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Trimble: Manifest Destiny lives

The term manifest destiny has become so embedded in the language of Indian affairs that many of us think somehow that it is a doctrine, or national Indian policy. Although it is neither of these, it is what has pervaded the dealings of this country, and other nations of the Americas, with Native peoples over the centuries from first contact. It still pervades the formation of national Indian policy.

Although coinage of the term “manifest destiny” is attributed to journalist John L. O’Sullivan in an 1845 editorial, it gained political importance among the new Democratic Party in support of the expansion plans of President Polk. But the sanctimonious attitude known as manifest destiny predates that by almost four centuries.

Since 1537, when the Papal Bull, Sublimis Deus, was issued by Pope Paul III declaring Native peoples to be humans with rights to life and property, outright genocide of Indians was not an accepted approach to conquering them and taking their lands, although it was widely practiced. The whole question continues to this day as to how the peoples who owned the New World could be removed so their lands could be taken and developed.

Outright removal was one method, which was even sanctified by law and national policy in the 1830s and beyond. But that policy only resulted in relocating tribes to new lands that the dominant society would want in the future.

The term manifest destiny has become so embedded in the language of Indian affairs that many of us think somehow that it is a doctrine, or national Indian policy.

So, new methods were adopted in a two-fold strategy to disappear the tribal nations: The first was for physical attrition through warfare, pestilence, starvation, benign neglect, and interbreeding with whites. This would kill off the people or force them off their lands in search of sustenance and livelihood.

The second was for cultural attrition that would be accomplished by “civilizing” Indian people through Christianization, education, and assimilation. The tribes, it was hoped, would eventually abandon their savage ways and become brown white people, so to speak. Most importantly, they would become capitalists and recognize the importance of making the greatest use of their lands, mostly by ceding or selling them to the superior and dominant European Americans.

Several years ago, my friend Lynn Ireland of the Nebraska State Historical Society showed me a print of a 19th century painting depicting Manifest Destiny. I remarked how ironic it is that the portrayals of Manifest Destiny and the White Buffalo Calf Woman were so similar. On the one hand our own stories are told of the White Buffalo Calf Woman bringing culture and law to the Sioux people, and Miz MD coming to take everything away.

Dakota artist Oscar Howe portrayed the White Buffalo Calf Woman as described in the story passed down through generations: A beautiful young Native woman dressed in light buckskin, moving smoothly through the air several feet above the ground to a small hunting party of warriors. She instructed these warriors on how their tribal society should be, and directed them to pass on her instructions to the people. As she moved on she turned into a white buffalo calf, and disappeared onto the Plains.

On the other hand, we see the depiction of Manifest Destiny in an 1872 allegorical painting by John Gast, titled “American Progress.” This painting depicts a rather buxom blond woman in flowing negligee. The painting was distributed widely at the time, and carried with it an accompanying interpretation, which included the following paragraph:

“A diaphanously and precarious clad America floats westward thru the air with the Star of Empire on her forehead. She has left the cities of the East behind, and the wide Mississippi, and still her course is westward. In her right hand she carries a schoolbook – testimonial of the national enlightenment, while in her left trails the slender wires of the telegraph that will bind the Nation. Fleeing her approach are Indians, buffalo, wild horses, bears, and other game, disappearing into the storm and waves of the Pacific coast. They flee the wondrous vision – the Star is too much for them.”

The tribes, it was hoped, would eventually abandon their savage ways and become brown white people, so to speak.

This description – the second to last sentence especially referring to Indians, buffalo, wild horses, bears and other wild game – clearly shows the national attitude that caused the Americans to feel justified in finally removing the Native peoples of this country and taking their lands. The new strategies of today are only somewhat less barbaric than they were 518 years ago, when Columbus started the whole Manifest Destiny cycle with a prayer of thanks to the Lord for giving him what would become the Americas.

The Indian Removal Act of 1830 is no longer enforced, but is still on the books, and still in the attitudes of our nation’s leaders. We are only in a holding pattern, but Manifest Destiny will raise its ugly head again when it is decided that tribal governments are not viable, or not needed, given the perceived wealth of tribal nations from casinos.

Charles Trimble, Oglala Lakota, was born and raised on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He was principal founder of the American Indian Press Association – forerunner of the Native American Journalists Association – in 1970, and served from 1972 – 1978 as executive director of the National Congress of American Indians. He can be contacted at His Web site is