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Saturday, August 15, 2015
History ...

Over the past year or two, race relationships have become a big political topic in the US once again. This is not an entirely good thing, given that the issue has been brought back from the 1960s because of a series of recent police killings of unarmed black men and women. Hopefully, something good can still come out of it, just as the the Civil Rights movements of the 1960s helped to change and reduce some of the many injustices against blacks (some but not all, unfortunately) that were embedded in American government and society up to them.

One interesting side-effect is that certain writers are taking a new look at the historical components that have contributed to the vexed and unsettled issues of race and equality today. One of the biggest historical institutions that still today affects how we get along is slavery. History has a lot of lessons to teach about slavery, both big and small. Let me share something I just came across, one of the smaller stories about slavery in America.

American slavery is usually thought of in the context of a rich white landowner of European heritage using African slaves for agricultural labor, i.e. planting and harvesting cash crops like peanuts, cotton and tobacco (and doing so in quite a cruel fashion). Interestingly, not all African slaves were owned and used by Europeans. In the southern states prior to 1830, there were five Indian tribes with highly organized governmental and agricultural networks. These were called the “Five Civilized Tribes” by the European settlers.

Many of the whites coming over from England, France, Spain, etc. were impressed by the fact that these tribes had formal governments with written constitutions, along with large towns and villages, a public school system, European-style buildings, and various other social customs that made them and their lifestyles somewhat similar to what the colonizers were used to. The “civilized tribes” had been sympathetic to earlier Christian missionaries from Europe, and Christian churches became fairly common on their lands in the South. So, the new settlers complemented these tribes (which included the Cherokees and Seminoles), by calling them “civilized”.

Interestingly, one of the factors that made them “civilized” was the fact that they owned and used African slaves on their farms. They picked up this “civilized” habit from the white man, as the Natives had no access to Atlantic trade before the 1700s. However, before the Euro-colonization of America started, Indian tribes sometimes enslaved Natives from other tribes, especially after a battle (where the losers were forced into slavery). So, once the whites expanded the slavery possibilities, the Natives (some of them, anyway, i.e. the more “civilized” ones) had no problem signing up for it.

Of course, this all came crashing to an end around 1830, when Congress passed the Indian Removal Act allowing Andy Jackson to start shipping most of the eastern tribes out to the Oklahoma badlands. Interestingly, Jackson helped to jumpstart the process; by 1830, the state of Georgia had already began to force out the “civilized tribes”, on its own authority. The Cherokee tribes brought a federal court case which went to the US Supreme Court,; the Big Court ruled that Georgia didn’t have the power to do this. Jackson, however, was not impressed by the Supreme Court of the US, and refused to stop Georgia’s efforts to get the Indians out of town. Some years later, the US Army finished the job by forcing the remaining Cherokees along the “Trail of Tears”, resulting in thousands of deaths.

So, this is what “civilized ways” and civilized tribes were all about in the 1830s. The Indians found out what trying to be “civilized” got them. I’d like to think that “civilization” means something more, something better today. But obviously, we still have a long way to go until we truly achieve “civilization”.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:14 pm      

  1. Jim, Although I agree with you on this in some ways; there are some ways I cannot agree with you. It seems to me that the “civilized tribes” were pretty much like the rest of the world in what they believed.

    For most of the time of the written history of the world, slavery was considered the ordinary punishment of anybody who was conquered. (I am saying nothing here of the pathetic slave position women held for centuries and centuries throughout the world.) In fact, I’ve been amazed at how many of the Psalms take for granted asking God to put enemies of the people praying these psalms in chains, make them slaves, and various other kinds of things that conquerors did. In the 1500s even people who were considered particularly bad (heretics, witches, etc.) were burned at the stake; treason was punished by hanging and quartering; I don’t know which was worse the fast punishment or the slow one of slavery. (Oddly enough, in some parts of the world it seems some people now want to return to that era.) No one gave slavery a second tho’t. It was the accepted punishment and/or situation at the time.

    I’m not sure when the rest of the world began to think that slavery was “not the right thing to do”; but it must have started some time in the 1700s as I read recently that slavery was not allowed in parts of Canada in mid-1700s.

    Today we still have slavery, as I see it. We just don’t call it “slavery”; we call it trafficking in women and children for one thing. Just yesterday I contributed to an Indiegogo petition to help a woman in Pakistan helping “bonded” workers who today are basically enslaved. We don’t call them “slaves”; they are called “bonded workers”.

    I find myself wondering how much of the same kind of thing is underground even here in the United States.

    Slavery is still alive and thriving, it seems to me; we just call it by another name and feel good about ourselves because we don’t call slavery by its rightful name. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — August 16, 2015 @ 3:07 pm

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