There are three names that will almost always get a negative reaction from Native Americans: Andrew Jackson, George Custer and our 16th president, Abraham Lincoln – who was born on Feb. 12.
Jackson’s genocidal actions toward Native Americans cannot be sugar-coated. Ignoring a ruling from the Supreme Court, President Jackson illegally forced the Cherokees and several neighboring tribes from their ancestral lands and made them walk to Oklahoma on the infamous Trail of Tears – where one in every four Indians died along the way.
General Custer is a controversial figure, to put it mildly. Yet he is often miscast as an “Indian hater.” He was a soldier, doing his duty.
Natives will point out that Custer’s men killed women and children during the battle at the Washita River.
What gets overlooked was that when it came to the general’s attention, he forcefully put a stop to those atrocities. In fact, compared to other military leaders of the time, Custer certainly had a better attitude toward the Indians.
He almost missed being at the Little Bighorn because President Ulysses Grant was miffed at him. Custer had testified before Congress about how the Indians were being cheated and abused on their reservations – and implicated the president’s brother as one of the culprits.
Custer’s fight on behalf of the natives was a far cry from the prevailing view of the time that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian.”
And then there’s Abraham Lincoln.
Natives will point out that Lincoln gave the go-ahead for the largest mass hanging in U.S. history – sending more than three dozen Sioux warriors to the gallows.
Yes, Lincoln did allow that.
But that doesn’t tell the full story.
In 1862, while the Union was busy fighting the Confederate army, the Dakota Sioux rose up in revolt in Minnesota.
Starving, tribal leaders approached the Indian agent, Andrew Myrick, to ask where their promised supplies were. Myrick told the Indian if they were hungry, they should eat grass.
Although Little Crow counseled against war, he was overruled. The Sioux launched several surprise raids in August of 1862. The brief but bloody war was over by December and nearly 800 settlers had been killed.
Once the situation was well in hand, war tribunals sentenced 303 Sioux men to be executed for murder and rape.
This is where Lincoln stepped in. The 16th president personally reviewed the case of each of the 303 condemned men – and commuted the death sentence for 265 of them.
In the end Lincoln upheld the sentence for 38 men that had been proven guilty beyond doubt. On Dec. 26, 1862, the 38 Sioux were hanged – the largest number of men hanged in a single day in American history.
Many natives point to the 38 men that died and use it to condemn Honest Abe – ignoring the 265 lives he single-handedly saved.
John Christian Hopkins, an award-winning novelist and humor columnist, is a member of the Narragansett Indian Tribe. See his writings at http://authorjohnchopkins.blogspot.com.