Native Americans and Gun Violence

From  Guns in American Society: An Encyclopedia of History, Politics, Culture, and the Law (ABC/Clio: 1st ed. 2002). 

By Dave Kopel

Firearms played an important role in the warfare between whites and Indians that led to the white conquest of North America. Today, conflicts continue involving white attempts to suppress gun ownership by Indians.

Like horses, guns were brought to North America by Europeans. Perhaps the first major battle involving firearms and Indians was fought in 1609 at Ticonderoga, New York. There, the Mohawks (an Iroquois tribe) were defeated by an alliance of Huron, Montagnais, Ottawa, and French. The French, commanded by Samuel de Champlain, were armed with arquebus. (A shoulder firearm whose muzzle rested on a forked stick for support, and which was fired by applying a match to the gunpowder in the "touch-hole.")

The thunder and smoke which firearms produced made them especially impressive psychologically. As ethnologist John C. Ewers noted: "Indians gained a respect for the old muzzle-loading, smoothbore trade musket which was all out of proportion to its effectiveness as a lethal instrument." Merriweather Lewis's travel diary recounts an August 17, 1805 meeting with some far western Indians: "I also shot my air-gun which was so perfectly incomprehensible that they immediately denominated it the great medicine."

The Mandan developed a ceremony for consecrating firearms, and some tribes, such as the Crow, would attribute their success or failure in battles with firearms to the magical effects of good or bad medicine, rather than to marksmanship or tactics. (Lest these views be considered primitive, one might note some modern American attitudes. In 1989, a Denver priest said that guns were "demons", and people on both sides of the American gun control debate sometimes anthropomorphize objects which are nothing more than assemblies of metal and wood.)

As different waves of Europeans arrived in North America, each took distinct approaches to relating to the Indians, including whether to trade guns with them. The Dutch settling in New Netherlands (now lower New York State) came from one of the history's greatest trading empires. The Dutch of the Hudson River Valley bartered guns to the Mohawk tribes in exchange for beaver pelts. The firearms helped the Mohawk considerably in their wars with the Algonkian.

In 1643 some of the Mohawk launched a two-year war against Dutch settlements, but took care to spare the Hudson communities that continued to sell guns to the Indians. In 1648, the directors of the Dutch West India Company had observed that the Indians were so determined to obtain firearms that they would start a war if the trade were cut off. The directors suggested that private firearms trade with the Indians be outlawed, and the Dutch West Indian Company allowed to sell small quantities to the Indians. (Not the last time that a firearms-selling company would propose gun controls in the name of public safety, and which happened to help suppress the company's competitors.)

The Dutch attempted to license gun traders in 1650, with a view to shutting off the Indians' supply. The West India Company protested, arguing that Indians would pay a black market price so high that controls were impossible. In 1656, the government decreed that settlers could possess only matchlock rifles; modern flintlock rifles, which were more reliable, and easier and faster to fire, were banned. A death penalty for selling guns to the Indians was enacted, but the laws failed to stop the trade.

No matter what the Dutch did, the natives had a ready supply of guns from the French. Based in Canada, the French penetrated deep into the interior of the continent and traded firearms as they went. One firearm, usually a musket, was worth 20 beaver pelts. The main partners of French were the Ottawa (whose name means "to trade"), who brought guns even deeper into America, and shared the French prosperity -- much to the annoyance of their rivals the Iroquois.

In the early 17th century, the Iroquois nations allied with the Dutch settlers in the Hudson valley or with the nearby British, and bought guns. By mid-century, the Iroquois were heavily armed, and began a sixty-year campaign called the Beaver Wars to destroy the trade of France and her Indian allies, especially the Ottawa. The Iroquois' main objective was to replace the Ottawa as middle-men trading western beaver pelts for European guns. The French and Ottawa prevailed, however, and their trade continued to expand. (Later, around 1740, the Crow Indians of the upper Missouri River became important middlemen, delivering bows, clothing (including ornamental featherwork), and horses with Indians who had settled in villages, and receiving in exchange firearms and other metal products which the Crow then traded with the Idaho Shoshoni.)

