In the 1830s the United States expelled Native Americans from their ancestral home in the South. This involved federal and state coercion to compel tribes to choose self exile, but finally culminated in forced deportations at bayonet point.

Framed cynically as a humanitarian effort to save Native folks from extermination due to over exposure to white man’s ways, it required “liberating” the Cherokee and other tribes of their land and relocating them in a supposed “Native Eden” west of the Mississippi; a place few planners had ever seen or could even accurately identify on a map. It was a monstrous swindle.

Southern planters had set their sights on expanding industrial cotton production onto the fertile lands belonging to native nations. The clear intention was to import slave labor, also on an industrial scale, to work the land. The connection between Native American expulsion and the expansion of slavery was clear. This speculative bonanza was financed in good measure by Northern investment bankers, and cotton produced from this venture fueled textile mills in New England.

While these Native lands were separate nations affirmed by treaties with the United States, that did not stop President Andrew Jackson from emboldening speculators and squatters to invade and illegally displace native families from their farms and take up residence. It did not stop them from despoiling the land in a mad search for gold and silver. It did not stop our government from promising, and then reneging on those promises at every turn.

What has come to be known as the Trail of Tears was, in fact, a number of forced deportations overseen with meticulous record keeping that projected a veneer of bureaucratic efficiency. Implementation was a disaster, however, revealing the underlying genocidal intent.

What part of this history is un-important? If it all seems overwhelming, is that because we have so assiduously avoided confronting the moral hazard these stories have laid before us as American citizens?

We reassured ourselves that God sanctioned our dispossession of this continent’s original stewards, and have refused to acknowledge the part that avarice played. The fact is, we stole vast tracks of Native land, and even in the 1830’s this policy was controversial. In Lincoln County, for instance, testimonials in opposition to expulsion were gathered and sent to Washington. Southerners mocked these Northern voices of dissent saying, “Look at your own history New England! You did the same thing.” And it was true. Displacement of Native peoples had been undertaken with a vengeance in our own backyard during an earlier time.

Given that we don’t want to be soiled by our own history, laws are now being passed in conservative legislatures across the country forbidding educational institutions from practices in which “any individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress on an issue related to race.” If facts are upsetting to your sensibility, there is now a way to outlaw them!

Is the truth too unsettling to bring up? How long will we cling to a “Sunnybrook Farm” rendition of our racially charged origin story? America’s challenge is reckoning with that history, but it offers us our greatest opportunity for transformation and renewal.

— Special to the Press Herald

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