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Helen Hunt Jackson’s Impact on U.S. Indian Policy
James D Musgrave
History 223: History of the American Indian
May 14, 2017In the beginning of U.S. history, the efforts were to eliminate the native military threat and conquer lands. After the civil war and minimizing the threat, the campaign shifted to crushing the native spirit by stripping them of their culture and ways of life. In 1881 after much study, traveling, and attending a presentation by Standing Bear in Boston, Helen Hunt Jackson published “A Century of Dishonor” as part of her Indian affairs reform agenda.[i] Ms Jackson’s work did not directly make significant impacts on U.S. policy but did indirectly influence long term efforts to policy change. The board of Indian commissioners was created in 1869 and Ely Parker was the first Indian to be appointed commissioner of Indian Affairs. Until this point the U.S. government had a history of broken treaties and promises with the native American Indians. During an 1879 Boston lecture of Ponca Chief Standing Bear, Ms Jackson decided activism was her calling. As a writer, she investigated and published many works that showcased the U.S. government’s maltreatment of Indians, especially the Ponca tribesmen. She began her work on “A Century of Dishonor” which was published in 1881. Ms Jackson provided a copy to all members of congress which had zero to little impact at that time.[ii] After garnering minimal impact from the book, Ms Jackson traveled to California to reset her mind and explore her interest in the Mission Indians. In 1833, she learned the policies resulted in the sale of Indian lands and dispassion of native members even though the original land grants came with protected clauses. This was yet another broken promise. Ms Jackson was nominated as an agent for the Department of the Interior. Her continued efforts resulted in complementary legislation which succeeded in the senate but defeated in the House of Representatives. Although she continued her efforts, she died of cancer in 1885, two years prior to the Dawes Allotment Act.[iii] The Dawes Act worked in two directions. It continued to consolidate and assimilate natives into the American ways, but it also radically shifted how the U.S. federal government treated the natives through the application of the act. The latter perspective was remained up to the eye of the beholder. The ideal was still Anglican and removed the natives from their sacred grounds. The act would eventually enable the government to lay claim to millions of acres of Indian land.[iv] The act was signed into law by President Grover Cleveland[v] who, prior to her death, received a letter from Ms Jackson urging him to read her work contained in “A Century of Dishonor.”[vi] Her work did not lay rest in libraries as others used her work as resources in subsequent attempts to reform the government affairs.[vii] The U.S. government had a long standing record of toxic dealings with native American Indians. Helen Hunt Jackson took a stand and launched a campaign to influence positive change to U.S. policy. Over time, her works inspired legislation which saw hope in congress but ultimately failed to see the president’s desk for signature. Although she died of cancer, her work continued to inspire other reformers and has been used as resources by special interest organizations. [i] Colin G Calloway, First Peoples: A Documentary Survey of American Indian History 5th Edition (Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2016), 378. [ii] “Helen Hunt Jackson,” The Wild West, accessed May 14, 2017, http://www.thewildwest.org/cowboys/wildwestlegendarywomen/204-helenhuntjackson.html. [iii] Ibid. [iv] Colin G Calloway, First Peoples: A Documentary Survey of American Indian History 5th Edition (Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2016), 384. [v] Alysa Landry, "Naive Hisotry: Dawes Act Signed Into Law to 'Civilize' Indians," Indian Country Today, last updated February 8, 2017, https://indiancountrymedianetwork.com/history/events/native-history-dawes-act-signed-into-law-to-civilize-indians/. [vi] “Helen Hunt Jackson,” The Wild West, accessed May 14, 2017, http://www.thewildwest.org/cowboys/wildwestlegendarywomen/204-helenhuntjackson.html. [vii] Rosemary Whitaker, “Jackson, Helen Hunt,” American National Biography Online, accessed on May 14, 2017, http://www.anb.org/articles/16/16-00836.html.
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