Open main menu

The Indian Dispossessed



INTRODUCTION

THOSE of us whose Latin is of the vintage of two or three decades ago may remember Jacobs' Roman History, with its traditional fables of Italy's earliest days, done in easy Latin for beginners; and some may recall the first plunge into Latin translation: "Antiquissimis temporibus Saturnus in Italiam venisse dicitur,"—"In most ancient times Saturn is said to have come into Italy." Then the next sentence disclosed, after due persuasion, that he founded a city, and called it Saturnia; and finally, at the close of this first paragraph, the first word of the Italian people: "Hic Halos primus agriculturam docuit," from which, with much thumbing of the "vocabulary" in the back part of the book, we learned that—"He first taught the Italians agriculture." There, in a nutshell,—or, rather, in a sentence,—is the beginning of Italian civilization; and the beginning was in agriculture—the fundamental art, an art so old among the Italians that its origin was ascribed to Deity.

Since then, those who hold the magic wand of civilization have come, many times the world over, into the land of the unenlightened, with all shades of motives, and with all sorts of teachings; but the point of it all is that this mythological benefactor began the civilization of his chosen people, not by teaching them the alphabet, nor a new creed, nor to make beadwork for the curio market, but—"He first taught the Italians agriculture."

From Italy's beginning to the first page of the American aborigine's story may seem a far cry. It is. Their significant relation—if a hibernicism be permissible—is that of dissimilarity. Had some kindly Saturn preceded the Pilgrims in the land, and first taught the Indians agriculture, the meeting of the races might have resulted very differently; but it was decreed that the Indian should receive his first impression of the better life from mere mortals.

While the good Puritans appear to have yearned for the salvation of the Indian's soul, they labored more effectively for the possession of the Indian's land; and with a quick perception of their prime motive the Indian soon brought himself to see, above all else in the new civilization, a despoiler of his one possession—the great hunting-ground of his fathers. So, under the persuasive influence of these conditions, the Indian moved continually westward, with his heart full of hate for the white man, and the first great lesson in civilization still unlearned.

Musing, some twenty years ago, upon these prickly points in his country's history, a brilliantly satirical member of the United States Senate disguised the unpalatable truths in a pellet of humor, thus,—"When the pilgrim fathers landed upon the New England shore, they first fell upon their knees, and then upon the aborigines,"—and, forthwith, the American people assimilated an unwelcome historical mess without so much as making a wry face. Indeed, this witticism is now so respectably ancient that it is here repeated with much trepidation, and only because there are so few oases of humor in the grim desert of the Indian's story that the reader may do well to fortify himself here with a smile, against the heat of other emotions during his journey toward the end of the book.

With the coming of the troublous times that led to the Revolution the good fathers found themselves in the rôle of the oppressed,—and then, how changed their views of man's rights! The youthful nation announced to the world the discovery of these mighty Truths in human affairs,—"That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among them being life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

In the calm light of this day it passes the understanding that a people burdened with the problem of two inferior races—one, slaves, and the other, not slaves only because they possessed not one attribute of the slave—should have thus expressed themselves with any literal intent. It is a kindness to absolve them from any intent within the real meaning of the pronunciamento, for we see now that it voices a helpful aspiration, not a fact; but what more was it then than an impassioned protest against inequality with those above, without one thought of those below,—a self-centering cry, "None shall be set above us!" and not the voice of love, saying, "Arise, my brother, and stand with me"?

It is with some hesitation that the pet fiction of the American people is thus vigorously assailed, but while there remains any of the substance with which we have invested its vague indefiniteness the true status of the Indian cannot be clearly defined, and until the limits of his rights are known we cannot know to what extent those limits have been overstepped. If we believe that, in any literal sense, the Indian was created the equal of "all men," and endowed by his Creator with the inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness in his own way, we have sinned—and that enormously, because against our own conception of right—in even disturbing him in the possession of his vast hunting-ground; a view untenable, because we know that in this we have done only that which dominant peoples have done since the beginning, and will continue to do until civilization shirks its duty to develop the resources of the whole earth for the highest good of mankind.

