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Newcomb: A look back at Lincoln

While campaigning for the U.S. presidency, Barack Obama gave a statement of support for American Indian sovereignty that was unprecedented by a presidential nominee. He did so not merely on a “government-to-government” basis, but also on a “nation-to-nation” basis, as exemplified by treaties between the United States and Indian nations. Now, as the 44th President of the United States, we will have to wait and see how Mr. Obama works with Indian country and what improvements his Indian policies may produce.

For the moment, though, given that Mr. Obama has heartily invoked the memory of President Abraham Lincoln, a flinty look at the highlights of Lincoln’s economic policies seems in order.

In an article recently published by The Huffington Post, Louise Mirrer pointed out that “national unity, and westward expansion” were “twin ideals” of the United States at the end of the Civil War. These ideals, said Mirrer, are evoked by the painting chosen as a backdrop for President Obama’s first formal lunch with Congress, “View of Yosemite Valley” (1865) by Thomas Hill. To an audience at the time of the painting, says Mirrer, “the overall message. … might have been summed up in two words: Manifest Destiny.”

Lincoln, in the spirit of empire and colonization, initiated a number of economic policies that “reduced” Indian nations throughout the Great Plains to limited land bases, while simultaneously providing taxpayer subsidies and grants of millions of acres of Indian land for railroads, other corporate interests and homesteaders.

In “The Red Man in the New World Drama” (Vine Deloria Jr.’s edition, 1971), Jennings C. Wise pointed out that Lincoln’s economic policies resulted in tremendous areas of land being opened to colonization. As Wise noted, various states were granted 71 million acres of “public domain” lands (Indian lands) before 1873. Another 85 million acres were pre-empted (claimed) by homesteaders under the 1862 Homestead Act. And another 155 million acres of Indian lands, including “rights of way and alternate sections of non-mineral bearing lands,” were “granted outright” to “corporate interests which undertook to finance the construction of the transcontinental railroad.”

Given that Barack Obama has heartily invoked the memory of President Abraham Lincoln, a flinty look at the highlights of Lincoln’s economic policies seems in order.

In 1854, Congress created the Court of Private Land Claims, which was to be a tribunal in which the United States would voluntarily permit judgments as to its contractual obligations. It was to this court that Indians had filed “innumerable claims arising out of their treaties.” However, on March 3, 1863, during Lincoln’s term in office, Congress reformed the CPLC in a way that, as Wise put it, deprived Indian nations of the only legal means they would have had to “recover the value of the property which was ruthlessly taken from them in violation of the solemn treaty obligations of the United States.” This exclusion of Indian nations and “tribes” from the CPLC for treaty violations was not dealt with by Congress until the Indian Claims Commission Act of 1946.

After Lincoln signed the act that authorized the Union and Central pacific railroads, a flood of laborers poured west. Thousands of unemployed Civil War veterans sought jobs with the railroad contractors, thereby adding to the thousands of people who had already entered the region under the Homestead Act. As a means of feeding those who had gone west to work for the railroads, contractors kept busy killing buffalo.

Some 65 million buffalo were decimated within 20 years. They were hunted nearly to the point of extinction, partly for food, but primarily as an intentional means of destroying the economic base of the Indian nations of the Great Plains. It was a conscious military effort to starve Indian people into submission.

After the Civil War, Lincoln’s war generals went on to engage in a war of extermination against the Plains Indian nations. An egregious example of the lot was General William Tecumseh Sherman. According to Sherman biographer John F. Marszalek (“Sherman: A Soldier’s Passion for Order”), the good general issued an order to his troops: “During an assault, the soldiers cannot pause to distinguish between male and female, or even discriminate as to age. As long as resistance is made, death must be meted out. …”

This, along with the destruction of the Indian food supply, was part of the U.S.’s “final solution” to “the Indian problem.” It was part of an array of policies designed to break Indian resistance to the extinguishing of their traditional, free way of life in order to make way for the railroads and the continued expansion of what George Washington termed “a rising empire.” Lincoln’s economic policies were key to the efforts of those who “settled the West,” to use a phrase from President Obama’s inaugural address.

Fortunately, while he was still president-elect, Obama made issues in Indian country an important part of the focus of his transition team. Time will tell whether this focus will result in tangible improvement and reform in Indian country during the Obama era.

The Lincoln presidency serves to emphasize the fact that the United States has been built on billions of acres of Indian land at the cost of lives, languages and cultures, all to the detriment of Indian nations. The Obama presidency presents an opportunity to tell the truth about the history of the United States, not for reasons of recrimination, but as a means of achieving conciliation and healing, and toward the full realization of our fundamental human rights, both individual and collective, including the right of self-determination.

Steven Newcomb is indigenous law research coordinator in the education department of the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation and author of “Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery” (2008, Fulcrum).

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