Numerous atrocities against Native Americans span the hundreds of years from the first arrival of European explorers to the modern era under a wide range of circumstances. Today there are over 500 Native American tribes in the United States, each with a distinct culture, way of life and history. Even today, Native Americans face large challenges to cope with the disadvantages history has left them and ongoing cases of discrimination.
- 10 million+ Estimated number of Native Americans living in land that is now the United States when European explorers first arrived in the 15th century
- Less than 300,000 Estimated number of Native Americans living in the United States around 1900
- 5.2 million identified as American Indian or Alaska Native in the 2010 census
A History of Atrocities
An estimated 12,000 years ago, a mass migration of nomadic peoples, traveled across a land bridge that connected Asia to what is now Alaska. These people would come to be called Native Americans, numbering over 50 million, and settling from the top of North America to the bottom of South America.
By the time Christopher Columbus reached the Caribbean in 1492, historians estimate that there were 10 million indigenous peoples living in U.S. territory. But by 1900, the number had reduced to less than 300,000.
European expansion into North America – whether to find gold, escape religious persecution or start a new life – led to the destruction of Native American livelihoods. Disease was a major killer, followed by malnutrition. Colonists in search of gold staged violent ambushes on tribal villages, fueling animosity with Natives. Several wars broke out between tribes and American settlers which led to large death tolls, land dispossession, oppression and blatant racism.
Unlike the U.S. Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s, which led to blanket legal reform, Native Americans gained civil and legal rights piece by piece. In 1924, the U.S. Congress passed the Indian Citizenship Act, giving Native Americans a ‘dual citizenship’ – they were citizens of their sovereign native land as well as the United States. Native Americans gained uniform voting rights in the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But it wasn’t until 1968, when the Indian Civil Rights Act was passed, that Natives gained the right to free speech, the right to a jury and protection from unreasonable search and seizure.
While the Native Americans’ history began thousands of years ago, their European encounter started with one man. Determined to find a direct route from Europe to Asia, Christopher Columbus stumbled on the Americas in 1492.
Columbus called the first people he met ‘Indians’ because he assumed he had been sailing in the Indian Ocean. But in actuality, this land had already been discovered – millions of Natives had occupied the Western Hemisphere for hundreds of years.
Ultimately, while Columbus is remembered as a daring adventurer, he was also a perpetrator of atrocities and his legacy is viewed as the starting point that sparked hundreds of years of exploration and exploitation of the Americas.
The most significant reason for Natives decline was disease – an invisible killer that wiped out an estimated 90% of the population. Unlike the Europeans and Asians, whose lifestyle had a long history of sharing close quarters with domesticated animals, Native Americans were not immune to pathogens spread by domesticated cows, pigs, sheep, goats, and horses. As a result, millions were killed by measles, influenza, whooping cough, diphtheria, typhus, bubonic plague, cholera, scarlet fever and syphilis.
Spreading disease was not always intentional on the part of the colonists. But there were a few instances that confirm Europeans’ attempt to exterminate natives. In 1763, a particularly serious uprising threatened British garrisons in Pennsylvania. Worried about limited resources, and driven by atrocities committed by some Native Americans , Sir Jeffrey Amherst, commander-in-chief of British forces in North America, wrote to Colonel Henry Bouquet at Fort Pitt:
“You will do well to try to inoculate the Indians [with smallpox] by means of blankets, as well as to try every other method, that can serve to extirpate this execrable race.”
Consequently, settlers spread smallpox to the Native Americans by distributing blankets previously owned by contagious patients.
Cultural clashes between European settlers and Natives lasted for over four hundred years – small battles, large scale wars and forced labor systems on large estates, also known as encomiendas – took a large toll on the Native population.
Throughout the Northeast, proclamations to create ‘redskins’, or scalps of Native Americans, were common during war and peace times. According to the 1775 Phips Proclamation in Massachusetts, King George II of Britain called for “subjects to embrace all opportunities of pursuing, captivating, killing and destroying all and every of the aforesaid Indians.”
