I read yesterday that legislators in Tennessee are considering a proposal that would result in the termination of educators who choose to discuss “divisive concepts.” Offended students can sue public colleges and universities if students feel they have been punished for not accepting these ideas, and now, teachers can be fired when students make a second complaint.
We are seeing in Red States across the country an all-out assault on the humanities, and history in particular. Legislators and leaders in these states do not want kids to learn about the more troubling parts of their state’s past.
Take Dan Patrick, the Lieutenant Governor of the State of Texas. He proposed legislation that would eliminate tenure for all new hires in the University of Texas system, allow the state to revoke the tenure of educators who exposed their student to “Critical Race Theory.” Patrick denounced the “Loony Marxists” at UT who passed a resolution endorsing educators’ rights to teach CRT if it is relevant to the course they are teaching.
Much of this discussion has involved the subject of African slavery, and the role of the American state in supporting and defending this horrible institution. There are good reasons for this. But more than a decade ago when I lived in Houston, I remember my eighth-grade son’s homework assignment. It was a fill-in-the-blank handout that covered the 1790s. “What problems were we having,” the question read, “with the Indians?”
Wow. Who’s we?
I suspect that political leaders in Texas would be equally uncomfortable with discussions of the state’s treatment of Indigenous peoples, a subject Peter Olsen-Harbich and I write about in Native America, especially with regards to the history of the Caddos.
The number of settlers encroaching on the Caddos’ lands in the Red River valley and moving to new homes in Mexican Texas brought significant disruption in terms of land loss and the destruction of game upon which the Caddos relied. These new arrivals embraced and
nourished a style of thought that the historian Gary Clayton Anderson called “the Texas creed”: a belief that the Anglo‐Americans who settled in Mexican Territory and who squatted on Indigenous peoples’ lands were culturally, politically, and racially superior to all others and, that they were justified to employ violence to uphold white supremacy. After the United States government disestablished its factory system, independent traders overran Caddo country. The Caddos told Thomas McKenney that the traders tailed them “like wolves,” selling illegal alcohol and cheating them in trade. The arrival of emigrant Indians, driven out of the east into the Caddo country, intensified these problems: 500 Choctaws, some Kickapoos from the Midwest, a handful of Delawares, and a few Shawnees. Initially the Caddos welcomed the newcomers as allies against their Osage enemies, but as their numbers grew, augmented by a rising number of Cherokees, the Caddos felt themselves pinched.
The presence of Europeans certainly had affected Caddo culture. Many of them spoke French or Spanish or English, and they had incorporated elements of American‐style clothing into their dress. They raised chickens and hogs. They did not want to abandon their homelands. They held out until 1835. That summer, they met with Jehiel Brooks, the federal Indian agent appointed for them by Andrew Jackson. They needed food, and relief from the settlers encroaching on their lands. Brooks informed them that the United States could do little to protect them from settlers, and that the president would tolerate no resistance. With Mexico attempting to lure friendly Indians to settle in Texas, an attempt to stop the hordes of Americans illegally crossing the border into what was still Mexican territory, the Caddos made the “sorrowful resolution” to sell their lands. In exchange for payments which they received only in part, the Caddos entered into a treaty in which they ceded their lands and promised “to remove at their own expense out of the boundaries of the United States within one year.”
This is an example of the “deportation” and “expulsion” that characterized the era of “Removal” in the first half of the nineteenth century. You should definitely read Claudio Saunt’s important book on the subject if you have not.