Then put aside the fallacy, and say, that no Indian is the equal of the white man until he has turned to the white man's way; his possessory right to the great hunting-ground of his fathers conferred upon him no ownership, in the white man's sense of ownership, in land fitted for the higher uses of civilization; no precious metals in the hills were his, because for generations he had chased the buffalo and the deer over the surface.

The untamed Indian had but one tangible right,—the right to be shown the new way by those who had made his own way impossible. The very dearth of his rights as a savage measured the white man's tremendous obligation to bring him, by all reasonable means, into the rights that come with civilization. That the Indian did not turn readily to the better way, history makes us sure; the change demanded was too abrupt, too opposed to his inbred notions of labor and responsibility; but civilization was not to be stayed by the Indian's refusal to accept its teachings, and in just proportion to his unbending the Indian went down before it. This was the main tragedy in the Indian's story, and his well-meaning friends have often, in a spirit of undiscriminating sentimentalism, made of it the main indictment against the white man. Of this indictment we may at once acquit ourselves, in so far as we have unselfishly and intelligently labored to make the new way attractive; but to no greater extent, for history again shows clearly that among the most implacable and bitter of all Indians were many who had once turned to the white man, only to be met with treachery and deceit.

The inevitable results of this long, unequal contest were made more tragic because of the unyielding Indian's conviction that his right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" was being ruthlessly trampled upon. There was no difference, to his untutored mind, between defending his native land against the incursions of other wild tribes, as he had often defended it, and his final contest with the white man. There was the same bitterness in defeat, the falling of his braves was as tragic, and the sufferings of his women and children as real, as though he were yielding to another barbarian, because—Heaven help him—there was much in the white man's philosophy which he could not understand. In the calm of the long afterward, when we sing our song of liberty: "I love thy rocks and rills,
Thy woods and templed hills,"
it will do the Indian no more than a sentimental justice to remember it as the song of his own glad days.

The tragic story of the untamed, fighting Indian is closed, and this book will have no more of him,—thus eliminating many a sad, but possibly instructive, chapter. Neither is the tale to be burdened with a recital of individual atrocities perpetrated by irresponsible white settlers, and by renegades who so largely constituted the ragged, cutting edge of our civilization,—a profitless harrowing of the sensibilities, unless one delights in instances of uncontrolled depravity. It is with the Indian coming into his rights as a man through the fundamental art of agriculture,—how his rights in the real ownership of land have been conserved, and how violated, under regularly constituted authority; and especially with the acts of that prime arbiter of the Indian's destiny, the United States Congress, that these narratives have to do.

With the final placing of the Indians upon reservations thirty, forty, and fifty years ago the Government found itself, for the first time in its history, in full control of the Indian situation—and, consequently, for the first time with full responsibility for the Indian's care and civilization. The Indian's game—his livelihood—had disappeared before the advancing white man. He was subdued, generally friendly, and in a mood as receptive as the Indian mind is capable of. To turn him from the responsibilities of the tribal life to the first responsibilities of the civilized life was clearly to turn him from the pursuit of game for a living to the pursuit of agriculture for a living. That was the way involving the least abrupt transition; from the buffalo and the deer to stock-raising, from the gathering of roots and berries to the gathering of vegetables; and with this, education and Christian teaching. None but the very sanguine could hope that most, or even a large majority, of the Indians would take readily to the new way, but this was the natural way, the shortest step, and the first step, and the Government set out in good faith to first teach the Indians agriculture.

In view of subsequent history it is instructive to read in the agency reports of forty and fifty years ago of the earnestness and industry that characterized the Indian's beginning in agriculture and stock-raising. It does seem as though the very pathos of his simple efforts would have impressed upon the Government with new force the double right of the agricultural Indian to the best of the land, and protection upon it during his long endeavor to come into the better way,—the right of a man striving to do a man's work, and his prior traditional right to all the land.

But the great, voting public's interest in the Indian has been sentimental, not material,—often at a high pitch over some newly revealed injustice, but always effervescent, and rarely persisting until election day; and Congress—created by votes, perpetuated by votes, recognizing sentiment only as expressed in votes—has always in Indian affairs more or less narrowly represented the interests of the voters on the frontier, uninfluenced by public sentiment.

