American Exceptionalism and the Myth of the Frontiers 7: Phase III – Indians as Children “Protected” in Reservations

Author: Rajiv Malhotra.

Once the “merciless savage” had been uprooted to a contained area away from his land, laws and customs, he could then be “managed” and raised as a child. His savage religion could be replaced with superior Christianity. This was the culmination of an Enlightenment idea that saw non-Whites as racial and cultural children. Jefferson, who did not seem to consider Native Americans as racially inferior (unlike Blacks), nevertheless believed that their backward religion and culture made them incapable of decision-making in the same autonomous way that White adults could.19 

In 1831, the Supreme Court had already declared that all Native American tribes were a dependent nation, thereby allowing them to be categorized as “subjects or wards.” Thus, the long prevalent Enlightenment view of non-Whites as backward “children” needing to be tutored by Whites was given a new legal basis, “thus nullifying the supposedly universal right to consent to one’s own government” (Stephanson 1995, p. 26). 

Several notable Americans who admitted that Native Americans had been harmed by White expansion now openly proposed that the only option to enable the natives to flourish was to put them under the direct protection of “the Anglo-Saxons.” The self-congratulatory argument was that enslavement and protection had allowed Blacks to grow their population in America while the Indians had declined in number (Horsman 1981, p. 203)! 

A few isolated voices challenged the notion of the Native Americans being inferior especially if they were educated and Christianized. In other words, their backward condition was not permanent, but like children, given time and a chance to learn “true religion” they could be redeemed. Congressmen testified that “there were many individuals of several tribes . . . who were as intelligent as nine tenths of the members of [Congress]” (Horsman 1981, p. 204). Others pointed out that it was “preposterous to conclude that a whole nation of people were destitute of the ability to improve themselves” (ibid.). But while defending some specific Native Americans as individuals, even such liberal Americans were unwilling to stand up for Native American cultures or for their collective identities. One Congressman was brutally honest and insightful in his rare assessment that “it was natural that Americans should look for the causes of Indian disappearance among the Indians rather than among the whites, but this was a false search” (ibid.). 

Ultimately, the very few true friends the Native Americans had in positions of power and public influence were simply overwhelmed and exhausted by the pervasive demonizing of the Native Americans in news reports and popular literature. Any rare episode of natives’ defensive resistance against the taking of their lands was exaggerated over and over again to condemn them as savages. 

Attempts by non-Whites to unite were particularly targeted as evil. One watershed event in this regard took place in the early 1840s when escaping Black slaves joined hands with Indian tribes in Florida to attack Whites settled on captured lands. The conflict was especially threatening as an alliance of the colored races versus the Whites: Wilderness threatening Eden. The well-popularized image of the native as a brutal savage was revived by a Congressman who dramatically held up a spear-point that he claimed was removed from the body of a child, and who then called for the extermination of the Native Americans because they had proved once again that “they are demons, not men. They have the human form but not the human heart.” Public figures who expressed sympathy for the Native Americans were silenced by telling them that this sympathy was misplaced because the colored races were attacking White Christians. Senator Thomas Hart Benton used atrocity literature testimonies in Congress and campaigned to overrule the land rights of natives and build a railroad corridor to the Pacific coast for the purpose of trade with India (Horsman 1981, p. 204). 

Because of the popular demonology of Native Americans and pseudo- scientific research to show their innate inferiority, ironically enough, the only defenders remaining were missionaries claiming that although Native Americans were presently savages they could be rescued by converting them to Christianity. Further physical genocide could be prevented by completing the cultural genocide. Sadly, freedom loving Americans explained away their genocide of Native Americans as the natives’ inability to adapt to civilization:

“As American hopes of creating a policy based on Enlightenment ideas of human equality failed, and as it relentlessly drove the Indians from all areas desired by the whites, Americans transferred their own failure to the Indians and condemned the Indians racially” (Horsman 1981, p. 207).

To be continued ..

Rajiv Malhotra is an Indian American researcher, author, speaker, thinker and public intellectual on contemporary issues as they relate to civilization, cross-cultural encounters, spirituality, and science.  He studied Physics at St. Stephens College in Delhi and did his post-graduate education in Physics, View More

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