Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Challenges of the "Indian Problem" for Andrew Jackson... and for History Teachers



Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.

— African proverb



There is nothing quite like the proverb above to bring to the forefront the "problem" of how to teach Indian history in a U.S. history course. The term, "the Indian Problem" is used to describe the difficulties faced by the U.S. goverment (inherited from the colonial era) in dealing with the conflicts between Native Americans on the one hand, and white Americans on the other, particularly on the frontier. But I have always had an "Indian Problem" of my own when trying to responsibly incorporate American Indian history into the U.S. history curriculum.
"Andrew Jackson as the Great Father"
Let us first be clear, that what I am talking about is how to fit Indians into the "mainstream" story of the political history of the United States. That's where we first see the irony of the above proverb. Most U.S. history teachers do not teach much, if anything, about Native Americans themselves. Neither the diversity of Indian groups, nor their individual cultures are typically examined. Even the fact that we refer to the people as "Indians" or "Native Americans" belies a Eurocentric approach. We only talk about specific peoples when they are in direct conflict with white Americans. The Pequot, the Seminole, the Creeks, the Cherokee, the Sioux, the Iroquois, the Sauk, the Nez Perce, the Cheyenne--all these names are familiar to us because they have been on the losing side of the long, painful story of Indians in the United States. And we usually teach these topics from the perspective of white Americans.

It may be instructive to compare the challenges of teaching about race and the place of African Americans in U.S. history to that of Native Americans. As a teacher and a student, the problem of slavery is, in a weird and ironic way, easier to wrestle with because we know that--no matter what problems still exist surrounding racial equality for blacks--at least slavery has been abolished. So even when we have to encounter the brutality of slavery and Jim Crow, we can feel better because we know that slavery will be abolished and legal segregation will end. But the story of Native Americans has a much different outcome. And the most challenging part, I think, is that even when students register emotions of empathy with Indians, and outrage over U.S. policy, none of them are advocating that Georgia "give back" land to the Cherokee. We are moved by Chief Joseph's poignant speech in which he says he will fight no more forever. But no one is suggesting the Pacific Northwest be returned to the Nez Perce.

So I find the proverb above somewhat discomfiting. There really is no way around the fact that the success of the United States resulted in the significant defeat and decimation of Native Americans. I am not leaping to the inaccurate conclusion that Indians do not still exist. Bringing the story up to the present is important. And, depending on where you live and who your students are, you may have Native Americans in your class. Those of us who live and work in communities with significant Indian populations will have unique issues to address. But I have found that even in the Chicago area where Indians are not nearly as visible as they were when I taught in Wisconsin, students still have questions about things like Indian-run casinos and reservations today.

So, keeping all of the above in mind, how would one go about teaching the history of Indian Removal and the policies of Andrew Jackson?

There are quite a few lesson plans and ideas out there in the internet. Some approaches try to get students to see things from the perspective of the Indians, some from the perspective of Jackson, some from both. I like to focus on the perspective of Jackson and conclude with looking at the effects from the perspective of the Indians, recognizing that my approach does put more emphasis on the perspective of the winners.

My operating premise for the lesson includes the following key ideas:
  1. President Jackson's views must be understood in the context of the time in which he lived. 
  2. Jackson's views were complicated. It is not simply a matter of being anti-Indian or sympathetic to Indians.
  3. His choices were circumscribed by a variety of factors, leading to #4 below.
  4. At the end of the day, the U.S. was in a position of making a bad choice for the Indians and a worse choice. In other words, given the 200 plus years of history preceding, there was not going to be an option that would be ideal for the Indians who were removed. 
Each of the four points above inform my approach, but I do not share these with students all at once, particularly the last two. The last two should be understood by students as a result of the lesson, not up front. And I admit, up front, that this lesson presents a definite point of view: that removal was Jackson's only viable choice. (I do NOT, however, try to argue that this was the morally correct choice.) Despite the flaws of this approach, I think it helps students understand a key point about history: that choices made in the past have consequences for the future. I like to emphasize that point at the end of the lesson.

This is how I have taught Indian removal (in one 80 minute lesson when I taught on a block, or 2 periods if not):

Part I: Students need some background information, which could take the form of a reading they do in advance, a reading in class, a brief lecture, or a film clip. Some of the things that should be included in this background are listed below. You could spend forever on these points, or 5-10 minutes. Opt for 5-10 minutes.

