Miriam Weitz knew better. While swimming for the surface on late-morning wakeups from long overnights, she always wondered which thrill was worse for her: drugs, or the bad men attached to them. But…
“Churchill has been quoted as blaming the famine on the fact Indians were “breeding like rabbits”, and asking how, if the shortages were so bad, Mahatma Gandhi was still alive.”
This was how Churchill responded to a crisis that would eventually kill 3 million people. Previously, that famine has been blamed on purely incidental factors beyond anyone’s control, but increasingly research suggests that British policies in India exacerbated the famine rather than attempting to prevent it. The case for Churchill is far too easy to make by leaving out the Bengal famine, and there’s no principled reason to do so. So what does it look like if the rhetorical trope is inverted and, for example, Churchill is described as “the UK Prime Minister who for racist reasons pursued policies that created and aggravated famine in India, killing 3 million people, who was also in power during World War 2”?
To return to the originating event that inspired this argument, what does a moral calculation of Grant look like that includes events that occurred after the Civil War? Does it change anyone’s mind to learn that President Grant pursued a genocidal policy against Indigenous Americans in the Western Plains? During Grant’s presidency, the US’ policy towards Indigenous peoples of the Western US proceeded along two tracks; military force to clear lands for speculation by miners, settlers, and railway developers, and by exterminating the central pillar of their economy, the vast herds of bison (or buffalo as they are popularly but erroneously referred to) that lived in the western territories.
On the first track, Grant’s former colleagues William Tecumseh Sherman and Philip Sheridan commanded federal forces against Indigenous tribes like the Lakota, the Sioux, the Nez Perces, Comanches, Cheyennes, and others. In Richard White’s It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own: A New History of the American West, he describes those generals as follows:
“Sherman, although named after an Indian, had limited sympathy for Indians. They constituted a problem to be solved, and he was willing to solve it by peaceful means if he could and by harsh means if he must. He had supported General Sheridan when Sheridan had ordered Custer’s attack on Black Kettle at the Washita. Sherman did not, as Sheridan did, think ‘the only good Indians I ever saw were dead,’ but he was not likely to tolerate live Indians who resisted and attacked the whites.” (Your Misfortune, page 105)*
Federal forces, though often unsuccessful in individual battles against Indigenous groups, won “through the Americans’ ability to deny the Indians food and shelter. The key to victory, an American Officer concluded, was ‘permitting the Indians no rest and rendering any and every hiding place insecure. (Your Misfortune, page 107). When Indigenous leaders surrendered, such as the Sioux’s Crazy Horse or the Kiowa and Comanche leader Satanta, they were found dead in suspicious circumstances. Crazy Horse was found with a Federal bayonet stuck in his back at a peace meeting, while Satanta was imprisoned and later fell from a window, likely shoved though his death was classified as a suicide. Sitting Bull was later hunted down and shot during the Ghost Dance movement. (Your Misfortune, pages 104–106). It does not appear that Federal forces fought honourably.
On the second track, the “elimination of the buffalo by white hide hunters cut the heart from the Plains Indian economy” and, on a deeper level, brought about a version of the apocalypse for the Indigenous groups that relied on the bison. (Your Misfortune, page 219). The bison were not merely a source of food, tools, and shelter, but also a link in a chain of creation and renewal that began with the hunt, was followed by offerings, and resulted in the harvest. Switching to sedentary farming without bison was impossible given these beliefs. The result, was that “in 1890 when the Ghost Dance religion spread to the Sioux, it promised a world where the dead would live and whites would disappear. Then the buffalo would return.” (Your Misfortune, 220). That did not happen, and instead “the disappearance of the buffalo marked the final blow to the old life. In the words of the Crow warrior Two Leggings: Nothing happened after that. We just lived. There were no more war parties, no capturing horses from the Piegan and the Sioux, no buffalo to hut. There is nothing more to tell.” This ominous passage sounds somewhat like what would happen if someone were to intentionally cause global warming that made current living standards impossible to subjugate a political enemy.
And although Indigenous groups hunted the bison, the whites were, indeed, responsible for their disappearance. The expansion of railroads was accompanied by game hunters who intended to sell the hides as clothing. But they were in a hurry, and “Americans seemed frantically impatient with anything that resembled the older crafts of turning animals into products that humans used. The waste of buffalo bothered them less than the waste of time.” (Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America at page 464). In this manner, bison were killed more quickly than they could be processed and shipped, such that “only one in five hides in the early years ever reached the market” as the southern herd was reduced from 3.5 million to zero between 1871 and 1879 (Railroaded, at page 465). Indeed, eliminating the bison was seen as a key to ending the wars with Indigenous groups, with military planners like Sheridan and Sherman being aware that encouraging white hunters to hunt bison to excess could make the Indigenous “poor by the elimination of their stock [of bison], and then settle them on the lands allotted to them.” (“Kill Every Buffalo You Can! Every Dead Buffalo is an Indian Gone” by J. Weston Phippen) Although other factors contributed to the decline of the bison (Railroaded, at page 463), there was an opportunity to limit the slaughter. Which brings me back to Grant again.
It’s estimated that hundreds of thousands of Indigenous people died in this era, reducing their populations by about two-thirds from before contact. As described above, their fate wasn’t just death, but as Two Leggings described it, a kind of pointlessness, of having lived past the apocalypse and persisted in a state of purgatory. To white military planners and President Grant, this apocalypse was a feature, not a bug, even if the implications of that strategy were not entirely thought out. Taken together, what words occur to describe a strategy of destroying the environment that supports a people’s livelihood to support a goal of stealing their land and resettling them against their will? Ethnic cleansing at least, with genocide not at all an unreasonable conclusion. Others might quibble that Grant’s goal was subjugation, not extermination, however, results carry more weight than intentions, and it’s not as though Grant lacked information about what could happen.
Others have emphasized Grant’s admirable service in the Civil War and his role in crushing the Confederacy, but less discussed is this sordid behaviour towards American Indigenous groups. Grant’s memoirs focus on his military service before the Civil War and during, but make no mention of his presidency or policy towards Indigenous groups. Similarly, Sherman’s memoirs end after the Civil War and he does not discuss his time fighting Indigenous people afterward. It’s open to a memoir’s author to include or exclude anything they want, but history, particularly pubic history like museum exhibits and monuments, should judge people on the information available, not the most favourable information available. Maybe it really is going too far to suggest that Grant’s statutes be taken down, but like with Churchill, if he’s so great, that greatness should be able to survive a reasonable analysis that includes his significant faults as well as his successes.
*White refers to Indigenous groups in the American style as Indians, which, to my understanding, is standard in the US even if it is no longer accepted in Canada.
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