The victory in war with the Iroquois confirmed to the Governor of New France, the Comte de Frontenac, that friendship with Indian traders was the best policy. Building an empire of commerce that stretched deep into what would become the Louisiana Territory, Frontenac did everything possible to supply the Indians with guns. Because the gun made big game hunting so much more profitable, and because many Indian tribes were involved in wars with each other, firearms were the most valuable commodity a European could offer. The French explorer La Salle observed: "The savages take better care of us French than of their own children. From us only can they get guns and goods."

Frontenac's policy was the right one for France. Unlike the English (and later the Americans) the French were not settling the land with waves of immigrant farmers. Trade was what the French wanted, and the sparse population needed to trade throughout the Louisiana Territory and Canada did not threaten the Indians. Thanks to the success of the commerce with the Indians, the French, coming down from Canada, reached western Pennsylvania and Ohio before English settlers from the Atlantic coast found their way through the gaps in the Appalachian mountains.

Exploring the southern part of North America, the Spaniards adopted the opposite policy from the French, and enslaved the Indians to expand the Spanish empire. In 1501, only nine years after the discovery of the New World by Spain's navigator Christopher Columbus, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella banned the sale of guns to Indians. Many Florida and southwest Indians, though, stole guns from the Spanish, or bought them from the trading network linked to the French. The enslaved Pueblo Indians of New Mexico acquired and hoarded guns one at a time. They revolted in 1680. Pueblo attacks in the next 16 years killed hundreds of whites, and pushed white settlement out of Santa Fe, all the way back to El Paso. In the 1750s, Comanche raiders, using guns supplied by the French, forced Spain to abandon north Texas.

When the guns were not going into Spanish territory, the Spanish realized that gun trade with Indians could be in Spain's interest. For example, Spanish Florida supplied firearms to the Indians of the Gulf Plain, to be used to harass white American settlers in Georgia and Alabama.

Sometimes the English colonizers followed a policy similar to the Spanish.. In 1641, the Crown ordered that no person should give the Indians "any weapons of war, either guns or gunpowder, nor sword, nor any other Munition, which might come to be used against ourselves." But despite the Crown's orders, many merchants in the diverse North American colonies found trade with the Indians advantageous.

Soon enough, though, the British were trading guns with tribes in Illinois and the rest of what would become the Northwest Territory. As trouble with the American colonists worsened, the British saw the advantage of arming the Indians to attack the encroaching American farmers and backwoodsmen.

With Indians who did not pose an immediate threat to Britain's interests, the arms trade thrived. When the British did cut off the arms trade, as they did in the Great Lakes region in 1763, the Indians were outraged. Chief Pontiac -- acting on the advice of a prophet who preached that guns should be rejected as evil instruments of the whites -- organized the Ottawa and nine other tribes into a confederacy that annihilated numerous English frontier posts in the West. But the American Indians were incapable of carrying out sustained warfare, and when English reinforcements arrived, the Indians retreated to Illinois.

The invention of reliable revolvers by Colonel Samuel Colt in the 1840s brought a major change to white warfare with the Indians. Almost all guns invented before the revolver needed to be reloaded after every shot; the few guns that could hold three or more rounds (such as the "pepperbox") were eccentric and unreliable. With the mass production of Colonel Samuel Colt's revolving handguns, the whites gained massive firepower superiority over the Indians.

The first major application of Colt technology was in Texas; there, Indians on horseback could launch arrows at a higher rate than settlers could fire and reload single-shot rifles. Moreover, a rifle was heavy and difficult to discharge from horseback. With Colt revolvers, Texans could exceed the Indians' rate of fire, and could shoot while mounted. The leap in technology from single-shot guns to the revolver was of far greater significance than subsequent refinements of multishot weapons. According to historian Carl Russell, the "Colt is strongly in evidence as the arm which marked the turning point in Indian warfare in the Far West by giving the white man superiority." The gun had been what the Indians had wanted in trade from the whites. But the gun, so potent at first for the Indians, become their undoing.

