As the Huron Sachem is made to say in a Hollywood film, “The white man came, and night entered our future with him.” The Huron leader’s tone is fatalistic: he knows his world has been changed forever. Among the Dakota of Minnesota, Little Crow knew this as well. Gary C. Anderson notes in his biography of the Mdewakanton leader that his “understanding of the nature of the Indian-White relationship was far superior to that of his contemporaries.” As a result, he pursued accommodation, not war. As he told his people when the first shots had been fired, they could not win: “you will die like rabbits when the hungry wolves hunt them in the Hard Moon.”
Accommodation not only landed him on a reservation, it landed him in a war. Yet Brian Fischer would have us believe that the Native Americans refused accommodation with the whites. He claims that “the native American tribes ultimately resisted the appeal of Christian Europeans to leave behind their superstition and occult practices for the light of Christianity and civilization.” He goes on to assert that “they in the end resisted every attempt to ‘Christianize the Savages of the Wilderness,’ to use George Washington’s phrase.”
Let’s do something Fischer won’t, and look at some facts.
In 1838 Commissioner of Indian Affairs T. Hartley Crawford observed the Native American and concluded that the major impediment to “civilization” was their culture itself; specifically, the ownership of land in common. “Unless some system is marked out by which there shall be a separate allotment of land to each individual whom the scheme shall entitle to it, you will look in vain for any general casting off of savagism. Common property and civilization cannot co-exist.” The Dakota had no concept of individual ownership of land. The idea was completely foreign to them and as long as tribal and band affiliations existed, the government could not successfully impose the idea of individuals owning specific tracts of land.
On 6 February 1851, before the treaties of Traverse des Sioux and Mendota had ceded to the United States the Dakota lands that would become Minnesota, Territorial Governor Alexander Ramsey reported the recommendations of a meeting of the Dakota Mission held the previous year at Little Crow’s village, Kaposia:
We regard the Community System among the Dakotas as one of the most serious obstacles in the way of this civilization. And we would suggest that, in case of a treaty with them, arrangements should be entered into which will at present diminish its influence, and finally break it up entirely. For the accomplishment of this object individual rights should be secured and extended as far and as fast as possible.
To Luke Lea, the recipient of these recommendations, Ramsey stated that this was the view of men “who have long lived in the Indian Country, become familiar with the defects of the institutions of the Red man, and who certainly are disinterestedly devoted to the moral and material improvement of the Indian.” Ramsey and Lea, in their post-treaty report of 6 August 1851, continued the anti-Community System bias, saying it “is now the bane and curse of these tribes.”
It wasn’t really. It had worked just fine for the Indians before the white men came. But the white men were here change was upon the natives whether they wanted it or not.
The reservation system was the method adopted by the government of accomplishing this change, which essentially, meant turning the Native American population into whites, or as Northern Superintendent William J. Cullen said in his 1860 report, to make them “as part of our own people.” Cullen says “the means adopted to sustain this policy are:
First. Making their agricultural system one of individual, instead of tribal character.
Second. By inducing a voluntary abandonment of their nationality in dress costume.
Third. Furnishing them with houses and the comforts of civilized life.
Fourth. Protection by the government of those who assume the character of improvement Indians from all attacks upon their persons and property.
Fifth. Punishing by loss of annuities those who leave their reservations for the commission of depredations upon the white settlers, or to enter the war path against other tribes.
Sixth. By making intoxication an offense punishable by the loss of annuity and degradation from prominent position in the community.
Indian Agent Thomas J. Galbraith (who must be Bryan Fischer’s personal hero) succinctly explains the perceived differences between white and Indian: “To be clear, the habits and customs of white men are at war with the habits and customs of the Indians. The former are civilization, industry, thrift, economy; the latter, idleness, superstition, and barbarism…”
What did this mean to the indigenous inhabitants? The utter destruction of Dakota culture was essential if the reservation system was to succeed in its goal: The community system practiced by the Dakota had to go. George W. Manypenny, commissioner from 1853-57, objected to the tribes retaining land as reservations and believed individual holdings were essential if the civilizing process were to succeed. Missionary Stephen R. Riggs supported the idea: “(T)hey should be individualized and encouraged to be industrious. First, the community system should not be fostered by the payment of any part of their annuity to the villages or bands…“ The result otherwise would be (here he sounds a lot like Galbraith) the fostering of “idleness and paganism.” Riggs’ fellow missionary, Thomas S. Williamson, echoes his view: “I entirely concur with Rev. S.R. Riggs…in regard to the importance of doing all the government can do to break up the community system.”
