“Trail of Tears”, oil on panel, 1995, by American artist Max D. Standley (1943-2013).
When Max D. Standley painted this epic painting he said of it: “There was considerable research involved in this, truly the saddest painting I have ever done.” One can understand why. It captures a sorrow reminiscent of all similar horrors in history. It is at once emblematic of the Native American genocide and universal in the plight of all oppressed or marginalized people throughout humanity’s relatively short story.
This work depicts the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans, including the Cherokee, Muscogee, Seminole, Chickasaw, and Choctaw Nations as well as some black slaves and freedmen, by the United States government from their ancestral lands, beginning with the “Indian Removal Act” passed by the US congress in 1830. The act was enthusiastically championed and signed by President Andrew Jackson. At its end nearly 46,000 people were forcibly relocated.
The Trail of Tears refers specifically to the last act of removal involving the Cherokee Nation, who were expelled from their lands after gold was discovered on them by settlers. Cherokee society had thrived for centuries in North America in primarily what is now the state of Georgia. The Cherokee silversmith Sequoyah developed a written alphabet. They had established schools, built elaborate settlements and by the 19th century printed a newspaper in the Cherokee language. There was valiant resistance to this expulsion from all the Native American communities and even among Christian missionaries and some white politicians like Daniel Webster and Davy Crockett. But Jackson and American colonialism prevailed and the Cherokee were forced off their land to make way for white settlers of European ancestry.
Nearly 15,000 Cherokee were forced to make a perilous journey through the wilderness, with few provisions and under freezing conditions. They had to leave precious belongings behind, wealth and cultural items later claimed by white settlers. It is estimated that at least 4000 perished from disease, exposure or malnutrition.
This dreadful historic event is even more important to remember today. In the past few months US President Donald Trump has gone out of his way extolling the late Andrew Jackson, going so far as to spend the night at his plantation the Hermitage, to commemorate what would have been his 250th birthday. Trump said of him: “It was during the revolution that Jackson first confronted and defied an arrogant elite. Does that sound familiar to you?”
he asked a crowd of his fans. “Oh, I know the feeling, Andrew.”
Trump’s version of history is limited at best. Jackson did defy the aristocratic elite of his time. But unlike Trump he came from rather humble beginnings relatively speaking. He was not the heir of a multi-million dollar fortune. But all this belies what Trump and Jackson share. Like Trump, Jackson aspired only to rule as one of the elitists that he so deeply loathed, in that he acquired his wealth and power through much the same way, via exploitation, cruelty and greed. He simultaneously despised the aristocracy and was a part of it.
Jackson owned hundreds of slaves, not uncommon for white, male landowners of his time; but enforced a brutal system of loyalty through violent punishment. He also favoured war and militarism over diplomacy and cooperation, invading Spanish Florida in an effort to re-capture runaway slaves and expel the Seminoles from their ancestral land. And he committed what would today be considered war crimes, encouraging militias to kill not only Native American warriors, but to exterminate women and children as well. He was the founder of the modern day Democratic Party (1828) demonstrating that war mongering and white supremacy are bipartisan values. Outside of the supremacist myths of “American Exceptionalism”
and “Manifest Destiny”
Jackson deserves to be remembered only as a despot who championed ethnic cleansing and passionately defended and benefited from the institution of slavery.
After these first 100 days one can see why Trump revels in his legacy. Like Jackson, Trump sees himself as a populist defending beleaguered white working men against hordes of those whom they falsely believe are the source of all their misery and demoralization. Trump purged many government agencies of staffers just like Jackson did, only to replace them with loyal supporters. He promotes a worldview that celebrates hypermasculine militarism, even going so far as to advocate killing the families of suspected terrorists. His reckless penchant for war in place of diplomacy is in alignment with Jackson’s legendary blood lust. He has showed no hesitation in robbing Native Americans of even more of their land to create “jobs,” a code word for the empowerment of white men exclusively.
The Trail of Tears is Jackson’s most damning legacy and one of countless cruel chapters of colonialism which many would like forgotten. Celebrating one of its main architects only mocks the dead and displaced, and dishonours their descendants. But it does provide us one crucial insight. It shows us how Donald Trump sees the world and its people.
Kenn Orphan 2017