[News] The impact of the Transcontinental Railroad on Native Americans

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Tue Jun 4 17:53:37 EDT 2019


https://americanhistory.si.edu/blog/TRR


  The impact of the Transcontinental Railroad on Native Americans

By Sam Vong, June 3, 2019
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The Transcontinental Railroad was completed 150 years ago, in 1869. In 
1800s America, some saw the railroad as a symbol of modernity and 
national progress. For others, however, the Transcontinental Railroad 
undermined the sovereignty of Native nations and threatened to destroy 
Indigenous communities and their cultures as the railroad expanded into 
territories inhabited by Native Americans.

I asked Dr. Manu Karuka, American Studies scholar and author of 
/Empire’s Tracks: Indigenous Nations, Chinese Workers, and the 
Transcontinental Railroad/, about the impact of the railroad on 
Indigenous peoples and nations.

*Traditional histories of the Transcontinental Railroad often exclude 
Native Americans. How does including Indigenous peoples and nations 
transform these familiar narratives?*

Indigenous people are often present in railroad histories, but they form 
a kind of colorful backdrop that establishes the scene. Rarely, if ever, 
do we get an understanding of the interests that drove Indigenous 
peoples’ actions in relation to the railroad. Rather than analyzing 
Indigenous peoples’ commitments to their communities and their 
homelands, railroad histories have emphasized market competition and 
westward expansion. Focusing on Indigenous histories reveals how 
Indigenous nations have survived colonialism.

*Your new book reinterprets the building of the railroad as a colonial 
project. Your book also challenges readers to consider the 
Transcontinental Railroad as a form of “continental imperialism.” 
Colonialism and imperialism are two very distinct processes. How are 
they different, and how are they related in your analysis of the 
Transcontinental Railroad?*

The Oxford English Dictionary defines colonialism as “colonization by 
settlement.” In the case of the U.S., Canada, and other settler 
colonies, colonialism is a process that replaces existing, Indigenous 
communities and ways of relating to the land with settler populations, 
and settler ways of life.

The Transcontinental Railroad facilitated the colonization of western 
territories by encouraging new settlements on Indigenous lands.

This colonization was an extension of what I call “continental 
imperialism.” I draw from the work of W.E.B. Du Bois and Vladimir Lenin 
to understand imperialism as a process through which finance capital 
becomes ascendant over industrial capital. This results in the 
increasing concentration of wealth under fewer hands, through corporate 
trusts and mergers. Du Bois and Lenin argued that the 
hyper-concentration of wealth led to the territorial division of the 
world. Railroads were a core infrastructure of imperialism in North 
America, Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

*What roles did Native Americans play during the construction of the 
Transcontinental Railroad?*

It is important to distinguish between different nations and their 
relationships to the railroad. The railroad did not impact Native 
peoples in a uniform manner.

Lakotas, for example, had developed a way of life organized around the 
expansiveness of the Plains and of the life on it, especially the 
massive buffalo herds. As the Lakota writer and political leader Luther 
Standing Bear described it, Lakota people moved through their land, 
following buffalo herds. “Moving day was just like traveling from one 
nice home to another.” When the Union Pacific Railroad was being built, 
Lakota expansiveness confronted the expansionist drive of the United 
States. This represented two distinct and competing ways of living in 
relationship to the land and the living beings on it.

The Cheyenne experience was different. The railroad disrupted 
intertribal trade on the Plains, and thereby broke a core aspect of 
Cheyenne economic life. Cheyennes responded to this crisis by developing 
annuity economies, based around regular payments by the U.S. federal 
government, as stipulated in treaties, and raiding economies. This 
signaled a long-term strategic shift within Cheyenne communities.

Other Indigenous peoples found themselves drawn into a closer 
relationship with railroad construction. For instance, some Pawnee men 
worked as scouts for the U.S. Army, defending railroad construction 
parties. Their work provided an avenue to wage labor, shaped in a 
historical context of the imposition of commercial farming and boarding 
schools on Pawnees. Both of these impositions sought to replace Pawnee 
women’s agricultural and pedagogical work and relationships.

*How did the U.S. government’s role in railroad construction affect 
Indigenous peoples?*

The U.S. Congress granted millions of acres of land to railroad 
companies. According to treaties ratified by Congress, these lands 
belonged to different Indigenous nations. In other words, Congress 
granted land to railroad companies that was not legally under its 
control. The different forms of Indigenous resistance to railroad 
construction were neither savage nor illegal. These were forms of 
resistance to uphold treaties, the supreme law of the land.

The possibility of Indigenous resistance posed risks to investors. In 
response, the U.S. government enlisted the U.S. Army to ensure that 
resistance could be contained. The Army and state militias enforced the 
progress of construction through military occupation of Indigenous 
communities, deliberately targeting villages and food sources. This took 
the form of massacres of entire villages, as at Sand Creek and Blue 
Water Creek; assassination of tribal diplomatic leaders; attempts to 
isolate children from their families; and the wholesale destruction of 
the buffalo herds. The goal was to destroy the ability of Indigenous 
nations to contest the invasion and occupation of their lands. The 
railroads themselves facilitated these military tactics by enabling 
swift troop and supply movements over great distances in harsh weather.

Despite the efforts of both railroad officials and military authorities, 
Indigenous peoples resisted. In the summer of 1867, for example, 
Cheyenne raids led to the complete disruption of railroad construction. 
Massive villages conducted strategic attacks on military outposts, 
settler communities, and the overland trail, completely isolating Denver 
from the United States for a time.

Resistance continued well after the completion of the Transcontinental 
Railroad. In 1873, Lakotas took up armed resistance against the Northern 
Pacific Railroad’s illegal incursion of their homelands. Despite 
genocidal violence and ecological destruction, the Indigenous nations 
invaded by railroad colonialism are still here today. Some are at the 
forefront of contemporary struggles against fracking, pipelines, coal 
mining, and monopoly agro-business.

*What are some of the challenges in telling a history of the 
Transcontinental Railroad through the lens of Native Americans?*

Corporate, military, and Indian Office officials created documents to 
facilitate the capture of Indigenous lands and the exploitation of 
Chinese labor. For example, I have read census records of Paiute Native 
Americans that tabulate the size of populations, and “propensity to 
labor,” with question marks next to each number recorded. These records 
have been cited in scholarship as facts, essentially removing the 
question marks. In other words, historians have cited supposed facts 
from documents that actually recorded rumors. A core challenge for 
historians working in these archives is to expose these rumors, and the 
impulse behind them, rather than repeating them at face value. In a 
larger sense, I think there is work for all of us to better understand 
the histories of the places where we live, rather than repeating the 
stories we have been told. For the great majority of us, I think our 
survival depends on it.

/Sam Vong is a curator of Asian Pacific American history at the National 
Museum of American History./

/Manu Karuka is an assistant professor of American Studies at Barnard 
College./

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