The Texas Revolution, which began shortly after the signing of this treaty, complicated the Caddos’ removal. The Texans quickly won their independence from Mexico, a newly independent nation itself weakened in large part because of endemic Indian raiding. Large numbers of heavily armed Anglo‐American settlers in Texas led Comanches and their allies— Kiowas and others—to direct their attacks to other parts of northern Mexico. These raiders transformed the northern borders of Mexico into a zone of exploitation, from which they harvested tribute, acquired livestock, and other plunder. When Mexico’s economy collapsed under the weight of this raiding, the Comanches and their allies turned their attention eastwards toward Texas. The Lone Star Republic’s first president, Sam Houston, hoped to secure a peace with the neighboring Indigenous peoples. The Kiowas, Comanches, and Lipan Apaches, however, facing the viciousness of Texas Rangers who Houston could not control and who attacked and killed without remorse, had the ability to fight back with devastating effectiveness. To many Texans, Houston seemed weak and unable to protect them. In 1838, the Texans elected the Indian‐hating Mirabeau Lamar to replace Houston. Lamar promptly called for a war of extermination against Indigenous peoples in the republic, and his soldiers slaughtered men, women, and children. By the summer of 1839, Texan forces had burned villages belonging not only to the Caddos but to Cherokees, Shawnees, Delawares, Creeks, and Seminoles as well. Most fled into the Indian Territory, as white settlers took over their lands. It was truly vicious.
It was Lamar’s desire, he wrote, “to have the entire western country cleared of the enemy.” He openly declared his genocidal intent. Lamar reaped the whirlwind he had sown, as displaced Indigenous peoples raided Texas settlements. Kiowas and Comanches launched dozens of attacks. Some Caddo bands participated in these raids. But Kiowa, Comanche, and Caddo leaders learned Mas well that fighting the Texans could only result in death, destruction, and dispossession. Recognizing the need for unity and for peace, the Caddos welcomed the chance to return to Texas when Sam Houston once again became president. The Caddos agreed to assist Houston by serving as mediators between Texans and hostile Indians, and in return were permitted to settle on lands along the Brazos River. There they would serve as a buffer, protecting Texans from Comanches and Kiowas. When Texas became part of the United States, the federal commissioners negotiated a treaty with the Texas tribes, including the Caddos, in which the Caddos agreed to place themselves “under the protection of the United States.” Indians were a federal problem now. The Texans did little to assist the Caddos’ agent, Robert Neighbors, and began to push hard for the dispossession of the Texas Indians and their expulsion from the state. Many state residents found appealing once again the policies of extermination pursued by Mirabeau Lamar, and they accepted that chronic racial violence as the price of civilization was a vital component of the Texas creed.
The genocidal policy of “Indian Removal” devastated Indigenous peoples. As Claudio Saunt pointed out, ff the approximately 88,000 Indians the United States forced from their homes and sent west, between 12,000 and 17,000 died, or roughly between 14 and 19 percent of their total population. If we look only at those removed from the southern states, 11,000 to 14,000 died, or 17 to 22% of the total population. America could not have become America without a systematic program of Native American dispossession. And Texas could not have become Texas without genocidal warfare against Indigenous peoples.
So what to do? Federal officials, moving from the policy of removal to a new federal policy we can call “Concentration,” began to work to place Indians in the trans-Mississippi west on to reservations. The Caddos’ experience would have showed federal officials that the policy could not work. The Caddos at their new home faced frequent raids both from enemy Indians and from white Texans who coveted their lands. The Caddos respected their federal agent, Robert Neighbors, but they learned quickly that he lacked the power to protect them from alcohol vendors, white squatters, and the psychopaths who served in the Texas Rangers. Neighbors complained to Commissioner Medill in 1848 that trespasses on native land “regardless of the consequences … must necessarily and inevitably lead to serious difficulty.” Neighbors called upon the Texas government, which retained control of lands in the state, to cede a tract for the establishment of a reservation. He wanted to protect the Caddos from hostile Indians and from the Texans themselves. They had murdered dozens of Caddos, and these Indian killers hated Neighbors and all that he stood for. Only after five years of bloodshed did the Texas legislature finally heed Neighbors’ call and grant to the United States a tract “for the use and benefit of the several tribes of Indians residing within the limits of Texas.”The Caddos recognized that life on this Brazos Reservation would require of them certain changes. They began to send their children to the schools opened and operated by Neighbors, and they continued to adopt white husbandry and agriculture. Visitors to the reservation, Neighbors noted, “are astonished at the progress made by the Indians in the arts of civilized life.” In 1856, he reported that the Caddos and other Indigenous communities settled on the Brazos reserve “have neat cottages, with good gardens and fields adjacent, and the many conveniences to be seen on every hand give me abundant evidence of the progress made by the Indians since their settlement.” They had done all that the United States asked of them. By 1857, the Caddos had accumulated a “fair stock of horses, cattles, and hogs, and are paying particular attention to stock raising.” Neighbors believed that “in a few years their condition will bear comparison with our frontier citizens.” All seemed to be going well.
