The Writings of Carl Schurz/To Edward Atkinson, November 28th, 1879


Washington, Nov. 28, 1879.

I have received your letter of the 22nd inst. which informs me that “the Indian question has now taken root in Boston and will be followed to a conclusion if it costs a million or more,” and also that “in right action my sympathy and counsel will be highly regarded.” This is most welcome information, for no man can esteem more highly than I do, after my experience in the conduct of Indian affairs, the coöperation of enlightened and public-spirited citizens in the efforts of the Government to solve so difficult and troublesome a problem. It is also very important that this coöperation should proceed upon an intelligent mutual understanding so that those who have a common end in view may be kept from working at cross purposes in the choice of a line of action.

As to the ultimate end to be attained there can scarcely be any difference of opinion between us; it is the absorption of our Indian population in the great body of citizens under the laws of the land. You will also agree with me that this should be brought about in a manner least dangerous to the Indians themselves as well as to American society. Since writing your letter you have probably seen my annual report which must have convinced you that this is the objective point kept steadily in view by this Department. The report also sets forth the means by which the Government endeavors to reach that end as well as the results so far gained. The line of policy pursued, as stated in my report, is as follows:

1. To set the Indians to work as agriculturists or herders, thus to break up their habits of savage life and to make them self-supporting.

2. To educate their youth of both sexes so as to introduce to the growing generation civilized ideas, wants and aspirations.

3. To allot parcels of land to the Indians in severalty and to give them individual title to their farms in fee, inalienable for a certain period, thus to foster the pride of individual ownership of property instead of their former dependence upon the tribe with its territory held in common.

4. When settlement in severalty with individual title is accomplished, to dispose, with their consent, of those lands on their reservation which are not settled and used by them, the proceeds to form a fund for their benefit.

5. When this is accomplished, to treat the Indians like other inhabitants of the United States under the laws of the land.

Here the ultimate end is clearly pointed out as well as the process by which, in my opinion, it can be safely reached.

You say in your letter: “The present attempt to treat men as children must fail, even under your control of the Department. The natural method seems to be to establish the rights of the Indians as citizens under the 14th amendment, and then let them take their chance.” I trust, if this expression seems to indicate any difference of opinion between us as to the course to be followed, that the difference exists more in words than in purpose. You will certainly agree with me that we should treat the Indians as what they really are, and take good care not to treat them as what they are not. Upon the soundness of our judgment in this respect our success will depend. I need scarcely assure you that, if, by some legal enactment or some judicial decision declaring the Indians citizens in every respect the equals of all other citizens, the Indian question could be solved, that is to say, if the Indians, such as they are at present, could be enabled “to take their chance” as citizens with other citizens in the contests and competitions of civilized life, with any fair prospect of holding their own, nobody would more eagerly advise that course than those at present managing Indian affairs. It would be the greatest possible relief to them as well as to their successors.

I admit that the five civilized tribes in the Indian Territory, who for years have had schools, courts of justice, a form of government resembling our own, and are enjoying a certain degree of prosperity, might assume the rights and responsibilities of citizenship without serious danger to themselves, although a majority of even these Indians, as I was informed in my conferences with their leading men, still shrink from those responsibilities. I might say the same of the small number of Indians in other localities, who have gone through the intermediate stages above pointed out until they became more or less able to take care of themselves. These, however, form scarcely more than one-fifth of our whole Indian population. But if you could visit the Sioux, who have just begun the transition, the Comanches, the Kiowas, the Cheyennes, the Shoshonees, the Arrapahoes, the Utes, the Apaches, the Crows, the Assiniboines, the Gros Ventres, the Flatheads and numerous other tribes, and then put to yourself the question whether they, such as they are to-day, should be turned into the struggles of civilized life, without education, without at least some knowledge of a civilized language and of the ways of the world, without having learned how to work and how to provide for the future, without property well secured to them as individuals, simply “to take their chance,” I have not the remotest doubt as to what your answer would be. You would indeed find many of them advancing with a rapidity encouraging the hope that the continuance for some time of a wise and firm guidance in the manner above indicated will enable them to take care of themselves. But you would, I am confident, agree with me in the conclusion that to precipitate the large mass of them now into trials and responsibilities, which at best are just faintly dawning upon their minds, would be the greatest cruelty that could be inflicted upon them except, perhaps, extermination by the bullet. The result of such a measure cannot be doubtful. Having lost what pride and good qualities they possessed in their savage state, and not yet having acquired what civilization offers to fill the vacuum, they would at once become the helpless victims of the worst elements of the white population surrounding them. They would without fail in the shortest space of time be stripped of their little possessions. They would be condemned, as a race, to a life of vagabonds, paupers and beggars, of gipsies and pig stealers, and their women of something worse, a festering sore in society, carrying corruption wherever they would go, and a curse to themselves as well as to the white people among whom they would move. For we must not forget that the savage, when coming into contact with civilization unguarded and unguided, is but too apt first to acquire its vices instead of its virtues. Neither must we forget that a large portion of the white people of the West are by no means friendly to the Indians—just as the people of Massachusetts were not friendly to them in early colonial times—and that these Indians would not find them the kindest and most patient guides, if they were to take their chance among them unprepared.

