There Is an Honest Way Even
of Breaking up a Treaty
THE ORIGINS OF INDIAN ASSIMILATION POLICY
A strange but revealing exchange took place on the floor of the Senate in February 1871. During a debate on the Indian Appropriations Bill, senators from the North, South, and West engaged in a heated discussion of the following question: Which group had the United States dealt with more dishonorably, Indian tribes or African slaves? Part partisan posturing and part struggle over resources, the senators’ arguments grew beyond the immediate issue—a supplemental payment of $15,000 to the Chippewa of Lake Superior for instruction in the “arts of civilization”—and became a debate over the direction of federal Indian policy more broadly.
On one side of the issue stood senators who emphasized that the United States owed Indians compensation because it had stolen their land and means of support while degrading their character through contact. Republican James Harlan of Iowa, chair of the Committee on Indian Affairs, argued that Americans “have driven the Indians before the tide of civilization, instead of incorporating them into civil society and providing for them in that way, having literally robbed them of their homes and given them to strangers.”1 Despite Indians’ best efforts to support themselves, observed Harlan, white settlement had “crowded [them] off their old hunting grounds… where for a number of years they were able to make a living by hunting and fishing.”2 Garrett Davis, a Democrat from Kentucky, agreed, adding that not only had white men taken the Indians’ land, but they had also corrupted them and transformed them from “hardy and manly” noble savages into “degenerate and ignoble being[s].”3 For these sympathizers, it was clear that the nation