Trail of Tears: The Native American "Problem" in the New World

by Katrina A. Templeton

A face peeks out through the foliage. He is watching an extremely unusual sight. Some strange white men have arrived in a large brown thing. As the man watches the strangers, little does he know that his life and the life of all his descendants will be changed forever by these strange white men.

The story of the Native American has been a story marked mainly by betrayal and sorrow. Ever since those white men from across the ocean set foot onto this land, the Native American has lost almost everything--his ancestral lands, his dignity, and even his culture have fallen by the wayside. How interesting it is that the people who came to this land first are the ones who have been shortchanged.

From that first contact through the twentieth century, Native Americans have been ridiculed. The stereotype of the "savage, dirty dealin' Injun" is just one of numerous examples. This has not helped the Native Americans in any way. Slowly, things are getting better, but only slowly.

The ways of dealing with the Indian "problem" have been numerous and varied, but the programs succeeded in tearing the Native American away from the land--land that the Native American held sacred. Whether they be Tainos or Aztecs or Cherokees or any one of many other tribes, they have all been betrayed in one way or another by the white man.

The Cherokee called their forced exile from Georgia to Oklahoma "The Trail of Tears." Native American history is nothing but a trail of tears stretching through five centuries of horror and betrayal of the Native American.

But let us begin at the beginning of this Trail of Tears. It all started with one man.

The Spanish and the Native American

Blame it on Columbus. Somehow he gets the blame for everything else. Recently, as more and more has been discovered about Christopher Columbus, more and more he is made out to be the villain. He has always been the villain to Native Americans because he subjugated the natives on Santo Domingo and he was the discoverer of the New World. Unfortunately for Native Americans, the New World was the world in which they lived.

Columbus arrived in the New World on October 14, 1492. There, he met a group of natives known as the Tainos. Columbus claims the island for Spain, leaves some colonists on the island, and kidnaps some Tainos to bring back to the king and queen of Spain.

Why did he kidnap them and not just ask them to return to Spain with him? Columbus kidnapped them because the Tainos never would have agreed to return to Spain with Columbus. Columbus did the wrong thing. He took them back to Spain as a novelty item. It was not the only wrong that Columbus committed.

Columbus returned to Santo Domingo in a year or so, found the colony that he had planted destroyed, and the people he had left behind dead. He restarted the colony and as colonial governor, enslaved all the Tainos. Since they had given him gold when he first came, he required that they keep giving him gold. If they did not, he would chop their hands off.

Columbus was not a fair governor. However, he happened to be going crazy. Soon, the Spanish sent another colonial governor and recalled Columbus. This did not help the Indians. They were still being treated as brutally as ever.

The conquistadors worked their way through the New World. They came across many different Indian societies and destroyed them all. The most glaring example was Cortes and the Aztecs.

The Aztecs had arrived in the Mexican valley roughly about 1250 AD. They came from Northern Mexico. In 1385, Tenoch, one of the Aztec chiefs, founds the city of Tenochtitlan. The sign the Aztecs were supposed to look for to find their capital was an eagle perched on a cactus eating a snake, symbolism that lives on in the Mexican flag even today.

Hernan Cortez came to Mexico in 1519. Unfortunately for the Aztecs, this happened to be the year that Quetzalcoatl, one of their greatest gods, was supposed to come back. However, Cortes was here to conquer lands in the glory of Spain. The resulting tragedy ended up with the Aztec empire being ground up and added to the Spanish empire.

The Native American tribes, groaning under the Spanish yoke of slavery in the land of their forefathers, found hope in a strange place. A priest who had agreed to come to the New World saw all the atrocious things the Spanish were doing. He wrote back to Spain about these atrocities.

"The Spaniards, who were mounted on fine Horses, and armed with Lances and Swords, look'd upon Enemies formally equip'd with the greatest Contempt, and committed the most horrible Slaughters with Impunity. They pass'd through the several Cities and Towns, sparing neither Age nor Sex, but kill'd Women and Children as well as Men: They rip'd up Women with Child, that Root and Branch might be destroy'd together. They laid Wagers one with another, who should cleave a Man down with his Sword most dexterously at one blow; or who should take his Head from his Shoulders most cleverly; or who should run a Man through after the most artificial manner. They tore away Children our of their Mothers arms, and dash'd out their Brains against the Rocks; others they threw in the River, diverting themselves with this brutish Sport, and giving great shouts while they saw 'em in this misery."

Bartholmew de las Casas was the savior of the Indian people in Spanish speaking territories. He stopped the atrocities and thus stopped the Native American tribes from becoming extinct. To this day, the people of Mexico and South America claim both Spanish and Native American blood. The Aztecs are as revered a national symbol as is Columbus. That's probably the way it should be.

The French and the Native American

The French and the Native American held a mutual-gain relationship. The French came to America mainly for the fur trade, which the Native American was already doing. A good example of the French-Native American relationship in those days is the movie Black Robe. The French were trying to convert the Indians to Catholicism, but they were not pushing it as hard. They were mainly there for the furs.