This is no mere speculation. The fate of many Indians who have already been thrust among their white neighbors “to take their chance” with them without being sufficiently prepared, furnishes a warning example.

It must be evident, therefore, that the preparatory measures above pointed out—education, active work, settlement in severalty, fixed homes, property well secured to the individual—must precede their final absorption in the body of citizens, and that citizenship with its responsibilities as well as rights must be the ultimate end and not the initial point of the solution of the problem. And it is by promoting this preparatory work, I respectfully suggest, that a movement like that inaugurated in Boston, can make itself most beneficent, and a genuine blessing to the Indian.

As to the Ponca case, which seems to have given the immediate impulse to your movement, it is scarcely necessary to repeat what I have already stated on several occasions: that this removal was effected in pursuance of a law passed before the incoming of the present Administration; that my first official report as well as that of the present Commissioner of Indian Affairs set forth the wrong done to the Poncas before that wrong was taken any notice of by the public, and that since then this Department has done all it could do under the law, by mere administrative action, to indemnify them for that wrong. I may add however that, had I then personally seen their old reservation on the Missouri, and especially their so-called houses there as I have since, I might have drawn the picture of their losses less strongly. I may assure you also that there is absolutely no wish nor interest here adverse to the welfare of the Poncas. It is, as I stated in this year's report, a matter of grave doubt, whether under present circumstances a removal back to their old reserve would not have, in a practical point of view, rather an injurious than a beneficial effect upon their future. Were you acquainted with those circumstances in detail, you would probably share that doubt.

I cannot advise you concerning the manner in which you can take their case to the Supreme Court. The question whether an appeal from the well-known decision of Judge Dundy on the application for a writ of habeas corpus is to be prosecuted by the Government or withdrawn, although the first steps in that direction were taken at the time, is still under advisement. While I am at present inclined to think that the decision should be permitted to stand as it is, yet it involves considerations touching the established Indian policy of the Government so grave, that upon further examination a different conclusion may be reached. I shall advise you of this in time, if you so desire.

I will, however, not conceal from you my opinion that, while the establishment of some general principle with regard to the rights of the Indians by judicial decision may be useful in some respects, I consider practical measures for the improvement of the Indians, fitting them for the struggles of civilized life and the responsibilities of citizenship, of far greater importance. Without this, abstract rights and privileges, however logical and correct in principle, will be of no real advantage to them. In fact you will find on inquiry that but few of them would, under present circumstances, desire or take the rights of citizenship if offered to them. But as soon as the Indians become prepared for the exercise of those rights, the latter cannot and certainly will not be withheld. It appears to me, therefore, that all the energies which can be brought to bear upon the solution of the Indian problem should be concentrated upon the civilizing work as the first thing really needful. As you tell me that the citizens of Boston are willing to spend money for that cause, I may venture upon the further suggestion that at present I know of no way in which such money can be more advantageously spent than by founding and endowing an educational institute for Indian children similar to the schools at Hampton and at Carlisle of which my annual report gives a brief account. If the citizens of Boston would establish and by a board or committee manage such an institution with a farm and workshops attached to it for agricultural and mechanical instruction, this Department would see to it that any number of Indian pupils that can be accommodated, be furnished from the various tribes. The withdrawal of Indian children of both sexes from their home influences and their education in civilized surroundings appears to me one of the most important agencies in the work of Indian civilization, for it assures the future. This Department is going to the utmost limit of its means in promoting Indian education, but the number of Indian children so educated, to return to their people as well instructed and civilized young men and women, can never be too large, and here, it seems to me, is the field on which the benevolence of public-spirited citizens can produce the greatest results for the elevation of the Indian race. I would commend this most warmly to your consideration and advocacy, and I should be most grateful to you if you could induce the citizens of Boston to take this matter in hand with their well-known spirit and energy.

