Broken Hearts, Broken Promises

I thought my heart would break as a read through the treaties in a large volume dated in 1825 during my visit to Chicago’s Newberry Library last week.

The volume contains page after page of US-Indian treaties. John Quincy Adams was president, soon to be beaten in his 1828 re-election bid by Andrew Jackson, who would later defy the Supreme Court and set in motion the forced removal of the Cherokee from New Echota.

Purpose of my visit to the Newberry was to research in person the vast collection of Indian books and artifacts. I reckon I could spend a full year just reading the materials, but had to limit my visit to 3 days.

I spent hours combing through newspapers, looking for descriptions that would help me understand how Indian ways-of-knowing were framed. In a collection by anthropologist Robert Helzer of news articles from 1851-1866, I discovered that Indians were typically characterized as dirty, lazy and indolent.

One editorial noted: “Could not those who live among us by some law be required to bind their children to farmers and others, for a given period, so as to make them useful, and thus induct them to habits of cleanliness and industry?”

A key word is “useful,” reminding me of the narratives that justified the removal of Indians from our lands. Influential writers like Samuel Purchas in 1814 described the natives as “wilde” and urged settlers to seize the territory because “God has intended the land to be cultivated” while Indians roamed “that unmanned wild Countrey, which they range rather than inhabite.”

A recurring theme is the lack of a “useful” and “industrial” relationship with the land, which, it turns out, was a lie woven into the removal narratives.


About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
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