Book Review: Rivers of Sand by Christopher D. Haveman

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Without knowing a lot of specifics, just living in this country should make anyone realize how poorly (that’s not nearly strong enough a word) the Native Americans have been treated.

But when an author starts out by describing how he has to differentiate between emigration (when the Creeks grudgingly moved west of their own accord because they felt they had little choice), removal (when the Creeks were moved west in shackles), and relocation (when the last Creeks grudgingly moved west because they were being forced out) – well, then, you know you know it’s going to get bad pretty quick.

Is there a word for when you know something is really, really bad, but when you find out the details, it turns out to be much, much worse?

This book describes primarily the disintegration of the Creek nation. How we, as Americans, can move forward and forget about this is an amazing example of cognitive dissonance. How we can own property that was stolen from the Native Americans then sold as if owned by colonizing Americans is difficult to come to terms with. It makes you realize how fucked up colonialization is. (Sorry for the strong language; I tried to come up with a substitute that reflected how horrible it was, and “messed up” just didn’t make the cut.)

And I didn’t realize the politics that played into it. And really how underhanded our government handled it. The presidents who were included among the guilty for having a hand in this include John Quincy Adams, and to a great extent, Andrew Jackson.

Treaties were signed and laws were enacted to make it impossible, or at least extremely unattractive to live on their own land, to get Native Americans to move west. And the white man stooped to outright fraud when that didn’t work.

To force the Creeks out during emigration (prior to 1836), the US passed laws that would make the Creeks’ lifestyle impossible. Like laws against hunting, fishing, and trapping.

The US government convinced some Native Americans who didn’t have the power or right to do it, to sign treaties. It didn’t matter that they didn’t have the authority to do so. If the government makes the laws, then by definition, is everything it does legal? Definitely not ethical, moral, or “right.” But legal?

By 1830, Andrew Jackson was president, the federal government made a more focused effort to push the Creeks west, and white men were settling on Creek land, ignoring the fact that it wasn’t theirs to take.

“The most important tool Jackson possessed in his arsenal were the Alabama extension laws passed between 1827 and 1829, which asserted legal jurisdiction over the Creek Nation. Within weeks of taking office, Jackson wrote the Creeks and declared that “my white children in Alabama have extended their law over your country. If you remain in it, you must be subject to that law.” Another Jackson-supported extension law was passed by the Alabama General Assembly in 1831, which forbade “all laws, usages and customs” of the Creek and Cherokee Indians that contradicted state law. Moreover, the Creeks could only hold councils with U.S. officials employed in paying annuities or engaged in the duties of emigration. Punishment was imprisonment. Remaining meant cultural and political annihilation. Only removal prevented such a fate, Jackson declared.”

In response to protests against this kind of thing, President Jackson wrote, “when they find that they cannot live under the laws of Alabama, they must find, at their own expence [sic], and by their own means, a country, and a home. . . . [I] now leave the poor deluded Creeks and Cherokees to their fate, and their anihilation [sic].”

They legalized theft. When a white man settled on a Creek’s land in Alabama, if the Creek touched that land, they would be prosecuted. For being on their own land! I guess ‘persecuted’ is just as good or better a word.

And as the government pushed them onto smaller and smaller plots of land, whites still continued to encroach on even that land.

But not content to use unethical and immoral laws to take land from the Creeks, some white speculators stooped to outright fraud. Then, many of them lied about the Native Americans committing crimes to force the Feds to push them west before they could identify people who took their land.

And then, of course, they were moved to substandard land with much less the timber and fresh water than they were used to.

Holy shit. We just moved in and said, um, you can stay here but you have to live by these laws we’re making up. What the fuck is that? It’s insane is what it is. And when the indigenous people rebelled, they were the villain. If we were to rebel against people coming in here and forcing us to follow their laws, we’d be the heroes.

And so, basically, we get pissed off when someone wants to move here and live by their laws and customs, but that’s what we did to the Native Americans.

For the white man, might makes right. Or maybe, white makes right. I don’t know. And of course, with these original Americans dispossessed, naked, and starving (in some cases, literally) the whites still take advantage of them by cheating them or by price-gouging.

Interestingly, moving west, in November of 1827, the Creeks actually passed through Tuscumbia, AL – which is part of our Shoals area. The people in Tuscumbia were kind to them. A second group that journeyed by water “included a trip through the treacherous Muscle Shoals, where the Tennessee River dropped more than 160 feet between the eastern shoals and Florence, Alabama.”

Of course when the Creeks finally fought back (The Second Creek War, 1836), President Jackson finally had his excuse to remove the entire nation without the pretense of a treaty. This was done through coercion and negotiation.

And any attempt at defiance met with an indiscriminate murder, rape, arrest, and theft of property by white men of Creeks who may or may not have been fighting back. (See chapter 9.)

Apprehending the Creek refugees was complicated by the violence committed against them by whites. In late May 1837 a group of soldiers massacred a party of Indians hiding in the swamps near Alaqua Creek in Florida. The attack occurred on the edge of a large swamp in a space “of about fifteen or twenty feet in diameter” where “poor women with children upon their backs,” according to reports, “were inhumanly butchered the cries of the children were distinctly heard, at a house distant a quarter of a mile, after their mothers were shot down the children’s brains were deliberately knocked out—the women’s Ears cut off, for the purpose of obtaining their Ear rings and in several instances scalped.”

Wow. What can you add to that?

And even years later, we were still taking from them. As a punishment to the small percentage of Creeks that fought with the Confederacy in the Civil War, in 1866, the federal government took half of the Creek’s land. I’m sure they were thinking, “Will this never end?”

Genocide, indeed.

This is an exhaustingly researched academic text. It does read a bit slow at times, but the information contained within needed to be recorded and shared. Kudos to the author who is at least keeping the memory of these people alive and recording the injustices perpetrated on them by our people. This text is well-organized and easy to follow, if the subject matter is difficult to get through. So I give this 5 stars – not because I loved it was a simple or enjoyable read, but because it’s an extremely important work that was well-written, well-researched, and well-organized.

Thanks to NetGalley and University of Nebraska Press for a copy in return for an honest review.

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