For many Indigenous people, our dislike of the 16th president is not simply the result of one bad action as suggested by Scott Tedrick in his column, “Lincoln the jerk.” While Abraham Lincoln is responsible for the largest, mass simultaneous hanging from one gallows in world history (indeed, it used to be listed as a Guinness World Record), this is only part of the story. His crimes against Indigenous people are much broader than the mass lynching of 38 Dakota warriors on December 26, 1862 in Mankato. His administration’s Indian policy is quite consistent in the appropriation (theft) of Indigenous lands and the violation of Indian treaties. Indigenous populations under the Lincoln administration were consistently treated as expendable. This belief in the expendability of specific populations lays the groundwork for genocidal actions and this is certainly true in the context of Lincoln’s leadership.
Lincoln assumed power amidst America’s expansionist frenzy. The U.S. intended to expand from “sea to shining sea” and Indigenous populations were in the way. Thus, Americans were committed to using whatever means were necessary to rid the lands of Indigenous Peoples so that they could be inhabited and exploited by white people. The mid-19th century was a time of settler-colonial expansion, an exceedingly violent process.
It was in this context that Lincoln sought the presidency. One of his spokesmen, William Seward, openly declared that Oklahoma must be vacated of Indians and this sentiment was an important element of the Republican Party. Lincoln ran on the “Free Soil” platform, and as my old Cornell professor, Robert Venables, has written: “it was no secret from whom the ‘free’ soil was to be taken.” The Homestead Act of 1862 was passed under his administration, as well as the railroad acts, all of which directly threatened Indigenous lands. He helped accelerate U.S. expansion and conquest.
Had Lincoln acted with “charity” toward Indigenous people, at the very least he would have fulfilled U.S. treaty obligations, rather than mismanaging Indian affairs and pushing Indigenous nations, including the Dakota, into war. Instead, he repeatedly acted with “malice.” Not only did he execute 38 Dakota warriors, 120 of the pardoned Dakota men were also killed by brutal prison conditions as they were forced to endure extreme cold, starvation, disease, and despair.
Rather than repairing the wrongs that led to the war, the Lincoln administration oversaw the imprisonment of our people in concentration camps, as well as our forced-removal from our beloved homeland. While the 1862 War was used as justification for these actions against the Dakota, even when the government had no pretense, as in the case of the peaceful Hochunk in Minnesota, it did not stop their removal as well. And, Minnesota populations weren’t the only ones to suffer. The Lincoln administration also forcibly removed the Mescalero Apaches and the Dine (Navajo) to the Bosque Redondo in New Mexico. Eight thousand Dine experienced their own death march, “The Long Walk,” after Kit Carson forced their surrender by destroying their livestock, food supplies, and hogans. Furthermore, Minnesota did not have the only policy of extermination at this time. The Governor of Colorado, a Lincoln appointee named John Evans, favored outright extermination over policies of removal. Evans’ assistant, Colonel John Chivington, perpetrated one of the most heinous Indian massacres in U.S. history when he attacked Black Kettle’s peaceful Cheyenne village on the banks of Sand Creek in 1864.
Page 2 of 2 - None of Lincoln’s lofty words were applied to Indigenous people. Anyone examining Lincoln’s Indian policy would be hard-pressed to cast him in a positive light. By international standards, Lincoln was responsible for genocide against thousands of Indigenous people, all in the effort to secure Indigenous lands for U.S. interests and to solidify the wealth and might of a growing nation with imperial ambitions. If you believe that this was a noble cause and that Indigenous people were expendable, then Lincoln will be viewed as a noble man. If you believe that stealing other peoples' homelands and exterminating their populations is wrong, then Lincoln will be viewed as a criminal.
Lastly, the Dalai Lama may believe that sending thoughts of loving kindness towards China’s leaders is the best way to deal with the theft of Tibetan land, but there is no evidence that is an effective strategy for achieving justice. We, too, hope that the U.S. government will eventually “come to do the right thing,” but the last 500 years suggest otherwise. One thing is certain, however. Justice will not be served as long as Americans continue to glorify perpetrators of genocide and excuse their wrongs by suggesting perpetrators are simply fallible human beings.
Pezihutazizi K'api Makoce