Professor: Michael Benton
Only The Wind Will Know
America as a nation has expanded from the 1600’s when the first European Colonists from England arrived on the shores of the east coast and continued their expansion toward the west coast. The American Revolution that broke with England helped shape our country to its democratic form by forcing our founding fathers to examine their way of thinking, and to create laws that might be fairer for the new America. Our founding fathers recognized the unfair rule of England and wished to be free from those intrusions. They claimed to create laws that represented the people, not the government, and afforded protections to all. Were those laws representative of both the settlers and Native Americans, or did those laws help clear a path for the systematic genocide of a population of people that inhabited the Americas long before the first settlers? Did the American colonists attempt to militarily integrate a weaker Native American society, or did they view them as obstacles to exploit or eliminate?
I recall from my history classes, stories that told about the epic struggles of the Native American tribes and the hardships they endured during the Western Expansion of the American settlers. We must examine the cost in terms of culture, life, and legacy of the Native American tribes because of the massive population flood of American settlers into native lands. Further explanation is required to measure the benefits and sacrifices for both settlers and Native Americans. I will argue that many laws were passed by the American government that was based more on prejudice and greed than on mutual protection of all parties. I will assess how religious leaders attempted to impose an assimilation doctrine upon the Native Americans and examine how industrial America and the cattle barons exploited the settlers as well as the Native Americans, and lastly how the expansion of the 1800’s has had a lasting effect on the Native American population of present day America.
Few films capture the plight of the Native American tribes like the movie Dances with Wolves (1990). The director Kevin Costner was able to capture many minute details of family structure and the bond developed by a people that understood the fine balance between nature and life. Costner takes us on a journey through the prairies and highlands of the Great Sioux Nation during the mid to late 1800’s as an observer, letting us be a part of a culture that may greatly resemble our own. Costner lets us travel and live as one with the people through his interpretation, allowing us some visual insight and to experience the joys and hardships that will cause us to develop an emotional investment in the characters and the stories they tell. The film follows one particular tribe called the Sioux. This remarkable tribe lived on the plains and through their actions can effectively demonstrate the struggles this tribe faced together and how they interacted with each other to survive. Costner portrayed the Sioux as a people with courage, love, and a strong since of pride. According to the movie Dances with Wolves, the Sioux developed life-long family bonds. This particular tribe believed in hard work and viewed giving away or trading their wealth as noble.
The American expansion into the Native American lands became progressively intrusive once the American settlers began to parcel out portions of land for farming. Vast numbers of settlers trying to strike it rich flocked west of the Mississippi River, passing through or claiming land within occupied Native American lands. Initial contact between settlers and Native Americans was usually peaceful, and many cultural exchanges were made for food, medicine, tools, weapons, and clothing, but shortly after those exchanges, relationships between both parties would often result in conflict over land (Allen 403). The settlers became in direct competition with the Native Americans for the resources to survive. Many of the tribes viewed this intrusion as an act of war, attacking the settlers. Costner depicted one of these intrusions in his movie, showing the Pawnee attacking a family of settlers, killing everyone but a young white female who was able to escape by fleeing the area. The scene showed the hostile intent and distrust between the settlers and the Pawnee and demonstrated a war like battle that left a young girl alone and scared on the prairie, only to be rescued and raised by a Sioux holy man. This little girl would grow up to give voice to this tribe, allowing Costner to give insight to a tribe that the American Government considered savages. Once the news of those attacks was brought to the attention of the American politicians, laws were enacted to allow for conflict resolution between settlers and Native Americans. These laws could be viewed as one sided, such as the Indian Removal Act of the 1830’s, which allowed for the forcible removal or relocation of the Native Americans to lands designated by the Federal Government and enforced by the United States Military (“Century”). Political figures within the federal government such as President Grover Cleveland viewed the government as guardians for wards of the states, and the Indians were considered wards of the states (Allen 411).
