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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Forced Removal

Israel’s forced removal of settlers from Gaza this week invites comparison with the forced removal of Native Americans from Wisconsin 150 years ago.

In Israel, many settlers believe that they reside on traditional homelands where their ancestors lived for thousands of years. Many also believe that these lands were given to their ancestors by the creator and that they possess unique spiritual significance. For government soldiers to drive them away at gunpoint is, in many settlers’ eyes, not only unjust but sacrilegious, a profound betrayal of what their country stands for.

In Wisconsin, the federal government attempted to force Indian nations off their homelands during the first half of the 19th century. Through treaties negotiated in the face of overwhelming military force, the Menominee, Ho-Chunk, Ojibwe, Potawatomi, Sauk and Fox lost most of their ancestral lands. In 1832 the Black Hawk War proved that the American military would crush any organized Indian resistance to these treaties, and the Sauk and Fox were promptly relocated to Iowa. Between 1834 and 1842 most of the Potawatomi were removed west of the Mississippi; more than 1,000 descendants of those who refused to go now live in Forest Co. Despite the treaty of 1837, many of the Ho-Chunk also refused to leave, and officials spent the next 20 years in a vain attempt to round up resistors. In 1850, in one of the most tragic events of Wisconsin's Indian-white relations, the local government agent attempted to trick the Lake Superior Ojibwe west of the Mississippi by stranding them at Sandy Lake, Minn.; more than 10% of the Lake Superior Ojibwe perished in the journey to Sandy Lake and back. Wiser heads prevailed, however, and they were not forced to move west; under the 1854 treaty at LaPointe, permanent reservations and hunting and fishing rights were established on their homelands.

Like some Israelis, some 19th-century Americans felt that federal policy had betrayed what America stood for. Writing to Historical Society director Lyman C. Draper in 1857, after nearly two decades advocating for Indian rights in Wisconsin, missionary Cutting Marsh (1800-1873), concluded, "I am ashamed of my country."

The analogy between Israel and Wisconsin quickly breaks down, however, upon closer inspection. The current Israeli administration is moving settlers off the West Bank and Gaza to reduce conflict and create peace; the U.S. tried to move Native Americans off Wisconsin lands in order to seize them for economic development. The Israeli settlers, despite the presence of religiously motivated Zionists, have generally lived on the occupied lands for only one or two generations; the Indian nations mentioned above had all lived in Wisconsin for hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of years. And most importantly, the Israeli settlers had themselves forcefully occupied the West Bank and Gaza when Israel was created after WWII and through its expansion in the 1967 war. Some might say that perhaps a better analogy would be between the removal of the Palestinians in 1948 and the removal of Indian nations west of the Mississippi.

In the end, however, every attempt such as this to draw parallels between events widely separated by geography, time, and culture must fail. They are at best catchy generalizations that spark a little deeper thinking, and this is good. But they must be made at such a high level of abstraction that they over-simplify and obscure important facts and crucial details, which is where both our heritage and our identities reside.
:: Posted in Curiosities on August 16, 2005

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