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The American Revolution and the subsequent creation of the American nation are historically regarded as the first milestones in the fight against European imperialism. While this is true in many respects (e.g. rebalancing power of power in Europe, integration of ethnically-diverse populations under one flag, etc.), the Revolutionary War and the subsequent creation of the American state had adversely impacted Indian nations politically, economically, and socially. On the political side, the continued westward expansion of the American state brought it into conflict with Indian nations, resulting to the decimation of many communities and the massive transfer of political power from the hinterlands to Washington. On the economic side, the subsequent creation and expansion of the American state, mainly as a result of conquest, resulted to a massive restructuring of economic relations in the hinterlands – a euphemism for the economic exploitation of Native American communities through war, physical intimidation, coercion, and legal disenfranchisement. In essence, the overall impact of the American Revolution and the subsequent creation of the American state on Native American history, culture, and society had been extremely negative, due to the reasons cited above.
The creation of the American state underscores the colonial process from which it was also its by-product. Prior to the Revolutionary War, Indian nations interacted with European powers for a variety of purpose – trade of essential goods, realigning tribal boundaries, military diplomacy, etc. Indian nations were politically fragmented entities that were autonomous, mature (in the sense that they possessed their own political structures), and familial. British and French diplomatic missions often emphasized the inherent right of these nations as sovereign entities (and thus entitled to treaties). Nothing much changed during the formative years of the American state, except that it continued to interact with Indian nations on a regular basis.
With America’s continued drive westward, Indian nations were no longer viewed as sovereign entities but as local autonomous tribal bodies, whose destiny was to become part and parcel of the fledgling American state. American negotiators emphasized the American state’s superlative status as a pluralist nation as basis for continued expansion westward (dubbed as “Manifest Destiny”). In one way or another, this sharply demonstrates the power imbalance between the United States and the Indian Nations. In the words of historian Amanda Cobb, “the American nation-state is so powerful, so hegemonic, that its cloak of sovereignty becomes invisible”. Of course, this was greatly aided by America’s relative superiority in armaments and international political clout. Territorial negotiations with hostile Indian nations were often messy affairs that almost always required direct military intervention. Naturally, the threat of force was implied, and many tribes were obliged to ratify unequal treaties to avoid violence; the alternative being war. The continued incursion of the American state into previously Indian-held territories forced Indian nations to “constantly endeavor to exercise their sovereignty ‘under negotiation with states, in federal courts, and with the Congress of the United States’”. By doing so (as a result of force majeure), Indian nations had practically surrendered their sovereignty to the all-powerful American state. It is in this respect that sovereignty, understood as the power to make laws, was lost. Thus, in this particular context, Indian nations were no longer sovereigns but wards – the nation to tribe, the treaty to agreement – a testament to the systematic destruction of Indian nations as autonomous and sovereign political entities.
On the economic side, American expansionism brought untold horrors and suffering to Native American tribes. Tribal lands were appropriate, and entire villages were razed and transferred to reserves. Contact with early settlers brought diseases and epidemics to tribal communities. By 1890, census reported that there were fewer than 300,000 Indians in the US. During the last Indian War, American troops sometimes killed with extreme impunity. Some say that it would be superfluous to argue that the American state actively appropriated tribal lands for commercial purposes. But it did actually happen. Many of the joint ventures by the federal government and big commercial enterprises were directed primarily at supposedly “idle” lands communally owned by tribal communities. The overarching belief was that Native Americans were backward, lazy, and unambitious. Such lands would be much more “productive” if managed or supervised by either a federal commission or private leases.
Such was the economic catastrophe that Indian nations suffered that a large proportion of Native Americans today are considered poor. The economic injustices committed by the federal government were narrated by Pokagon in his speech at Chicago’s World Fair in 1893. According to him, many of the “modern” achievements of the American state were built on the blood of a once jovial nation. Some of the cities trumpeting the achievements of 19th century America were built from the “red man’s wigwams and forests of untold centuries”. The materialism of the West was inherently driven by its excessiveness and wanton disregard for nature. The fact of the matter was that America’s economic success was built on the pain and suffering of Indian nations. To add insult, the American state destroyed “the graves of our dead as of no account and make a field of grain of our Indian sepulchre”.
On the social side, the American state actively promoted an assimilationist policy intended to wipe out traces of Native American culture and society. This policy included initiatives encouraging individual Native Americans to farm, send their children to school, and convert to Christianity through evangelical missions. In boarding schools, for example, Native American children would be taught the essentials of the English language and the “ways of the white race”. The expectation was that this “progressive” assimilationist policy would oblige Native Americans to abandon their roots and become integrated to mainstream society. Although this policy failed, an untold number of Native American artifacts, cultural practices, and artistic imageries had been lost as a result. As O’Brien puts it, “civilization does not seem to agree with the Indians’ nature, as they die out where that flourishes, or become vagrants in towns and villages, where their forefathers roamed and hunted”.
In conclusion, the overall impact of the American Revolution and the subsequent creation of the American state on Native American history, culture, and society had been extremely negative. America’s westward push not only diminished the status of Indian nations from “sovereign” to autonomous entities, it also resulted to the widespread appropriation of tribal lands, the destruction of entire tribal communities, and the wholesale obliteration of Native American art and culture (to varying degrees of success).
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