Between 1776 and the present, the United States seized some 1.5 billion acres from North America’s native peoples, an area 25 times the size of the United Kingdom. Many Americans are only vaguely familiar with the story of how this happened.
They perhaps recognise Wounded Knee and the Trail of Tears, but few can recall the details and even fewer think that those events are central to US history.
Their tenuous grasp of the subject is regrettable if unsurprising, given that the conquest of the continent is both essential to understanding the rise of the United States and deplorable. Acre by acre, the dispossession of native peoples made the United States a transcontinental power. To visualise this story, I created ‘The Invasion of America’, an interactive time-lapse map of the nearly 500 cessions that the United States carved out of native lands on its westward march to the shores of the Pacific.
By the time the Civil War came to an end in 1865, it had consumed the lives of 800,000 Americans, or 2.5 per cent of the population, according to recent estimates. If slavery was a moral failing, said Lincoln in his second inaugural address, then the war was ‘the woe due to those by whom the offense came’.
The rupture between North and South forced white Americans to confront the nation’s deep investment in slavery and to emancipate and incorporate four million individuals. They did not do so willingly, and the reconstruction of the nation is in many ways still unfolding. By contrast, there has been no similar reckoning with the conquest of the continent, no serious reflection on its centrality to the rise of the United States, and no sustained engagement with the people who lost their homelands.
Demography in part explains why slavery and its legacy are part of America’s national conversation (even if whites sometimes participate in bad faith), while the dispossession of indigenous peoples is not. Since 1776, black Americans have made up between 12 and 19 per cent of the total US population.
By contrast, in 1800, though Native Americans accounted for about 15 per cent of the inhabitants in the territory that would later become the United States, they constituted a much smaller fraction of the residents in the 16 states that then made up the union. A century later, in 1900, they represented only approximately half of one per cent of the US population, making them a small and politically insignificant minority in their own lands.
Today, over one per cent (3.8 million) of Americans identify as native, an increase that reflects not a substantive demographic shift but a newfound willingness and desire to identify as indigenous. Of this self-identified population, only a fraction are visible minorities, subject to the discrimination that shapes identity and forges political movements. Small in number with limited power at the polls, they have not led the national news since 1972-73, when the American Indian Movement took over the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the FBI laid siege to Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
Yet native peoples are central to the nation’s history. As late as 1750 – some 150 years after Britain established Jamestown and fully 250 years after Europeans first set foot in the continent – they constituted a majority of the population in North America, a fact not adequately reflected in textbooks. Even a century later, in 1850, they still retained formal possession of much of the western half of the continent.
The final assault on indigenous land tenure, lasting roughly from the mid-19th century to 1890, was rapid and murderous. (In the 20th century, the fight moved from the battlefield to the courts, where it continues to this day.) After John Sutter discovered gold in California’s Central Valley in 1848, colonists launched slaving expeditions against native peoples in the region. ‘That a war of extermination will continue to be waged between races, until the Indian race becomes extinct, must be expected,’ the state’s first governor instructed the legislature in 1851.
In the Great Plains, the US Army conducted a war of attrition, with success measured in the quantity of tipis burned, food supplies destroyed, and horse herds slaughtered. The result was a series of massacres: the Bear River Massacre in southern Idaho (1863), the Sand Creek Massacre in eastern Colorado (1864), the Washita Massacre in western Oklahoma (1868), and a host of others. In Florida in the 1850s, US troops waded through the Everglades in pursuit of the last holdouts among the Seminole peoples, who had once controlled much of the Florida peninsula. In short, in the mid-19th century, Americans were still fighting to reduce if not to eliminate the continent’s original residents.
Native peoples may be a small minority, but their history poses a fatal challenge to triumphalist narratives of the United States. The most jingoistic of Americans strive to put a positive spin on the nation’s century-long investment in slavery and equally long commitment to white supremacy. After the police shooting of an unarmed black man in Ferguson, Missouri, in August this year, one white woman took the opportunity to chide a group of African American protesters.
She yelled, ‘We’re the ones who f***in’ gave all y’all the freedom that you got!’ Imagine a corresponding affront shouted at an assembly of indigenous people: ‘We’re the ones who took all of your land but introduced you to Christianity.’ Many Americans share a deeply held conviction that the United States embarked in 1776 on an as-yet unfinished journey to attain the universal ideals of freedom and equality. The history of US-native relations simply does not fit into this national narrative.
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