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Native American Legal Struggles in Primary Sources

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Peter Pitchlynn, Choctaw delegate to the U.S. government
Peter Pitchlynn, Choctaw delegate to the U.S. government

November is Native American Heritage Month, dedicated to exploring and paying tribute to the rich history and traditions of Native Americans. For a collection of posts exploring the Library’s resources related to Native American experiences and contributions, see this post.

One of the most powerful effects of primary sources is their ability to complicate common understandings of history. As the raw materials of history, original documents are able to bring to light little-known details or neglected episodes that add complexity to oversimplified accounts.

For example, some accounts of the Native American removal era and its aftermath focus on armed resistance to U.S. expansion. Primary sources can help provide evidence of the many struggles for national autonomy and just treatment fought by Native American leaders via legal, governmental, and other official channels.

One example of the continuing struggle was the Choctaw Nation’s effort to gain compensation for damages dating from the removal era. Through much of the nineteenth century, the Choctaw pressed their claim despite having severely limited access to U.S. courts, and despite facing great expense and public hostility.

Brief of the Choctaws in regard to the net proceeds of the sales of their lands
Brief of the Choctaws in regard to the net proceeds of the sales of their lands

The Choctaw Nation sent tribal leader Peter Pitchlynn to Washington, D.C., to serve as an official delegate to the U.S. government. Pitchlynn lobbied for the tribe’s cause for many years, eventually making his home in Washington, where he became a well-known public figure. As the case made its way through the legal system, the various sides advanced their arguments through pamphlets, newspaper articles, and other means.

When the case was settled in the Choctaw Nation’s favor in the 1880s, it established a route for Native American governments to petition the U.S., and provided a venue in which grievances and charges of corruption and deception could be publicly and officially aired.

To explore primary sources documenting Native American removals and their consequences, visit the Library’s Indian Removal Act page.

You might ask students to research some of the individuals involved in these court cases, and compare the personalities they find with the portrayals of other Native Americans found in newspapers and magazines of the time. What could the reasons be for the differences in portrayals?


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