May 28, 2015, was the 175th anniversary of the Indian Removal Act. On that day in 1830, President Andrew Jackson signed the bill that required the U. S. Army to evict southeastern Native tribes, including my Cherokee tribe, from their native lands and send them to Oklahoma. Many people think of this as a land grab; that is, the federal government wanted Native land and whatever resources (such as the Dahlonega gold mines) it might possess. That is, the motivation was primarily economic. However, as I will explain, this does not seem to be the case. I believe that the primary, if unrecognized, motivation was the thirst for conquest.
My first piece of evidence for this comes from the Indian Removal of the 1830s. The federal government had to spend a lot more money to send the Cherokees and other tribes on forced marches than they could possibly have recovered, especially since most of the land and its wealth went to the states, such as Georgia, rather than into federal coffers. The federal government had to expend army resources to drive the tribes westward, and had to provide Natives with food and shelter (both barely adequate, but still costly on the whole) during the journey. Then, when the Native tribes got to Indian Territory, the government had to maintain forts to protect the Cherokees and other relocated tribes from attacks by the tribes who originally lived in the region. Ft.Gibson, in northeastern Oklahoma, was built in 1824 but primarily served to protect the Cherokees after the Trail of Tears after 1839. Ft. Washita, Oklahoma, was built in 1842 for the express purpose of protecting Chickasaws and Choctaws from the indigenous tribes in southern Oklahoma.
So the federal government spent a lot of resources to move and then protect the southeastern tribes. It seems unlikely that the federal government came out economically ahead by this. Therefore the Indian Removal was not merely, to use a term from Steve Inskeep’snew book, a land grab.
My second piece of evidence to demonstrate that the federal government wanted to conquer Native tribes rather than to just get their land comes from the story of Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce tribe. The army had already taken his tribe’s land, and he and the remnant of his tribe was fleeing to Canada. When they were only forty miles from Canada, the federal army caught them in 1877 and sent them as prisoners to various reservation localities. If the only motive was to get their land, then the federal government would have let them flee U.S. territory. All the rest was unnecessary expense intended only to crush the Nez Perce.
In prehistoric times, the thirst for conquest may have been a profitable adaptation. When one tribe fought another, they did not merely desire the other tribe’s land or resources, but experienced a bloodlust, fully experiencing the other tribe as evil, feeling a desire to make the other tribe suffer before being slaughtered. That is, natural selection may have favored both the behaviors and the feelings of conquest and annihilation. The white American government did not just want Native American land, but wanted to drive Native Americans to extinction or at least to put them somewhere where they could be forgotten.
Another set of behaviors and feelings that may have been profitable to prehistoric humans is to depict the enemy tribe as not merely evil but powerfully evil—that is, to believe and feel that the enemy has supernatural force. A tribe that believes its enemies to be supernaturally evil will fight harder than a tribe that considers its enemies to be merely humans worthy of annihilation. Unfortunately, while the thirst for enemy annihilation is pretty much a thing of the past in America, the belief that one’s enemies are supernaturally powerful is not.
There are two recent examples of this.
- In 2012, according to the Houston Chronicle, Lubbock County (Texas) judge Tom Head said regarding President Barack Obama, “He’s going to try to hand over the sovereignty of the United States to the (United Nations), and what is going to happen when that happens? I’m thinking the worst. Civil unrest, civil disobedience, civil war maybe. And we’re not just talking a few riots here and demonstrations, we’re talking Lexington, Concord, take up arms and get rid of the guy…Now what’s going to happen if we do that, if the public decides to do that? He’s going to send in troops. I don’t want ‘em in Lubbock County. OK. So I’m going to stand in front of their armored personnel carrier and say ‘you’re not coming in here’.”
- In 2015, Texas governor Greg Abbott feared that President Obama was planning a military takeover of Texas. Not satisfied with words, Abbott ordered the Texas State Guard to monitor a U.S. Navy Seal training operation.
In both of these instances, the Texas officials accused President Obama of planning to do things that are very nearly physically impossible. By what possible set of causal factors could President Obama order United Nations troops into Texas? By what possible set of causal factors could President Obama bring about a military takeover of Texas? In both cases, the Texas officials seemed to be giving Obama a kind of infernal, supernatural power. To them, he is not merely a political opponent but the manifestation of spiritual evil. (Strangely enough, a little over a week later, Governor Abbott begged this same President Obama for federal assistance to recover from Texas flash floods.)
The tribes who had a desire to annihilate enemy tribes, and the desire to depict one’s enemies as supernaturally evil, prevailed in the prehistoric struggle for existence. We are their descendants. And their behaviors and feelings live on in us, as manifested in recent history and in current events.