These changes, however, rested upon a fragile foundation. The Caddos tried to be good neighbors to the settlers living near them. According to their agent, they “held themselves ready and willing to assist in rescuing any property stolen from the citizens on this frontier by the roving bands of hostile Indians.” Caddo men accompanied Texas Rangers and federal troops in raids against the Comanches, for instance, whose attacks terrified Texas settlers. The most perceptive Texas authorities recognized the importance of the Caddos’ assistance, but settlers in the vicinity of the Brazos reserve inclined to place the blame for the attacks upon all Indians, whether friendly or not.
In late December of 1858, a group of Texas frontiersmen fired on a group of Caddos. Three women and four men died. Ten more received serious wounds. After telling their story, some of the survivors fled from the reservation. Authorities in Texas did nothing to bring the killers to justice. Despite the efforts of federal authorities who, in Neighbors’ case especially, advocated for the Caddos, there seemed nothing that the United States could do to protect them. Neighbors received orders to remove the Caddos to “where they can be protected from lawless violence, and effective measures adopted for their domestication and improvement.” That meant leaving Texas. Neighbors guided the Caddos to new homes north of the Red River and advertised the abandonment of the Brazos reserve in local newspapers— white settlers need not do anything rash, he suggested, for the Indians were leaving. The settlers could have the land. In August of 1859 Neighbors wrote to his wife, informing her that “I have this day crossed all the Indians out of the heathen land of Texas, and am now out of the land of the Philistines.”
This removal, like all removals, was difficult. Kiowa and Comanche raiders haunted the removing party, stealing their horses and cattle. The degree to which the Caddos had incorporated elements of American culture made them an inviting target. Extreme heat and inadequate supplies of water created great discomfort and concern. Still, Neighbors was careful; only six Indians died. He managed to guide them safely to their new homes at the Wichita Agency in the Indian Territory. The reservation experiment in Texas had failed. Local whites would not tolerate an Indian presence close to home, whether friendly or not. After the Caddos departed, Neighbors became the last casualty of the removal. As he returned home to Texas in September of 1859 to settle his affairs, an angry frontiersman who had suffered in Comanche raids stepped out from behind a building and shot Neighbors in the back. His friends did not dare to move his body until night fell, for they feared repercussions. Texans hated “Indian Lovers.”
The history of Texas is not unique. The American states took their shape through campaigns of Native American dispossession. This process took place with treaties and at the point of the gun. It was often characterized by incredible racist violence. That violence, that history, is precisely the sort of material that makes so many history-hating Republican politicians so worried that they are encouraging their colleagues to enact legislation proscribing accurate accountings of the American past. Leaders like Patrick lack the stones to engage in debate. They offer no alternative interpretation or evidence to explain why our views are wrong. Men as angry as they are feeble-minded, as tyrannical as they are truly powerless, they will ruin some teachers’ lives, and breed cynicism in another generation of school kids. But what they fail to realize that the barn door was left open long ago, that historians are doing great work and will continue to do so despite their quixotic campaigns of repression. We must resist them. We must ask them to explain, in detail, why they find our interpretations of the past dangerous or wrong. And we must ask them to talk about the evidence to support their views. The Right Wing assault on history and history-teaching has gone on long enough. Patrick’s approach, as someone I admired greatly would have said, is “chicken shit.” Let’s show them how wrong they are.