In Kentucky, an old building stands dilapidated and in ruins. The roof started to cave in a few years ago. Poison ivy covers large patches of the construction. Given its decaying state, one may not realize that, almost two hundred years ago, the building housed the Choctaw Academy, a historic boarding school for Native Americans. The school has stood empty since the 1840s, a testament to the silenced removal of the Native Americans from their homelands. Although in 2017 the Chahta Foundation offered a grant to save the 1825 building, its existence is a reminder of the impossible position Native Americans found themselves in once the Indian Removal Act was signed.
In February 1831, the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek was proclaimed; this made it the first removal treaty to be carried into effect as part of Indian Removal Act. The Indian Removal Act was signed by President Andrew Jackson in May 1830, providing for the removal of the Native Americans west of the Mississippi River. The nations were removed from their ancestral lands and transported to new territories west of the Mississippi. The Native Americans were exposed to diseases, and many starved on their way to their newly designated Indian “reserves”. The destructive removal of the Native American Nations was partly justified through the myth of the “vanishing Indian.” The vanishing Indian myth justified the declining Native American populations as an inevitable consequence brought upon through exposure to Western illnesses and cultural assimilation. This, according to white settlers, made it morally acceptable to remove the Native American Nations from their ancestral homelands.
The forced displacement of approximately 60 thousand people of the “Five Civilized Tribes” (Cherokee, Creek, Seminole, Chickasaw, and Choctaw) between 1830 and 1850 became known as the Trail of Tears. These five tribes were recognized as “civilized” because they adopted aspects of white American culture and education. The labeling of certain Native Americans as more civilized or friendly than others brings another problematic layer to the way whites discriminated against Native Americans, as through these labels American settlers fostered division amongst Native American tribes rather than unity.
In April 1831, a Kentucky newspaper published a notice signed by a member of the Choctaw. The treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek, which proclaimed the removal of the Choctaw Nation from the future state of Mississippi, had been proclaimed just a few months before.
The notice identifies Colonel Richard Mentor Johnson, who around 1818 had offered land to establish the Choctaw Academy, as the superintendent of the school. The Native American author is identified as Pushmataha – a name familiar to the Choctaw Nation. Pushmataha was one of the Nation’s most well-known and respected chiefs, whose leadership was amply recognized and admired also among non-Native Americans. Chief Pushmataha, however, died in 1824, so the author of the piece published in 1831 is a different person. The choice to use the same name seems to indicate the author’s intent to use the Chief’s legacy and prestige to give the message a greater mantle of authority for both the American and Native-American audiences.
The brief notice first recounts an examination of the Choctaw Academy by the board of trustees and exhibition of the education occurring at the school.” The school trustees visited several of the classes and assessed the quality of teaching at the Academy. According to Pushmataha, “the classes […] exhibited a degree of proficiency rarely equaled by white boys under equal circumstances.” The Native American boys impressed the trustees with their extensive knowledge, and the examination was deemed to have gone very well.
The next day, an exhibition was held. A hundred scholars (members of the Choctaw, Creek, and Pottawatomie Nations) were marched to the Academy by their superintendent, Colonel Johnson. Once they had formed ranks, several addresses were given by a few older boys of the Academy. The speeches were given in imperfect English as well as the Choctaw and Creek languages. The variety of style and form of the addresses “gave a zest to the exercise, which a uniform correctness perhaps could not have imparted.” At least seven hundred people were present at the event and appeared gratified with what they were hearing and seeing.
Having narrated these two days at the Choctaw Academy, Pushmataha offers a few broader reflections on the future of Native American nations. The author expresses the dilemma enforced by the Indian Removal Act: Native Americans found themselves between a rock and a hard place. On one side, Native Americans west of the Mississippi faced their forced removal from their homelands, which would also enable the wiping of their culture. On the other hand, the more experienced Choctaws attempted to divert the calamity by imitating white education. “They have seen that the white people are flourishing, because they are industrious , and because they are acquainted with letters, and many other things, the knowledge of which is hidden from them.” In other words, the choice now stood between forced deportation or gradual cultural assimilation. The Indian Removal Act forced the vanishing Indian myth into existence.
Due to the gradual eradication of Native Americans before the influence of white people, the Choctaw chiefs encouraged their people to farm the land. They encouraged the establishment of schools such as the Choctaw Academy. Pushmataha emphasizes the anxious desire of the Native Americans to improve their condition, especially in light of the Indian Removal Act: “They have determined to assert the native dignity of their character, humanized and polished as it will be by education, and freed from the vices which bad white men have taught them. And will not every generous, every philanthropic spirit in the land, bid them Godspeed in an effort so noble, so glorious-in a cause so sacred, so dear to every principle of humanity?”
President Andrew Jackson made the Choctaw deportation a model for removal. The 5000 Choctaws or so who chose to remain in Mississippi faced legal hardships and racial harassment for decades. In 1842, as most of the Choctaw had moved out of Mississippi, funding for the Choctaw Academy was halted, and the school closed soon after. The choice granted to the Native Americans between forced removal and cultural assimilation turned out to be no choice at all.
This piece was written using the following collections available at the RIAS:
The Native Americans Reference Collection (Reel nr. 5; the sources of this collection include congressional documents, reports, committee hearings, pamphlets, newspaper articles, and records of church and other private organization)