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Excerpt from The Culture of Make Believe

Northern Pacific Railroad (p. 308)

From chapter "Tranquility and Felicity"

In 1864, the United States Congress created the Northern Pacific Railroad Company for the purpose of building and maintaining a rail line from Lake Superior to Puget Sound. To aid in the project, Congress conditionally granted Northern Pacific nearly forty million acres of land, which is more than 2 percent of the land mass of the contiguous forty-eight states, more land than this nation’s nine smallest states put together.

There was a problem. Much of this granted land did not belong to the government, but to Indians. In order for the Northern Pacific to construct the railroad and receive the grant lands, Indians living on the granted lands had to be removed. This necessity had been recognized by the original grant’s authors, who wrote that, “the United States shall extinguish, as rapidly as may be consistent with public policy and the welfare of the said Indians, the Indian titles to all lands falling under the operation of this act.”

Unfortunately for the Indians, when public policy ran counter to the welfare of the said Indians, public policy won every time. The federal government soon began moving Indians off their land. Some Indians resisted, undoubtedly because they, in the words of a historian not particularly sympathetic to them, “rightly saw in [the railroad] a force that would bring about the destruction of the buffalo and an influx of whites, and that would consequently leave them little choice but to go to the reservation and live on the dole.” General William Tecumseh Sherman saw this also, and it was reason enough for him use federal troops and federal tax dollars to support the railroad company. In Montana, the last native strong hold of the Great Plains, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse began coordinating attacks against the surveyors and troops, first making clear to these intruders that they were not welcome, and then driving them away. Montana’s superintendent of Indian affairs, J. A. Viall, who “could not abide Indians who wanted to live as Indians,” called on the government to intervene more decisively: “Should those wandering Sioux . . . persist in their efforts to molest and interfere with the progress of the Northern Pacific Railroad, I sincerely trust that a sufficient military force will be sent against them to severely and sufficiently punish them, even to annihilation, should the same unfortunately be necessary. . . . [I]n the event of their continuing hostile, the interests of civilization and common humanity demand that they should be made powerless.”

The government sent a force of fifteen hundred men to guard the surveyors. Among them were Custer and the Seventh Cavalry, fresh from putting down the Ku Klux Klan.

General Philip Sheridan ordered Custer to reconnoiter Pa Sapa, the Black Hills, in preparation for the construction of a fort to guard the railroad. Sheridan made plain the reason for the fort’s location: “By holding an interior point in the heart of the Indian country we could threaten the villages and stock of the Indians.”

In clear violation of the Treaty of 1868 (which the Lakota had probably not even read) and acting as an agent of Northern Pacific, Custer led twelve hundred men—including his cavalry, two companies of infantry with Gatling guns and artillery, sixty Indian scouts, newspaper reporters, and scientists—to explore the Black Hills. One ostensible reason for the presence of federal troops was to protect Indians from the encroachment of miners, but, far from providing protection, the Seventh Cavalry brought miners with them. Further, in order to incite warfare, Custer (whom the Lakota called “the Chief of all Thieves”) spread rumors of gold, and encouraged prospecting parties to enter the region. By the next summer, more than eight hundred miners searched for gold in the Black Hills.

The U.S. government made a ritual attempt to purchase the land. Red Cloud and other Chiefs asked for $600 million, and food and clothing for seven generations of Lakota people; the government countered with $6 million. The Lakota refused. Having fulfilled the ritual, negotiators stated to their superiors that negotiations would certainly be fruitless until the Indians had been taught a lesson.

President Grant ordered all “hostile” Indians (defined as anyone living in a traditional way), which they estimated at about three thousand, including a few hundred warriors, to come in to the Sioux agencies. It was hoped that the Indians could at that point be forced to give up the Black Hills and unceded land to the west of them, including the Big Horn Mountains and the Powder River country (where much of the coal claimed by Northern Pacific, and today by its corporate descendant, Great Northern Coal Properties, is located). Once the Indians arrived—primarily Red Cloud’s “peaceful” Indians—Grant threatened to withhold their rations, thus forcing them to sign an agreement (which violated the 1868 Treaty provision that no new treaty could be made without the approval of three-fourths of adult Lakota males) giving up the Black Hills and all unceded land to the west.

Meanwhile, miners flowed into the region. Sherman stated the obvious: “If some [miners] go over the Boundary into the Black Hills, I understand that the president and Interior Department will wink at it for the present.” The president and the Interior Dept were soon winking like mad, because fifteen thousand miners moved in by the next winter.

Many of the Lakota resisted encroachment, which provided the government the excuse it had been waiting for. Indian bureau inspector E. C. Watkins laid out the plan: “The true policy, in my judgment, is to send troops against them in the winter, the sooner the better, and whipthem into subjection.” U.S. troops moved with far greater alacrity against the Indians defending their land than they ever had against those who were moving in. It would be satisfying to say the Indians repulsed the army, but the winter campaign failed primarily because of inclement weather.

