaded with religious imagery by calling it such things Manifest Destiny and other such rot.

Well, some might argue, at least we didn’t use germ warfare against the native population. Or did we? The traditional story is that the British first came up with the idea in the 1760s to provide blankets to native tribes–blankets that had been laced with the smallpox virus. It’s not that this method of “taking care” of the “Indian problem” was more humane; no, it was more a case of the British feeling that such a method of killing was much more palatable to the soldiers who would ordinarily have to “endure” the difficult task of shooting.


And then the stories about the American Army giving similar smallpox-laden blankets to natives during one of the several Trail of Tears journeys during the first part of the 19th Century. There is anecdotal evidence of similar practices happening after the Civil War in the west when tribes were being moved onto reservations. What contributed to these stories was the fact that most native tribes often had a high rate of small pox infections. And blankets were given to native tribes. But, other than some possible talk in government circles about such practices in theory, there is no hard evidence that smallpox blankets were given to tribes–ever–by either colonial or state/federal governments or their agencies.

Again, some people will point to this myth as being only a myth and say that while natives were indeed killed, at least white people never conducted a systematic campaign of genocide against native tribes. But that’s like arguing that, while Hitler killed his millions, at least he never used a pea shooter to do it.

I’ll let the memory of the approximately 20,000,000 natives killed over the centuries since European colonization answer that argument.

On a Group of Displaced Persons

The concept of displaced persons is not new, although the designation of them as such is. As this is being written, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians and Russians are on the move. Ethnic cleansings have taken place throughout history, most recently in the Balkans and even going on today in parts of Africa and South America. Groups can be displaced due to wars, famine, acts of nature, and even sickness. Sometimes, people are displaced because other people want their land. This is one of those stories.

In this case, over 60,000 individuals were forced off their land in the years between the ’30s and the ’50s. The land was going to be used for resettlement purposes. The people behind the removal felt that God had ordained that they be granted the land, and, as you know, when people are convinced their cause (whatever it is) had some sort of divine imprimatur behind it, there’s not much that can be done to change their mind. Sadly, the displaced persons in this case had no power behind them to thwart the encroachment on or the removal from their land.

They argued that the land had been something they lived on for, well, as long as anyone can remember. This displaced group tried taking their case to both international and national tribunals. And, even though they won some of their court cases, those in charge of the removal of the displaced persons had a powerful military behind them. And, as you know, might makes right–even if what is “right” is not actually the moral or ethical thing.

Force is employed by oppressors, and these specific displaced persons had been subjugated by this group or that for centuries at the point of their displacement. History, again, is filled with such stories. Look at the removal and relocation of Palestinians, the pursuit by the European powers of their colonialization in the past 600 years, at the pursuit of empire throughout the millennia by every group from the Sumerians to the Americans, and even the movement of religious and ethnic minorities by both the Nazis and the Soviets.

This specific displacement of the more or less 60,000 families, individuals, children, old people and the housewares and animals they could carry with them looms large today because of where and how it occurred. It’s difficult today for us to think of a time when people had no choice about leaving houses, farms, businesses, and their ancestral homelands for an unknown place the military forced them to walk to. Many of them died enroute from disease, malnutrition, and even simply fatigue.

A Frenchman who witnessed the removal could not believe his eyes. “In the whole scene there was an air of ruin and destruction, something which betrayed a final and irrevocable adieu; one couldn’t watch without feeling one’s heart wrung. [The people] were tranquil but somber and taciturn. There was one who could speak English and of whom I asked why they were leaving their country. “To be free,” he answered, and I could never get any other reason out of him.”

Yes, we can look at this clinically and call it forced displacement.

For the 60,000 and their families in the decades since, they know it as the Trail of Tears.