December 3, 1880 — Big Tremont Temple Meeting, Boston MA
My people have made desperate struggles, year after year, for a hundred years, for their homes, for their lives and for their liberty. They have writhed under a powerful oppressor. It has been said that “the government system has been one of alternate pauperizing and butchery.” From time to time during these hundred years, there have arisen kind men and just men, judges and senators, who have tried to compel the government to right these wrongs and to change its system. From time to time parties have arisen like this. To insist that these wrongs be righted, and compel the government to change its course for the future, but they have always been beaten, and it remains to be seen whether we are or not. It has been said that “you cannot compel the government to right a wrong unless the people demand it.” I do not know whether it is, because the people do not know enough or care enough to demand justice for a handful of helpless people in the absolute control of one government official, who has unlimited authority to kill and butcher if they do not obey his imperious will. Or whether it is because this one government official is greater than the people who elect him, or he is so great in himself that he can afford to defy public opinion, or he has made money out of it. It is your place to find out which.
During the last three years, three tribes, the Nez Perces, the Poncas, and the Cheyennes have been forcibly removed from their homes into strange lands, where many had died in hopeless anguish. What did these tribes do in their defence? You know they would have been less than men if they had submitted meekly like slaves to the authority of this one government official at Washington. The Nez Perces resisted, and there are now a feeble remnant of them left in the Indian territory, to which they were forced to go. Of the Cheyennes who resisted, not a man is left to tell the tale. What did the Poncas do? They went into the courts with the writ of habeas corpus in their hand, claiming their liberty like men. This one government official sent an order to his attorney to dismiss the case, that they were not persons, and were not entitled to the writ of liberty. When the Cheyennes fought to maintain their rights, they were exterminated; when the Poncas claimed the protection of the courts, the great Secretary of the Interior tried to kick them out. Whether he will succeed or not, it is for you to say.
We offer a solution to the Indian problem. This solution will end all wars; it will end the shedding of the blood of innocent women and children; it will stop all these wrongs which have gone on month after month, year after year, for a hundred years.
The solution of the Indian problem, as it is called, is citizenship. Like all great questions which have agitated the world, the solution is simple — so simple that men cannot understand it.
They look for something complicated, something wonderful, as the answer to a question which has puzzled the wisest heads for a hundred years.
The question, I believe, is “What shall be done with the Indian?” One part of the American people try to solve it by crying “exterminate him.” The answer to such people is, that he has a creator who will avenge his extermination. The other part cry “civilize him.” Forthwith they go to work, tell him that his land shall be his “as long as the grass grows and the waters run.” We all know that “the grass grows and the waters run” only as long as it pleases the Secretary of the Interior. They say to him “you must not pass beyond this line without the permission of this man, your agent, whom we place over you,” thus effectually preventing him from seeing or moving in any civilization but his own. This, you see, is a lesson in freedom and liberty. Their first lesson in the art of civilization.
Next comes the lesson in commerce. The government says to the Indian: “You must trade only with this man whom we appoint. You must buy from him only, and sell to him only all the products of your farm.”
This the law concerning spontaneous productions of the soil. A year ago last winter my father and brother and one or two of our friends went into the woods and lived in a tent all winter, so that they could haul logs to build my father a house. We children were growing, and there was not room for us all. In the spring, when they were ready to use the lumber, the government agent said to my father: “You cannot use that. It belongs to the government.” So the agent carried away a part of it, and the remainder of it lies on the ground rotting. And this is the lesson in morality. Then, to crown the whole, the government says: “Above all, you must do just as we say, or we won’t feed you.” Thus putting a premium on idleness. This third lesson is the lesson of industry, manliness and independence.
Last of all the government says: “We have adopted this policy in order to civilize you. Now, why don’t you become civilized?” as the process of civilization is rather slow, it having taken the Anglo-Saxon race a thousand years or so to become what they are now, and as the Indian, being a man, objects decidedly to being placed in a nursery subject to the bidding of one man who may be his inferior in moral character or intelligence, he is termed rebellious or sullen; and if he rises in exasperation, as he often does, he is termed a savage, incapable of civilization, and troops are sent to enforce the lessons.
When the Indian, being a man, and not a child, or thing, or merely an animal, as some of the would-be civilizers have termed him, fights for his property, liberty and life, they call him a savage. When the first settlers in this country fought for their property, liberty and lives, they were called heroes. When the Indian in fighting this great nation wins a battle, it is called a massacre; when this great nation in fighting the Indian wins a battle, it is called a victory.
After the Indian is prevented from earning his own living, and from taking care of himself, by this system of nursing and feeding, — although I have heard it reported at different times within the last few years that whole tribes have been found in a state of starvation, — he is reported to be incapable of taking care of himself and would starve if the government let him alone. It was because standing bear was trying to take care of himself, without the help of the government, that this powerful government, sent out its armed forces to carry him back to a land from which he had fled, because the terror of death was on him in that land.
It sounds like some strange story to think of this powerful government sending out its armed forces against a miserable little band composed of eight men, twenty-two women and children, all of them half starved, and half of them sick with the malarial diseases caught in the strange climate. Why did the government do this? Because the Indian, being a child, thing or ward, fled from that strange land, which meant death to him, without permission from his master, father or guardian, whichever you will. When he went into court to have his rights tried, the great reformer, Carl Schurz, the Secretary of the Interior, said he was not a person, and therefore could not come into court.
But the government feeds them. Was the government feeding them when it forced them from their land, carried them to a strange, unbroken country, reeking with malaria, there to live in canvas tents, and likely to starve because this great government, after having robbed them of their houses, lands and tools to work with, failed to issue them rations for three months? This is not a solitary instance, but has happened again and again to many other tribes, and will happen again and again till this whole system is abolished. It is either extermination or citizenship for the Indian. This system has been tried for nearly a hundred years, and has only worked ruin on the Indian. It has resulted only in the shedding of blood and mutual hatred between the two nations. It has resulted in the expenditure of vast sums of money, but all the money is as nothing to the loss of a single human life. Set aside the idea that the Indian is a child and must be taken care of, make him understand that he is to take care of himself, as all other men are required to do, give him a title to his lands, throw over him the protection of the law, make him amenable to it, and the Indian will take care of himself. Then there will be no more wars in trying to settle the Indian problem, for there will be no problem to settle.
Source: La Flesche Tibbles, Susette. “Bright Eyes,” Smithsonian Institute, Washington, DC, National Museum of the American Indian Archives Transcription Center.