The Five Civilised Tribes were 5 separate groups of Native Americans, distinct from their other (and more threatening) neighbours by their willingness to adapt to American culture of the 18th and 19th Centuries. These 5 tribes were the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Creek, Seminole and Choctaw tribes. They mostly lived in the south-east region of the US, where modern day Georgia and South Carolina would be today. However, now much of their land is either gone or they are on reservations in modern-day Oklahoma, and it is important to realise why this is the case.
Many of these tribes lived a simple lifestyle, their main occupation being farming. They didn’t farm for profit, though – most people farmed only for what they needed to eat. All land was held in common, which meant nobody owned any private property. The men went out hunting whilst the women farmed and made clothes, and generally, they were very peaceful people. They believed that the Great Spirit had made the earth for all his children to use, so this is why nobody had any rights to own the land, only to use it.
However, because the USA was expanding at this time, the Native reserves were wanted by the US government and the people who lived close by. Many Americans believed it was their destiny, and the destiny of their country, to expand into Native lands and eventually to the Pacific Ocean, at the other side of the American continent. So, the US government opted to move these people out of their historic homelands and further west, to an area in what is now Oklahoma. The lands they were given did not equal the lands they had lost, and they also did not have the same spiritual meaning, which was very important to these people.
In what has become known as the Trail of Tears, almost 50,000 Native Americans from across the 5 tribes and beyond were forced out of their homes, with the support of President Andrew Jackson, a man well-known for his hatred of Native Americans. This was a consequence of the 1830 Indian Removal Act, which passed only by a narrow margin in the House of Representatives. Thousands of tribespeople died on this sorry march, and it was a very strong blow to the culture of the 5 tribes. The Trail was almost 1,000 miles for some tribes, and much of it was done on foot. America is famous for road trips now – imagine being forced to walk that far with what little you could take with you on your back, in the sweltering heat or in the pouring rain.
The fact that the population of many tribes was hugely depleted is not the only consequence of Removal. Because the tribes were considerably weakened, some parts of their culture were also lost, and their economies, lifestyles and societies had to change completely in order to adapt to the new environment. What’s even more depressing is if you go to Andrew Jackson’s house, they almost completely gloss over this “small” detail, and only mention it in passing. It’s very important that the world doesn’t forget this kind of genocide, and we can only have a better future if we remedy the mistakes of the past.
Image from: http://woolaroc.org/pages/art/art-gallery?type=oil&image=31