The typical frontiersman was a survival of strenuous conditions; a man of forceful action, with an insatiable desire for more land, and the best land, and land always just over the border laid down in the latest covenant with the Indian, even though covered with the crops of Indians turned to the white man's way. His development of the new country was significant of strength and virility; it extended the bounds of civilization, and, in his rough way, he knew of civilization's debt to him and his kind.

The neighbor of this man was an untutored, subdued child of nature, taking his first lesson in the pioneer's own well-mastered art. He was not a voter,—not even a man, in the eyes of the law. His efforts were those of a beginner,—uncertain, lacking efficiency, and of little economic effect.

How else could such a man as the pioneer regard this primitive school in the wilderness, and these little beginnings, than as a sentimental effort of small consequence in the general scheme? The Indian's right and the white man's obligation were nothing to him. He had seen the less forceful of his own kind go down to failure before the obstacles which he himself had overcome, and he measured the worth of both Indian and white man alike by the test of strength and efficiency. The abandoned efforts of his departed white neighbor had inured to his benefit, and he looked with anticipation upon the Indian's small improvements as the next in order to come. To develop new country was his business, and in his greater ability to develop its resources he thought he saw his better right to the Indian's land.

This was the man who was to determine the Indian's right to a foothold in his own country, through congressmen and other officials who must heed the demands of their few real electors or be turned out of office. In the game of politics this much of the nation's great trust has been consigned to his gentle hand.

Out of this condition came our great national reproach. Always of his best the Indian gave up to his white neighbor. New treaties curtailing his reservation were entered into, often unwillingly on his part, or old treaties were violated, and each time the Indian moved to portions of his country more remote and less desirable. The lack of permanency made any continued effort in agriculture impossible. With protection in the pursuit of agriculture, the Indian might have learned much; the strenuous game of the "survival of the fittest" in which he found himself taught him nothing better than was in his own philosophy, and too often he turned back to the old way.

Whether he were the defenceless beginner of the Northwest, or the skilful agriculturist of the Southwest desert with ancient systems of irrigation, the Indian was never regarded as a man. The forceful settler dispossessed the irrigating Indian with even less than usual formality because his highly cultivated lands were the more valuable,—either by driving him into the desert and pre-empting his land, or by diverting his water, thus making his land a desert. Typical of these Indians were the four thousand Pimas of Arizona. They had practised agriculture by irrigation along the Gila River for more than three centuries. In the language of the early records, "They are farmers and live wholly by tilling the soil, and in the earlier days of the American history of the Territory they were the chief support of both the civil and military elements of this section of the country."

In 1886 the whites began to divert the waters of the Gila River. A suit in the federal court was talked of to maintain the clear rights of the Indians, but never pressed. No district attorney who would prosecute such a case against voting white men could expect to live politically. Within seven years the Pimas were reduced from independence to the humiliation of calling for rations, while the white settlers used the Indians' water undisturbed.

"Enough has been written about the need of water for the starving Indians to fill a volume," wrote the discouraged agent, after ten years. "It has been urgently presented to your honorable office time and again, and yet the need of water is just as great and the supply no greater." So the years went on. In 1900 came the cry from the desert, "This water, their one resource, their very life, has been taken from them, and they are, perforce, lapsing into indolence, misery, and vice." Thirty thousand dollars was appropriated for more rations.

Finally, after eighteen years, the suit to recover the Indians' rights received its final quietus. The district attorney reported in 1904: "There is no doubt but that the case could be taken up and prosecuted to a favorable ending, but ... it would be impossible for the court to enforce its decree, and the expense of prosecuting such suit would cost between twenty and thirty thousand dollars."

This Government long ago lost the right to say that it could not enforce a federal law against less than a thousand of its agricultural citizens. Its officials would not disturb the political balance of Arizona.

Agriculturists one hundred years before the pilgrims landed; agriculturists until white men stole their water; now, looking pitifully for rain in a rainless country. "No rain has fallen for more than a year," says the report of 1904, "consequently they were cut off from any agricultural achievements, but found employment in various ways. The men worked on the railroad, on farms, and in the adjacent towns. The building of the Tonto Reservoir afforded work for many. The women do laundry work, cook, raise chickens, make baskets, and in many ways keep the wolf from the door."

