The Indian Dispossessed/Conclusion

Little Crow, Leader of the Sioux in the Minnesota Massacre, 1863.png

Little Crow, Leader of the Sioux in the Minnesota Massacre

Red Cloud, the Old-time Warrior, Totally blind, 1903.png

Red Cloud, the Old-time Warrior
(Totally blind, 1903)


HERE is the spectacle: a government founded on the principle of equal rights to all men, securing to its own citizens equality of opportunity and fair play, while it persistently denies both to the Indian. The people earnestly desire justice for the Indian—of this there is no question. Congress is made up of the people's representatives, and Congress, ignoring the general sentiment, has from 1789 to 1904 persistently, steadily borne down upon the Indian in the interest of the few in the Indian country.

Curiously enough, each individual writer of Indian history sees the short cut to reform through an appeal to the American people.

Bishop Whipple of Minnesota, who gave the best part of his life to the Indian cause, declared, after recounting the acts of broken faith which led up to the great Sioux massacre of 1863, "I submit to every man the question whether the time has not come for a nation to hear the cry of wrong, if not for the sake of the heathen, for the sake of the memory of our friends whose bones are bleaching on our prairies." This bookful of wrongs, and volumes more, have been perpetrated since.

More than twenty years ago Helen Hunt Jackson closed the preface of her "Century of Dishonor" thus: "It is a shame which the American nation ought not to lie under, for the American people, as a people, are not unjust. If there be one thing which they believe in more than any other, and mean that every man on this continent shall have, it is fair play. And as soon as they fairly understand how cruelly it has been denied to the Indian, they will rise up and demand it for him." And the century of dishonor has lengthened by another quarter.

Col. Richard I. Dodge, after thirty-three years on the plains as Indian fighter, displays in his "A Living Issue" this same confiding hope: "It is too much to expect anyone of these [politicians] to risk the loss of votes and thus jeopardize his future career for a miserable savage. Politicians will do nothing unless forced to it by the great, brave, honest, human heart of the American people. To that I appeal! To the press; to the pulpit; to every voter in the land; to every lover of mankind. For the honor of our common country; for the sake of suffering humanity; force your representatives to meet this issue."

This was written more than twenty years ago. What is the matter with "the great, brave, honest, human heart of the American people"? Nothing. But a "government of the people" has not much to boast of if, when so constituted, it fails to be a "government by the people." This persistent miscarriage of good intentions leads to the inquiry whether the Government really does represent the people.

It is the ideal of statesmanship that statesmen determine questions of national policy on broad lines of national expediency, without undue regard for the more narrow desires of their respective constituents; but it is enough to expect of the average representative that on all questions his views will be more or less colored by the interests of those to whom he looks for support. Assuming that each member of Congress is indebted for his office directly to the people, and not to other combined interests (but what an assumption!), there is no menace to the public welfare in this narrower statesmanship; the resultant of their legislative efforts will be along the line of greatest good to the greatest number.

But the main business of Congress—or, rather, of congressmen—is not the determination of national issues. The final measure of a congressman's political usefulness is his ability to secure a fair share of governmental favors for his district, and for his political supporters. Harbor and river improvements, fortifications, dry docks, arsenals, federal buildings, irrigation plants, and ten thousand and one desirable federal offices,—all these are within the gift of Congress, and every congressman has a right to indulge the hope that, with reasonable endeavor on his part, these favors will be dealt out to him in fair proportion to his political representation. In general, each section has its own particular desires, and is scarcely interested in the ambitions of its neighbors except as they affect its own ambitions. The seaboard town urging the betterment of its harbor is indifferent to the construction of jetties in the Missouri, while a dry dock appeals to the western member charged with securing an irrigation appropriation merely as having an unpleasantly suggestive name.

It is no more than natural that from these conditions there should have developed in Congress an elaborate system for the exchange of support in the business of securing these local favors; in view of the expectations of his constituents, it is not only natural, but necessary, that a congressman, even a conscientious congressman, study the distribution of his influence as much with reference to the returns it will bring in exchange as to the merits of the schemes to which he lends it. Even in this business—and it is strictly business, not statesmanship—there need be no menace to the national honor; to gain strategic advantage for one good cause by skilfully advancing other good causes, is good business.

But the descent from the ideals of statesmanship to the realm of hand-to-hand business is a descent from the forum of public discussion to intrigue and private agreement. In this lies the danger. A not too close scrutiny of the projects to which he gives his approval brings to the congressman a greater measure of support; in turn, if his supporters are equally accommodating, his own demands for governmental favors may safely assume questionable proportions. Every tendency within the system is reactively downward; constituencies, knowing little of methods, are quick to recognize success; and it is the natural tendency that only "successful" men are returned to Congress. With the strengthening of this class comes increased opportunity under the peculiar methods of the trading system.

Now, among these numerous favors at the disposal of Congress place the American Indian.

"But," you say, "harbors, and dry docks, and federal patronage are material things, reasonably to be trafficked in; with the Indian and his affairs you introduce the human element,—you place the welfare of human beings on a level with mere chattels in the political market."

