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Memorializing the Indian Removal Act of 1830

A column by Robert Warrior about the Indian Removal Act of 1830.

Memorial Day in the Osage is a big deal, and deservedly so. Along with remembering the many Osages who have sacrificed their lives in military service to the United States (the original purpose of the holiday), people back home lovingly decorate graves as extensively as any community of people in the United States. I don’t often get to be there on Memorial Day, but when I do I treasure the opportunity to feel the weight of memory as it exists for our reservation community.

One thing few of us Osages and few Native people I know remember this time of year is the anniversary of the signing of the Indian Removal Act by U.S. President Andrew Jackson on May 28, 1830. Memorial Day and that anniversary are on the same day this year, and I’d like to suggest that all of us from the Native world increase the honor to those we memorialize when we understand their sacrifice in the light of Removal, the federal policy whose cascading effects have ended up impacting all of us.

It would be easy to say, “The Osages, Mohawks, Hopis, and Ojibwe have plenty else to remember. Let the Cherokees, Creeks, Shawnees, and others who were force-marched across the continent keep alive the chilling stories of losing land and life before the crashing waves of white settlement.”

That sentiment makes a lot of sense, especially for people from a family like mine. Robert Warrior, the grandfather after whom I was named, was killed in Normandy in World War II, and his death has defined and shaped each generation of his family ever since. His mother, my great-grandmother Mamie Bolton, died just a few years after him, many say of a heart that his death broke. I have heard stories of her going to movies to watch newsreels in hopes of catching a glimpse of her beloved son, whom she apparently could not bring herself to believe had actually died. My aunt, Mary Frances Patterson, was not even born when my grandfather, her father, died, and I have been moved to watch Osage veterans give her a place of honor to recognize her loss on Memorial Day.

My great-grandfather, the first Robert Warrior, served in World War I in France, and he is among those honored every Memorial Day by a twenty-one gun salute at the little family cemetery outside of Pawhuska where he is buried. Many Native men of his generation, of course, served in the U.S. Armed Forces in an era in which they were not able to be U.S. citizens. They were worthy to fight, worthy to die, but not to belong.

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My great-grandfather, grandfather, and the hundreds of thousands of Native men and women who have served in the U.S. Armed Forces did so for a variety of reasons, but a major impact of their service has been a clear and sustaining demonstration of the willingness of many Native people to stake a profound sort of claim to the promises and ideals of the country that has come to dominate and control the lands that once were Native lands from the Atlantic to the Pacific. They have, in a way, made a decision to live in a country that exists more as an idea than as a reality.

Most of those in the Osage and other Native communities do not need a reminder of how far from being fulfilled those promises are or how often the United States—its government and its people—have failed to live up to its own ideals, but recalling the anniversary of the Removal Act and the history that unfolded in its wake provides valuable counterpoint to the moment at hand.

For the initiation of Indian Removal was more than a terrible moment in which tens of thousands of Native people lives lost live, lands, family, ceremony, and tradition. It also signaled a tipping point in U.S. history after which none of us as Natives would be secure again in our homelands. And, of course, Removal meant for many of us new arrivals and new tensions on the other end of the various trails of tears. Removal was as brutal as any massacre and, as such, served as evidence of the lengths to which the United States would go in realizing its expansionary goals.

The stain of Removal, though, does not just effect Native people. It is, regardless of whether anyone remembers it or not, a stain that gives us insight into the whole of the American experience, a reminder of the immensity of the distance between what the U.S. actually is and what many Americans, including many Native Americans, hope it can be in the future. Indeed, I often wonder how much the U.S. propensity to put off dealing with big economic, social, geopolitical and other problems relates directly to the callous impulse toward pushing issues away to somewhere else that the Removal Act exemplifies.

One reason we as Natives should remember our dead—those like my grandfather who died in the U.S. Armed Forces and those who paid the ultimate price for Removal—is because if we don’t, no one else will. As we join others in the U.S. to remember those from our families and communities who have served in the U.S. military with honor, distinction, and sacrifice, contributing at great risk and great cost to our collective Native future, we do well amid the flags, bunting, and parades to also recall that moment on this day in 1830 when the game changed forever, for all of us.

Robert Warrior, Ph.D. (Osage), is the author of several books, including Like a Hurricane: The Indian Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee (with Paul Chaat Smith). He is a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he directs the American Indian Studies Program.