President Cleveland helped create the Dawes Severalty Act, and this Act reflected his ever-changing personal views of the Native Americans. President Cleveland’s views of the Native Americans would often swing drastically from the Indians being “lazy, vicious, and stupid” to “industrious, peaceful, and intelligent” (Allen 411). The Dawes Severalty Act allowed President Cleveland to assign 160 acres of land to individual Indians once they had legally severed ties to their tribe. These Individual Native Americans had to agree to allow the government to sell unassigned tribal lands, and in return, some of those funds would be set aside for Native American education. Those Native Americans could also petition the United States government for U.S. citizenship (Faragher: 347). Others saw the Native Americans as needing guidance but agreed that barbarism and civilization could not live together (Allen 411). This political stance was represented in Costner’s film by acts of aggression toward Lieutenant John Dunbar, a white civil war military hero that fellow soldiers considered a traitor because he had conspired with the Natives. The American military commanders believed Dunbar had turned Indian and offered to spare his life if he would assist them in hunting down the tribe he had befriended. The American Military displayed hatred toward this tribe by demonstrating they were willing to kill one of their own commanders because they believed he had become an Indian by association. I consider the political mind-set of that time to be one sided because it only addresses what the government considered to be the Indian problem. These laws appeared to remove the Native American’s legitimate right to the lands they occupied and assisted the settlers in gaining vast parcels of land with limited conflict. Some of the Native Americans were confused by the American government, according to a Sioux warrior named John (Fire) Lame Deer. He said, “The U.S. Government is a strange monster with many heads. One head doesn’t know what the others are up to” (gtd. in Erdoes 9). With so many political and military leaders making decisions and creating laws, there may have been ample opportunity for corruption and greed to enter the political process. Men who make the laws could be persuaded through ulterior motives, profit, or friendship to create laws that would violate the very principles our founding fathers developed for a young America. I believe if laws are created that allow for the extermination of a people and the acquisition of their lands, it is not only reprehensible, but shows a total lack of empathy for human life.
Even though the American political parties may have viewed the Native Americans as savages, those that claim God as the creator of all may have viewed the Native Americans worthy of redemption. I argue the actions of American religion could have been as detrimental to the Native Americans as the laws that regulated behavior, land ownership, and even their existence. According to Corinthians 15: 1-4 of the Bible, Christians believe that Jesus Christ died on the cross to pay for the sins of man, and who ever believes in this doctrine will have everlasting life in heaven. The believer’s soul will spend eternity in heaven with God the father and creator of man. This is in contrast to the beliefs of the Native Americans. The Sioux believed in a Great Spirit called tunka and according to Lame Deer, tunka is considered their oldest God. The Native Americans considered tunka to be like a rock, ageless, eternal. The Sioux also considered tunka as the Great Spirit, a spirit of stone that sometimes would reveal hidden messages or invisible writings to those that listened with their heart (qtd. in Erdoes 193). American settlers like Captain John Smith and his wife tried to develop schools to educate the Native Americans in English language, customs, and Christianity (Allen 17).
The rigid rules that accompanied some of the American religions were in direct contrast to the beliefs of the Native Americans. The Sioux, for instance, believe everything was connected to nature and the Great Spirit would guide and protect them. Christians believe in an entity that created all things, and this spirit would guide and protect those that believe. The Native Americans prayed too many spirits and the American settlers believed in only one God. This sharp contrast caused turmoil between the Natives and settlers. There were many variations throughout the different American religious sects, for instance Catholicism, Protestant, and Judaism but the basic premise remained the same, the belief in God, the creator and savior of the devout believer. With so many different religious belief structures, I subscribe to the notion that with so many religious variations this may have confused the Native Americans and may have been extremely detrimental to them because it attempted to assimilate the Native Americans into a culture outside their own without consideration for their current beliefs. This new religion may have removed their own beliefs and caused the Native Americans to accept American religion only to help them survive in an ever-growing intrusion of American settlers into their homelands. I could never be entirely sure of the overall effect that religion had upon the Native Americans, but I believe any religion that doesn’t respect a society for their current beliefs may not be living by the standards they so aggressively teach and defend. By reviewing the religions of both cultures, I can accept that many of the Native American beliefs are similar to those of the American settlers and may have very easily been incorporated into the mainstream beliefs of the settlers, but that may have required the settlers to practice a little more tolerance and compassion for others. I do believe there was an attempt by the early American settlers to use religion to control and assimilate the Native Americans into the White American culture. These attempts may not have been as nefarious as it appeared, because in my experience with religion, I often observed many displays of kindness and a genuine concern for a person’s well-being. I have found nothing in documentation that would lead me to believe that at least some of the religious community would have behaved in the same manner toward the Native Americans.
