Basis of Civilization?

How is "civilization" defined? Dakota and Ojibwe societies encountered, in treaties with the U.S., a definition of civilization that was antithetical to Indigenous traditions.

Water and Spiritual Connection to Land

Land and Identity

U.S. expansion across the North American continent was in large part fueled by a belief that private property is the basis of civilization. This belief is reflected in U.S. treaty making. Through treaties, the U.S. acquired vast material resources, but also pursued a larger cultural agenda: the elimination of any relationship to land other than ownership. U.S. citizens were so convinced of the superiority of their system that they justified the attempted destruction of Ojibwe, Dakota, and other American Indian cultures as an act of benevolence.

Statements about land ownership as the basis of civilization:

Senator Henry Dawes, 1885

"The head chief told us that there was not a family in that whole nation that had not a home of its own. There was not a pauper in that nation, and the nation did not own a dollar. It built its own capitol, and it built its schools and its hospitals. Yet the defect of the system was apparent. They have got as far as they can go because they own their land in common … there is no enterprise to make your home any better than that of your neighbour’s. There is no selfishness, which is at the bottom of civilisation. Til this people will consent to give up their lands, and divide them among their citizens so that each can own the land he cultivates, they will not make much more progress."

Governor Alexander Ramsey

“Give us the capital of more men and we will vivify [and] infuse the breath of life into the dead capital of millions of acres now growing only prairie flowers.”

—Inaugural Address as Governor, 1860

In reporting to Congress on their success in negotiating the Dakota land cessions of 1851, Commissioner of Indian Affairs Luke Lea and treaty commissioner Alexander Ramsey stated:

"It was our constant aim to do what we could to break up the community system among the Indians, and cause them to recognise the individuality of property… If timely measures are taken for the proper location and management of these tribes, they may, at no distant period, become an intelligent and Christian people."

In 1848 – when Dakota and Ojibwe people still controlled 80% of what is now Minnesota, and American Indians still controlled most of the land west of the Mississippi– Commissioner of Indian Affairs William Medill in his annual report to Congress referred to American Indians as:

"The remnants of an interesting people, who once held undisputed sway over the territory we now occupy, but who have gradually melted away before the advance of civilization, or in broken groups been swept westward by the pressure and rapid extension of a more intelligent and enterprising race…"

"Apathy, barbarism and heathenism must give way to energy, civilization and Christianity – and so the Indian of this continent has been displaced by the European…"

"If … injury has been inflicted on the barbarous and heathen people we have displaced, are we… to be held up to reproach for such a result? ...Where have there been more general and persevering efforts… than those made by us to extend to the conquered all the superior resources and advantages enjoyed by the conquerors?"

U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774 - 1875