William F. Warde

A Suppressed Chapter in History of American Capitalism

The Conquest of the Indians

(January 1949)

Source: Fourth International, Vol.10 No.1, January 1949, pp.17-22.
(William F. Warde was a pseudonym of George Novack.)
Transcription/Editing/HTML Markup: 2006 by Einde O’Callaghan.
Public Domain: George Novack Internet Archive 2006; This work is completely free. In any reproduction, we ask that you cite this Internet address and the publishing information above.

The capitalist rulers of the United States mounted tc power through a series of violent struggles against precapitalist social forces. The first of these upheavals took place at the dawn of modern American history with the invasion of the Western hemisphere by the nations of Western Europe and the conquest of the aboriginal inhabitants. The uprooting of the Indians played a significant part in clearing the way for bourgeois supremacy on this continent.

However, the pages of the most learned historians contain little recognition and less understanding of this connection between the overthrow of Indian tribalism and the development of bourgeois society in America. As a rule, they regard the ousting and obliteration of the natives simply as an incident in the spread of the white man over the continent. They may condemn the treatment of the Indians as a lamentable blot on the historical record, but they do not see that it has any important bearing upon the formation of the United States.

This conventional view of Indian-white relations is shared by conservative and liberal writers alike. In their classic liberal interpretation of The Rise of American Civilisation, Charles and Mary Beard, for example, utterly fail to grasp the social significance of the wars against the Indians, making only scanty disconnected references to them.

President Conant of Harvard has just supplied an instructive illustration of how far the Indian conquest has faded from the consciousness of bourgeois thinkers. During a speech at the NY Herald Tribune Forum in October 1948 Conant stated:

“In the first place, this nation, unlike most others, has not evolved from a state founded on a military conquest. As a consequence we have nowhere in our tradition the idea of an aristocracy descended from the conquerors and entitled to rule by right of birth. On the contrary, we have developed our greatness in a period in which a fluid society overran a rich and empty continent ...”

Conant’s speech summoned American educators to demonstrate in theoretical questions what American capitalism must prove in practice – the superiority of bourgeois ideas and methods over the “alien importations” of the “philosophy based on the writings of Marx, Engels and Lenin.” The Harvard president insisted that “not words, but facts” must be the weapons to convince the youth and defeat Marxism. The passage we have cited will hardly promote that purpose, for it contains two serious misstatements of fact about early American history.

In the first place, contrary to Conant’s assertion, the bourgeois structure of this nation did “evolve from a state founded on a military conquest.” It was the conquest of the Indian tribes, not to speak of wars against the Spanish, Dutch and French, which gave England and her colonists mastery of North America.

Secondly, although North America in colonial times was far more thinly populated than Europe or Asia, it was scarcely “empty” of inhabitants. In order to occupy and overrun the continent, the pioneers first had to “empty” the land of its original possessors. The founders of Harvard could tell its present head many tales of the difficulties involved in this task.

What are the reasons for this extraordinary blind spot of the bourgeois historians and those who, like Conant, push to the extreme their preconceptions of our national origins?

There is, first of all, the weight of tradition. Historians continue to treat the Indians with the same disdain and lack of comprehension that their forefathers manifested in real life. The pioneers looked upon the Indians as little more than obnoxious obstacles in the path of their advancement who had to be cleared away by any means and at all costs. The English colonists rid their settlements of Indians as ruthlessly as they cleared the lands of trees and wild animals. They placed the Indian “varmints” and “serpents” on the same level as wild beasts. In early New England bounties were paid for Indian scalps as today they are awarded for the tails of predatory animals.

What Their Attitude Is

The contemporary professors do not know how to fit the Indians, and the facts of their dispossession and disappearance, into their schemes of interpretation any more than the pioneers were able to absorb them into bourgeois society. The government’s final solution of the Indian problem has been to segregate the survivors in reservations, an American equivalent of the European concentration camps and the African compounds. The historians dispose of the Indians by also setting them off to one side, in a special category completely detached from the main course of American historical development.

