Museum curators have their work cut out for them. Between retired Confederate flags and reconsidered presidential legacies, 2015 is the year we banished once-cherished relics to posterity’s display cases. While we’re certainly justified in our actions, I believe that our myopic dismissals of the past are too narrowly focused. Most Americans know that slavery was a shameful chapter of our past, but the United States’ collective memory of Native oppression is smothering in the fog of self-induced dementia. Certainly those of us teaching at tribal colleges and universities can’t forget the horrors and continual ramifications of America’s Indian removal policies, and it’s essential that we encourage our students to learn the complexity of the trials of prior generations. All Americans should realize that the past must not be simplified or forgotten—it must be examined and taught.
This summer the Democratic Party began dropping its founders’ names from their century-old fundraisers. The state-sponsored Jefferson-Jackson Dinners were named after our country’s third and seventh presidents, who were credited with “spreading economic opportunity and democracy.” The upscale social events draw donors and politicians alike. FDR spoke at a dinner, and so has every Democratic president who followed him. In 2008, candidate Barack Obama gave a speech at Iowa’s “JJ Dinner” that helped propel him to his lauded caucus victory in the Hawkeye state. Yet this summer, pressure from both the NAACP and individual state party members has put an end to honoring the slave-holding patriarchs. Jefferson owned 600 slaves but was conflicted about the practice. Jackson had 150 men, women, and children listed as his property, but Old Hickory never doubted his White supremacy. In Connecticut, Governor Dannel Malloy endorsed his states’ decision to change the dinner’s name, but added a puzzling caveat that dropping the presidents’ names is “by no means an indictment of the legacy of Thomas Jefferson or any of our nation’s founders.” In another case ripe with irony, Georgia House minority leader Stacey Abrams said that her state stripped Jefferson and Jackson from their dinner to tell “the entire story of our party.” To her, that means that “the best political parties are ones that reflect their core values and celebrate their members.” She said nothing of Georgia’s historic Indian removal policies that Democrats endorsed.
Of course, some of Jefferson’s dealings with American Indian people are remembered, but the common narratives shared by history textbooks only scratch the surface of his legacy. Jefferson famously sent Lewis and Clark and their interpreter Sacagawea (Shoshone) across the uncharted acreages of the Louisiana Purchase to document the land of America’s Indigenous peoples. What’s less known is that while serving as America’s first Secretary of State, Jefferson stated, “The government is determined to exert all its energy for the patronage and protection of the rights of the Indians.” Georgia ignored him and tried to sell 35 million acres of Indian lands. The federal government interceded, and after drawn-out negotiations, Georgia surrendered the bulk of the lands in 1802. The compact wasn’t a total loss for the defiant Peach State, because it also required the federal government to “extinguish the Indian title” to all lands within Georgia’s borders as soon as the titles could be “peaceably obtained, on reasonable terms.” Jefferson saw no problem with this, and in a private letter the following year wrote, “We shall push our trading houses, and be glad to see the good and influential individuals among [the Indians] run in debt…when these debts get beyond what the individuals can pay, they become willing to lop [off their debt] by a cession of land.”
The Georgians were impatient, and for decades they reminded Jefferson and his successors of the government’s commitment. The foil to their plot was that the Cherokees refused to sell. However, in the 1820s, President Andrew Jackson, who made his name waging ruthless wars to gain Indian lands, surprised no one when he made Indian relocation one of his primary domestic issues. While living in the executive mansion, Jackson both ignored Indian rights by lobbying for the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and then failed to order military backing for the Supreme Court ruling that declared removal unconstitutional. The result of his calculated inaction forced tens of thousands of Natives to succumb to one of the darkest chapters in American Indian history. In 1835, Georgia’s Cherokees joined members of the Muscogee, Seminole, Chickasaw, and Choctaw nations from other southeastern states in being forcibly marched from their ancestral homelands to the designated Indian Territory west of the Mississippi River. The Natives faced hunger, disease, and exhaustion, and a quarter of them died en route to present-day Oklahoma.
Jefferson and Jackson each paradoxically convinced themselves that they were acting on the best interests of Native people. Jefferson saw his deals with Natives as legally sound, and Jackson claimed to believe relocation protected America’s Indigenous people from the non-Natives who preferred race-based extermination. These men’s American Indian policies were every bit as flawed as their views of slavery, but the Democrats who are renaming JJ Dinners are mostly ignoring Indian removal. It’s not enough to simply acknowledge that the Trail of Tears happened; Americans need to remember that it was one trauma in a progression of government-condoned tragedies.
The populous fervor that’s rolling across our country is correct in condemning the actions of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson. Yet for true penance to occur, Americans must ensure that slavery isn’t the only injustice causing us to question our reverence for past presidents.
Ryan Winn teaches English, theater, and communication at College of Menominee Nation, where he has been recognized as the American Indian College Fund’s Faculty Member of the Year.
Bermen, R. (2015, July 28). Is the Democratic Party Abandoning Jefferson and Jackson? Retrieved August 2015 from: http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/07/will-the-democratic-party-abandon-thomas-jefferson-andrew-jackson/399722/
Inskeep, S. (2015). Jacksonland. New York: Penguin.
Martin, J. (2015, August 11). State by State, Democratic Party Is Erasing Ties to Jefferson and Jackson. Retrieved August 2015 from: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/12/us/politics/state-by-state-democratic-party-is-erasing-ties-to-jefferson-and-jackson.html?_r=0
Meacham, J. (2008). American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House. New York: Random House.
Merry, R.W. (2012). Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in the Inquisitive Academic or any other opinion columns published by the Tribal College Journal (TCJ) do not necessarily reflect the opinions of TCJ or the American Indian Higher Education Consortium.