Primary Source: A Microcosm of Indigenous-White American Relations

The history of relations between Americans and Indigenous people can be summed up in one exchange.

Noel C. Cilker
9 min readOct 9, 2021

This Monday, while most of the United States observes Columbus Day, a small but growing number of cities and states will instead be celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day, which rejects Christopher Columbus’s brutality of the natives and honors the many indigenous cultures of the Americas.

The United States has a long and troubling history in its interactions with the native population. It is a history of broken treaties, betrayal, violence, and displacement. It is also a history of courage, bravery, dissent, and hope. In a survey of White-Indigenous relations, these themes repeat with no end.

Rather than launch into an expansive study which fills books and lecture halls, we instead look at one interaction in particular, one that reveals a microcosm of the fraught relationship between the tormented natives and the opportunistic newcomers.

Creek Chief Opothleyahola, 1830s.

The president promises land for the Creeks . . . elsewhere. (1829)

Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the United States, was a man who never did things halfway. The white population was expanding, and Jackson had been influenced earlier in his life by the anxiety that Indigenous Americans might collude with the British and Spanish to halt westward expansion. When he became President in 1829, Jackson used his power and influence to remove the indigenous from lands that lay in the path of white expansion. One of these indigenous groups was the Creek Indians, to whom Jackson appealed that their relocating was the best for everyone involved.

Friends and Brothers — By permission of the Great Spirit above, and the voice of the people, I have been made President of the United States, and now speak to you as your Father and friend, and request you to listen. Your warriors have known me long. You know I love my white and red children, and always speak with a straight, and not with a forked tongue; that I have always told you the truth. I now speak to you, as my children, in the language of truth. Listen.

Where you now are, you and my white children are too near to each other to live in harmony and peace. Your game is destroyed, and many of your people will not work and till the earth.

Beyond the great River Mississippi, where a part of your nation has gone, your Father has provided a country large enough for all of you, and he advises you to remove to it.

There your white brothers will not trouble you; they will have no claim to the land, and you can live upon it, you and all your children, as long as the grass grows or the water runs, in peace and plenty. It will be yours forever. For the improvements in the country where you now live, and for all the stock which you cannot take with you, your Father will pay you a fair price.

Where you now live, your white brothers have always claimed the land. The land beyond the Mississippi belongs to the President and to no one else; and he will give it to you for forever.

President Andrew Jackson, c. 1835. (Ralph Eleaser Whiteside Earl)

A Creek chief remembers a long history of mistreatment. (1829)

A council of chiefs had gathered to hear President Jackson’s speech read to them. When it was concluded, Creek Chief Speckled Snake spoke to his fellow chiefs in response.

Brothers! We have heard the talk of our great father; it is very kind. He says he loves his red children. Brothers! I have listened to many talks from our great father. When he first came over the wide waters, he was but a little man, and wore a red coat. Our chiefs met him on the banks of the river Savannah, and smoked with him the pipe of peace. His legs were cramped by sitting long in his big boat, and he begged for a little land to light his fire on. He said he had come over the wide waters to teach Indians new things, and to make them happy. He said he loved his red brothers, which is very kind. The Muscogees gave the white man land, and kindled him a fire, that he might warm himself; and when his enemies, the pale faces of the south, made war on him, their young men drew the tomahawk, and protected his head from the scalping knife.

But when the white man had warmed himself before the Indian’s fire, and filled himself with their hominy, he became very large. With a step he bestrode the mountains, and his feet covered the plains and the valleys. His hands grasped the eastern and western sea, and his head rested on the moon. Then he became our great father. He loved his red children, and he said, “Get a little further, lest I tread on thee.” With one foot he pushed the red man over the Oconee, and with the other he trampled down the graves of his fathers and the forests where he had so long hunted the deer.

But our great father still loved his red children, and he soon made them another talk. He said, “Get a little further; you are too near me.” But there were some bad men among the Muscogees then, as there are now. They lingered around the graves of their ancestors, till they were crushed beneath the heavy tread of our great father. Their teeth pierced his feet, and made him angry. Yet, he continued to love his red children; and when he found them too slow in moving, he sent his great guns before him to sweep his path.

But our great father still loved his red children, and he soon made them another talk. He said much; but it all meant nothing but “move a little farther; you are too near me.”

