Fizzy Jill and I (and a bunch of others) are reading a chapter a week of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Feel free to join us in whatever way you prefer—by reading along, commenting, or writing your own posts. To keep things organized, link up posts over at Jill’s blog as she is the quasi-official host who designed the button and reading schedule. This week, we read Chapter 7: As Long As Grass Grows Or Water Runs.
IMPORTANT READALONG INFO
This past week, Jill and I made the executive decision (perhaps the only time in my life I could be even faintly be considered an executive) to change the posting schedule for this readalong to every other week instead of every week. We’ll still continue to read one chapter a week, but instead of posting on Chapter 8 next week (March 6), we’ll post about Chapters 8 and 9 on March 12 and continue posting every other week from there. Hope that works for all of you! If it doesn’t, talk to Jill. : )
This chapter is about the policy of “Indian Removal,” which essentially meant removing the Indians from wherever they were in order to clear the land for white occupancy. As Zinn writes:
The cost in human life cannot be accurately measured, in suffering not even roughly measured. Most of the history books given to children quickly pass over it.
Indeed, as Zinn points out, the long and hard-fought Seminole War of 1818 (which led to the U.S. acquisition of Florida) “appears on classroom maps politely as ‘Florida Purchase, 1819”’—which implies a civilized business transaction rather than the forcible taking of land.
In a history of long and shameful actions by the U.S. government, the treatment of the Indians ranks up there one of the most evil and shameful. The repeated lies, broken treaties and complete dismissal of Indian culture and welfare were repeated time and time again. The complete and utter betrayal of the Indian’s trust and values was blatant and open. Regarded as nuisances that had to be pushed out of land they had lived on for generations so that white settlers had new places to live, the Indians were betrayed over and over. Whether they tried to resist via violence, non-violence or assimilation, the end result was always the same: decimation of their people and a forced migration to inhospitable land that wasn’t wanted by white men.
I was hard-pressed to disagree with Tecumseh, a Shawnee chief, who said:
The way, and the only way, to check and to stop this evil, is for all the Redmen to unite in claiming a common and equal right in the land, as it was at first and should be yet; for it was never divided, but belongs to all for the use of each. That no part has a right to sell, even to each other, much less to strangers—those who want all and will not do with less.
One of the primary architects and enforcers of Indian Removal was Andrew Jackson. Jackson got down and dirty in the fighting (though this is often left off his resume) and, when he became president, he found “the proper tactic” for dealing with the Indians:
The Indians would not be “forced” to go West. But if they chose to stay they would have to abide by state laws, which destroyed their tribal and personal rights and made them subject to endless harassment and invasion by white settlers coveting their land. If they left, however, the federal government would give them financial support and promise them lands beyond the Mississippi.
Do I need to tell you that the “financial support” never materialized and the “lands” were the most inhospitable and arid in the country? Time and again, the Indians were relocated and promised that they could remain in their new homes “for as long as grass grows or water runs”—only to be relocated again and again when white settlers wanted the land. (One treaty was broken within days of its signing.)
In the end, the various Indian tribes—the Creeks, Cherokees, Seminoles, Choctaws, Chickasaws—all faced the same fate: forced migration, starvation, disease and decimation of their population, culture, land and rights. What was done to the Indians was evil, pure and simple. The more I learn about their culture, the more I wish the civilization that had flourished in the U.S. had been that of the Indians and not the white men.
Some Thoughts on the Book Overall
Although this particular chapter was one of the more readable, I’m beginning to think that Zinn would have been better served by organizing the book differently. Instead of moving chronologically, I think he might have been better served by focusing on one disenfranchised group at a time. By telling the history of the Indians in a series of chapters—moving from the arrival of Columbus through modern times—I think it would be easier to grasp their full story rather than getting it in bits and pieces. There could be separate sections for Indians, blacks and women. Another section could focus on the establishment and maintenance of the class society that dominates U.S. history. This constant ping-ponging from topic to topic does a disservice to the important stories that Zinn is trying to tell.
Yet I also recognize that Zinn took on an amazingly difficult task to try to fit the entire history of the U.S. into one book. U.S. history is so complex and multifaceted that each one of these areas (women’s rights, slavery, Indians) could be the topic of their own book (and have been). For Zinn to address it all and more than 200 years of history in ONE BOOK seems like a Quixotic quest. While I admire what Zinn is attempting to do with this book and applaud it, I’m beginning to wonder if this format serves his important work in the best way. Still, it is easy to be a critic so I shall step down off my high horse and get ready for the next chapters.