by Robin Murray and Joe Heumann
Much has been written about Native Americans’ removal to reservation lands. After more than a century of skirmishes with tribes from New England to Florida, Andrew Jackson encouraged Congress to pass the 1830 Indian Removal Act, claiming it would separate Native Americans from the onslaught of settlers moving ever westward and help them evolve into what he saw as a civilized community. In 1832, Jackson insisted that Native Americans be removed from prime farming land in the Southeast and moved to Indian Territory in what is now Oklahoma on what has become known as the Trail of Tears. Of the 15,000 Cherokees who began the journey, 4000 died, and many more of the 70,000 moved to Indian Territory also died along the way. The move opened up the reservation system, however, and after battles with whites in the 1860s and 70s, Plains Indian tribes were also forcibly moved to reservations, this time in Oklahoma, Arizona, Utah, and other less productive and arable lands in the West.
From the beginning of the reservation system, life on “the Rez” was like hell on earth. On these reservations, Indian agents attempted to force Native Americans to farm infertile lands, leaving them close to starvation since their allotment of cattle was small and sometimes stolen by corrupt government officials. According to Gary D. Sandefur,
“The lands reserved for Indian use were generally regarded as the least desirable by whites and were almost always located for from major population centers, trails, and transportation routes that later became part of the modern system of metropolitan areas, highways and railroads” (37).
Native Americans on reservations were isolated “in places with few natural resources, far from contact with the developing U.S. economy and society” (37). Breaking up reservation land into allotments after the 1887 Dawes Act only had a negative effect since the land provided was unfit for farming or ranching, and the remaining land was purchased at low prices or stolen for white settlers to homestead.
Reservation life for the Coeur d’Alene, Sherman Alexie’s tribe, has an equally brutal history, but, as Alexie asserts, “No one winds up on the Spokane Indian Reservation by accident” (quoted in Cornwall). The Coeur d’Alene tribe of the Upper and Middle Spokanes were late to the reservation system, entering an agreement with the United States in 1887 after the Dawes Act was signed. This tribe entered into a treaty more than six years after the Lower Spokanes had moved onto the Spokane Indian Reservation, resisting the move to reservation land in Lower Spokane County primarily because it was less desirable for hunting and fishing than the middle and upper Spokane. To maintain their claim on aboriginal lands, they moved onto the Coeur d’Alene Reservation in Idaho and other reservations, including the Spokane, receiving monetary compensation for houses, cattle, seeds, and farm implements. By 1905, however, the reservations lost rights to water in the Spokane River to the Little Falls Power Plant, and by 1909, the Spokane Reservation was opened up for homesteading. Coeur d’ Alene and other tribes on the reservation were now limited to allotments of from eighty to 160 acres on land too rocky for farming.
A year later, minerals were found on reservations in Idaho. But this seemingly beneficial discovery has had catastrophic environmental results. Traditional tribal fishing became impossible. According to the Official Site of the Coeur d’ Alene Tribe,
“Over a 100 year period, the mining industry in Idaho’s Silver Valley dumped 72 million tons of mine waste into the Coeur d’Alene watershed. As mining and smelting operations grew, they produced billions of dollars in silver, lead, and zinc. In the process, natural life in the Coeur d’Alene River was wiped out.”
The Spokane Reservation suffered even worse repercussions from mining waste. In 1954, at the height of the Cold War, Jim and John LeBret, both tribal members, found uranium on the side of Spokane Reservation, and the Newmont Mining Company bought the rights to the Sherwood, Dawn, and Midnight Mines, all on reservation lands. The Midnight Mine remained active for twenty-seven years and became “an economic and social mainstay of the reservation,” but it also had devastating environmental consequences (Cornwall). According to Cornwall, Sherman Alexie “felt threatened by the uranium mines near his home on the Spokane Indian Reservation” after his grandmother died from esophageal cancer in 1980 and asserted, “I have very little doubt that I’m going to get cancer” (quoted in Cornwall).
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