My final argument will demonstrate the efforts of industrial America to systematically exterminate the Native Americans and pillage the lands west of the Mississippi river of their natural resources. Through his movie, Costner gave us a tiny glimpse through his movie of the massive herds of buffalo, and how the Sioux tribe’s survival depended on hunting those buffalo. The Sioux in Costner’s movie Dances with Wolves appeared to be saddened when the tribe found scores of buffalo that had been killed by white hunters and were left lying on the prairie for nothing more than their fur. To a people that survived on the meat of the buffalo, this would have been a devastating sight and could have been viewed as an act of war. Military commanders encouraged their soldiers to practice their shooting skills by shooting buffalo with the new .50 caliber Sharps rifle (Faragher 332). The killing of the buffalo was not the only attacks the Native Americans had to endure the mining industry and prospectors moved into the Dakota Territory and began to corrupt officials of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, allowing the mining companies to divert funds for personal use and reduce food supplies to the Native Americans (Faragher 332). With so many different tribes assigned and living on the Dakota reservation, survival had become harder, and with the reduction of food supplies, skirmishes between tribes were ever increasing. American settlers continued to flock westward to find their fortunes, trying to find copper in Arizona or gold in California. There would always be some product or resource that would capture the imagination of the settlers and continue to push the Native Americans into an ever shrinking land that their society may not recover from. With the industrial age of America in its infancy, the Native Americans would not be the only people to fall victim to the rapid growth of the mining, cattle, and railroad industry. The poor settlers along with the Mexicans, Chinese, and an assortment of immigrants looking for fortune would find it hard to be successful or survive because of the lack of support by these wealthy business owners. Some farms would fail because of lack of water in the desert, while others fell to disease or harsh winters. The larger mining companies bought up the smaller individual claims and purchased state of the art mining equipment, leaving the individual miners who were unwilling to sell to the larger companies unable to compete financially (Faragher 335). The rapid growth of these industries was very progressive and an essential part of Americas growth, but came at a high cost for some.
In summary my arguments have demonstrated the United States government made unfair laws that assisted in the destruction of the Native American society and forced those remaining to live a very harsh life on lands that were not their own. The Native Americans were deceived into forfeiting their homelands and forced down a path that even in today’s Native American community’s leave many in the grip of poverty. I have successfully argued that religious leaders attempted to assimilate the Native Americans through education, religion, and separation from their tribes. Lastly, America’s industrial society, made up of mainly white, wealthy businessmen, politicians, and the financially elite, were able to lure vast numbers of settlers to the West with a promise of fortune and freedom, pushing the Native Americans out of their homelands and closer to their demise. I would like to think we as a people learned valuable lessons during America’s growth westward, but it appears to me those same tactics imposed on the Native Americans during the 1800s are still being used today by our present day politicians, corporations, and elitists, to control or push aside any whom they consider an obstacle. Laws are still smothering and controlling groups of people. Corporations like the oil tycoons control financial markets and lobby politicians to create laws that favor corporate interests over the smaller business owners. I wonder are we the current day Native Americans? Will our survival be challenged or pushed aside so the wealthy can become more powerful? Will corporations continue to claim their success is the success of the nation? I believe only the wind will know.
Allen, Larry Schweikart and Michael. A Patriot's History of the United States. New York: Penguin Group, 2007.
Deer, John (Fire) Lame, and Richard Erdoes. Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972.
John Mack Faragher, Mari Jo Buhle, et al. Out of Many: A History of the American People. Ed. Todd R.Armstrong. Upper saddle River: Simon & Schuster, 1999.
The Library of Congress. A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation. 28 May 1830. 01 May 2003.