"The gun had a greater influence in changing the primitive ways of the Indians than any other object brought to America by the white man," Russell says. The spread of French guns into Louisiana territory changed relations among the many tribes. Warfare was already endemic. The French trade shifted the balance of power to tribes that could get guns, and set all tribes on a feverish arms-trading race. Moreover, tribes that lived near the encroaching English faced "the choice of buying guns to defend themselves, or else being killed or enslaved."

Guns were used for more than war. Especially for the Plains Indians, the combination of guns and horses (brought to the New World by the Spanish) engendered a new era of material prosperity. Hunting and survival became much easier, and the standard of living skyrocketed. George Bancroft, in this History of the United States, (written over several decades in the middle of the 19th century), explained: "Every Indian of to-day excels his ancestors in skill, in power over nature, and in knowledge; the gun, the knife, and the horse, of themselves, made a revolution in his condition and the current of his ideas...."

Nevertheless, the firearm remained a symbol of white superiority. Most tribes did not know how to make gunpowder. Although Indians became adept at firing the guns, they still could not manufacture or repair them. A malfunctioning rifle was apt to be coerced with fire, water, and brute force. Weapons were also destroyed through neglect and lack of maintenance. While the natives mastered the breeding and care of horses, the manufacture and repair of firearms was beyond the grasp of a people who were had been using stone age technology. Moreover, the gun trade itself drew the Indians into a economically dependent relationship with the whites.

Firearms were, of course, the weapons most-used by whites to kill Indians. University of Hawaii genocide scholar Rudolph Rummel, in his book Death by Government (Transaction, 1994) estimates that from 1789 to 1898, about 3,000 Indians were killed by the U.S. Army, and about another thousand killed by settlers. Another 25,000 perished from mistreatment, such as those who died on the Trail of Tears of 1838-39. (The forced march of southeastern Indians such as the Cherokees away from their homes, to Oklahoma.) These latter deaths were not gun deaths directly, but the mistreatment was made possible because of the white victory in the armed war with the Indians, and the federal government's possession of firearms with which to enforce its will. At the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado, 70 to 600 Cheyenne were killed. At Washita in 1868, 103 were killed. At Bear River in 1863, 250 Shoshoni died. At the famous Wounded Knee massacre in 1890, 146 were killed.

As Indians faced defeat, prophets would sometimes arise. By returning to the old ways, the prophets said, to the ways before the gun and whites and the technology that could never be mastered, the tribes could restore harmony with the spirits. An essential teaching of these prophets was that Indians should not use firearms. The spiritual rejection of firearms and other white technologies was first preached by a Delaware in 1764, and taken up by Pontiac in his efforts to unite all eastern tribes to push the whites into the sea. Half a century later, as the whites were conquering the upper midwest, the mystic Tenskwatawa implored the tribes of the Northwest Territory to reject firearms, alcohol, textiles, and other evils introduced by the Europeans. The mystic's half-brother, Tecumseh, organized tribes from Alabama to North Carolina to Canada in a grand alliance to stop white expansion. Tecumseh disdained firearms because the explosions frightened the deer. Practicality intervened, though, and the prophesy was elaborated to allow guns for fighting the whites, but not for hunting, and eventually the taboo against firearms was fully lifted. In any case, Tecumseh, like Pontiac before him, could not drive the whites away, with or without firearms.

At the end of the nineteenth century, the Lakota Sioux, danced the Ghost Dance. Wearing their muslin "ghost shirts" and praying for a revival of the "old buffalo days," they believed they could become immune from bullets. The medicine men in the dance would chant "Hau! Hau! Hau!"

Faith in the ghost dance's vision of the imminent destruction of the whites led many Sioux to abandon the reservations and head for the Badlands of South Dakota. They lived outside of federal authority for several months, until starvation forced them to return to reservation life and meager rations from the whites. At Wounded Knee, the Seventh Cavalry disarmed one group as cavalry Colonel Forsyth ordered, "Now you tell Big Foot [a chief] he need have no fear in giving up the weapons I know his people have, as I wish to treat them with nothing but kindness." As the Sioux were surrendering their guns, the Seventh Cavalry opened fire, massacring men, women, and children. The patent failure of the ghost shirts to provide protection destroyed faith in the ghost dance. Several thousand other Sioux, seeing the massacre, kept up an armed resistance for several weeks longer, but eventually surrendered from starvation. The Sioux rebellion was the last effort at armed resistance to the white invasion.

