In February, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), then the chairwoman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, wrote an impassioned letter to National Football League commissioner Roger Goodell expressing her disappointment with the league’s stance on the racist name of Washington, D.C.’s NFL team, which stands by its franchise brand, the Redskins. “For you to pretend that the name is defensible based on decade-old public opinion polling flies in the face of our constitutionally protected government-to-government relationship with tribes,” she wrote.
Rightfully, Democrats from Cantwell on up to President Barack Obama have joined in the condemnation of the team owners’ refusal to give up the offensive name.
In her letter, Cantwell letter excoriated Goodell: “It is not appropriate for this multibillion dollar 501(c)(6) tax-exempt organization to perpetuate and profit from the continued degradation of tribes and Indian people.”
Yet there is another large organization that profits from a legacy inextricably linked to the “degradation of tribes”--the Democratic Party.
On May 30, Cantwell will headline the Indiana Democratic Party’s Jefferson-Jackson Dinner.
Obama himself, along with other presidential primary contenders, addressed 9,000 people at the Iowa Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in November 2007, en route to winning the state’s first-in-the-nation caucus.
These dinners, honoring two historically significant U.S. presidents--Democratic Party founder Thomas Jefferson, and Andrew Jackson, the man whose populism helped restore the party’s popularity--most often consist of dry chicken accompanied by speeches from whichever bigwigs the organizers can rope into speaking. Nearly every state and local party in the country hosts Jefferson-Jackson events, which are typically their largest fundraisers of the year.
The dinners are only one aspect of Democrats’ celebration of Jackson’s legacy. In the television show, The West Wing, fictional Chief of Staff Leo McGarry’s mythologizing of President Jackson’s two-ton block of cheese, placed in the foyer of the White House as a way to encourage the “hungry and the voiceless” to interact with their government, made way for the current White House to host a digital Big Block of Cheese Day.
Democrats celebrate those elements of Jackson’s populism that are characterized by his war against the Second Bank of the United States and his distrust of corporations, which, even in their nascent state at the beginning of the 19th century, were already accumulating outsized political power.
But Jackson’s populism had a much darker side: his role in the genocide of Native American tribes, particularly in the South.
“The irony, of course, is that Jackson’s populism, if you will, not only powered the bank war but also Indian removal,” Harry Watson, professor of Southern culture at the University of North Carolina and author of Liberty and Power: The Politics of Jacksonian America, told me in an interview. Jackson believed, Watson said, that “by securing all this extra land from the Indians, he could make it available to white yeoman farmers and that was a way to protect their interests.”
The first major legislative achievement of Jackson’s presidency was securing the passage of the Indian Removal Act, a bill whose outcome was nothing short of ethnic cleansing. It empowered Jackson to “negotiate” with the five “civilized tribes,” the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminoles, a so-called negotiation that forced them to move west of the Mississippi River from their Eastern homelands.
The horrors of the Cherokee removal most noted in the history books are those that took place during the administration of Martin Van Buren, after prolonged resistance by the Cherokee. During this forced march from the South to present-day Oklahoma, more than a quarter of the tribe died.
But tribal removals under Jackson’s presidency were characterized by similar conditions. During the first stage of the Choctaws’ forced migration, which took place from 1831-33, nearly one-third of the 6,000 perished during the journey. Each successive stage was marred by a lack of food, shelter, and protection from the elements. “White man’s diseases” such as diphtheria and typhoid ran rampant.
Watson explained that these deaths, set in motion by the Indian Removal Act, were the result of negligence on the part of contractors hired to supervise the migration. “Nobody involved cared enough about Indian lives or welfare to make sure those contracts were fair or whether they were enforced or whether they made sure that there was enough food and clothing and fire [and] all the rest that would be necessary to keep people healthy on the trip.”
At one stage, "60 small army tents," according to Bishinik, a publication of the Choctaw Nation, were all that shielded 2,000 Choctaws from freezing temperatures. Some of the children were completely naked. The Arkansas Gazette quoted a tribal chief saying that up to that point, the migration had been a “trail of tears and death,” coining the phrase that has become shorthand for one our nation’s most troubling episodes.
More than 46,000 Native Americans experienced this horror brought about by Jackson’s brand of populism. While Jackson did not personally supervise the extermination of tribes, according to Watson, he “encouraged the atmosphere of callousness and indifference to Indian welfare that culminated in those deaths.”
Jackson “always insisted he was not an Indian hater, he just felt the presence of Indians on land that ought to be white people’s was a barrier to the development of the white country,” Watson said.
Jackson’s legacy as president is unsurprising, considering that his political career was built on the bodies of the tribes he had defeated in battle or coerced, sometimes at gunpoint, off their lands. As an officer in the Tennessee militia and the U.S. Army, he developed, according to Watson, a “strong reputation as a merciless Indian fighter.”
At the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in 1814, Jackson defeated the Red Sticks--Creeks who were engaged in a civil war against other members of their tribe. In the process, he slaughtered hundreds of men, women, and children and earned a promotion to major general. This put him in an ideal geographic position to lead his troops to New Orleans, where he repelled a British invasion, cementing his status as an American hero.
Jackson was empowered to impose treaties on the tribes he had defeated in battle, stripping them of their land. He went a step further by imposing a collective punishment on tribes that had allied with the United States but failed to stop the resistance of their fellow Indians, stripping them of their land, too.
Jacksonian populism cannot be separated from the genocidal policies of Andrew Jackson’s presidency. The Democratic Party has for too long financially profited from this despicable history. It’s time for the party’s leaders to heed their own advice to the NFL and stop profiting from the celebration of Jackson’s legacy.