Scoring the Presidents on Integrity and Humanity in Dealing with Native American Nations

News at Home
tags: political history, presidential history, Native American history

Michael A. Genovese is president of the Global Policy Institute at Loyola Marymount University. 





The arrival of European settlers on the shores of the eastern seaboard of what would later become the United States proved a tragic occurrence for the indigenous people who had lived on the land for generations.  History, we are told ad nauseam, is written by the winners, and in this tale, the Native-Americans were decidedly the losers. Thus, much of their history has been lost, stolen, or neglected.  The primary cause of their distress has been the policies of the federal government of the United States, and the political institution most responsible for their plight is the Presidency. Over the past 235 years, it has been primarily US presidents who made Indian policy. Some went to great lengths to respect the interests and histories of the indigenous tribes or nations they met; others viewed these native people as sub-human, and attempted to eradicate the indigenous populations.

In US Presidents and the Destruction of the Native American Nations (Palgrave Macmillan, 2021), co-author Alysa Landry of Dine College on the Navajo reservation, and I conducted a longitudinal analysis of how the US presidents from George Washington to Donald Trump understood, and addressed relations between the government and the native nations.  The story is often harsh, brutal, and ugly. But there are also shining lights who tried to treat the Native Americans with dignity and respect.

Prior to the founding of the United States, relations between the European settlers and the native populations can be characterized by exploitation and a sense that perhaps the Indians could be used to serve colonizers’ purposes, especially in wars between rival European powers in the new world. Thus, fragile and shifting alliances between the French and the British, and the various tribes of the region usually followed the following script: one European power would promise a native nation that if they threw their support (and their warriors) behind their cause, after victory, they would be well-treated and their lands protected. It almost goes without saying that such promises were worthless. This engendered a distinct distrust on the part of the native peoples towards the European interlopers. It was the beginning of a sad pattern that would repeat itself throughout history.

After the American Revolution, the status of the Native Americans posed a particularly vexing problem to the new government:  were they sovereign “nations” which would have required they be dealt with through diplomacy and treaties; were they “citizens” (no); or were they some undetermined category of “residents” to be dealt with through state and federal laws?

Of course, the first president to deal with the Native Americans was George Washington, who served from 1789 to 1797 (Washington was named Conotocarious, or “destroyer of villages,” for his pre-Revolutionary war reputation for brutally fighting Native tribes). Washington spent a tremendous amount of time and energy struggling with the Indian problem. Washington, aware that everything he did was liable to set a lasting precedent, knew that what he did would likely continue to  be done for decades to come. What he set in motion would matter. In political science, we sometimes employ a “path dependency” model of political change wherein at certain times, a leader or situation leads to significant change. This change becomes established and for a time is the path that others who follow must either travel down or make minor alterations to. Washington knew that he was establishing a path.

Washington was under tremendous pressure from white settlers who coveted the land then occupied by native nations. Washington, himself a land speculator and believer in developing the western territories (for both commercial and security reasons), also faced many state governments who wanted to remove the native populations and make way for European settlers. And always, attitudes regarding race and imperialism loomed large. The colonial rebels wanted to become colonial masters, and the pressure on Washington was too much to bear.

President Washington hoped to have his cake and eat it too by promoting westward expansion while also respecting Indian rights, and in his two terms, he met frequently with Native American tribal leaders.  But having it both ways was a square expansionist peg that just would not fit into the sovereign Indian round hole. It was either/or. The pressure to open western land was just too great, and the die was cast. Washington did indeed set precedents. Much to the regret of the Native American people.

After Washington, the next president to dramatically shift Indian policy was Andrew Jackson (1829-1837). One could argue that for Native Americans, Jackson was the worst president in US history. His attitude towards Native Americans was one of hostility, hatred, and racism. His solution to the “Indian problem” was removal. Simply remove them and let the white settlers have their land. Jackson’s policies led to the “Trail of Tears”, a forced march of over 60,000 native Americans from their ancestral lands in Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, North Carolina, and Florida, to land in Oklahoma and elsewhere west. It is estimated that 10,000 Native-Americans died making this trek. It was one of the sorriest stories in American history.

The next notable President in his dealings with Native Americans was Teddy Roosevelt (1901-1909). TR. like Andrew Jackson before him, harbored a deep hatred for Native Americans that was as legendry as it was destructive. He is famous for the saying, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian,” and if that was his attitude, his policies reflected his distaste for native people. This list of notables leads us to what can be called the “Hall of Shame” of Presidents in their relations with Native Americans. This hall highlights those presidents who were particularly harsh in their treatment of Native Americans.


                                                                        PRESIDENTIAL HALL OF SHAME


                                                                                   Thomas Jefferson

                                                                                    Andrew Jackson

                                                                                    Martin Van Buren

                                                                                    Andrew Johnson

                                                                                    James Garfield

                                                                                     Theodore Roosevelt

                                                                                     Donald Trump

Over time, our sensibilities shifted and our sensitivity to the often sub-human treatment of native nations led to both changes in attitudes and changes in policy. The great leap forward came with the early 1900s (1923-1953) and Civil Rights era (1960-1976). President Calvin Coolidge was one of the first truly progressive thinkers regarding the native peoples.  Much the same could be said of his successor, Herbert Hoover. Franklin D. Roosevelt attempted to establish an Indian New Deal, and his successor, Harry Truman carried on this effort.  During the civil rights era beginning in the 1960s, while presidents did not focus a great deal of attention on problems of native peoples, several (perhaps surprisingly, Richard Nixon) did make serious efforts to deal with Native Americans on a more positive footing. This “golden age” of federal government/Native-American relations was a period in which presidents played “small ball” regarding policy, but made some movements in the direction of respect and inclusion for Native Nations. And this leads us to our presidential “Hall of Fame” in dealings with Native Americans:


                                                                         PRESIDENTIAL HALL OF FAME


                                                                                  John Quincy Adams

                                                                                  Calvin Coolidge

                                                                                  Herbert Hoover

                                                                                  Franklin D. Roosevelt

                                                                                  Harry S Truman

                                                                                  Lyndon B. Johnson

                                                                                  Richard M. Nixon

                                                                                  Gerald R. Ford

                                                                                  Bill Clinton

                                                                                  Barack Obama


If several recent presidents began to deal more forthrightly with the Native American nations, this should not obscure the fact that for most of American history, Native peoples were treated with violence, disrespect, and paternalism.  Their land was stolen, they were force marched out of their ancestral lands, their rights were ignored or abridged, and their interests exploited.

comments powered by Disqus