That is just where the Indian has been for one hundred and twenty-five years,—a valuable asset in the general stock, to be manipulated and exchanged with as little regard for the human interests involved as though his lands and all things material to his welfare were no more than harbors and dry docks. A western district covets the best portion of an Indian reserve; the way to the Indian land lies through Congress, and the business is placed with the district's representatives. The support of delegations from other Indian reserve districts comes as a matter of course,—they may in turn be called upon to perform a like service for their constituencies. Together, they are an influence in Congress which can determine the success or failure of a dozen other projects—and they are intent upon advancing only this one. What, then, is easier than to convince the ardent seekers after river improvements, and public buildings, that their scheme is one of sheer philanthropy for the Indian? A few "gentlemen's agreements," judiciously placed, and the business is done.

Why should the whole villainy of it be charged to the western member? Could a scheme such as the Rosebud bill, exposed as it was to every member of the Senate and House of Representatives, have passed the honest scrutiny of members who could have had no possible selfish interest in the bill? In the midst of the general barter, is it in human nature that the western member should not bring his influence into the market-place, and offer it for his one desire?

Under this system the Indian, although ostensibly giving up his substance to his western neighbor, has indirectly been an unwilling subscriber to the thousand and one benefits distributed by Congress to the people the country over. There is in this a reason for the almost inexplicable persistence of the one dishonor that has run the whole length of the national life. Under the very system of government which is supposed to secure to all men an active participation in its benefits, the Indian's vital interests—establishment upon good land, with protection and equality of opportunity during his long endeavor to adopt the new civilization—are hopelessly entangled with the merely sordid, commercial side of national legislation. In all the conglomerate mass that makes up the nation, he is the only human factor without representation by vote; he has no political asset with which to gain consideration for himself from a government which apportions its consideration according to representation.

Thirty years ago a Commissioner of Indian Affairs delivered himself of a fervent opinion which should become classic. The miserable story of the California Indians had dragged itself through twenty-five years; every measure of relief had been blocked in Congress by the interested few,—the Vociferous Few in the Indian country. "This class of Indians," concludes the Commissioner, "seems forcibly to illustrate the truth that no man has a place or a fair chance to exist under the Government of the United States who has not a part in it." A more illuminating commentary on the Indian's unhappy status in the land of the Free can hardly be written in one sentence. The Indian's story does not argue that the Indian should have been at any time given the protection of the franchise; but it does argue that in a loose-jointed republic where national legislation is at the beck and call of every little coterie of irresponsible voters, the Indian has been subjected to more devilish variations of human caprice than if he were at the mercy of an openly oppressive, but more consistent and centralized style of government. There is no despotism more whimsically cruel than that of men unused to power, who suddenly find themselves in absolute control of a people whose one vital interest—an advantageous foothold on good land—is in continual conflict with their own chief desire,—the possession of that same good land.

It is a boast of the American people that no flagrant wrong can long persist against an opposing public opinion; that the remedy is with the people, and the people will apply it. Now, although grounded as this Indian iniquity has always been on the very principles of "government by the people" which place the remedy in the people's hands, why has public opinion, so often aroused, failed to dislodge it?

Suppose the representative of a particularly virtuous district in New England were to take a determined stand against some unjust Indian legislation, not only threatening its success, but disturbing, possibly, other projects before Congress dependent upon a general exchange of support. And suppose the overwhelming majority in Congress which recognizes the expediency of the trading system were to punish this obstreperous member by sending him back to his constituents without the benefits and patronage to which he is fairly entitled. His constituents may vigorously applaud his action in the Indian matter, but will they recognize it as balancing his failure to secure the new post-office building which they had a right to expect? If they do, will the memory of the righteous act endure until the next election day against the continual, daily want of the material thing? And even if the voters' sentiment carries them to this unusual length, will the political managers, the office seekers, who really sent him to Congress to get something, and to whom he is primarily accountable, permit his name to again appear on the ballot?

The answer to these questions is safely a negative one. Behold, then, the wide distribution of responsibility for this melancholy Indian business! Considering its intimate connection with the material, commercial favors which come to all the people through their Congress, is its persistence so inexplicable as it might seem? And did ever an iniquity more subtly fasten itself upon the very shoulders of a people intent on promoting virtue!

No wonder it persists. And under the same conditions any other evil which appeals to the selfish interest of the few can persist, because it indirectly promotes the selfish interests of the many. That which can be done in Congress by an irresponsible community can be done by any other irresponsible combination with the requisite showing of political influence. What better can a people expect of legislators whom it virtually holds to the business of legislation by private agreement, than that they will also make private agreements on their own individual accounts? Congressmen have only to maintain a reasonable showing of returns to their constituents from the system of legislative barter, to effectually kill the kind of public sentiment that lacks the inspiration of some selfish interest. In effect, the people are without representation in Congress as regards their moral convictions.

The Indian iniquity, and these other evils, will persist as long as the irresponsible community stands equally with other communities in the ease with which it can secure legislative enactments, restrained only by such vague moral considerations as may in Congress survive the exigencies of the trading system. They will persist until the people are willing to give up some of their freedom in order that a few may not be too free; until there is toleration for a central authority which shall restrain the irresponsible community, as the communities themselves restrain the irresponsible individual.

There is no quick remedy in an appeal to the people. The remedy must go deep into grounded notions of what constitutes freedom and what really is government by the people; then it may reach that institution of perverted functions, Congress.

The prime requisite for the advancement of the public good is to instil in the public mind a deep, persistent distrust of the National Congress. Only by stirring to the depths can there come lasting good.