The settlement of the American West, is a glorified time in the nation’s history. Cowboys lived free and rough on the plains, there was gold glistening in the hills, and anyone could own land and fill their dinner table with the fruits of their labor. Sadly, this shining age of expansion and independence was neither as golden nor as free as film and literature remembers. Western expansion came at a great price, one that native peoples paid with their land, their lives, and their freedom.
While “robber barons”, consolidated trusts, and big business tycoons were establishing a stranglehold on wage workers on the eastern shores, the west was in the grips of a different kind of class and cultural struggle. Land rights, culture clashes, and prejudice lead to immense conflict between white and Native American populations. Put simply: Native Americans lived on lands that the white population was seeking to own, harvest, and profit from.
As a partial answer to the dilemma of Native American land rights and to end white-Indian conflict that had escalated to extreme levels, the government created a reservation policy. This policy granted Native American tribes distinct territories with the promise of government subsidies in exchange for remaining within its bounds. The reservation policy was far from perfect, suffering from corruption and “failed mostly because not all Indians agreed to stay within their designated territories, leading to armed confrontations and reprisals.” (Oakes et al., 2015, p 500) Whether the government had a right to sequester these people in the first place is a question for another time. Defying policy, Native Americans continued to “escape” their territory and the United States military continued to respond with force, and “Starting in 1871, the government stopped treating the tribes as separate nations. They were subjected peoples, nothing more.” (Oakes et al., 2015, p 500)
But what of genocide? Can the governments late nineteenth century policy toward Native Americans be considered a form of mass extermination?
If genocide can be described as the willful destruction (in whole or in part) of a cultural, religious, or racial group, then yes. Yes, the policy of the United States towards the Native Americans is tantamount to genocide. “They certainly want Indians as distinctive cultural members to disappear, but they want them to choose to do so willingly.” (Government Policies Undermine Indian Way of Life) Fearing the outright mass extermination of these tribes and nations would leave a dark mark on the face of the Republic, instead the government (and US military) sought to disassemble the Indian culture.
High demand for hides brought about the slaughter of whole buffalo herds. As sportsmen and profit hunters decimated the buffalo population, “The army saw a bonus in anything wiping out subsistence for Indians off the reservation.” (Oakes et al., 2015, p 501) Reformers attempting to “civilize” Native Americans with Christian values “introduced government schools on reservations to teach the virtues of private property, individual achievement, and social mobility.” (Oakes et al., 2015, p 501)
Their food sources destroyed or severely limited, their culture forcibly infringed upon by Christian values, and their land stolen, the Indian people faced the elimination of their way of life. Genocide can take many forms and overt killing is only one. Remove a people’s religion, their land, their food, and undermine their cultural beliefs and you have killed a nation of people as quickly as if you had gunned them all down.