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Happy Presidents' Day

A column by Julianne Jennings that examines several U.S. presidents and their treatment of American Indians.

The strength and the endurance of racism and discrimination against American Indians are easily traced to earlier periods of our history that we are desperately trying to understand and reconcile. No better example of the contradictions and the manifold effects of perceived racial superiority come from our country’s presidents and from lesser-known but significant figures in early American history. The racial ladders constructed by America’s Founding Fathers are now deeply rooted in our popular culture’s consciousness, where racialist descriptions, stereotypes and racist ideology have endured over the centuries and used to consolidate and maintain power over “lesser” groups.

Moreover, race has been used to “black blanket” the real issue of indigenous sovereignty. Starting with the near genocide of America’s indigenous people as a political entity, race was later applied; paving the way for early capitalistic development that included forced dispossession ideology with the international slave trade as a major vehicle that lasted four centuries. Race and racism have been central to the growth and development of the United States. Thus, the notion of E Pluribus Unum only applies to some.

The famous myth in which George Washington cuts down a cherry tree and tells his father “he cannot tell a lie” suggests the importance of telling the truth. Decolonization and reconstruction of our history also rests on the recognition and admission of wrongdoing. The difference between the previous myth and the following facts is that the story of the cherry tree is entirely made up, whereas the following list of offenses is based on historical documentation:

George Washington

In 1779, George Washington instructed Major General John Sullivan to attack Iroquois people. Washington stated, “lay waste all the settlements around...that the country may not be merely overrun, but destroyed”. In the course of the carnage and annihilation of Indian people, Washington also instructed his general not “listen to any overture of peace before the total ruin of their settlements is effected”. (Stannard, David E. American Holocaust. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. pp. 118-121.)

In 1783, Washington’s anti-Indian sentiments were apparent in his comparisons of Indians with wolves: "Both being beast of prey, tho’ they differ in shape”, he said. George Washington’s policies of extermination were realized in his troops behaviors following a defeat. Troops would skin the bodies of Iroquois “from the hips downward to make boot tops or leggings”. Indians who survived the attacks later re-named the nation's first president as “Town Destroyer”. Approximately 28 of 30 Seneca towns had been destroyed within a five year period. (Ibid)

Thomas Jefferson

In 1807, Thomas Jefferson instructed his War Department that, should any Indians resist against America stealing Indian lands, the Indian resistance must be met with “the hatchet”. Jefferson continued, “And...if ever we are constrained to lift the hatchet against any tribe, " he wrote, "we will never lay it down till that tribe is exterminated, or is driven beyond the Mississippi.” Jefferson, the slave owner, continued, “in war, they will kill some of us; we shall destroy all of them”. (Ibid)

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In 1812, Jefferson said that American was obliged to push the backward Indians “with the beasts of the forests into the Stony Mountains”. One year later Jefferson continued anti-Indian statements by adding that America must “pursue [the Indians] to extermination, or drive them to new seats beyond our reach”. (Ibid)

Abraham Lincoln

In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln ordered the execution, by hanging, of 38 Dakota Sioux prisoners in Mankato, Minnesota. Most of those executed were holy men or political leaders of their camps. None of them were responsible for committing the crimes they were accused of. Coined as the Largest Mass Execution in U.S. History. (Brown, Dee. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. New York: Holt, Rinehart, Winston, 1970. pp. 59-61)

Theodore Roosevelt

The fourth face you see on that “Stony Mountain” is America's first 20th century president, “American hero,” and Nobel peace prize recipient, Theodore Roosevelt. The Indian fighter firmly grasped the notion of Manifest Destiny saying that America’s extermination of the Indians and thefts our their lands "was ultimately beneficial as it was inevitable". Roosevelt once said, “I don't go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of ten are, and I shouldn't like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth” (Stannard, Op.Cit.).

Barack Obama

Barack Hussein Obama II, the 44th and current President of the United States, is giving new meaning to the celebration of President’s Day by stating, “We know the history that we share. It’s a history marked by violence and disease and deprivation. Treaties were violated. Promises were broken. You were told your lands, your religion, your cultures; your languages were not yours to keep. And that’s a history that we’ve got to acknowledge if we are to move forward.”

Julianne Jennings, E. Pequot-Nottoway, is a Ph.D. student at Arizona State University.