Indeed, because of their unconscious and narrow class outlook, the bourgeois historians, on the whole, are hardly aware that the fate of the Indians presents any problem. They assume that private property must be the normal foundation of any “good” society. And so, the annihilation of Indian collectivism by the white conquerors for the sake of private property seems so much in the nature of things as to require no explanation.

But there is more involved than inertia or indifference. Freud has explained individual lapses of memory by an unconscious wish to hide from what is shameful, fearful, socially unacceptable. Where a social lapse of memory occurs, a similar mechanism and similar motives for suppression are often at work, especially where representatives of ruling classes engage in. systematic forgetfulness. That is the case here. The abominable treatment of the Indians is extremely unpleasant to contemplate, and equally unpleasant to explain.

At the bottom of their censorship lies the bourgeois attitude toward the communal character of Indian life. The bourgeois mind finds communism in any form so contrary to its values, so abhorrent and abnormal, that it recoils from its manifestations and instinctively strives to bury recollections of their existence. In any event, the run-of-the-mill historian feels little impulse to examine and explain primitive communism although it was the cradle of humanity and, in particular, formed a starting point of modern American history.

Even contemporary writers sympathetic to the Indians, such as Oliver LaFarge, go out of their way to deny that the basic institutions of the Indians can be termed “communistic” even while offering evidence to the contrary. “The source of life, the land and its products, they (the Indians) owned in common,” writes LaFarge in As Long as the Grass Shall Grow, p.25 “Loose talkers have called this Communism. It is not.” Here is a striking example of how deep anti-communist prejudice runs.

Class calculation reinforces this tendency toward suppression. An understanding of the customs of the Indians and the reasons for their extinction may raise doubts about the eternity of private property and the standards of bourgeois life. Such knowledge spread among an enlightened people may be dangerous to the ruling ideas of the ruling class. Does it not indicate that, at least so far as the past is concerned, communism is not quite so alien to American soil as it is pictured by the witch-hunters?

Thus the expunging of the real facts about the Indians from historical memory today is no more accidental than was their physical elimination yesterday. Both have their ultimate source in the promotion of the material interests of the owners of private property and the champions of free enterprise.

Economic Causes Behind Clash of Indian Tribalism and European Civilisation

Modern American society did not originate on unencumbered soil in the pure and painless way pictured by Harvard’s President Conant. It arose from the disintegration and ruin of two ancient societies: European feudalism and primitive American communism. Its birth was attended by two violent social conflicts. One was the struggle between the feudal order and the rising forces of capitalism in the Old World. The other was the collision between Indian tribalism and European civilization, which resulted in the breakup of the Indian way of life as a prelude to the establishment of the bourgeois regime in North America.

The historians center their attention on the first process, and it is easy to understand why. Modern American society is the offspring of European civilization; its foundations rest upon a whole series of “alien importations” from across the Atlantic.

The contributions of the Indians in the making of modern America were not on the same scale and belonged to a different order. But this is no warrant for discounting them as a negligible factor in the peculiar evolution of the American nation. Cast in the minor role of a villainous opposition, the Indian has nevertheless played an important part in the first acts of our national development. For several centuries American events were conditioned by the struggle against the Indian tribes. The European civilization transplanted to the New World grew at the direct expense of Indian life. Let us see why this was so.

In the Indian and the European, ancient society and modern civilization confronted each other and engaged in an unequal test of strength. Over thousands of years the Indians had worked out ways and means of living admirably suited to the North American wilderness.

The Indian Community

The North American Indians were organized in hundreds of thinly dispersed tribes, numbering from a few score to a few thousand people, bound together by ties of blood kinship. Each of these tiny tribes constituted a self-sufficing economic unit. They were far more directly and firmly attached to their natural habitats than to one another. The split-up bands had little unity of action or power of resistance against enemies like the white man They were easily pitted against one another, since, despite an identity of social structure and institutions, they had no strong bonds of mutual interest.

