The news website Indian Country Today is in the process of analyzing every U.S. President’s “attitudes toward Native Americans, challenges and triumphs regarding tribes, and the federal laws and Indian policies enacted during their terms in office.” This series of essays, written by journalist and English professor Alysa Landry, provides readers with thoughtful overviews of the evolution of Indian policy in the United States and offers a light into the thinking of the country as a whole towards its indigenous population. The series as of this blog post has gone up through James Garfield’s short presidency. Needless to say, nobody comes out looking very good, including 18th President Ulysses S. Grant.
I enjoyed reading Landry’s analysis of Grant and other presidents. There are a few minor quibbles to be had with the essay on Grant. It mentions the oft-repeated but never verified claim that Grant left the army in 1854 because of his alleged alcoholism, and a briefly expanded context for explaining the perspectives of those around him would have shown the fierce opposition Grant faced from numerous quarters to his Indian Peace Policy, particularly western settlers and leaders of the U.S. Army (“A good Indian is a dead Indian,” according to General Phil Sheridan; “Treachery is inherent in the Indian character,” according to General William T. Sherman”). While I don’t agree with Jean Edward Smith’s assessment that Grant’s Indian Peace Policy was “remarkably progressive and humanitarian,” (541) it’s also a stretch to conclude that Grant’s policies were intended and destined to perpetuate a “mass genocide” of the Indian population, as Landry seems to suggest.
President Grant sincerely believed that past Indian policy was flawed and that western settlers were at fault for continued violent conflict with the native population. Grant’s appointed Board of Indian Commissioners reported in 1869, for example, that “paradoxical as it may seem, the white man has been the chief obstacle in the way of Indian civilization.” And yet the proposed solutions from the Grant administration to address the problems were inadequate and shrouded in assumptions that many today would acknowledge as flawed and paternalistic. Grant believed that white and Indian cultures were incompatible with each other (“the fact is they do not harmonize well”) and that Indian tribes in the path of western settlement faced extinction if they did not give up their ways, become assimilated into white culture, and be put on a path towards American citizenship. Grant and many Americans at the time believed that U.S. citizenship was the greatest gift one could receive, and that with regards to the Indian tribes it was foolish for them to privilege their current lifestyles when given such a golden opportunity to become a part of American culture and politics.
Grant disregarded the advice of Sheridan and Sherman to exterminate the Indians and believed that establishing reservations and teaching Indian tribes the ways of white civilization (farming and Christianity in particular) would be the only way to preserve their lives in the face of rapid western settlement by white settlers. The reservation system would be a temporary stopgap until the Indians assimilated into American society. These policies were flawed in that the solutions to continued violence between white settlers and Indians were directed towards placating, isolating, and changing the behaviors of the Indians instead of the settlers who encroached upon native lands. Grant and several presidents before and after him claimed they could do little to stop further white settlement in the west, but conversely these same presidents did little to question or overturn past legislation like the 1862 Homestead Act, the Timber Culture Act, and the General Mining Act that encouraged further settlement by offering public land on the cheap for white settlers – land that historically and through agreements such as the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty had been rightfully entitled to Indian tribes before white settlers came. The development of railroads in the west–many through federal aid of some sort–also played a major role in encouraging further western settlement. So for all of the talk about preserving and protecting Native American culture, such intentions would not be privileged over the goals of further western settlement and the creation of new states in a larger political union and empire that encompassed lands from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans.