For my curation assignment object, I chose the Indian Removal Act document at the Museum of American Indian, Washington DC. This act was signed into law by President Andrew Jackson on May 28, 1830, and has strong connections with the themes of migration and identity. Under this act, thousands of Native Indian Americans were forced to migrate from their homeland in Southeastern United States to the Western parts of Mississippi river. While the Act itself is symbolic of the wide-scale racism and ethnic discrimination present in the US in the 1800s, the very process of forced relocations is just as significant – the latter came to be known as the “Trail of Tears,” signifying the plight and the suffering of the Native Americans in light of this relocation. Resultantly, the enactment of the Indian Removal Act remains one of the most shameful and deplorable acts in all of the US history.
While the act itself was signed into law by Jackson, the proposals for the Indian removal date as far back as the administration of James Monroe, whose Secretary of War, John Calhoun (who later became the Vice President of the United States), devised the first plans for such a removal. Under the original act, the Indians “…may choose to exchange the lands where they now reside.” Notice the use of the word “may” – it denotes voluntary transactions between the parties. That is, the act only went insofar as giving the President the freedom to negotiate the exchange of land with the Indians. The original act contains no mentions of any sort of forced or coerced relocation. However, this reality of the situation was anything but voluntary. While the previous presidents respected the sovereignty of the Native Americans, going only as far as making efforts for acculturation of Native Americans, Jackson made this issue his top priority. As a military general in his younger days, Jackson himself led several battles against the Native Americans. Hence, he adopted a staunch stance towards the them, arguing that such an act would protect the Native Americans from the negative influence of the white culture.
While in theory, the act was directed against all native Americans, only the five biggest Southern tribes were targeted in particular: Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee, and Seminole. Ironically, however, these five tribes were already significantly civilized and cultured, often adopting European and American practices into their culture. In fact, when the act came into force, some Cherokees challenged the decision in the Supreme Court of the US (See Cherokee Nation v. Georgia). However, the Supreme Court sided with Jackson, arguing that the Native states were not recognized as sovereign, official states by the Court. Further, when the Seminoles refused to leave their ancestral lands, the government sent in troops to forcibly remove them, resulting in the Second Seminole War. This war was the longest and the most expensive of the Indian wars in the history, resulting in the lives of as many as 1500 US soldiers and $15 million (equivalent to approx. $400 million today).
What followed thereafter was the actual process of migration, or the infamous “Trail of Tears,” where thousands of indigenous Americans (approx. 67,400) embarked on a journey across America, spanning hundreds of miles, primarily on foot. The first group of Cherokees left their homelands in October 1838, and reached their new homes in March 1839. This journey spanned four months and occurred during the months of harsh winter. Resultantly, thousands of Cherokees died along the way. An estimate reveals that more than 4000 Cherokees, almost a fourth of the total Cherokee population, died along the way, as a result of diseases, cold, and hunger. The figures for the number of deaths in other tribes are still contested but are likely run in thousands as well.
The Indian Removal Act raises important questions not only about identity and migration, but also about human greed and philosophy. In the aftermath of the removal act, the Southern American citizens occupied the indigenous lands and began cultivating cotton. What followed thereafter was the cotton boom in the South, resulting in great economic prosperity. The South became synonymous with money and power; the states of Alabama and Mississippi had more millionaires per capita than any other states. From an economic standpoint, then, the removal act was a huge success. But were the losses suffered really worth the prosperity? This wealth was generated by the enslavement of millions, which directly led to the Civil War. Even if we ignore the Civil War, we cannot disregard the price that the native Americans had to pay for America’s economic prosperity. The tribes had to start afresh in their new homes, thousands of families were disintegrated, loved ones were lost, and above all, the native American identity would never be the same again. In fact, in the words of Tocqueville,
“In the whole scene there was an air of ruin and destruction, something which betrayed a final and irrevocable adieu; one couldn’t watch without feeling one’s heart wrung. The Indians were tranquil, but sombre and taciturn. There was one who could speak English and of whom I asked why the Chactas were leaving their country. “To be free,” he answered, could never get any other reason out of him. We … watch the expulsion … of one of the most celebrated and ancient American peoples.” (Tocqueville, on witnessing an exhausted group of Choctaw natives in Memphis – Pierson, 597-98)
Truly, then, the removal act is a great tragedy and it remains a huge blot on the history of the American society.
— Abhi Ruparelia and Nora Geer