State of the union was once the forum for Indian removal

Andrew Jackson, head-and-shoulders portrait, leaning against pillow of which ticking appears in lower left corner. Half plate daguerreotype, gold toned, between 1844 and 1845. (Photo: Library of Congress)

Mark Trahant

Andrew Jackson’s tragic message to Congress in 1829; but tonight begins a new chapter #ICTSOTU

The State of the Union was once a written message to Congress. At the end of 1829, President Andrew Jackson wrote his state of the Union with a message of support for the new states and he made it clear that he was taking Georgia’s side over the Cherokee Nation.

“These States, claiming to be the only sovereigns within their territories, extended their laws over the Indians, which induced the latter to call upon the United States for protection,” he wrote. “Georgia became a member of the Confederacy which eventuated in our Federal Union as a sovereign State, always asserting her claim to certain limits, which, having been originally defined in her colonial charter and subsequently recognized in the treaty of peace, she has ever since continued to enjoy, except as they have been circumscribed by her own voluntary transfer of a portion of her territory to the United States in the articles of cession of 1802.”

And just to make certain that his message was clear. Jackson ticked off other states where he thought the tribal interest should be subservient.

The president wrote: “Would the people of Maine permit the Penobscot tribe to erect an independent government within their State? And unless they did would it not be the duty of the General Government to support them in resisting such a measure? Would the people of New York permit each remnant of the six Nations within her borders to declare itself an independent people under the protection of the United States? Could the Indians establish a separate republic on each of their reservations in Ohio? And if they were so disposed would it be the duty of this Government to protect them in the attempt? If the principle involved in the obvious answer to these questions be abandoned, it will follow that the objects of this Government are reversed, and that it has become a part of its duty to aid in destroying the States which it was established to protect.”

He then told Congress that he “informed the Indians” that tribal self-government would not be permitted “and advised them to emigrate beyond the Mississippi.”

So for Indian Country, the state of the union was tragic. (Cherokee Nation: A brief history of the Trail of Tears.)

What’s so extraordinary about this moment is that Jackson argued he was doing this for humanity’s sake.

Our conduct toward these people is deeply interesting to our national character,” he wrote. “Their present condition, contrasted with what they once were, makes a most powerful appeal to our sympathies. Our ancestors found them the uncontrolled possessors of these vast regions. By persuasion and force they have been made to retire from river to river and from mountain to mountain, until some of the tribes have become extinct and others have left but remnants to preserve for a while their once terrible names. Surrounded by the whites with their arts of civilization, which by destroying the resources of the savage doom him to weakness and decay, the fate of the Mohegan, the Narragansett, and the Delaware is fast over-taking the Choctaw, the Cherokee, and the Creek. That this fate surely awaits them if they remain within the limits of the States does not admit of a doubt.”

Jackson argued that removal was to “avert” a calamity.

“As a means of effecting this end I suggest for your consideration the propriety of setting apart an ample district west of the Mississippi, and without the limits of any State or Territory now formed, to be guaranteed to the Indian tribes as long as they shall occupy it, each tribe having a distinct control over the portion designated for its use,” Jackson said.

That would be the Indian Territory. Later the Twin Territories. And now Oklahoma.

President Grover Cleveland (Photo: Library of Congress)

Grover Cleveland also brought up Indian affairs in his state of the union. He wrote: “When the existing system was adopted, the Indian race was outside of the limits of organized States and Territories and beyond the immediate reach and operation of civilization, and all efforts were mainly directed to the maintenance of friendly relations and the preservation of peace and quiet on the frontier. All this is now changed. There is no such thing as the Indian frontier. Civilization, with the busy hum of industry and the influences of Christianity, surrounds these people at every point. None of the tribes are outside of the bounds of organized government and society, except that the Territorial system has not been extended over that portion of the country known as the Indian Territory. As a race the Indians are no longer hostile, but may be considered as submissive to the control of the Government. Few of them only are troublesome. Except the fragments of several bands, all are now gathered upon reservations.”

Portrait of Andrew Jackson on display in the White House. (Photo: White House)

More than a century later it’s unlikely that President Donald J. Trump will preach removal. Or submission. But what will be left unsaid are the policy choices that have been made at the Department of Interior. Although not recorded as an official State of the Union, the arguments accepted by the government are familiar. “The Tribe argues that the United States retained paramount authority over Indian affairs within the original thirteen states despite state actions and the slow development of Federal authority in the early constitutional period. Regardless, the Tribe adds, any exercise of state authority over Indians did not oust or otherwise limit Federal authority.” However, the Interior Department said, the counter was that state powers “precluded a Federal relationship in or before 1934, and that is because the Tribe was always under the Commonwealth's care and authority, its members could not have been wards of the United States.” And that’s the side of the argument that the Trump administration picked.

The National Congress of American Indians said it “disagrees strongly” with Interior’s decision and that it “severely restricts the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s sovereignty and its ability to exercise meaningful self-governance. In addition, the Tribe’s reservation is now threatened with disestablishment. The Tribe is effectively stripped of important “reliance interests” that will affect the social service programs it provides to its citizens, as well as the economic development ventures (including gaming) that the Tribe relies on to support critical tribal government functions and provide job opportunities to its people.”

President Trump proudly displays Jackson’s portrait at the White House. Jackson is his kind of hero. But tonight, at the State of the Union, a different type of history is unfolding. For the first time, there are Native American women sitting in the chamber as elected leaders of Congress, of a state government, and a more representative democracy. What’s said, or left unsaid, cannot change that.

Mark Trahant is editor of Indian Country Today. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Follow him on Twitter - @TrahantReports


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