The sparseness and separation of the Indian population resulted from their method of producing the necessities of life. Although there was considerable diversity of conditions from tribe to tribe and from region to region, their basic economic features were remarkably uniform. Except along the seashores, most of the North American tribes lived mainly by hunting wild animals such as the deer and buffalo. Fishing, fowling, berry-picking and farming were important but accessory sources of subsistence. Every type of social organization has laws of population and population growth corresponding to its mode of production. It has been estimated that three square miles of hunting ground were required to sustain each Indian. This imposed narrow limits on the size of the Indian population. Each tribe had to occupy sizable areas to support its members. The Iroquois sometimes travelled hundred of miles on their hunting expeditions.

The segmentation of the Indians into hundreds of petty tribal units and their slow but persistent expansion over the entire Western World had arisen from the inability of foraging and hunting economy to sustain many people on a given area. This was likewise the main cause for the warfare between neighboring tribes and for the Indians’ unyielding defense of their hunting and fishing grounds against invaders. Heckewelder reports that the Redskins cut off the noses and ears of every individual found on their territory and sent him back to inform his chief that on the next occasion they would scalp him. (The Evolution of Property, by Paul Lafargue, p.37)

The only ways to overcome the restrictions inherent in hunting economy were through the development of stock-raising or agriculture, a shift from food collecting to food producing. But unlike the Asiatics and Europeans, the Indians of North America domesticated no animals except the dog and the turkey. They had no horses, cattle, swine or sheep.

The Indians (that is, the Indian women who did the work) proved to be outstanding agriculturists. They had domesticated over forty useful plants, among them maize, tobacco, potatoes, tomatoes, peanuts, beans and others that then and later had considerable economic importance. Agriculture based on maize production gave birth to the various grades of Village Indians and made possible the more concentrated populations and brilliant achievements of Maya and Aztec cultures.

But Indian progress in agriculture became stymied by insurmountable technological barriers. The Indians derived their meat and clothing from wild game, not from tamed and tended animals. They did not invent the wheel or the axle; they did not know iron or how to smelt it. Their implements were mostly made of stone, wood, bone and fiber. Without draft animals and iron, it was impossible to develop the plow or even an efficient and durable hoe.

Without these technological aids, agriculture could not advance to the point where it could yield food and grain enough to support extensive and constantly increasing bodies of people. According to latest investigations, it was the extinction of the forests and the exhaustion of the available corn-bearing lands cultivated by the crudest stick methods which eventually caused the collapse of Mayan culture. (See The Ancient Maya, by Sylvanus G. Morley, 1946)

The whites, however, bore with them all the means for advanced agriculture accumulated since the invention of the animal-drawn plow. These improved implements and methods of cultivation were the stepping stones by which Europe had approached capitalism.

But along with superior tools and techniques of production the Europeans brought their correspondingly different property forms and relations.

Although the Indians possessed personal property, they were unfamiliar with private property in the means of production, or even in the distribution of the means of subsistence. They carried on their principal activities: hunting, fishing, cultivating, home-making and warfare, in a collective manner. The product of their labors was more or less equally shared among all members of the tribe.

The Indians and the Land

Above all, the North American Indians knew no such thing as private property in land which is the basis of all other kinds of private ownership in the means of production. When the white man arrived, there was not one acre from the Atlantic to the Pacific that belonged to a private person, that could be alienated from the community or assigned to anyone outside the tribe. The very idea that ancestral lands from which they drew their sustenance could be taken from the people, become air article of commerce, and be bought and sold was inconceivable, fantastic and abhorrent to the Indian. Even when Indians were given money or goods for a title to their lands, they could not believe that this transaction involved the right to deprive them of their use forever.