During the Indian wars, American governments made various attempts to suppress arms suppression by Indians. Even after the complete defeat of the Indians, there were efforts to prohibit gun possession by Indians. In the late 19th century, for example, Colorado made it a felony for anyone to give a gun to an Indian, and the statute remained Colorado law for well over half a century.

Today, no states formally forbid gun possession by Indians. Indian writer David Yeagley explains the role of firearms today: " "Weapons are an integral part of our culture. In Indian country, it's taken for granted that everyone shoots and hunts....Among Indians, the weapon is a symbol of honor...It was the women who taught Comanche boys had to use their weapons. Long before anyone ever heard of Xena the Warrior Princes, a woman called the 'adiva,' or governess ran the Comanche training camps. Americans nowadays seem to be forgetting what a means to be a warrior. They don't value preparedness. They think the government will always be there to defend them from enemies and criminals. But that's not the Indian away. That's not the way of a man." (David Yeagley, "Warriors and Weapons,", Jan. 26, 2001.)

A study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics of violent crimes from 1993 to 1998 revealed the following victimization patterns of American Indians and other races: When an Indian was a victim of a violent crime, the perpetrator used a gun 9% of the time. This compares to 8% for white victims, 18% for black victims, and 14% for Asian victims. (Callie Rennison, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Violent Victimization and Race, 1993-98 (U.S. Dept. of Justice: 2001) (NCJ 176354).) Based on data from 1976 to 1996, 28% of Indian murder victims were killed with a handgun, compared to 50% of murder victims of other races. Seventeen percent of Indian murder victims were killed with a long gun, compared to 11% of other races. (Lawrence A. Greenfield & Steven K. Smith, Bureau of Justice Statistics, American Indians and Crime(U.S. Dept. of Justice: 1999)(NCJ 173386).)

In both the United States and Canada, Indian reservations sometimes have become centers of armed resistance to white control. For example, during the spring and summer of 1990, Mohawk Indians led by the Mohawk Warrior Society armed themselves with semiautomatic Kalashnikov rifles and other weapons, and seized and held part of the town of Oka, near Montreal, Canada to prevent the expansion of a golf course and housing project onto a pine forest which was Mohawk ancestral land and Pine Tree Cemetery.

In addition to Kalashnikovs, the Mohawks had Fabrique Nationale semiautomatics, high-powered hunting rifles, shotguns, a variety of handguns, RPK machine guns, Molotov cocktails and other homemade explosives, and a large number of booby traps. After the Mohawks repulsed a raid by the Sûreté de Québec (the provincial police), Québec Premier Robert Bourassa requested the intervention of the federal army because his provincial force was outgunned by the warriors. The Mohawks considered themselves the legitimate armed forces of a sovereign nation defending their territory from attack. After some skirmishing, the federal government agreed to buy the golf course and give it to the Mohawks, and the Mohawks surrendered, ending the 77 day siege.

A similar siege took place in upstate New York, where Mohawks seized and held an abandoned girls' camp near Moss Lake from 1974 to 1977, forcing the state government to lease them two tracts of land near Plattsburgh, New York.

In Canada, Indians have strongly resisted new federal gun control laws, and many are refusing to register their guns, in defiance of a new law. At the 2000 annual meeting of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, the Congress directed its leaders to oppose the Firearms Control Act. The Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN) has sued the federal government, claiming that a 1995 gun control law infringes "First Nations" treaty hunting rights. The FSIN argues that Saskatchewan Treaties guarantee them the right to hunt as they did before the treaties, and also entitle them to a perpetual supply of ammunition.


Further reading:

John C. Ewars, "The White Man's Strongest Medicine," Bulletin of the Missouri Historical Society. 1967.

Carl P. Russell, Guns on the Early Frontiers (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Pr., 1957).

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