The movie also makes a good point. The Indians were just as smart as the French and the French acknowledged that there were many things that the Indians knew better than they did.

The Iroquois and some other tribes used the fact that the French and the English were both in the same general vicinity. They realized that the French and English did not like each other and thus played one off on the other. They did this by saying to whoever happened to be their ally, "Hey, we could get a better deal elsewhere."

The English and the Native American

The English have had varied success with the Native American "problem." The English also had less to do with the natives than some other people. Although the English had some contact with the people at Roanoke (the Native Americans might have been responsible for the colonist's disappearance), the first major contact came between the settlers in Jamestown and the Powhaten Indians. The Jamestown settlers came to America for one major reason: they wanted gold. When it came to wintertime, the settlers did not have any food and were forced to ask the Powhaten Indians for food. The problem was summed up like this:

"By the same token, English policy toward the Powhaten was framed in unequal measure by colonial ideology, native unpredictability, and cruel necessity. The colonists were presented with two imperatives. The first was the company's order not to offend the natives while discovering commodities for profitable export. The second was the more serious need to survive in the face of inadequate supplies and an inscrutable and often hostile native population."

With such a paradox, the English could not figure out how to deal with these natives. Each governor of the Jamestown colony tried a different method. Captain Newport tried to trade with the Powhatens and crown Powhaten as a subsidiary to King James. John Smith pursued a get tough policy with the natives. Smith's greatest legacy was that he created " Indian policy that respected the native's military audacity and economic shrewdness while meeting them head-on with daring and determination."

The other major problem that the English had with the natives was one that I said above. They tried to play the French and the English off on each other. This lead eventually to war, and the French and Indian War was fought. Most of the Native American population was on the French's side. This fact was probably based on the fact that the French had treated the Natives better than the English. The French lost the war and lost all their territory. This stopped the Native Americans from playing off each power and therefore led downhill. But then the revolution happened.

Americans and the Native Americans

The American policies on Native Americans have been mixed. George Washington wrote, in what was probably the prevalent view on how to deal with the Native American until this century, "The Indians as has been observed under Genl Schylers Letter, will ever retreat, as our Settlements advance upon them and they will ever be ready to sell, as we are to buy; That is the cheapest as well as the least distressing way of dealing with them."

The most noticeable case of the Native American policy in the new nation was in 1831. The case was Worchester verses Georgia. What happened is that Georgia law prohibited people from entering Cherokee territory. A minister named Samuel Worchester did. When the State of Georgia arrested him, he filed suit and took it to the Supreme Court. The decision took the policy that Native Americans were sovereign nations and were not covered under state laws. Andrew Jackson, the president at the time, said, "John Marshall has made his decision. Now let's see him enforce it." He then sent U.S. troops into Cherokee land and forced them to Indian territory in what is present day Oklahoma.

Jackson had a rationale for this forced movement. In a State of the Union address, he says:

"The tribes which occupied the countries now constituting the Eastern States were annihilated or have melted away to make room for the whites. The waves of population and civilization are rolling to the Westward; and we now propose to acquire the countries occupied by the red men of the South and West, by a fair exchange, and, at the expense of the United States, to send them to a land where their existence may be prolonged, and perhaps made perpetual. Doubles it will be painful to leave the graves of t heir fathers; but what do they more than our ancestors did, or than our children are now doing?"

This would set the stage for the Indian removal from the Great Plains to reservations. The Cherokee trail of tears led to even more horrible things. Westward expansion forced more and more Indians westward. But a person can only go so far west before it is impossible to go farther. There is also a matter of the food supply.

The Native Americans of the Great Plains were a proud people. They held sacred the buffalo which kept them fed and clothed and thus hunted sparingly. The white man did no such thing. He slaughtered them by the herd and wasted what he could not eat. Eventually, there were no more buffalo and the white man had to do something about the Native American problem. The government in Washington finally decided that it would place the Indians on reservations. This concluded the fighting, but it ruined the natives. They were treated as second class citizens in the land where they had been first. The Native American today is struggling to hang onto his culture in a world that has tried its hardest to yank it away.

"When the white man first came to this land, we had the land and they had the bible. They taught us to pray with our eyes closed. When we opened them again, we had the bible and the white man had the land."

The native population have had many atrocities committed against it. This is just a small listing of the horror. Finally, things have swung to the other side of the pendulum and modern day man knows that he had to help preserve some of these cultures to keep them from just being a dark mark in a book.

This topic has personal significance to me, for I am part Chippewa. My grandfather was born on the White Earth reservation in Minnesota. One of my ancestors was an Indian chief. This is my heritage and I do not want to see it destroyed. Especially since I have just discovered fairly recently that it is a heritage in which I belong.


Forging of America, Richard F. Allen and Diane Shaver Clements, McGraw Hill, 1993

Black Robe, Alliance Communications and Samson Productions, Samuel Goldwyn Company, 1992

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