“The earth is like fire and water, that cannot be sold,” said the Omahas. The Shawnee chief Tecumseh, who sought to combine all the Indians from Canada to Florida against the encroachment of the whites upon their hunting grounds, exclaimed: “Sell land! As well sell air and water. The Great Spirit gave them in common to all.”

But the “Great Spirit” animating and dominating, the whites had an entirely different revelation. The intruders looked upon the new-found lands and their occupants through the eyes of a civilization founded on opposite premises. To them it was natural to convert everything into private property and thereby exclude the rest of humanity from its use and enjoyment. The conquerors maintained that whatever existed in the New World, or came out of it, was to be vested either in an individual or a power separate and distinct from the community or towering above it, like the monarchy, the state or the church.

The Outlook of the Europeans

They did not exempt human beings from this process. The invaders seized not only the land but its inhabitants and sought, wherever they could, to convert the Indians into their private possessions as chattel-slaves.

Those who were driven across the Atlantic by religious and political persecution were a minority. For the majority, the lust for aggrandizement and the greed for personal gain were among the prime passions actuating the Europeans. It was these material motives, more powerful than wind or wave, that propelled the first Europeans overseas and then inevitably brought them into collision with the aboriginal inhabitants.

The conquerors came as robbers and enslavers; they stayed as colonizers and traders. America had belonged tc the Indian tribes both by hereditary right and by life-and-death need to maintain themselves and perpetuate their kind upon the tribal territories. But the tribes wanted to hold the land for different purposes and on different terms than the whites. The Europeans aimed to acquire the land for themselves or for some sovereign or noble who held title for their country. The newcomers needed land, not simply for hunting, trapping and fishing, but for extensive agriculture, for lumbering, for settlements and trading centers, for commerce and manufacture – in a phrase, for private exploitation on an expanding scale.

Thus, regardless of their wishes, the Indians and Europeans were sharply counterposed to each other by virtue of their contradictory economic needs and aims. The Indian could maintain his economy with its primitive communistic institutions and customs, its crude division of labor between the sexes and its tribal ties of blood kinship only by keeping the white men at bay. The newcomers could plant their settlements and expand their economic activities only by pressing upon the Indian tribes and snatching their territories. This antagonism, flowing from their diametrically opposing systems of production, governed the dealings between red men and white from their first contacts.

The ways and means by which the natives were enslaved, dispossessed and exterminated cannot be set forth here in detail. The pattern of robbery, violence, debauchery and trickery was fixed by the Spaniards as early as the landings of Columbus. In their lust for gold Columbus and his men depopulated Hispaniola. Through overwork, abuse, starvation, despair and disease, the original population of the island dwindled from 300,000 in 1492 to an actual count of 60,000 in 1508. Only a remnant of 500 survived by 1548.

The Overthrow of the Indians

The same story was repeated on the mainland of North America time and again during the next tour hundred years by the Dutch, English, French and Americans. The Indian wars in New England demonstrated how ruthless and irreconcilable was the conflict between the opposing social forces. While the first colonists in Massachusetts were busy securing a foothold, Indian neighbors established friendly ,and helpful ties with them. They gave the Pilgrims food in time of distress, taught them how to raise maize and tobacco and how to cope with the forest and its wild life.

But the divines who enjoined the Puritans not to covet their neighbor’s wives taught otherwise about the Indian hunting grounds. These religious and political leaders insisted that all land not actually occupied and cultivated belonged, not to the Indians, but to the Massachusetts Bay Colony which they controlled. Roger Williams was tried and banished from Massachusetts in 1635 because he declared that the “Natives are the true owners” of the land. His heretical views on the land question were condemned as no less dangerous than his unorthodox religious opinions.

The New England colonists annexed the tribal lands by waging wars of extermination against the natives over the next eighty years, beginning with the Pequol war in the Connecticut Valley in 1643 and concluding with the expulsion of the Abenakis from the Maine and New Hampshire coasts in 1722. The fiercest of these conflicts, King Philip’s War (1675-1678), was directly provoked by the struggle over the land. The increase in white population in the Connecticut Valley from 22,500 in 1640 to 52,000 in 1675 whetted the land hunger of the settlers at the same time that it threatened to engulf the Indian hunting grounds.

