K. Tsianina Lomawaima
In 1911, a group of American Indian intellectuals organized what would become known as the Society of American Indians, or SAI. SAI members convened in annual meetings between 1911 and 1923, and for much of that period the Society’s executive offices were a hub for political advocacy, lobbying Congress and the Office of Indian Affairs (OIA), publishing a journal, offering legal assistance to Native individuals and tribes, and maintaining an impressively voluminous correspondence across the country with American Indians, “Friends of the Indian” reformers, political allies, and staunch critics. Notable Native activists, clergy, entertainers, professionals, speakers, and writers—as well as Native representatives from on- and off-reservation communities—were active in the Society. They worked tirelessly to meet daunting, unrealistic expectations, principally to deliver a unified voice of Indian “public opinion” and to pursue controversial political goals without appearing too radical, especially obtaining U.S. citizenship for Indian individuals and allowing Indian nations to access the U.S. Court of Claims. They maintained their myriad activities with scant financial resources solely through the unpaid labor of dedicated Native volunteers. By 1923, the challenges exhausted the Society’s substantial human and miniscule financial capital. The Native “soul of unity” demanded by non-white spectators and hoped for by SAI leaders could no longer hold the center, and the SAI dissolved. Their work was not in vain, but citizenship and the ability to file claims materialized in circumscribed forms. In 1924 Congress passed the Indian Citizenship Act, granting birthright citizenship to American Indians, but citizenship for Indians was deemed compatible with continued wardship status. In 1946 Congress established an Indian Claims Commission, not a court, and successful claims could only result in monetary compensation, not regained lands.
Described as a “chief among chiefs” by the British, and by his arch-rival, William Henry Harrison, as “one of those uncommon geniuses which spring up occasionally to produce revolutions and overturn the established order of things,” Tecumseh impressed all who knew him. Lauded for his oratory, military and diplomatic skills, and, ultimately, his humanity, Tecumseh presided over the greatest Indian resistance movement that had ever been assembled in the eastern half of North America. His genius lay in his ability to fully articulate religious, racial, and cultural ideals borne out of his people’s existence on fault lines between competing empires and Indian confederacies. Known as “southerners” by their Algonquian relatives, the Shawnees had a history of migrating between worlds. Tecumseh, and his brother, Tenskwatawa, converted this inheritance into a widespread social movement in the first decade and a half of the 19th-century, when more than a thousand warriors, from many different tribes, heeded their call to halt American expansion along the border of what is now Ohio and Indiana. Tecumseh articulated a vision of intertribal, pan-Indian unity based on revitalization and reform, and his ambitions very nearly rewrote early American history.
David A. Nichols
From 1783 to 1830, American Indian policy reflected the new American nation-state’s desire to establish its own legitimacy and authority, by controlling Native American peoples and establishing orderly and prosperous white settlements in the continental interior. The Federalists focused on securing against Native American claims and attacks several protected enclaves of white settlement (Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee), established—often violently—during the Revolutionary War. They used treaties to draw a legal boundary between these enclaves and Indian communities, and annuities and military force to keep Indians on their side of the line. The Jeffersonian Republicans adopted a more expansive plan of development, coupled with the promotion of Native American dependency. Treaty commissioners persuaded chiefs to cede road easements and riverfront acreage that the government used to link and develop dispersed white settlements. Meanwhile, the War Department built trading factories whose cheap merchandise would lure Indians into commercial dependency, and agents offered Indian families agricultural equipment and training, hoping that Native American farmers would no longer need “extensive forests” to support themselves. These pressures helped engender nativist movements in the Old Northwest and southeast, and Indian men from both regions fought the United States in the War of 1812, reinforcing frontier settlers’ view that Indians were a security threat. After this war’s end, the United States adopted a strategy of containment, pressuring Indian leaders to cede most of their peoples’ lands, confining Indians to enclaves, financing vocational schooling for Indian children, and encouraging Native peoples voluntarily to move west of the Mississippi. This policy, however, proved too respectful of Indian autonomy for the frontier settlers and politicians steadily gaining influence in the national government. After these settlers elected one of their own, Andrew Jackson, to the presidency, American Indian policy would enter a much more coercive and violent phase, as white Americans redefined the nation-state as a domain of white supremacy ethnically cleansed of indigenous peoples.