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July 4, 2020, 8:29 a.m. EDT

After Confederate statues controversy, Native American lawmakers ask, ‘What about Jackson?’

Despite what one lawmaker called ‘ethnic cleansing,’ statue stands in U.S. Capitol’s Rotunda

By Jonathan Nicholson


Jonathan Nicholson/MarketWatch
The Andrew Jackson statue in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda.

Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the United States, died in 1845. Tennessee gave a statue of him to the U.S. Capitol in 1928. But the conflict over his legacy continues today for Native Americans.

With cities and states reconsidering the symbolism of local statues to Confederate figures, as well as a move by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to rid the U.S. Capitol of Confederate statues that were sent by the states, two House lawmakers wonder if it’s time to look at Jackson.

Jackson’s exploits in driving Native Americans from the Southeast helped win him the presidency in 1828 but make him almost universally reviled by tribal members today. The statue from Tennessee sits in a place of honor, under the dome of the U.S. Capitol in the Rotunda, seen by thousands of tourists each year in pre-coronavirus days.

“There’s no question Andrew Jackson was the worst president ever for Native Americans — cruel, horrible,” said Rep. Deb Haaland, a New Mexico Democrat. Haaland is one of only four Native Americans and one of two Native women in Congress.

Now read: Protesters try to pull down Andrew Jackson statue in Washington D.C.

Haaland, a member of the Pueblo of Laguna in New Mexico, said Jackson’s statue doesn’t deserve its place in the Rotunda.

“I mean, who are our heroes? I know Speaker Pelosi took the portraits down in the Speaker’s gallery. This is along those same lines,” she said, referring to Pelosi’s removal from an area just off the House floor of four portraits of past House Speakers who joined the Confederacy.

Rep. Sharice Davids, a Kansas Democrat and a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation, echoed Haaland.

“I think it’s a good conversation for us to be having,” she said. “I think that a lot of people don’t probably know a ton about the relationship between Andrew Jackson and the Native people here on this continent, during that time frame,” she said.

“If it were up to me, I would remove the statue,” said Davids.

Jackson is one of several presidents whose statues or busts line the 96-foot diameter Rotunda. As part of a collection of statues sent by home states for display on the Capitol grounds, his caped figure stands with George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, James Garfield, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan. Other statues in the Rotunda honor Martin Luther King, Alexander Hamilton and early women suffragists.

While he’s known for being the hero of the battle for New Orleans during the War of 1812 and, in his presidential term, killing the Second Bank of the United States, Jackson’s legacy in Indian Country is much darker.

Also read: Statues toppled throughout U.S. in protests against racism.

As the nation expanded into what are now the Southeast states in the early part of the 19th century, several tribes put up a fight. Jackson led soldiers against the Muscogee (Creek) Nation as well as the Seminole Tribe of Florida and negotiated treaties with several other tribes to get them to cede land for settlement.

He also signed into law the Indian Removal Act in 1830, which authorized the president to give lands west of the Mississippi River to tribes removed from the Southeast. The removal of the Cherokee Tribe, in particular, became known as the Trail of Tears, though several tribes also faced similar hardships on the trip westward.

When the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Removal Act after the Cherokees sued, Jackson is reputed to have said, “Justice Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it.” While historians doubt the accuracy of that account, it remains lore for many Native Americans and the ruling was widely disregarded.

A descendant of one of those removed tribes, Chickasaw tribal member Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, said he’s no fan of Jackson, but he’s not on board with moving or removing his statue.

“My great, great, grandfather was forcibly removed from Mississippi when he was 14 years old and sent to Indian Territory 800 miles away and we lost everything. So, I consider what Andrew Jackson did essentially ethnic cleansing,” Cole, a Republican, said.

“Having said that, I don’t favor removal of his statue. He was a consequential American president. He won important victories over the British in what was effectively the second war for independence. So, I think he’s certainly worthy of respect and discussion, but it’s a mixed legacy in history, no doubt about it,” said Cole.

Cole said Jackson’s willingness to stand up for federal sovereignty in the Nullification Crisis over tariffs probably kept he the Civil War from happening 30 years earlier.

Cole said he wasn’t taught when he was a kid about other blots on American history, such as the 1921 Tulsa race massacre or even the history of many Native Americans being “basically looted of their land and property” when Oklahoma was settled.

“That doesn’t mean this isn’t a great and a good country. It’s just made great mistakes. And its progress has been largely in the right direction,” Cole said.

For now, Jackson’s statue appears safe in its present location. A spokesman for Pelosi said she’s currently focused on the 12 statues of Confederate figures.

Also read: Pelosi urges Confederate statues be removed from Capitol.

Sen. Roy Blunt, the Missouri Republican who sits on the congressional committee that deals with the state statue collection, indicated some openness to moving Jackson. The idea has precedent: Pelosi successfully pushed to move a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee from the Rotunda to the lower-profile crypt one floor below.

“I think we have to be careful how far down this list we can go and continue to appreciate the good things about people that made the country. I think the Confederate statues frankly are a little easier to talk about,” Blunt said.

But a statue of his home state’s Harry Truman, also a president, is set to arrive within the next year. “I have been thinking that the Rotunda would be a great place for Harry Truman when his statue gets here to replace Thomas Hart Benton,” he said.

Cole, who holds a doctorate in history, said it’s “extraordinarily helpful” to have the current discussions about statues and historical figures.

“History is a hard subject. Anybody that thinks it’s all sunshine and roses, it’s only heroes and villains — human beings are a lot more complex than that, a lot more mixed than that,” he said.

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