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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Overdue Apology

Last week the U.S. Senate apologized for the federal government's treatment of Native Americans over the last two centuries. In its apology, the Senate said it "recognizes that there have been years of official depredations, ill-conceived policies, and the breaking of covenants by the Federal Government regarding Indian tribes." It officially apologized "on behalf of the people of the United States to all Native Peoples for the many instances of violence, maltreatment, and neglect inflicted on Native Peoples by citizens of the United States."*

Perhaps it's not odd that Wisconsin history should have its share of actions to be regretted and atoned for. It is certainly odd that they are not better known to our state's residents.

Even before the U.S. was born, the French attempted genocide against the Mesquakie and British traders intentionally spread smallpox among the Lake Superior Ojibwe. Once the U.S. took control of Wisconsin, white settlers illegally seized Ho-Chunk lands in modern Grant and Lafayette counties. Among them was Henry Dodge, who would go on to be our first territorial governor.

In 1832, matters came to a head in the Black Hawk War, during which thousands of U.S. Army and local militia drove a few hundred Sauk and Fox Indians out of their village in northern Illinois and into Wisconsin. Ignoring white flags of surrender, the U.S. troops chased the Sauk and Fox up the Rock River, through Madison, across Crawford Co., and finally to the banks of the Mississippi in Vernon Co, where most of the Indians who had not already perished en route were systematically massacred at Bad Axe.

Seeing the futility of resistance, other native peoples who had lived here for centuries (or millennia) relinquished their homelands in treaties signed after the Bad Axe massacre. The government pushed some further west but others refused to go: many Ho-Chunk lived on the run for decades, and a community of Potatwatomi took refuge in remote Forest County, where they still live today. When the government negotiator proposed that the Menominee move to Minnesota because it was more fertile, they responded by saying, "Why don't he go himself and live in such a fine country, where there is an abundance of everything?"

Legally binding treaties did not prevent the U.S. from further violence. In the winter of 1850, for example, officials tried to strand the assembled Ojibwe communities west of the Mississippi without food or shelter in what became memorialized as the Sandy Lake Tragedy. Examples of such "violence, maltreatment, and neglect" would go on well into our own times.

Most early white settlers probably feared and denigrated their Indian neighbors, and felt their treatment by the government was a tragic but inevitable consequence of civilization's "progress." There are also, however, many examples of mutual respect and friendly cooperation between Indians and fur traders, settlers, early miners, loggers, and even soldiers, and at least a few pioneers were shocked at the government's behavior.

Steamboat pilot George Merrick knew many Sioux and Ojibwe Indians during the 1850s and 1860s. "They saw the whites steadily encroaching upon their hunting grounds," he wrote, "appropriating the best to their own use, ravishing their women, killing their men, and poisoning whole tribes with their 'fire-water'. Against their wills they were driven from their ancient homes — 'removed', was the word — after having been tricked into signing treaties that they did not understand, couched in legal terms that they could not comprehend, receiving in exchange for their lands a lot of worthless bric-a-brac that vanished in a week. If they protested or resisted, they were shot down like so many wolves, and with as little mercy. What man is there among the whites who would not fight under such circumstances? Our forefathers fought under less provocation and their cause has been adjudged a righteous cause."

And after spending two decades advocating for the Mohican Indians who came to Stockbridge, Wis., around 1830, the Rev. Cutting Marsh was even more critical: "I cannot review the scenes with which I have been conversant, and the whole history of the transactions of Government agents with the New York Indians, as they have related them, time and again, without the deepest pain. I am ashamed of my country; I would fain draw the veil of eternal oblivion over them, if I could."

Rather than continuing to hide our tragic history behind a veil, the Senate last week chose to apologize.

* The apology is an amendment to the Indian Health Care Improvement Act Reauthorization Bill (S. 1200) which passed on March 26, 2008, by an 83-10 vote. Its full text starts on page 417 of this official version of S.1200.

:: Posted in on March 2, 2008

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