Brothers! I have listened to a great many talks from our great father. But they always begin and ended in this: “Get a little further, you are too near me.” Brothers! Our great father says that “where we are now, our white brothers have always claimed the land.” He speaks with a straight tongue, and cannot lie. But when he first came over the wide waters, while he was yet small, and stood before the great chief at the council on Yamacraw Bluff, he said “Give me a little land, which you can spare, and I shall pay you for it.” Brothers! When our great father made us a talk, on a former occasion, and said, “Get a little further, go beyond the Oconee, the Ocmulgee; there is a pleasant country,” he also said “It shall be yours forever.”

I have listened to his present talk. He says that the land where you now live is not yours. Go beyond the Mississippi; there is game; and you may remain “while the grass grows or the water runs.” Brothers! Will not our great father come there also? He loves his red children. He speaks with a strait tongue, and will not lie.

Brothers! Our great father says that our bad men have made his heart bleed, for the murder of one of his white children. Yet where are the red children which he loves, once as numerous as the leaves of the forest? How many have been murdered by his warriors? How many have been crushed beneath his own footsteps? Brothers! Our great father says we must go beyond the Mississippi. We shall be there under his care, and experience his kindness. He is very good! We have felt it all before.

Brothers! I have done.

The next year, with Jackson championing it all the way, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, which demanded that Indigenous Americans move to lands west of the Mississippi River. Those who didn’t peacefully comply for forcibly removed from their ancestral lands, leading to the infamous Trail of Tears.

An artist’s rendering of the Trail of Tears.
A historical marker for the Creek Trail of Tears in Alabama.
A map depicting the forced Indigenous migration in the 1830s.

A poet lays history at the feet of Congress. (1881)

In the Indian Appropriation Act of 1871, Congress forbid federal recognition of any indigenous group, and thus categorized all Indigenous Americans as wards of the government. Helen Hunt Jackson, a writer and poet, became an activist for Indigenous Americans after attending an 1879 lecture by Standing Bear about the creation of the Great Sioux Reservation. In 1881 she wrote and published A Century of Dishonor about Indigenous mistreatment, and with her own money sent a copy to every member of Congress.

It makes little difference, however, where one opens the record of the history of the Indians; every page and every year has its dark stain. The story of one tribe is the story of all, varied only by differences of time and place; but neither time nor place makes any difference in the main facts. Colorado is as greedy and unjust in 1880 as was Georgia in 1830, and Ohio in 1795; and the United States Government breaks promises now as deftly as then, and with an added ingenuity from long practice. . . .

However great perplexity and difficulty there may be in the details of any and every plan possible for doing at this late day anything like justice to the Indian, however hard it may be for good statesmen and good men to agree upon the things that ought to be done, there certainly is, or ought to be, no perplexity whatever, no difficulty whatever, in agreeing upon certain things that ought not to be done, and which must cease to be done before the first steps can be taken toward righting the wrongs, curing the ills, and wiping out the disgrace to us of the present condition of our Indians.

Cheating, robbing, breaking promises — these three are clearly things which must cease to be done. One more thing, also, and that is the refusal of the protection of the law to the Indian’s rights of property, “of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Helen Hunt Jackson.

The president issues a proclamation. (2021)

Indigenous Peoples’ Day began in Berkeley, California, in 1992. On Friday, October 8 of this year, President Joe Biden became the first president to issue a proclamation commemorating Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

The Federal Government has a solemn obligation to lift up and invest in the future of Indigenous people and empower Tribal Nations to govern their own communities and make their own decisions. We must never forget the centuries-long campaign of violence, displacement, assimilation, and terror wrought upon Native communities and Tribal Nations throughout our country. Today, we acknowledge the significant sacrifices made by Native peoples to this country — and recognize their many ongoing contributions to our Nation.

On Indigenous Peoples’ Day, we honor America’s first inhabitants and the Tribal Nations that continue to thrive today. I encourage everyone to celebrate and recognize the many Indigenous communities and cultures that make up our great country.

NOW, THEREFORE, I, JOSEPH R. BIDEN JR., President of the United States of America, do hereby proclaim October 11, 2021, as Indigenous Peoples’ Day. I call upon the people of the United States to observe this day with appropriate ceremonies and activities. I also direct that the flag of the United States be displayed on all public buildings on the appointed day in honor of our diverse history and the Indigenous peoples who contribute to shaping this Nation.

President Joe Biden signs an executive order to expand the areas of three national monuments, areas that are sacred to several Indigenous groups, October 8, 2021. (Getty Images)
People hold a flag ceremony for Indigenous Peoples’ Day in Philadelphia, October 7, 2021. (WHYY)

I am currently working on Gold in the Fire, a book about Ah Toy, the first Chinese brothel madam in gold rush San Francisco.

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Noel C. Cilker

I’m a writer, interested in history’s stories and the links between then and now.