The Long History of the Unfair Treatment of Native Americans

Elizabeth Price, Co-Editor-in-Chief

“Our nation was born in genocide when it embraced the doctrine that the original American, the Indian, was an inferior race.” -Martin Luther King Jr., Why We Can’t Wait


The introduction of a vast new land to the conquistadors and the explorers of the European world marked the end of culture for the indigenous peoples of America. From then on, natives became seen as less than man. Since colonialism, Native Americans have received the worst treatment history has to offer.

While a feast between the colonists and the Indians did occur once in 1621, the diverse and grateful tradition did not truly start the national Thanksgiving holiday, according to The Day, a Connecticut based newspaper. In fact, Thanksgiving has darker origins rooted in the maltreatment of a native tribe. Celebrating the beginning of their yearly corn harvest with their four-day long Green Corn Ceremony, the Pequot Indians were unsuspecting victims of a massacre. Early in the morning, members of the Massachusetts Bay Colony arrived and brutally murdered 700 unarmed tribal members, as stated by Huffington Post. The next day, John Winthrop, the governor of the colony, called for a “day of Thanksgiving” as a result of the colonists’ safe return from their massacre of “savage heathens.” Though the meaning of Thanksgiving has been completely altered to a day of reflection and family, it is important to understand the dark beginnings and the atrocious crimes on Native Americans. Our history is one of ethnic genocide towards natives, and it has transgressed with the glorification of murder.

The presidency of Andrew Jackson saw hundreds of atrocities by the government of Native Americans. Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830 legalized and glorified ethnic cleansing. Tens of thousands of natives were displaced, forced off their own land to make more room for the cotton plantations of the South. It is with legislature passed during Jackson’s presidency that doomed natives for the future. In 1831, Chief Justice John Marshall declared that Indian tribes were “domestic dependent nations” in the case of Cherokee Nation v. Georgia. Marshall further made his point by claiming that their “relation to the United States resembles that of a ward to his guardian.” The decision behind this case enabled Andrew Jackson to perpetuate a reign of terror on the native peoples. Despite the fact that this decision was overturned in another court case the next year, Jackson continued to impose upon the natives, specifically on the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole peoples, with the inhumane Trail of Tears.

The events that followed contributed to the bleak future of the natives. In 1851, Congress passed the Indian Appropriation Act, the first step in officially confining tribes to small, impoverished reservations. Forced assimilation permitted by the Dawes Act did not bode well for the tribes, either. Many tribes were a part of involuntary assimilation into white cultures: sorted into boarding schools that taught them to be the eurocentric definition of civilized. Native youth were taken from their families to learn “proper” mannerisms, stripped of their culture and everything they knew. Soon enough, many native cultures were lost to the prejudice and egotism of the those of European descent. They saw a loss of their tribal religions, and now Catholicism and Protestantism is prevalent on reservations instead.

Even today, the treatment of Native Americans by Caucasians is abysmal. Reservations, as an effect of many laws enacted by the U.S. government, have been relegated to poverty. According to the Atlantic, Native Americans have a rate of poverty of almost twice the national average, the highest of all racial groups in America. This is a problem that originates with the government, as they make it nearly impossible for those who live on reservations to move upward in society. To simply receive a permit for energy development on reservations, companies must go through at least four federal agencies and 49 steps, according to Forbes. By contrast, off reservation, it takes only four steps. In addition, legally speaking, tribes are not capable of owning or managing their lands. Forbes writes that the government is the legal owner of all land and assets on reservations, and, because of this, they cannot mortgage their assets for loans like other Americans. The government agencies in charge and the laws in place withhold economic growth from occurring on native reservations.

Unfortunately, as a result of the inability for economic growth, health diminishes and crime persists. As reported by a 2001 study by the HHS Office of Minority Health, due to the link between heart disease, diabetes, poverty and quality of nutrition and health care, 36 percent of Natives with heart disease will die before age 65, compared to 15 percent of Caucasians. In addition, infant death rates are 60 percent higher than for Caucasians. Crime rates are also exceeding high on reservation land. According to a 1997 study by the National Center for Epidemiology and Population Health (NCEPH), young Native American peoples show higher rates of drinking and drug use than most other racial or ethnic groups. This has caused a large problem, as alcohol-related death rates among Native Americans youth are over 10 times the national average, according to a study by the University of Minnesota-Duluth. Despite the aforementioned truth that government agencies are responsible for the maintenance of reservations, they fail to do their job. The Justice Department, which is responsible for attending to the most serious crimes on reservations, only files charges in about half of the murder investigations, according to the New York Times. In addition, they turn down nearly two-thirds of sexual assault cases, enabling a high rate of crime to continue. The federal government’s treatment towards native reservations is similar to that of an absentee parent: neglecting to attend to their needs yet refusing to give them the freedom and ability to grow on their own.

Throughout history, natives have been given three dismal choices: assimilation, relocation, or genocide. The harsh reality of America’s history is the fact that the treatment of Native Americans is now and always has been grotesque.