Their defeats brought death or enslavement to the Indians, expulsion from the tribal territories and distribution of their land to the whites. The rich corporation of Harvard University today derives income from landed property originally seized from these Indians “by military conquest.” Shouldn’t its President show more respect for the historical origins of his own state and for the deeds of his Pilgrim ancestors?

The same predatory policy was duplicated in the other colonies and no less vigorously prosecuted after they secured independence. An itinerant preacher, Peter Cartwright, testifies in his autobiography concerning the conquest of Kentucky:

“Kentucky was claimed by no particular tribe of Indians, but was regarded as a common hunting ground by the various tribes, east, west, north and south. It abounded in various valuable game, such as buffalo, elk, bear, deer, turkeys and many other smaller game, and hence the Indians struggled hard to keep the white people from taking possession of it. Many, hard and bloody battles were fought, and thousand:; killed on both sides; and rightly it was named the ‘land of blood.’ But finally the Indians were overpowered, and the white man obtained a peaceful and quiet possession of it.”

This combat to the death continued until the last frontier was settled and the choicest lands seized. “The roster of massacres of Indian men, women and children extends from the Great Swamp Massacre of 1696 in Rhode Island, through the killing of the friendly Christian Indians at Wyoming, Pennsylvania, when the republic was young, on through the friendly Arivaipas of Arizona, the winter camp of the Colorado Cheyennes, to the final dreadful spectacle of Wounded Knee in the year 1870,” writes Oliver LaFarge. That is how America was taken from the Indians.

The Transformation of Indian Life

Before the white conquerors eradicated Indian society, the Indians passed through an intermediate stage in which their customary relations were considerably altered. The acquisition of horses and firearms from the Europeans opened up the prairies to the Indians in the interior by enabling them to range far more widely and effectively in hunting buffalo and deer. But the ensuing changes in the lives of the Plains tribes were accomplished by their independent efforts without direct intervention by the whites and within the framework of their ancient institutions.

The fur trade with the whites had quite different and damaging effects upon Indian life. The fur trade early became one of the most profitable and far-flung branches of commerce between North America and Europe. The fur factors, hunters and trappers served as agents of the rich merchants and big chartered monopolies dominating the business and acted as advance scouts of capitalist civilization.

The Indians were first drawn into the orbit of capitalist commerce largely through extension of the fur trade. In the course of time the fur-trading tribes embraced all the North American Indians except those in the extreme South and Southwest. The growing interchange of products between the tribes and traders upset the relatively stable Indian existence.

At first this exchange of goods lifted the living standards and increased the wealth and population of the Indians. An iron ax was better than a stone hatchet; a rifle better than a bow and arrow. But, as the fur trade expanded, its evil consequences more and more asserted themselves. The call for ever-larger quantities of furs and skins by the wealthy classes here and abroad led to the rapid destruction of fur-bearing animals who reproduced too slowly to meet this demand.

Indians without contact with civilization were careful not to slaughter more animals than were needed for personal consumption. But once they trapped and hunted for the market, other incentives came into play. These drove the tribes whose hunting and fishing grounds approached exhaustion into bitter competition with adjoining tribes for control of the available supply.

The new conditions produced bloody clashes between competing tribes as well as with the white men who sought possession of the hunting grounds for their own reasons. In trade and war, occupations which are not always easily distinguishable, the role of firearms proved decisive. The Indians could not manufacture or repair firearms, or make powder. They had to bargain with the white men for these and the other indispensable means of production and destruction upon which their lives and livelihoods came to depend.

