The Indian Dispossessed/The Indian Reservation

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The Indian Dispossessed  (1906)  by Seth King Humphrey
The Indian Reservation
Keokuk, Sac and Fox Chief, 1831.png

Keokuk, Sac and Fox Chief


FIFTY years of the American Indian's story lies in the Indian Reservation. Year by year the story comes first-hand in the reports of each reservation agent to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs; the Honorable Commissioner presents a review of the reports, with his comments and recommendations, to the Secretary of the Interior; and the Honorable Secretary embodies a brief of it in his annual report to the President. Then there are the Indian treaties (so-called, Heaven knows why), a whole bookful of them, with Uncle Sam as party of the first part, and Uncle Sam as absolute custodian of the party of the second part; and Executive Orders, in which the signature of the President makes and unmakes Indian country without the troublesome formality of consulting the Indians. And, too, when the Indian thinks his right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" extends beyond the confines of his reservation into his old hunting-grounds, the story shifts to the War Department, and Generals, Colonels, and Majors take a hand at the record.

So the Indian story threads its way through the various public documents, from eighteen hundred and fifty-five to nineteen hundred and five. It is the object of this book to pick out the official narratives of a few Indian tribes and present the Indian in his unromantic reality,—not the Indian in paint and feathers chasing the buffalo, nor the Indian of Cooper, but a forlorn individual wrested from old conditions and brought face to face with new; a being bearing the impress of a common Maker at the absolute mercy of those who profess that "all men are created equal." The public documents shall tell most of the story.

The first forcible exposition of the reservation system, somewhat revised and in working order, appears in the report for 1872 of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs to the Honorable Secretary of the Interior. He says in part:

"In the first announcement made of the reservation system, it was expressly declared that the Indians should be made as comfortable on, and as uncomfortable off, their reservations as it was in the power of the Government to make them; that such of them as went right should be protected and fed, and such as went wrong should be harassed and scourged without intermission. It was not anticipated that the first proclamation of this policy to the tribes concerned would effect the entire cessation of existing evils; but it was believed that persistence in the course marked out would steadily reduce the number of the refractory, both by the losses sustained in actual conflict and by the desertion of individuals as they should become weary of a profitless and hopeless struggle, until, in the near result, the system adopted should apply without exception to all the then roving and hostile tribes. Such a use of the strong arm of the Government is not war, but discipline."

Not war—certainly not; but discipline. It is fairly alive with discipline. If some captious reader persists in the notion that every war of conquest since the world began aimed to "steadily reduce the number of the refractory," both by killing and by strangling hope in the living, he may content himself with the reflection that, sometimes, discipline is hell.

So the well-disposed Indian was to revel in plenty, and the hostile, "scourged without intermission." How did it work?

The Government soon discovered three things: first, that the well disposed and subjugated tribes could be kept in a state of quiet at an extremely small expense, simply because they would not or could not fight; second, that by providing for the powerful and semi-hostile tribes so bountifully as to allay their resentment of the intrusion, the white settlements could gain foothold far up into the Indian country without the aid of the military; and third, that while the system of rewards to the righteous was correct as a sentimental proposition, the same amount of money expended on the Indians in inverse ratio to their friendliness produced the best results—for the Government. Hence a curiously "Inverted Policy" in full blast at the time of the Commissioner's report. Here is his apology for it:

"This want of completeness and consistency in the treatment of the Indian tribes by the Government has been made the occasion of much ridicule and partisan abuse; and it is indeed calculated to provoke criticism and to afford scope for satire; but it is none the less compatible with the highest expediency of the situation. It is, of course, hopelessly illogical that the expenditures of the Government should be proportioned not to the good but to the ill desert of the several tribes; that large bodies of Indians should be supported in entire indolence by the bounty of the Government simply because they are audacious and insolent, while well-disposed Indians are only assisted to self-maintenance, since it is known they will not fight."

Although "hopelessly illogical," it was held to be reasonable:

"It is not a whit more unreasonable that the Government should do much for hostile Indians and little for friendly Indians than it is that a private citizen should, to save his life, surrender all the contents of his purse to a highwayman; while on another occasion, to a distressed and deserving applicant for charity, he would measure his contribution by his means and disposition at the time. There is precisely the same justification for the course of the Government in feeding saucy and mischievous Indians to repletion, while permitting more tractable and peaceful tribes to gather a bare subsistence by hard work, or what to an Indian is hard work."

The friendly Indian seems to have been quick to perceive the penalty for being a good Indian, but, unfortunately for his peace of mind, he was unable to read this lucid explanation of the reasonableness of his affliction.

That the Commissioner was strenuous in his views regarding the early reduction of the hostile Indian to the inexpensive variety, may be gathered from the following extracts:

"It belongs not to a sanguine, but to a sober view of the situation, that three years will see the alternative of war eliminated from the Indian question, and the most powerful and hostile bands of to-day thrown in entire helplessness on the mercy of the Government. . . .

"No one certainly will rejoice more heartily than the present Commissioner when the Indians of this country cease to be in a position to dictate, in any form or degree, to the Government; when, in fact, the last hostile tribe becomes reduced to the condition of suppliants for charity. This is, indeed, the only hope of salvation for the aborigines of the continent. If they stand up against the progress of civilization and industry, they must be relentlessly crushed. The westward course of population is neither to be denied nor delayed for the sake of all the Indians that ever called this country their home. They must yield or perish; and there is something that savors of providential mercy in the rapidity with which their fate advances upon them, leaving them scarcely the chance to resist before they shall be surrounded and disarmed. . . .

"The freedom of expansion which is working these results is to us of incalculable value. To the Indian it is of incalculable cost. Every year's advance of our frontier takes in a territory as large as some of the kingdoms of Europe. We are richer by hundreds of millions; the Indian is poorer by a large part of the little that he has. This growth is bringing imperial greatness to the nation; to the Indian it brings wretchedness, destitution, beggary."

So "expansion" and "imperial greatness" are not terms born of the Philippine situation. The business dates back some thirty years.

"Discipline" of the strenuous kind proceeded with the reduction of the hostile Indian in strict accordance with the good old law of "the Survival of the Fittest," despite the handicap of the Slogan. And it is beyond the expectation of reason that a sentimental expression of "inalienable rights," at best the cry of a distressed people even though still persisting as a living truth, should have secured to the Indian as his game preserve vast areas of country fitted for infinitely better uses. Such a thing cannot happen until the laws made "in the beginning" become subject to human revision.

But after that, the host of "suppliants"; and then, what next? Then, surely, there is grand opportunity for the play of the humanitarian professions of a great nation; with the last Indian turning to his "Great Father" for instruction in the better way, will Justice be invited to preside over the destiny of the unhappy race? Or will Unde Sam "measure his contribution by his means and disposition at the time," and let it go at that?