Remember the Removal: Young Cherokees are retracing the forced removal of their ancestors from their homelands in the United States, offering a message of resilience on the 180th anniversary of the Trail of Tears. Photo: Remember the Removal Bike Ride

Native Sun News Today: The true history of the Indian Removal Act

1830 Indian Removal Act: a national shame

Ten thousand people died on the Trail of Tears
By James Giago Davies
Native Sun News Today Correspondent

RAPID CITY— Every president delivers a State of the Union address, and on December 8, 1829, Andrew Jackson gave his, and featured prominently in that address, was the fate of the Five Civilized Tribes (Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole).

Portrayed by history as an enemy of the Indian, it is difficult to accurately assess Jackson’s actual feelings on the matter, given the distortion inevitable with the passage of 188 years of complicated history, but like many politicians, he knew where and when to present his case with conciliatory language, and when to brashly lay his true intentions bare.

“…I informed the Indians inhabiting parts of Georgia and Alabama that their attempt to establish an independent government would not be countenanced by the Executive of the United States,” Jackson said in his State of the Union, “and advised them to emigrate beyond the Mississippi or submit to the laws of those States.”

Lost in most accounts of that time, is the humane rationale Jackson asserted as the basis for Indian removal from the conflicted areas. His State of the Union focused on tribal attempts to establish sovereign nations within the confines of the United States, and within the confines of a specific state.

“A portion, however, of the Southern tribes, having mingled much with the whites and made some progress in the arts of civilized life, have lately attempted to erect an independent government within the limits of Georgia and Alabama. These States, claiming to be the only sovereigns within their territories, extended their laws over the Indians, which induced the latter to call upon the United States for protection.”

The Trail of Tears historical marker along US-70S, on the eastern edge of Woodbury, Tennessee. Photo: J. Stephen Conn

It appears the Cherokee had been too successful at adopting white ways, while still remaining Cherokee, and had asked for federal protection from the state backlash.

“Surrounded by the whites with their arts of civilization,” Jackson said, “which by destroying the resources of the savage, doom him to weakness and decay, the fate of the Mohegan, the Narragansett, and the Delaware is fast over-taking the Choctaw, the Cherokee, and the Creek.”

A tribe, then, unwilling to adopt the arts of white civilization, by Jackson’s rationale, was doomed, but a tribe that did adopt the arts of white civilization and refused to surrender tribal identity and sovereignty, was equally doomed.

By acknowledging this “savage doom” for other tribes, Jackson used it as pretext for humanely protecting the Five Civilized Tribes from same: “That this fate surely awaits them if they remain within the limits of the States does not admit of a doubt. Humanity and national honor demand that every effort should be made to avert so great a calamity.”

Jackson does argue that a sovereign Indian nation cannot exist within the borders of a sovereign state, and history indicates this was his actual intent, to destroy any attempt by any tribe to establish a sovereign presence independent of state jurisdiction (especially one replete with a tribal government and constitution, and a viable tribally created economy, which the Cherokee had).

But he shrewdly packages this imperative as a logical consequence of a compassionate concern for the fate of these tribes, given the culture crushing pressure government endorsed white encroachment was sure to produce: “Our conduct toward these people is deeply interesting to our national character. Their present condition, contrasted with what they once were, makes a most powerful appeal to our sympathies. Our ancestors found them the uncontrolled possessors of these vast regions. By persuasion and force they have been made to retire from river to river and from mountain to mountain, until some of the tribes have become extinct and others have left but remnants to preserve for a while their once terrible names.”

In short, Jackson argued these tribes had to be removed west for their own good. Jackson had a description of what awaited them out west: “…I suggest for your consideration the propriety of setting apart an ample district west of the Mississippi, and without the limits of any State or Territory now formed, to be guaranteed to the Indian tribes as long as they shall occupy it, each tribe having a distinct control over the portion designated for its use. There they may be secured in the enjoyment of governments of their own choice, subject to no other control from the United States than such as may be necessary to preserve peace on the frontier and between the several tribes.”


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James Giago Davies is an enrolled member of the Oglala Lakota tribe. He can be reached at

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