This Day In History: December 20

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On December 20, 1836, President Andrew Jackson presents Congress with a treaty he negotiated with the Ioway, Sacs, Sioux, Fox, Otoe and Omaha tribes of the Missouri territory. The treaty, which removed those tribes from their ancestral homelands to make way for white settlement, epitomized racist 19th century presidential policies toward Native Americans. The agreement was just one of nearly 400 treaties—nearly always unequal—that were concluded between various tribes and the U.S. government between 1788 and 1883.

American population growth and exploration of the west in the early to mid-1800s amplified conflicts over territory inhabited by Native American tribes who held different views of land and property ownership than white settlers. During this time, Andrew Jackson played a major part in shaping U.S. policy toward Native Americans. A hero of the War of 1812, he earned equal recognition as an Indian fighter and treaty negotiator. In fact, he brokered nine treaties before becoming president in 1829. In 1830, as part of his zealous quest to acquire new territory for the nation, President Jackson pushed for the passing of the Indian Removal Act. It was this act that allowed for the 1838 forced removal by the U.S. military of Cherokee from their Georgia homeland to barren land in the Oklahoma territory. The march at gunpoint—during which 4,000 Cherokee died from starvation, disease and the cold—became known as the Trail of Tears. Jackson’s policies toward Indians reflected the general view among whites of the time that Indians were an inferior race who stood in the way of American economic progress.

A few presidents have made small attempts to bridge the gap of mistrust and maltreatment between the U.S. government and Native Americans. In 1886, Grover Cleveland protected Indian land rights when a railroad company petitioned the government to run tracks through a reservation. In 1924, Calvin Coolidge passed the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, which granted automatic U.S. citizenship to all American tribes, along with all the rights pertaining to citizenship. On personal moral grounds, Coolidge sincerely regretted the state of poverty to which many Indian tribes had sunk after decades of legal persecution and forced assimilation. Throughout his two terms in office, Coolidge presented at least a public image as a strong proponent of tribal rights. In recognition of his advocacy for Native Americans, a North Dakota tribe of Sioux “adopted” Coolidge as an honorary tribal member in 1927. However, U.S. government policies of forced assimilation, which worked to separate families and tribes and destroy native cultures, remained in full swing during his administration.

Largely relegated to reservations by the late 1800s, Native American tribes across the country were obliterated by disease and plunged into poverty, a state many remain in today.

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