Colonists were paid for each Penobscot Native they killed – fifty pounds for adult male scalps, twenty-five for adult female scalps, and twenty for scalps of boys and girls under age twelve. These proclamations explicitly display the settlers’ “intent to kill”, a major indicator of genocidal acts.
U.S. History of Atrocities
After the American Revolution, many Native American lives were already lost to disease and displacement. In 1830, the federal Indian Removal Act called for the removal of the ‘Five Civilized Tribes’ – the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole. Between 1830 and 1838, federal officials working on behalf of white cotton growers forced nearly 100,000 Indians out of their homeland. The dangerous journey from the southern states to “Indian Territory” in current Oklahoma is referred to as the Trail of Tears in which 4,000 Cherokee people died of cold, hunger, and disease.
As the United States expanded westward, violent conflicts over territory multiplied. In 1784, one British traveler noted:
“White Americans have the most rancorous antipathy to the whole race of Indians; and nothing is more common than to hear them talk of extirpating them totally from the face of the earth, men, women, and children.”
In particular, the 1848 California gold rush caused 300,000 people to migrate to San Francisco from the East Coast and South America. Historians believe that California was once the most densely and diversely populated area for Native Americans in U.S. territory; however, the gold rush had massive implications for Native American livelihoods. Toxic chemicals and gravel ruined traditional Native hunting and agricultural practices, resulting in starvation for many Natives.
Further, in 1850, the California state government passed the Act for the Government and Protection of Indians that addressed the punishment and protection of Native Americans, and helped to facilitate the removal of their culture and land. It also legalized slavery and was referenced for the buying and selling of Native children.
“A war of extermination will continue to be waged between the two races until the Indian race becomes extinct.”
– California Governor Peter H. Burnett, 1851
In 1890, Wounded Knee, located on the Pine Ridge Reservation in North Dakota, government officials believed chief Sitting Bull was a Ghost Dancer, someone who rejects “the ways of the white man” and believes that the gods will create a new world without non-believers. In the process of arresting Sitting Bull, federal officials actually ended up killing him, causing a massive rebellion that led to the deaths of over 150 Natives in Pine Ridge.
Since the early 1900’s, advancements in Native American rights have been slow and piece-meal. At the turn of century, the Supreme Court ruled that the U.S. federal government has the right to overturn all Cherokee laws in the precedent-setting decision Cherokee Nation v. Hitchcock.
But, in 1928, the Brookings Institute released the ‘Meriam Report’, which was one of the first in-depth analyses of reservation living conditions. The report went on to influence policy initiatives which improved healthcare, education, and land rights for Native Americans. This was a step forward for the protection of a minority who was still without voting rights.
In 1949, however, the U.S. government took a step back towards 19th century bigotry, as the Hoover Commission urged the assimilation of the Natives,
“The basis for historic Indian culture has been swept away. Traditional tribal organization was smashed a generation ago .… Assimilation must be the dominant goal of public policy.”
One year later, using the same post-war idea that prevented “Little Tokyos” in the U.S., the Commissioner of Indian Affairs began to implement ‘withdrawal planning’, or the termination and relocation of thousands of Natives to cities.
In 1978, Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act which protects Native American children and the custody of their parents. Controversy has surrounded cases where state officials forcibly removed children from Native American families.
In Maine, the Maine Truth and Reconciliation Committee, for example, seeks to uncover and acknowledge the truth about what happened to Wabanaki children and families involved with the Maine child welfare system. These forcible removals are still happening today.
South Dakota continues to remove children at a rate higher than the vast majority of other states in the country.
For hundreds of years a mixture of colonial conflict, disease, specific atrocities and policies of discrimination has devastated the Native American population. In the course of this time, it is estimated that over nine million Natives died from violent conflict or disease. For too long this history has been under-recognized and too little discussed.