Quebec History Marianopolis College

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L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Government Policy Towards Indians to 1907



[This text was originally published in 1907 by the Bureau of American Ethnology as part of its Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico . It was later reproduced, in 1913, by the Geographic Board of Canada. The work done by the American Bureau was monumental, well informed and incorporated the most advanced scholarship available at the time. In many respects, the information is still useful today, although prudence should be exercised and the reader should consult some of the contemporary texts on the history and the anthropology of the North-West Indians suggested in the bibliographic introduction to this section. The articles were not completely devoid of the paternalism and the prejudices prevalent at the time. While some of the terminology used would not pass the test of our "politically correct" era, most terms have been left unchanged by the editor. If a change in the original text has been effected it will be found between brackets [.] The original work contained long bibliographies that have not been reproduced for this web edition. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]



The policy of the several governments* [see the note at the end of the text] toward the Indians and their methods of pursuing it were often at variance, and therefore should not be confused. The policy itself may have been just, equitable, and humane, while the method of carrying it into effect by those to whom this duty was entrusted was sometimes unjust, oppressive, and dishonest. The governments, other than those of the United States and the colonies, which have had control of portions of the territory N. of Mexico are Great Britain, France, Spain, Russia, Denmark, Sweden, and The Netherlands. Although the policy adopted by them in their dealings with the Indians differed in some important respects, all agreed in assuming the right of dominion, based on discovery, without regard to the natives. In all the contests between the   European nations regarding their claims to territory in the New World the rights of the Indians nowhere were allowed to intervene. The earliest charters, as those to Raleigh and Gilbert, make no allusion to the natives, while most of those of the 17th century call briefly for their Christianization, and efforts to this end were made to some extent in most of the colonies. The questions of most importance in the relations of the whites with the Indians were those relating to the title to the soil. Although each government insisted on the right of dominion in its acquired territory and that of granting the soil, the rights of the original inhabitants were in but few instances entirely disregarded, though they were necessarily to a considerable extent curtailed (Johnson and Graham's lessee v. McIntosh, 8 Wheaton , 583 et seq.). The Indians were admitted to be the rightful occupants of the lands, with right of possession over so much as was necessary for their use; yet the policy of the various governments differed in the extent to which the exercise of this right was conceded. While Spain limited it to the lands actually occupied or in use (Recop. de Leyes de los Reynos de las Indias , I, lib. ii, 1774), the United States usually allowed it to the land claimed, whenever the boundaries between the different tribes were duly recognized.


It was the usual policy of the United States and other governments, as well as of the colonies, in dealing with the Indians to treat them as tribes. The plan of forming Indian reservations was adopted from the necessity of bringing tribes under the more complete control of the Government and of confining them to definite limits for the better preservation of order, and aimed especially to restrict them to less territory in order that the whites might obtain the use of the residue. This was a most important step in the process of leading the natives to abandon the hunter stage and to depend for their subsistence on agriculture and home industries. The same policy was followed in Canada under both French and English rule, and to some extent by the colonies, and it was inaugurated by the United States in 1786. An incident indicative of one phase of the policy of the colonies in their dealings with and management of the Indians is that Indian captives were held as slaves in some of the colonies, while, under various pretexts, during a period in the history of South Carolina , Indians were forced to submit to the same fate.


Though the brief rule of the Dutch in New York was marked chiefly by an irregular and vacillating policy in their dealings with their Algonquian neighbours, they established a trading post at Albany in 1615 and entered into treaties with the Iroquois that were never broken. In 1664 New Netherlands passed under English control, and the ill-advised English policy relative to the Indians of the northern districts prevailed until 1765, when, through the efforts of Sir William Johnson, a more satisfactory and practical method of dealing with the Indians, especially as to their territorial rights, was adopted.


* [Note from the Canadian Department of Indian Affairs: The policy, and method of administration inaugurated by Sir William Johnson will be found referred to in the article on the Indian Affairs, Dept. of. The policy as to territorial rights, which recognised that the Indian title was subject to special surrender or treaty, and that the title of the Crown was not unencumbered until the Indian rights had been properly ceded, constantly governed Canadian action. The greater portion of the territory now comprising the Dominion has been ceded by the Indians to the Crown. The important exceptions being Quebec , where a certain state of Indian affairs existed at the time of the conquest and British Columbia which, before Confederation, had followed certain policies with reference to Indians which did not recognize their right to the soil. The tie of sentiment which has led the Indian to consider the King as his "great father" has also led the Government to adopt a paternal position toward the Indians. They are considered minors in the eye of the law, and their property is administered for them as such. About the year 1830, we notice the first indication of all Government policy of civilisation and, since then, the fixed aim of all Government administration to Canada has been to render the Indian self-supporting and to gradually win him to complete citizenship [read: to be assimilated into the Canadian population]. But a thorough comprehension of the Indian nature has led the Canadian Government to make haste slowly in the matter of wholesale or even individual enfranchisement. It has been deemed not inconsistent with the best interests of the Indians to maintain reservations in which they have special protection. It bas thus followed that, up to the present time, the Canadian Government has made no serious mistake by admitting Indians into full citizenship although many of them may be   quite prepared for that condition. The sacredness of obligation entered into between the Indians and the Government has been so fully recognized that there have never been hostilities between the two parties in Canada . In the Riel Rebellion of 1885 certain Indians of North Saskatchewan and Alberta . influenced by the [Métis], went upon the war-path and committed serious depredations but these acts did not arise from any hostility occasioned by the disregard of treaty stipulations. After the country was pacified,   these Indians, for a time, did not enjoy their full rights under the treaties, but they were gradually re­-admitted and received no permanent punishment for their overt acts.


Source: James WHITE, ed., Handbook of Indians of Canada , Published as an Appendix to the Tenth Report of the Geographic Board of Canada , Ottawa , 1913, 632p., pp. 181-182.

© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College