Commissioner Manypenny was not optimistic about the Indians’ chances. He believed that the Native American was bound for extinction:
But if this be so, it does not discharge the government of the United States and its citizens from the performance of their duty; and every effort is demanded by humanity to avert a calamity of this kind.
But it did not have to be this way, if proper efforts were made to save him:
I believe that the Indian may be domesticated, improved, and elevated; that he may be completely and thoroughly civilized, and made a useful element of our population.
Clearly then, given a “complete and thorough civilizing,” relocation to the reservations meant an irrevocable severing of their pasts and destruction of their culture. And while John Upton Terrel’s characterization of the reservations as “concentration camps” is extreme, there is no doubt that life there was doleful and hard.
That culture shock of an extreme nature resulted is easily imagined. From being self-sufficient and independent, able to go wherever and whenever they desired, the Dakota found themselves isolated from the bison herds and tied to the land in a way many of them had never imagined. They became farmers, and shopped at the traders’ stores instead of hunting and trapping. They subsisted on what was in many ways a welfare system.
Though the annuities represented their money, they had no control over it. The “Great Father” doled it out as he saw fit, withholding and deducting at will and explaining nothing. Historian Robert M. Utley believes that the resistance of the Native Americans was directed against the reservation, not against the white interlopers, with whom they had shown they could live at peace.
Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer, popularly considered the archenemy of the free Indian, had this to say about the reservation system:
If I were an Indian, I often think that I would greatly prefer to cast my lot among those of my people who adhered to the free open plains, rather than submit to the confined limits of a reservation, there to be the recipient of the blessed benefits of civilization with its vices thrown in without stint or measure.
Custer was not alone among frontier officers in feeling this way. Many of them had a great admiration, borne of long contact, for their opponents. Colonel Henry B. Carrington, commanding officer of Ft. Phil Kearney and famous for his role in the Fetterman Massacre of 1866, relates that he once said, “in an extreme hour, when all I held dear on earth was in danger of self-immolation, or slow death at the hands of the red man, that if I had been a red man as I was a white man, I should have fought as bitterly, if not as brutally, as the Indians fought.”
In the preface to his book, Carrington gives the lie to Fischer’s assertions: He cites the 1876 report of Generals Sherman, Harney, Terry and Augur, and civilians Henderson, Terry and Sanborn: “It is said that our wars with them have been almost constant. Have we been uniformly unjust? We answer, emphatically, yes.”
This is the first article in a three-part series detailing Bryan Fischer’s delusions regarding the white treatment of Native Americans – HH
 U.S. Office of Indian Affairs, Letters Received (hereafter cited as “Letters Received“), letter of Alexander Ramsey to Luke Lea, 6 February 1851. The idea of introducing private ownership of land to the Native American was not new. The first Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Elbert Herring, had suggested it in 1832. See Prucha, Documents of United States Indian Policy (Lincoln, 1990), 63.
 RCIA (1853), 78. Report of S.R. Riggs. Italics in original, and page 77 for the report of Thomas S. Williamson. For Manypenny, see Kvasnicka and Viola, ed. The Commissioners of Indian Affairs (Lincoln, 1979), 59. Also, Federal Indian Law (New York, 1966), 227.
 John Upton Terrel, Land Grab: The Truth about “The Winning of the West (New York, 1972), 33. Terrel is justified in his criticism of the reservation system, but the intent, however misguided, was not to exterminate, or even to imprison. As seen in this section, the hope was that the reservation would act as a sieve, dropping Native Americans in one end and having Europeans come out the other.
 Cited in Robert Utley, Cavalier in Buckskin (Norman, 1988), 149. The Native American was no more a “simple-minded son of nature” as seen by many, than a “creature possessing human form but divested of all other attributes of humanity.” Custer did not, however, have any doubt about the eventual fate of these people, or in the rightness of that course.