The Emancipation Proclamation was in many ways a tremendous step forward for human rights, but it didn’t bring any new rights to Native Americans.
In fact, Abraham Lincoln is not seen as much of a hero at all among many American Indian tribes and Native peoples of the United States, as the majority of his policies proved to be detrimental to them. For instance, the Homestead Act and the Pacific Railway Act of 1862 helped precipitate the construction of the transcontinental railroad, which led to the significant loss of land and natural resources, as well as the loss of lifestyle and culture, for many tribal people. In addition, rampant corruption in the Indian Office, the precursor of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, continued unabated throughout Lincoln’s term and well beyond. In many cases, government-appointed Indian agents outright stole resources that were supposed to go to the tribes.
In other cases, the Lincoln administration simply continued to implement discriminatory and damaging policies, like placing Indians on reservations. Beginning in 1863, the Lincoln administration oversaw the removal of the Navajos and the Mescalero Apaches from the New Mexico Territory, forcing the Navajo to march 450 miles to Bosque Redondo—a brutal journey. Eventually, more than 2,000 died before a treaty was signed.
Several massacres of Indians also occurred under Lincoln’s watch. For example, the Dakota War in Minnesota in 1862 led to the hanging of thirty-eight Indian men—303 Indian men had been sentenced to hang, but the others were spared by Lincoln’s pardon. The Sand Creek Massacre in southeastern Colorado in 1864 also resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Cheyenne and Arapaho.
On a more positive note, Pueblo leaders received silver-headed ebony canes in 1863 engraved with Lincoln’s name to symbolize their sovereignty. These canes are still revered and used for ceremonial purposes today.
W. Dale Mason describes Lincoln’s policy toward Native Americans in his essay “The Indian Policy of Abraham Lincoln.” “President Lincoln … continued the policy of all previous presidents of viewing Indian as wards of the government while at the same time negotiating with them as sovereigns,” Mason writes. “He made no revolutionary change in Indian-white relations as he did in black-white relations with the Emancipation Proclamation. While he called for reform of the Indian system in his last two Annual Messages to Congress, he provided no specifics and he continued the policy, already in place, of confining Indians to reservations after negotiating treaties.”
What’s clear is that the Emancipation Proclamation did not end discrimination against Native Americans. There are many wounds that still need to be healed.
Click here to read more from our Jan/Feb 2013 cover package “Race, History, and Obama’s Second Term.”