As we go through our grade school education, we learn about U.S. History, and then we get more US history in middle school, and high school, and then, if you were a history major like myself, you get to to take US History again in college. Each time you learn a little more than the last, and are asked to remember more names and dates and events. And while more things may have been taught, Native American history seems to be mostly an afterthought unless you chose to pursue that specifically. So from the story of the pilgrims, to The French and Indian War, the Trail of Tears, and Custer and Little Bighorn we overlook the story of the people that should be a more prominent part of our great history. When Tim pulled out another treasure from his stash, it allowed me to go just a little bit deeper into that specific part of our history.
The picture above shows us an 1885 Grover Cleveland Bronze Peace Medal. On the front, it reads “Grover Cleveland President across the top and U.S.A. 1885 on the bottom. On the reverse there is a depiction of a Native American man speaking to a white settle with “Peace” across the top and a calumet and a tomahawk crossed through an olive wreath on the bottom.
Simply put, this medal was created early in Grover Cleveland’s Presidency as an apology and peace offering to the chiefs of native tribes because President Chester Arthur had allowed settlers to take nearly a half million acres of land from the Crow Creek Reservation in the Dakotas area. To better understand the significance of this medal, you really need to know what was happening in the US at the time.
Chester Arthur was made the 21st president in September of 1881 after James Garfield had been assassinated. The US was still dealing with the fallout of the Civil War and dealing with the rights of African Americans, and there was an upwelling of anti-immigrant sentiment. There was an economic crisis in 1873 and Chinese Americans were blamed for depressing wages. And so in 1882, Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act into law, which prohibited further Chinese immigration and prevented current Chinese laborers from gaining citizenship.
Native American were treated similarly. They were not considered or looked at as Americans. They had to go through a naturalization process to be considered a citizen and be given the same rights and protections as others. The philosophy that Arthur, Grover Cleveland, and Benjamin Harrison after him felt best to deal with Native Americans was one of assimilation. By treating them as a non citizen, the hope was they would want to become a US citizen to be protected and advance our culture.
In his first annual message to Congress in 1881 Arthur spoke specifically on American Indian Policy. He realized it’s an issue that needs to be dealt with. He even admitted the shortcomings of how it had been dealt with already. He saw the major shortcoming was dealing with the different tribes as different nationalities. He states, “For the success of the efforts now making to introduce among the Indians the customs and pursuits of civilized life and gradually to absorb them into the mass of our citizens, sharing their rights and holden to their responsibilities, there is imperative need for legislative action.” And he outlined three steps to further that process. He wanted to give Native Americans the protection of the law, instead of each tribe abiding by their own laws. “In return for such considerate action on the part of the Government, there is reason to believe that the Indians in large numbers would be persuaded to sever their tribal relations and to engage at once in agricultural pursuits. Many of them realize the fact that their hunting days are over and that it is now for their best interests to conform their manner of life to the new order of things. By no greater inducement than the assurance of permanent title to the soil can they be led to engage in the occupation of tilling it.” And the third step would be to invest considerable amounts of money into educating Native American children. If they were being educated by white settlers and interacting with white children, this would only quicken the process of assimilation. And while these three ideas seem like reasonable stances to take, they didn’t necessarily lead to great outcomes.
Although Arthur seemed to be in favor of land allotment, there were still many detractors to the idea. As settlers continued to flood westward, they inevitably began to crowd the borders of some reservations or even settle on native land. Opponents of allotment including Secretary of the interior Henry M. Teller, and vocal settlers and cattle ranchers argued that Native americans didn’t need as much land as they were given, and that they were still savages and guilty of atrocities. This persuaded Arthur to allow settlers access to almost a half million acres of land in the Winnebago and Crow Creek Reservation areas of the Dakotas just 5 days before his presidency ended 1885.
Grover Cleveland was lobbied to look into this acquisition of land by the white settlers because they believed it was illegal. In April of 1885 Cleveland issued a warning to all settlers who were involved and sent General Phil Sheridan to investigate what had actually happened. Sheridan brought these Peace Medals to give to the various chiefs on the reservations, and offered apologies on behalf of the “Great White Father’s”. Apparently most chiefs were so impressed with the medals that they bored holes in them and would wear them on elaborate beaded necklaces. And the investigation by Sheridan and Secretary of the Interior Lucius C. Lamar showed that this was not an isolated incident. Broken treaties, hostilities, and illegal land use were all uncovered. Cleveland gave the white settlers 40 days to clear off the land along with their cattle. This happened just before winter and its estimated that 80% of the cattle died as a result but Cleveland made sure the orders were enforced and that hostile encounters would not happen.
But even though Cleveland helped the Native Americans in this instance and many others, it wasn’t indicative of his term as president overall. He passed the Major Crimes Act of 1995 which made seven specific crimes for Native Americans on their reservation subject to US laws despite a Supreme Court ruling that found that jurisdiction over “Indian on Indian” crimes on a reservation were not subject to federal law. He also signed the Dawes Act in 1887 which opened up Indian land into individual allotments but followed it up with the Indian Appropriations Act two years later. This allowed white settlers access to any “unassigned lands” that may have previously been a part of a reservation but wasn’t assigned to an individual. Over years the effects of this were staggering. At the start of his term there were 260,000 Indians living on 171 reservations in 21 different states with a total of 134 million acres of land. By 1934, more than 90 million acres of that had been lost due to the Indian Appropriations Act and other polocies.
Benjamin Harrison, the next president, would use the Indian Appropriations Act to give away more land to white settlers, including the Oklahoma Land Rush. This is where the current University of Oklahoma gets its mascot name, Boomer Sooner. Boomers were settlers campaigning for the land to be open up to white settlers, and sooners were the settlers that had already illegally settled the land. He forced the Sioux nation into breaking up into separate reservations and giving up 11 million acres of land in doin go, and used the Act 17 times to give land to settlers in Washington, Colorado, Oregon, California, New Mexico, Arizona, and Alaska. He was president during the Wounded Knee Massacre but would take no responsibility for what had happened there either.
The story of this peace medal, while itself small, is a part of a much greater history of our country. While policy and actions didn’t always coincide with words, it at least represented in a shift in the way the US tried to deal with the Native Americans. President Arthur was willing to admit that previous administrations failed to address the situation in an acceptable manner and even if his strategy of assimilation had unintended results, just the idea of giving a “peace” medal and taking a conciliatory stance to the issue and forcing out the white settlers if only temporarily, was a significant departure from earlier encounters between the US various native tribes.