I address these remarks to you with the confident hope that the movement in which you are engaged will also induce a larger number of intelligent and high-minded men and women to seek and acquire that information about Indian affairs which will enable them to form clear and reliable judgment on the various aspects of the question. Philanthropy to be effective must, above all things, stand on a sound knowledge of facts. One of the greatest disadvantages the government of Indian affairs has to contend with, is that so large a number of people undertake to pronounce judgment upon it without ever taking the trouble to inquire into its objects, the means at its disposal, its methods and the nature of its business in detail. I have known intelligent men who would hesitate to express an opinion on the merits of an improved door-knob or gas-burner without careful examination, but do not hesitate at all to dispose of the Indian question at a moment's notice without ever having investigated one single phase of it. You can also well imagine that expressions of opinion, coming from persons ever so well-meaning, will be materially weakened in their influence upon those charged with public responsibility, when they proceed upon assumptions known to be groundless, when for instance in the discussion of the Ponca case we are told by prominent speakers in public meetings, that the Poncas are kept in the Indian Territory by the influence of the “Indian ring,” while I know that this Department has no authority of law for moving them back and that I have never been approached by a human soul with regard to the matter; or that the Poncas were stripped of more than $200,000 worth of personal property, that is to say every man, woman and child of the 700 Poncas of about $300 each, while the ridiculous absurdity of such a statement is clear to every one knowing anything of Indians and the personal property they are apt to have; or that the Poncas were driven away from their old reservation in Dakota by the Indian ring which wanted to get possession of their lands and whose bidding was done by this Department, while I know as every well-informed person knows that the old Ponca reserve, being Indian country now as it was before, could not be and has not been taken possession of by any white person. The wrongs suffered by the Poncas are grievous enough and this Department is doing everything it can under the law to repair them, but you will readily understand that such wild statements as here mentioned are not calculated to inspire great confidence in the judgment or the regard for the truth of some of the advocates of their cause.

Such confidence ought to exist if there is to be fruitful coöperation for a common end. It needs no argument to show that the philanthropic sentiment of the citizens of Boston will accomplish more if working in good understanding with the Government than without it. I am very anxious that such good understanding and coöperation be brought about, and I am sure it can be brought about more effectually by personal conference than in any other way. I would therefore suggest to you that you make an effort to induce the citizens of Boston interested in this matter to send a committee to Washington for a frank exchange of opinions and an agreement on common purposes and corresponding action.

Such a committee might also serve another object. I conclude from your letter that there is doubt in your mind as to the fitness of the machinery of the Indian service to accomplish much good. I am aware that the talk about rascally Indian agents and the omnipotent Indian ring is still popular. I do not pretend that the Indian service, as at present organized, is all that it ought to be. But it has been and is my earnest endeavor to make and keep it as honest and efficient as any other branch of the public service, and I have reason to believe that considerable progress has been made in that direction. But in this respect I do not want to be taken on trust. Your committee, if you send one, will find everything here open to their inquiry. You are a man of affairs, experienced in such things. If you, upon examination, find our system of accountability, after the improvements we have introduced, still defective; if you discover an abuse not yet corrected, or a faithless officer undetected, or traces of an “Indian ring” not yet broken, nobody will be more grateful for the information than I. You, yourselves, may then judge whether the Indian service, as conducted at present, is a fit instrument for good purposes. I submit to you these suggestions for such use as you may see fit to make of them, hoping that they will do some good, and looking for a response with great interest.