At President Donald Trump’s request, a portrait of former President Andrew Jackson now hangs in the Oval Office. Commentators have cast Trump’s populist appeal and inaugural address as “Jacksonian,” while others have tried to emphasize their major differences. One writer lauded Jackson as “the president who, more than any other, secured the future of democracy in America.”
However, these comparisons overlook experiences of marginalized people while defining history in terms of the ideologies of progress and American exceptionalism.
Jackson’s intolerant attitudes and harsh treatment of African-American and Native American peoples have not gone without mention. They are indeed inescapable. As a scholar who has written about Native American history and literature, I am aware of just how often the perspectives of native people are neglected in conventional historical discourse.
The criticisms Trump has directed against Indian casinos in the 1990s, along with his insult of calling Senator Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas,” casts his veneration of Jackson in a particularly disturbing light.
Andrew Jackson and the Trail of Tears
Jackson was a staunch supporter of slavery and policies that forcibly removed Indians from their lands. The passage of the 1830 Indian Removal Act was aimed at isolating native peoples to prevent conflict over territory and allow increased settlement.
The solution, originally conceived by Thomas Jefferson, was to empower the government to evict native peoples living east of the Mississippi River from their lands. Those subjected to removal would be moved “beyond the white settlements” to distant reservations in the West, known at the time as “Indian territory.” It was a form of segregation.
In 1832, the Supreme Court struck down Georgia laws aimed at depriving the Cherokee people of their rights and property in Worchester v. Georgia. The court affirmed a degree of native political sovereignty and annulled state jurisdiction over native lands. It was the final case of the so-called Marshall trilogy, named for Chief Justice John Marshall – the author of the majority decisions – and established major precedents of federal Indian law.
The immediate effect of the decision was to grant protections to the Cherokee Nation, and by extension to other tribes. It could have prevented forced removals, but Jackson was reportedly indignant at the result. According to the famed journalist Horace Greeley, Jackson was said to have responded, “John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it.”
Whether Jackson spoke those words has been contested by historians ever since. But his strong support for removal policy and subsequent refusal to enforce the court’s decision made his position clear. The response was a stern rebuke of the legitimacy of the Supreme Court, the doctrine of the separation of powers, the rule of law and ultimately the Constitution.
The result was the Trail of Tears, in which Cherokee and other native peoples of the Southeast were forced at gunpoint to march 1,200 miles to “Indian territory.” Thousands of Cherokee died during the passage, while many who survived the trek lost their homes and most of their property. Ironically, much of the land on which the Cherokee and other removed tribes were settled was opened to homesteading and became the state of Oklahoma some 60 years later.
Yet, the violent manner by which removal was carried out had been ruled illegal and unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in the Worchester case.
New assault on native rights?
The new administration is showing similar malice toward the legal status and rights of native peoples secured in American law. For example, Trump recently lifted President Obama’s injunction halting the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Last week’s eviction of pipeline opponents from Sacred Stone Camp, led by the Standing Rock Sioux Nation, under threats of arrest has led to renewed uncertainty about native rights.
Statements by Trump’s advisers and government officials calling for the privatization of native lands guaranteed by treaties to seize valuable natural resources have only heightened these concerns.
This rhetoric echos policies that oppressed native people in the past. These include allotment, extending from 1887 to the 1930s, which eliminated communal ownership and led to the taking of millions of acres of native land. This was followed by termination and relocation of the 1950s, aimed at eliminating the legal status of native people while sending individuals from reservations to urban areas, further depriving native peoples of their lands, liberty and culture.
Tribal leaders negotiated treaties in good faith to reserve what amounts to a fraction of their original lands, with all attendant rights. Privatizing tribal lands would be a violation of these treaties.
The casual rejection of these covenants heighten the insecurity among native people evoked by Trump. His esteem for Jackson and their shared attitudes toward their legal rights and status should give us pause. That journalists and historians continue to offer positive views of Jackson’s presidency in light of this legacy underscores how the suffering of native people continues to be ignored.
Over the past months, hundreds of indigenous persons and their allies have gathered near the crossing of the Missouri and Cannon Ball rivers in the ancestral territories of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe. Using nonviolent means, their goal is to stop the building of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) that would connect production fields in North Dakota to refineries in Illinois. Their primary fear is that an oil leak would threaten water quality for many members of the tribal community.
As a scholar of indigenous studies and environmental justice, I’ve been following these developments closely. The pipeline’s construction has already destroyed some of the tribe’s sacred burial grounds. During protests, the protectors – as many gatherers prefer to be called – have endured violence, including being pepper-sprayed, attacked by dogs, denied nourishment and threatened by lawsuits.
But despite the national attention to this case, one point has gone largely ignored in my view: Stopping DAPL is a matter of climate justice and decolonization for indigenous peoples. It may not always be apparent to people outside these communities, but standing up for water quality and heritage are intrinsically tied to these larger issues.
Climate justice – the idea that it is ethically wrong for some groups of people to suffer the detrimental effects of climate change more than others – is among the most significant moral issues today, referenced specifically in the landmark Paris Agreement of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
Climate scientists, through organizations such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and U.S. Climate Assessment, are finding more evidence of climate change from human activities, such as burning fossil fuels and deforestation. These destabilize the climate system, producing environmental conditions that disrupt human societies, through impacts such as rising sea levels, more severe droughts and warming freshwater.
