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Byrd: Time to bury Andrew Jackson

BY MATTHEW BYRD | NOVEMBER 18, 2013 5:00 AM

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A firestorm has been ignited recently concerning sports team names that feature slurs concerning Native Americans, in particular the Washington Redskins. Some believe that these names are horribly offensive appropriations of epithets that were used to dehumanize Native Americans in the centuries-long genocidal campaign carried out by European settlers. Others seem to (strangely) think that using such terms is some perverted sign of respect to persecuted peoples.

As this debate rages, however, it is important to note another, more insidious insult to the country’s Native population. I’m talking about the nation’s seventh president and genocide enthusiast Andrew Jackson being on the $20 bill.

It is no secret that Jackson was probably the worst president when it came to U.S.-Native relations. As a general, he conducted a brutal campaign against the Seminoles during his military excursions into, at the time, Spanish-controlled Florida, razing villages and decimating the Seminole’s food source.

Jackson’s true horror, however, was saved for his presidency. Jackson championed the passage of, and eventually signed, the Indian Removal Act, a policy of state-sanctioned ethnic cleansing by which the U.S. government required all Native tribes to be forcibly deported to west of the Mississippi. This deportation, known as the Trail of Tears, was pernicious in its execution, with many Natives dying from disease, starvation, or exposure as they were forced to trek thousands of miles by foot. It is estimated that almost 4,000 Cherokee Indians died on the march.

And yet, the U.S. government honors a man who enacted a policy of population transfers and genocide with a spot on our currency. It would be like putting Adolf Eichmann on a piece of German money.

So, there’s a relatively easy case to made that Andrew Jackson was a horrible human being who used his power in life to bring death, misery, and maleficence to as many people as possible. But, if you take him off the $20 bill, with whom are you going to replace him? This brings up a much larger debate about how we, as an American society, interpret our history.

We tend to look at American history through a lens that doesn’t look like America in the slightest. We look at the rich, white, male, straight, cisgender, and Christian holders of power. Washington, Lincoln, Jackson, Roosevelt, Jefferson. This perspective obfuscates what America actually is, a land of unrivaled ethnic, racial, and religious diversity. Our history should champion the best and most inspiring representations of what America actually is.

With that in mind I have a few suggestions of my own. How about Geronimo, whose historic resistance to American expansionism should be an inspiration to all those who seek to push back against repressive forces in our society. Or perhaps Sitting Bull or Chief Joseph, other awe-inspiring Native leaders who did the best they could when faced with annihilation.

What about other figures who have been left out of the American story? What about Nellie Bly or A. Phillip Randolph? Maybe Sojourner Truth or Harriet Tubman. Powhatan, Catharine Beecher, César Chávez, Harvey Milk, or Bayard Rustin.

The point is that there are so many figures that represent the core American ideals, multiculturalism, freedom, fairness, equality, that men such as Andrew Jackson spent their entire lives butchering and suppressing. It’s time that this country begins to boot people such as Jackson from occupying perches of praise in the American zeitgeist. Taking him off a piece of money is a good start.


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