This placed the Indians at the mercy of bearers of the higher culture who showed them little mercy. Consequently the Indians became the victims not only of civilized diseases and such civilized vices as alcoholism and prostitution, but also of the good things acquired from the Europeans. Through the fur trade they were sucked into a vortex of commercial rivalry, intertribal and international wars that carried them toward destruction.

Various Indian tribes sought to defend themselves and their hunting grounds from relentless encroachment of the colonists by confederation or by allying themselves with one great power against another. They leagued with the French against the British, the British against the French, the Spanish against the British and the King against the Patriots. Later some Southern tribes were to attach themselves to the Confederacy against the Union.

A Hopeless Struggle

Although the Indians fought with unexampled courage and tenacity, neither heroic sacrifices nor unequal and unstable alliances could save them. They lacked the numbers, the organization and above all the productive capacity for carrying on sustained warfare. They had to limit themselves largely to border raids and scalping expeditions and were often hud low by hunger in winter and scarcity of weapons and ammunition. Neither singly nor in combination could the natives do more than delay the onward march of their white adversaries. Their history is essentially a record of one long retreat across the continent under the onslaught of the conquerors.

The French had more harmonious relations with the Indians than the English, primarily because of differences in their economic aims and activities. Except for the Quebec habitants, the French were mainly engaged in hunting and trading; they did not covet the Indian lands but sought to maintain favorable trade relations with the tribes. It is recorded that for two centuries (1690-1870) there were only sporadic acts of hostility between the natives and agents of the Hudson Bay Company, which monopolized the Indian trade in Canada. The reason? “In no case, did the French intruders ask, as did the English colonists, for deeds of territory.” (Narrative and Critical History of America, Vol.I, p.285.)

Behind the English hunters and traders swarmed the solid ranks of colonizers, farmers, planters, speculators and Irndlords who wanted the Indian hunting grounds for their own property.

This contrast was emphasized by Duquesne when he tried to win the Iroquois from their friendship with Britain. The Frenchman told them:

“Are you ignorant of the difference between the king of England and the king of France? Go see the forts our king has established and you will see that you can still hunt under their very walls. They have been placed for your advantage in places which you frequent. The English, on the contrary, are no sooner in possession of a place than the game is driven away. The forest falls before them as they advance and the soil is laid bare, so that you can scarce find the wherewithal to erect shelter for the night.”

The incompatibility of the hunting economy with advancing agriculture also became a major source of division between the American colonists and the English government. King George’s proclamation of 1763 forbade loyal governors to grant land or titles beyond the Alleghenies or private persons to buy land from the Indians. This Quebec Act, designed to monopolize the fur trade for the English and contain colonial settlement on the coastal side of the Allegheny Mountains, imparted a powerful stimulant to colonial revolt.

The height of the onslaught against the Indians was attained when the capitalists took complete command of the government. The three decades following the Civil War have been correctly called by the historian Bancroft “the history of aboriginal extermination.” The Civil War generals turned from battle against the slaveholders to consummate the conquest of the Indians in the West. General Halleck urged that the Apaches “be hunted and exterminated” and General Sheridan uttered his notorious remark, “There are no good Indians but dead Indians.” The attitude toward the Indians was bluntly expressed by the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in his report to Congress in 1870:

“When treating with savage men as with savage beasts, no question of national honor can arise. Whether to fight, to run away, or to employ a ruse, is only a question of expediency.”

Capitalist civilization could not stop halfway at reconstructing Indian life and subordinating it to its needs. With the expansion of settlement, the colonists kept pushing the red men westward, hemming in their living space, violating agreements with them, taking over more and more of their territories. The late Nineteenth Century witnessed the final mopping-up operations by which the Indians were deprived of their lives, their lands and their independence. The few hundred thousand survivors were then imprisoned in reservations under government guard.

Defrauding the Vanquished

Victimization of the Indians did not cease even after they had been reduced to an impotent remnant on the reservations. Lands which had not been seized by force were thereafter stolen by fraud. Through the land allotment system the Bureau of Indian Affairs generously gave a small piece of the tribal lands to each Indian, declared the remainder “surplus,” and sold or allotted it to the whites. Thus the last of the communal lands, with some exceptions, were broken up and absorbed into the system of private property and free enterprise.