  • background or reminders about previous white/Indian encounters - Blackhawk war, Seminole wars, and in general what has happened to Indians in North America?
  • westward expansion, particularly in the South after the invention of the cotton gin. (I once employed a little "fun and games" at the beginning of class, using a "mystery box." Students had 20 questions to ask to figure out what was in the box (a ball of cotton with seeds). Their only clue was it had something to do with a lesson from earlier in the week that connected to today's lesson on Indian Removal). Trying to figure out the connection was a good "aha" moment for students.
  • background on Andrew Jackson's previous encounters with Indians, e.g. Seminole wars
  • background on the situation in Georgia with the Cherokee.
Part II: Go over 4 options that Jackson had for dealing with the problem with the Cherokee in Georgia. Again, this can be done briefly--5-10 minutes. Or can be handled with a brief handout given in advance; perhaps students come into class already having picked one? Or can have brief descriptions that students read in class. Another alternative that I have not tried, would be to simply put students into groups and see if they could come up with options on their own. 
  1. Assimilation of Indians into white society: the federal government could commit to a policy of integrating Indians into white society. Setting up schools, breaking up tribal arrangements, etc. (This, of course, will become a later policy in the 1880s).
  2. Destruction of Indians: This option could take one of two forms. One, some Americans clearly supported outright war with Indians and saw deliberate extermination of the Indian population as a viable option. But destruction could also result from a policy of not doing anything. If the state or federal government did nothing, aggressive white settlers might take matters into their own hands. If there are 100,000 Indians and 13 million white settlers....
  3. Protection: The federal government could send the military to protect Indians on their land against white settlers. (At some point, you might want to mention to students what was going on in South Carolina with the nullifcation/tariff issue and why Jackson would not want to try this approach at this time. This raises another key point about history: sometimes certain choices are not viable because of unrelated issues that are going on at the same time. The great example of this, of course, is what might have happened to Lyndon B. Johnson's "Great Society" and the Civil Rights Movement had the nation not been faced with Vietnam at the same time.)
  4. Removal: Move the Indians onto land that was not wanted by white settlers.
Part III: Students choose which option they think Jackson should choose. This can be done either by having students physically get up and go to a corner of the room representing their choice (label each corner with a sheet of paper).  Or students can get up and post a sticky note with their name on it on one of 4 pieces of paper labeled with the choice (either in a corner or on the board at the front). Either way, students get to stand up and move around for a second. 

And here again, you have choices. Students can spend time with others who agree, and come up with some arguments. You can divide groups into subgroups. In their groups, students can first discuss with each other the rationale for their decision. You could also give students some of the primary sources given below to work with during this part of the lesson, asking them to use the documents as support for their position, or to come up with arguments against the ones in the documents. (See the links from Digital History, below).

You can, and probably should, lead a whole class discussion. Whatever you decide, I think it's important to emphasize some of the lessons of history I have highlighted above.  For example, if protecting the Indians in Georgia meant risking rebellion of the state of Georgia against the United States (thinking about the nullification crisis in South Carolina), how would that influence Jackson's decision. You could also discuss whether or not the thesis I have proposed is accurate: was the option that Jackson actually chose a choice between "a bad choice and a worse choice?" And when we--students today--evaluate this decision, do we evaluate it in the context of the times, or with the knowledge of the aftermath (Part IV below) or the morality?

Part IV: I don't think you should ever teach a lesson on Indian removal without providing students with the perspectives of those who experienced it. You will find excellent resources that describe what the Trail of Tears was like at the Digital History website (more from this website below). You can find another good account from the Cherokee perspective at the very last page of this pdf lesson (there are some other good ideas and resources, but the beginning of the lesson asks students to think about what home means to them and what they would take with them if they had to suddenly leave and that really rubs me the wrong way, as I explained at the beginning of this earlier post.) And you might--depending on how you time everything--try to put this part of the lesson in before you discuss some of the issues I mentioned in Part III, above.

And one final thought....I've always liked to use this quotation, attributed to a colonel from Georgia (sorry I can't find the source):
"I fought through the Civil War and have seen men shot to pieces and slaughtered by the thousands. But the Cherokee removal was the cruelest work I ever knew."
I might use this quotation as a conclusion and ask students whether or not anything could have been done to prevent this tragedy. It occurs to me that while there may be a depressing inevitability about the decision to remove the Cherokee, the way it was handled-- the Trail of Tears--was not inevitable. And so even if Jackson was caught between a rock and a hard place, his way out might have been handled with greater attention to the way in which that removal was carried out.  

Below are some additional resources:
  • Listen to the segment about the Trail of Tears in a recent podcast from BackStory Radio with the American History Guys.  In it, Jackson's removal policy is discussed in the context of the history of American interventions for humanitarian purposes. It considers the fact that Jackson himself thought he was doing the right thing in order to save the Indians. Jackson was well aware that many of the Indians that were not removed (i.e. from the Northeast) no longer existed. Daniel Feller, a historian and Andrew Jackson scholar at the University of Tennessee makes the intriguing point that humanitarianism is in the eye of the beholder. He says, "One person's humanitarianism is another's cultural genocide." What an interesting perspective to revisit when you teach about the reservation schools and the policies of the 1880s!
  • See the Digital History Project for additional primary sources and teaching activities related to Indian Removal. They include some excellent political cartoons (including the one below), excerpts from Jackson's speeches about his policy, and a letter from Cherokee Chief John Ross. There are also other pages that will direct you to resources on past Indian policies of Jefferson, Monroe, and how the Cherokees were quite acculturated to American society. Also, see here for their "teacher-ready" excerpt to use with students that includes 4 short documents (1 from Jackson, 1 from Cherokees, 1 from John Marshall's Supreme Court decision and 1 from the governor of Georgia). Using some of these resources in Part III of the lesson I have suggested above will make your lesson longer, but richer.



  • I am quite aware that most of my above lesson ideas revolve around the perspective of whites and the U.S. government. For more information about how the Cherokees responded, click here for the Digital History's collection about resistance to removal from the Cherokees.
  • Other lesson ideas and resources can be found here.
  • Worried that you are not using the Common Core standards? Worry no more: standards numbers 6, 7, 8 and 9 can all be easily incorporated into this lesson. (The link I've included is to the 9-10th grade standards, but similar ones exist for 6-8th grades and 11-12th).

Here are a few books that might be useful. I have not read the first three, but decided to go ahead and list them anyway:
And ones that I have read:

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