The crime of it cannot be charged to the frontiersman; it is upon the Government that surrendered this portion of its trust to those who were unfit to administer it. It was a trust involving the welfare of a race not contemplated in our free institutions—an unrepresented people under a representative government. The Indian was left without the protection which comes from a sustained public interest, for a sustained public interest is impossible except as it appeals in some measure to public selfishness.

But there is another side to this picture. During all these years of trouble, the Indian was faithfully attended by a great Unselfishness, always striving to re-establish him, to educate and enlighten him. The Government met with no opposition in administering this portion of its trust, and the workers were granted its most generous and intelligent support; for the high ideals of the people have always been the Government's inspiration, even though it be often led to action by a selfish few.

It is not within the scope of this book to recount the great good that has come to the Indian through this branch of the Indian service, save to make full acknowledgment here of its greatness. It has done much more than attend the Indian's education. Many a tribe, and many individual Indians, have had saved to them tracts of good land, upon which they have worked their way toward civilization. Indeed, had it not been for the constant presence of these among the Indians who labored for their good, little good land would have been left to any Indians.

These are the two great influences which have shaped the Indian's destiny; one, steadily hewing away the foundation—his land; the other, faithfully moulding the superstructure—his education; both generously supported by a vote-seeking Congress.

Where the first has failed, the Indian is coming into full citizenship through agriculture, education, and Christian teaching. Where both have succeeded in their opposing efforts, we find the Indian figuratively, and often literally, on the rocks; educated, saved, and forlorn,—amiable, but aimless, in his arrested development. He has missed the fundamental lesson of mankind.

But, too often, without the foundation of good land the superstructure has fallen,—and upon us is responsibility for the most miserable being in the land; landless, idle, drunken, dirty, and altogether unattractive; for forty years discouraged in agriculture and encouraged in mendicancy under the ration system,—a degenerate by-product of our nation-building process.

Much that was vicious in the administration of Indian affairs has been eliminated during recent years. The system of Indian education was never better, never more liberally supported by the Government, and in allotting good land in severalty to Indians whose reservations still contain good land, we are fulfilling our obligation to those individual Indians. But from the portion of the nation's trust which fell into the political pot we have the barren reservations, perpetuated for many thousands of Indians of the second and third generation whom we must, perforce, continue to support, or "civilize" as railroad section hands, and ditch diggers, and sellers of bead-work, while the white man cultivates their good land. We now show a belated eagerness to square ourselves with these Indians by allotting to them their choice of land from the poor remnants which have been left to them after the many choosings of the white man,—a pathetic spectacle, this granting Indians the choice of land on which no well-equipped white man could make a living. This portion of our great obligation is beyond redemption.

When we hear of dark injustice among the natives of Africa, or in Russia's Siberian wastes, we turn in horror from the oppressed to vent indignation upon the oppressor. But when the tale of our own Poor Lo is told, we lift our eyes to Heaven—not being so well able to see ourselves as to see others—and murmur, reverently, "'T is the Survival of the Fittest!" Those who think lightly are wont to exclaim, impatiently, that the Indian's story is a closed book. It is—nearly so; but the book of history is never closed, except by those who think lightly.

Ugly facts never stood out more plainly. In this Indian business Congress has persistently betrayed the nation's ideals at the behest of a small fraction of the people; the Rosebud land scandal of 1904 (told in the chapter, "Uncle Sam, Trustee") shows that it can be led as easily now as ever before. If in our self-satisfied conceit we think that other businesses have not led, and are not now leading, Congress to other betrayals of public trust, we, too, may as well say that history can tell us nothing, and close the book.

Congress delivers to the highest political bidder. If the public bids highest, it is because of some great selfish interest. The Indian's welfare, involving the nation's honor, was struck off to the vicious few because, forsooth, it was not spelled in dollars before the public eye.

This states a condition, not a remedy; the remedy lies—in a slumber that knows no waking—with the great public,—a public content that its ideals are so little represented in national legislation.

And now, as we explore the darker recesses of the Indian's story, we need not forget that the light still shines outside; and while we watch the stain of what we did trickling down over the snowy whiteness of our first good intentions, some may find solace in the placid, self-centering philosophy of these nameless lines:—

"Hapless mosquito! settling on my head,
I give one gentle tap, and thou art dead.
On such a day, to slay e'en thee I'm loath—
Would that the world were wide enough for both!"