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Wednesday, October 20, 2021

On the Fate of the American Indians

“The only good Indians that I ever saw were dead.” ~ General Sheridan, speaking in 1868, after the Sand Creek massacre and other massacres of the Cheyenne Indians by the US Army. Sheridan’s words were recorded by Lieutenant Charles Nordstrom who was present. Over a period of time, Sheridan’s words got honed into a popular American aphorism: “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” 

“The white man is coming out here so fast that nothing can stop him. Coming from the East, and coming from the West, like a prairie on fire in a high wind. Nothing can stop him. The reason for it is that the whites are a numerous people, and they are spreading out. They require room and cannot help it. Those on the sea in the West wish to communicate with those living on another sea in the East, and that is the reason they are building these roads, these wagon roads and railroads, and telegraphs… You must not let your young men stop them; you must keep your men off the roads… I have no more to say. I will await the end of your council, to see whether you want war or peace.” ~ General Hancock addressing Cheyenne Indians in 1867 (Source: Reports of Major General W.S. Hancock Upon Indian Affairs, by W. S. Hancock). He was trying to bully the Cheyenne to make them vacate their traditional land and move elsewhere. He also fired some of his cannons to make the Cheyenne aware of the power of the American army.

“My opinion is, if fifty Indians are allowed to remain between the Arkansas and the Platte we will have to guard every stage station, every train, and all railroad working parties. In other words, fifty hostile Indians will checkmate three thousand soldiers. Rather get them out as soon as possible, and it makes little difference whether they be coaxed out by Indian commissioners or killed.” ~ General Sherman in his 1867 report to Secretary of War Edwin McMasters Stanton.

Sheridan, Hancock, and Sherman were not cranks—they were celebrated generals. Whatever they said would be in line with state policy of their time. Till the early twentieth century, many powerful voices in America were calling for the eradication of the Indian tribes. Lincoln’s Civil War, it is claimed, was about abolishing slavery and establishing the equality of all races. Yet some of the worst evictions, enslavements, and massacres of the Indians have happened after the Civil War. Does America have the moral right to close its border with Mexico? I am not sure.

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