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A People's History of the United States

by Howard Zinn

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The significance of the title "As Long As Grass Grows or Water Runs" in A People's History of the United States


The title "As Long As Grass Grows or Water Runs" in A People's History of the United States signifies the broken promises made to Native Americans. It references the assurances given by U.S. leaders that Native American lands and rights would be respected indefinitely, symbolized by the enduring presence of grass and water. However, these promises were repeatedly violated, highlighting the ongoing injustices faced by Native Americans.

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What does the title "As Long As Grass Grows or Water Runs" imply in A People's History of the United States?

The point of this chapter in Zinn’s book is that the United States government has consistently abused the Native Americans.  The title refers to a phrase used by Andrew Jackson in giving instructions to an envoy to the Choctaws and the Creeks.  The envoy was to tell them that they should accept Indian Removal and move out beyond the limits of the United States.  If they did so, they would own the land in that area “as long as grass grows or water runs.”

Of course, the US government did not keep that promise.  Native Americans were later pushed off lands west of the Mississippi as soon as white settlers wanted that land.  Therefore, Zinn uses this phrase as a title to emphasize how Native Americans have been (in his mind) mistreated and lied to by the US government.

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What is the significance of the phrase "As long as grass grows or water runs" in A People's History of the United States?

There is a sad irony in the phrase, "as long as Grass grows or water runs."  Grasses die and rivers can be diverted.  Such were the promises given to the Native American people especially during the periods of expansion between the American Revolution through to the Reconstruction after the Civil War.  However, the irony of the statement has been used by Native American groups especially the Choctaw and the Cherokee to cite the injustices to Native Americans throughout all of American History. 

How the phrase became symbolic: 

  The phrase, "As long as grass grows or water runs," has become the representation of the United State's failure to keep their promises and treaties with Native American throughout American history.  

A version of the phase was first used by President Monroe, in 1817:

“You are now in a country where you can be happy; no white man shall ever again disturb you; the Arkansas [River] will protect your southern boundary when you get there. You will be protected on either side; the white shall never again encroach upon you, and you will have a great outlet to the West.

As long as water flows, or grass grows upon the earth, or the sun rises to show your pathway, or you kindle your camp fires, so long shall you be protected from your present habitations.”

- President Monroe, 1817

Monroe's reason for giving this speech was to assure the Cherokee their land in Arkansas, Georgia, and present day Mississippi would be theirs forever.  However, as the United States began to expand, settlers began settling on Native American land.  In 1824 the Cherokee council went to Washington DC and stated that the land they held in Georgia was closed to settlement.  Senators and Representatives in Georgia were offended by the statement.  The delegation went further.  They cited a 1804 Treaty where they were promised by President Thomas Jefferson that they would receive money from the United States; the money had never been paid.  President Monroe denied that the treaty ever existed and was humiliated when the delegation produced a copy.  The money still wasn't paid and President Monroe began working on a new Indian Policy: This policy relied on two factors- 1) The United States should preserve and civilize the Indians, and 2) the Native Americans could only control the land that they were able to actually farm.

In 1818, things changed again when gold was discovered in Georgia and the United States entertained a policy where Native Americans should be considered citizens of the United States rather than sovereign nations.  This was due to John C Calhoun, who was Secretary of War at the time.  He also suggested reducing the land that had been given to Native Americans, moving them to Mississippi, and forcing them to educate their children with the American schooling system to speed up the melting pot. 

Between 1818 and 1830, several changes to United States policy and removal of Native Americans off of promised property are available-  I am including a website (digitalhistory archives) with the complete list in the references section below.

Andrew Jackson in 1829 Calhoun's ideas were realized with the Indian Removal Act.  Andrew Jackson had no love for Native Americans.  He was born and raised in the American Frontier in the South.  Because of the cotton boom, many American settlers wanted the land owned by the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee, Creek, and Seminole.  These tribes were considered "civilized" and used the American justice system to maintain their boundaries.  With the election of 1828, Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia changed their states polices and started encroaching on Native American's lands despite Federal Laws saying this was illegal.   

Native Americans appealed to President Andrew Jackson to intervene in the land grab.  Jackson, siding with the states, cited the 10th Amendment and refused to stop the states from violating Federal Treaties.  In his response to the Native Americans who claimed injustice: 

"Say to my reel Choctaw children, and my Chickasaw children to listen-my white children of Mississippi have extended their law over their country. Where they now are, say to them, their father cannot prevent them from being subject to the laws of the state of Mississippi. The general government will be obliged to sustain the States in the exercise of their right. Say to the chiefs and warriors that I am their friend, that I wish to act as their friend but they must, by removing from the limits of the States of Mississippi and Alabama and by being settled on the lands I offer them, put it in my power to be such-There, beyond the limits of any State, in possession of land of their own, which they shall possess as long as Grass grows or water runs. I am and will protect them and be their friend and father."

The tribes appealed to the United States Supreme Court in Worchester v. Georgia.  In the ruling SCOTUS determined that the land grabs happening in Georgia were unconstitutional.  Jackson's response to the Supreme Court ruling was to ignore it. Of Chief Justice, John Marshall's ruling, he said- "John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it." This action should have been impeachable, but at the time Congress agreed with his attitude toward Native Americans.  This led to the 1830 removal of the five tribes from their property. 1830- the Choctaw were removed, many died along the way; 1837- the Creek were removed in chains (3500) died en route.  Of course, the infamous 1837 Cherokee Trail of Tears, where 15,000 Cherokee were removed and 1/4 of the population died along the way.  The Seminole didn't go quietly.  They managed to hold out in the swamps of Florida until 1842.

In 1850, Congress passed the Indian Appropriations Act, which officially broke Andrew Jackson's fallacious promise of the Native American tribes owning lands west of the Mississippi: "There, beyond the limits of any State, in possession of land of their own, which they shall possess as long as Grass grows or water runs."

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What is the significance of the phrase "As long as grass grows or water runs" in A People's History of the United States?

This phrase is the title of Chapter 7 in this book.  It is taken from a message that was sent by President Andrew Jackson to the Choctaw and Cherokee Indians when they were going to be moved out of their homelands in the process of “Indian Removal.”  In this message, Jackson is promising the Native Americans that the place where they are going will be theirs forever.  He is promising them that they will be able to hold that land as long as grass grows or water runs which is, one would think, forever.

This sentiment is badly contradicted by the way in which the US government actually treated the Indians.  The government would make treaties in which it would give Indians certain areas of land as reservations.  But then, inevitably, something would happen that would make whites want the land that had been given to the Indians.  When that  happened, the Indians would be forced to make new treaties taking away some of the land and leaving them with smaller and smaller areas on which to live.

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