The same climate science organizations also show that indigenous peoples are among the populations who will suffer more, on average, than other communities from changing environmental conditions. Some are suffering right now.
This is an injustice because, as indigenous scholar Dan Wildcat writes in “Red Alert!,” the suffering is occurring “not as a result of something their Native lifeways produced, but because the most technologically advanced societies on the planet have built their modern lifestyles on a carbon energy foundation.”
DAPL, a 1,172-mile connector of the Bakken and Three Forks fossil fuel basins to major oil refining markets, maintains the carbon energy foundation Wildcat writes of. The protectors, meanwhile, are bringing public attention to the urgency of reducing a fossil fuel dependence. Because indigenous peoples suffer the effects of climate change disproportionately, continuing fossil fuel dependence will inflict more harms in years to come.
But there is more to this story, as climate change and U.S. colonialism against indigenous peoples are closely related.
While “colonialism” is not a term many nonindigenous persons typically use even in climate activism, it is the academically rigorous term for describing a significant part of the political relationship between the U.S. and indigenous peoples. It also sheds important light on indigenous understanding of what climate justice really means and what solutions are required.
History of exploitation
Put simply, colonialism refers to a form of domination that involves at least one society seeking to exploit some set of benefits they believe to be found in the territories of one or more other indigenous societies already living there. These benefits can range from farm land and precious minerals to labor.
Exploitation can occur through tactics including military invasion, coercion, slavery, policing and geographic removal of indigenous peoples. Sexual and gender violence are integral to undermining indigenous leadership customs, many of which were tied to nonpatriarchal gender systems that empowered women and nonbinary genders.
U.S. colonialism is about continued U.S. control over how indigenous peoples govern themselves internally and their territories as Tribal Nations. The U.S. Congress officially has plenary (absolute) power over tribes. The U.S. considers indigenous jurisdictions, including reservations, as U.S. federal land held in trust for tribes.
While the U.S. federal government is required to consult tribes before it undertakes action that will affect tribal well-being, a brief glance at history reveals it is most often a policy that legitimizes federal infringement. Indeed, the U.S. has not fulfilled all of its treaty responsibilities to tribes, especially when treaty obligations interfere with the economic interests of settlers.
The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe at the center of this current protest has already suffered from this practice. Until U.S. mining interests were at stake, it retained sovereignty over the sacred Black Hills and parts of the Missouri River and certain off reservation hunting rights in the Treaty of Ft. Laramie of 1868. But then in 1877, U.S. Congress, without tribal consent, passed an act removing the Black Hills from Standing Rock’s jurisdiction, curtailing tribal members’ capacity to honor the sacred places of the Black Hills.
U.S. colonialism, then, serves to pave the way for the expansion of extractive industries which scientists have now identified as contributors to human-caused climate change. Damming and deforestation of indigenous territories enable mining and industrial agriculture; pipelines, roads and refineries create dependence on fossil fuels for energy.
Colonial exploitation of indigenous lands through these industries has already inflicted immediate harms on indigenous peoples, from water and air pollution to destruction of sacred sites. Many of these environmental harms can be compared to climate change, as land-use change alters land temperatures, soil composition and hydrology. Herein lies a pattern of harms arising from colonialism.
But not all of the impacts of carbon-intensive industries are felt immediately. Climate change impacts occur in greater force some years later, as the effects of changing environmental conditions are felt more and more, all of which is made worse by U.S. colonialism.
Tribes are susceptible to loss of cultural, spiritual and economic relations to species such as moose or salmon as habitats change occur faster because their reservations are too small or fragmented to allow indigenous communities to follow the species’ movements to more suitable ecosystems. U.S. treaties are supposed to guarantee continued tribal access to the species even when they change location or their habitats are threatened by environmental stressors, but it’s not clear the U.S. will honor these treaties in this way.
This further oil exploration will likely lead to the same detrimental effects we’ve already seen. The workers camps, or “man camps,” created to support drilling and mining in regions like the Bakken, introduce more sexual and gender violence through increases in the trafficking of indigenous women and girls. Of course, some of the sites of violence are the very same North Dakota fracking fields that seek to send fuel down the DAPL.
It’s worth noting the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe is not alone. A major supporter of stopping DAPL is the Lummi Nation, which has taken action to block the establishment of a coal shipment terminal and train railway near its treaty-protected sacred area of Xwe’chi’eXen in Washington state. The Lummi is part of a group of tribes that have documented the U.S. negligence in honoring its treaty responsibility to refrain from economic and consumptive activities that destroy the salmon habitat that the Lummi and other tribes in the region depend on.
The initiative, Treaty Rights at Risk, suggests the vulnerability of salmon habitat to climate change is part of a larger story of environmental damage done by U.S. dams, agriculture, and other land-use practices.
Similarly, for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, shifting plant and animal habitats from climate change combined with loss of jurisdiction over land, both due to U.S. colonialism, will make it harder for tribal members to maintain relationships with those plants and animals into the future.
So as the protests and legal battles over the construction of the pipeline continue, we need to realize that protection of sacred sites and worries over contaminated water supplies are simultaneously concerns about climate justice and its relation to U.S. colonialism. Nonindigenous environmentalists are only allies if they work broadly toward decolonization, instead of aligning with indigenous peoples only when a particular issue, such as opposition to one pipeline, seems to match their interests.