By the summer of 1876, a thousand Lakota and Cheyenne warriors had gathered to fight the surveyors, troops, miners, and settlers who had by then irreversibly overrun their land. Custer returned to the campaign, and we are all familiar with what happened to him that year. It would be even more satisfying to be able to say that the victory of the Indians at the Little Bighorn was anything even approaching final—that it allowed them to maintain the territory which was by all rights—except that of force—theirs. But, as we all know, it did not.

Soon, Crazy Horse was in captivity, to be killed at Fort Robinson in 1877. Sitting Bull went into exile, not to return until 1881. Indians continued to lose land to the railroad: Thirty thousand square miles were taken from the Blackfoot, Arikaris, and Gros Ventre to allow Northern Pacific to pass, and land was taken as well from the Cheyenne, Crow, Flathead, Yakama, and so on.

The railroad was completed in 1883. Some of the owners thought it would be “unique and interesting” to have an Indian speak at Northern Pacific’s Golden Spike ceremony, and so requested a soldier bring in Sitting Bull. Sitting Bull deviated from his ghost-written speech to say in his native tongue, “I hate you. I hate you. I hate all the white people. You are thieves and liars. You have taken away our land and made us outcasts, so I hate you.” History does not record whether the translator hesitated before reciting instead the “friendly, courteous speech he had prepared.”

I sometimes wish the atrocities of our culture were simply committed in bursts of the sort of hatred most of us are used to thinking about: a strong feeling, a passion. Such a motivation would at least still be human, and could be assuaged or accommodated or answered or defeated by other emotions or by reason. But our culture is implacable, inexorable, with atrocities committed willy-nilly with motivations—or at least surface motivations—as varied as the atrocities themselves. Sometimes the atrocities are committed out of a recognizable sense of hate. The lynchings. The dragging death of James Byrd, Jr. Rape—FBI definitions be damned. Or this, which I just read about yesterday, and which happened one hundred and fifty years ago here in northern California, just another step in the long journey toward one world culture. Some Mattole Indians—pejoratively called “diggers” by whites—killed a white trapper as he attempted to rape a Mattole woman. Local whites became incensed. One was recorded as saying, “I can’t eat or sleep in peace til I kill a god-damned digger.” Captain Geer, commander of militia in charge of exterminating the Mattole, later said of the ensuing slaughter, “We fought and killed quite a lot. There was no resistance; they simply hid as they always did.” Sometimes the atrocities are committed with a sense of contempt: Andrew Jackson called Indians “savage dogs,” and said attempts to eradicate or dispossess them would be futile until soldiers knew “where the Indian women were”: Before that, their efforts would be like trying to kill a wolf “without knowing first where her den and whelps were.” Sometimes the motivation is greed, as in a San Francisco Argonauteditorial. “We do not want the Filipinos. We want the Philippines. The islands are enormously rich, but unfortunately they are infested by Filipinos. There are many millions there and it is to be feared their extinction will be slow.” Sometimes the motivation is simply business as usual, as in Bhopal, or the Northern Pacific Railroad. Sometimes the atrocities are committed out of a strong sense of benevolence, as in Andrew Jackson’s second annual message to Congress. “Toward the aborigines of this country no one can indulge a more friendly feeling than myself, or would go further in at tempting to reclaim them from their wandering habits and make them a happy, prosperous people.” This benevolence is often tinged with a world-weary regret. Jackson continued, “Humanity has often wept over the fate of the aborigines of this country, and Philanthropy has been long busily employed in devising means to avert it, but its progress has never for a moment been arrested, and one by one have many powerful tribes disappeared from the earth. To follow to the tomb the last of his race and tread on the graves of extinct nations excite melancholy reflections. But true philanthropy reconciles the mind to these vicissitudes as it does to the extinction of one generation to make room for another.” Jackson also wrote, immediately after the battle of Horseshoe Bend, or Tohopeka, one of the bloodiest slaughters of indigenous peoples by the U.S. Army (the dead numbered between five and eight hundred), “They have disappeared from the face of the earth. In their places a new generation will arise who know their duties better. . . . How lamentable it is that the path to peace should lead through blood, and over the carcasses of the slain!! But it is in the dispensation of that providence, which inflicts partial evil to produce general good.” Most often, however, the atrocities are committed blithely, with a clean conscience and a deep sense of moral rightness. In 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville found it remarkable that whites were able to dispossess and exterminate Indians “with singular felicity, tranquilly, legally, philanthropically, without shedding blood [except, I would add, when the Indians resist], and without violating a single great principle of morality in the eyes of the world.” I would emend his conclusion to read “in the eyes of those living in the civilized world.”