The insuperable opposition between the two social systems was equally evident on the side of the Indians in their determination to preserve their established ways. There were no lack of attempts, for example, to enslave the natives. But they defended their freedom as fiercely as their lands. The Indians could not suffer servitude. Such a condition was repugnant to their habits, feelings and productive activities.

The Indian warriors resisted to the death any reversal in their status and occupations, sickened in captivity, refused to reproduce and died off. They could not be broken on the wheel of slave agriculture.

It has always been a difficult and protracted job to reshape human material moulded by one social system into the labor conditions of another, especially when this involves a degradation in status. Moreover, as the experience of the Spaniards with the Indians below the Rio Grande testifies, it is easier to transform cultivators of the soil into slaves than to subjugate hunting peoples.

The same attachment to their roving hunting life which induced the Indians to oppose enslavement led them to reject and withstand assimilation while so many other races were being mixed in the great American melting pot. The Indian tribe was indissolubly united with its home territory. The areas which provided food, clothing and shelter formed the center and circumference of their actions, emotions and thoughts. Their religious ideas and ceremonies were bound up with the places associated with their ancestors. To sever the Indians from these lands was to shatter the foundation of their lives.

The Indians either had to remain aloof from white civilization or else remake themselves from top to bottom in the image of their enemy. The latter course involved forfeiting their cherished traditions and traits and converting themselves and their children into human beings of a strange and different type. This leap across the ages could be taken by scattered individuals but not by whole, tribal communities.

The Fate of the Cherokees

Even where they attempted to absorb civilization bit by bit, the white men did not permit the Indians to avoid corruption or extinction. The Indians found that they could not borrow part of the alien culture without swallowing the rest, the evil with the good; they could not modify their communal culture with the attributes of civilization and preserve its foundations intact. The most conclusive proof was given by the fate of the Cherokees, one of the “five civilized tribes.” The Cherokees, who inhabited the Southern Alleghenies and were one of the largest tribes in the United States, went the furthest in acquiring the ways of the white man. In the early decades of the Nineteenth Century, the Cherokees transformed themselves into flourishing and skillful stock-raisers, farmers, traders and even slave-owners. They amassed considerable wealth, created an alphabet and formed a government modeled upon that of the United States.

However, they took these steps without discarding communal ownership of the lands which had been guaranteed to them forever in 1798 by the Federal government. Thus the Cherokee Nation stood out like an irritating foreign body within Southern society. The Southern whites were resolved to bring the Cherokees under the sway of private property in land and the centralized state power. Under their pressure Federal troops forced the Cherokees from their homes and deported them en masse. Their lands were distributed by lottery to the whites.

Even after the Cherokees resettled on the Indian Territory in Oklahoma, they could not keep undisturbed possession of their lands and customs. The Bureau of Indian Affairs inflicted the vicious “land allotment” system upon them whereby the tribal territories were cut into individual lots and placed upon the free market. The government changed the mode of inheritance along with the system of landholding by decreeing that property should henceforth descend through the father’s offspring instead of the mother’s.

This capped the process of despoiling the tribe of its lands and its rights and overthrowing the basic ancestral institutions of the community. Private property, patrilinear inheritance and the centralized oppressive state displaced communal property, the matriarchal family and tribal democracy. The American Ethnology Bureau reported in 1883 that the Cherokees “felt that they were, as a nation, being slowly but surely compressed within the contracting coils of the giant anaconda of civilization; yet they held to the vain hope that a spirit of justice and mercy would be born of their helpless condition which would finally prevail in their favor.”

Their hope was vain. “The giant anaconda of civilization” crushed its prey and swallowed it. By such food has American capitalism grown to its present strength and stature.


Last updated on: 6.2.2006