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Can you imagine living somewhere all your life, and then having a stranger tell you to move? What about having you home taken away from you because you live differently then others? Or even yet, can you imagine having someone move in next door to you, and you die from a sickness that they brought with them? Native Americans have lived this way since the days of Christopher Columbus. As they were shuffled around and pushed westward, the crowd followed, until there was nothing left for them.
American Indians roamed the lands of America long before settlers from Europe even dared to travel across the oceans. They lived from and with nature, respecting the laws of life, and cherishing every aspect of their civilization. They hunted and fished, using each part of their prey, wasting nothing. Bones were used for weapons; hides, for clothing and shelter. They lived simply. It was impossible to tell that their worlds would be turned upside down.
When settlers first arrived in America, they were greeted by Native Americans. They helped the settlers learn to live the way they did – to use nature to its fullest and to respect it. Meanwhile, millions of Indians were dying from the diseases brought over from Europe. Indian villages were burned to stop the spread of disease. The settlers were scared of these diseases that no one seemed to understand. They blamed the Native Americans for deaths of settlers that were due to the diseases. This blind blame would be seen later in history, as the railroad invaded the territory of the Native Americans, and they were again blamed for death and warfare.
Between the beginning of the Civil War and the Gold Rush of 1849, thousands of emigrants had been crossing the plains in search of gold. The Indians of the North-west generally accepted the government policy that the land west of the Mississippi River was theirs, and they expected settlers to stay out. Of course, the pioneers needed to cross that territory, which the Native Americans considered sacred hunting grounds (Schmitt 2).
The Native Americans first learned of the railroads by runners – those who ran the land to learn of gold seekers and settlers moving across the territory. They called the railroad the "iron horse on the iron track," and as it moved across the Mississippi, it was evident to them that once again, their land would be taken (Schmitt 6-7).
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On May 10th, 1869, the Union Pacific Railroad met the Central Pacific Railroad in Promontory Point, Utah. At this location, a golden stake was driven into the ground, symbolizing the union of the railroads as they joined the ends of the continent. Engraved on this stake were the words," May God continue the unity of Our country as this Railroad unites the two great Oceans of the World" (Central Pacific Railroad Website). While the joining of the two railroads was creating "one great nation", it was destroying the people who lived there long before.
With the railroad came great prosperity for the settlers. Farms and towns sprang up around the railroad. Cattle ranches, wheat farms, mining, and lumbering work now prospered because the railroad made transportation of goods much easier. With all this came a new industry: tourism. People could now travel across country in style, comfort, and speed (Finnegan).
One favorite past time of the tourists was to shoot bison and buffalo for sport from the window of a passing train. This enraged the Native Americans, who had always relied on the population of these great animals to survive, and respected the grace and power these animals possessed. Because of this, many Indians charged trains, only to be shot down next to the buffalo. The image of the Indian chasing the train is stereotypically believed to symbolize the savage and dangerous nature of the tribes. But these Native Americans were simply trying to protect their way of life.
Railroads also made it easier for people to move west permanently. Rather than pack everything in stagecoaches and spend months on a move, people could now spend only weeks moving their lives west. Trains made travel more efficient, bringing more white people to the Western territory.
As more settlers moved, large tracts of land belonging to the Native Americans were declared open for homestead. Those Native Americans who retaliated were killed. By this point, they already had the stereotype of "dangerous Indians who wanted to war with the white people, bringing home their scalps for trophies" (Schmitt 27). But they did not want war. They simply wanted their land. They wanted the respect to be asked to share their land.
The effects of the Native American's land being stolen is still evident in today's society, as reservations still exist today. While settlers continued to move West, land was continually swept out from under the Indians' feet. Finally, in a movement to "Americanize" the Native Americans, the U.S. government moved them all onto reservations, and placed the white man at the head of the small society. "White ways" were pushed upon the Indians – schooling, dress, food – even religion. Their way of life was practically all but wiped out, as the white man continued to take their land.
Along with the settlers came disease. Those Native American tribes who had no contact with white man now found themselves fighting (once again!) the white man's diseases. Small pox and tuberculosis raged against the Indian community, killing millions (People of the Western Range 142).
While the white man continued to expand his territory, the home of the Native Americans continued to be destroyed. The land that they cherished and nurtured was being used up; its resources being depleted. The Indians themselves were dying out, due to illness, the reformation being imposed on them, and the lack of will to keep on living when everything they lived for was gone.
Today, many Indian reservations are tax – exempt. The government sees this as a way to compensate for the hardships placed on the Native Americans during the Westward expansion. But is that really enough? Is it enough to say sorry for what has been done and cannot be erased? Is it enough to give them a break on government funding, and them sweep all the pain and suffering under the rug?
If we took away our grocery stores and department stores, there would be certain hardships. But taking away the bare nature that Native American life was based on – land – that is like taking away life.
Central Pacific Railroad Website. http://cprr.org
Finnegan, Lora J. "Making Tracks for the West: History of the Southern Pacific Railroad." Sunset March 1998.
The American Indians: People of the Western Range. ed. Henry Woodhead. Virginia: Time Life Books, 1995.
Schmitt, Martin F. and Dee Brown. Fighting Indians of the West. New York: Bonanza Books, 1958.