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In a recent appearance on Fox News, Raymond Arroyo, EWTN’s news director and the host of The World Over, tried to justify the treatment of Native Americans during the “Trail of Tears”. Arroyo—a frequent guest of Laura Ingraham’s Fox News program—made the outlandish claim that we should not criticize the way Andrew Jackson’s administration treated Native Americans because “this is how he held the country together. It was ugly, but those were the times. Take it all as it is, as it happened.”
Arroyo, like many who try to justify immoral and appalling actions that have occurred in the past, argues that “those were the times.” Arroyo is implying that the actions that were undertaken were somehow completely normal or seen as entirely acceptable back then. Statements like that are problematic for numerous reasons, and they misrepresent the actual historical facts about the Trail of Tears and other ways Native Americans were treated during and prior to the 19th century.
The violent removal of Native Americans, the enslavement of the indigenous populations, and slaughter of Native Americans that happened from the 16th-19th centuries were not universally accepted. There were many public figures who fervently opposed these actions. There were many who knew that what was being done was morally wrong and spoke up in opposition.
In the state of Georgia, Christian missionaries lived on Native lands and worked to protect Native Americans from the state and federal government. Georgia responded by imprisoning the missionaries. In 1832, the United States Supreme Court (in the case of Worcester v. Georgia) rebuked the government of the state of Georgia, ruling against them and maintaining that Native lands were sovereign and not under state or federal jurisdiction. This decision laid the groundwork for the legal rights of Native American communities, but was not respected by President Jackson or the state of Georgia. The Native Americans were later forcefully removed (in violation of the Supreme Court decision) in 1838—as a part of what we now call the Trial of Tears.
Arroyo’s justification also ignores the fact that many prominent Catholics spoke up in defense of indigenous persons. Under the leadership of various popes, the Catholic Church, which itself had been involved in the mistreatment and abuse of native populations, spoke out against numerous forms of dehumanization that involved Native peoples. Centuries before the Trail of Tears, Bartolomé de las Casas forcefully objected to the enslavement and murder of indigenous people in Latin America. Pope Paul III declared in a Papal Bull that: “The said Indians and all other people who may later be discovered by Christians, are by no means to be deprived of their liberty or the possession of their property, even though they be outside the faith of Jesus Christ.” St. Junipero Serra fought the efforts of the Spanish to enslave Native Americans in California and stopped the killing of numerous Native Americans.
Numerous Christian missioners and leaders opposed the Trail of Tears. Prominent members of the opposition party, the Whigs, did so, as well. Even Davy Crockett spoke out against these policies.
Arroyo’s claim that the violence perpetrated against Native Americans was acceptable because “those were the times” thus displays a total disregard for facts and history. It denies the agency of those who intentionally and deliberately attacked and mistreated indigenous populations. The idea that “those were the times” implies that there was a consensus about what to do with regards to Native Americans. That is simply factually false. The actions that were taken against Native Americans were planned and undertaken despite well-known opposition.
It’s high time that we fight back against the notion that atrocities that were inflicted upon groups like Native Americans, immigrants, and enslaved Africans, are somehow justified and defensible because “those were the times.” This sort of historic fatalism denies that there were those who pushed back against the abhorrent treatment of marginalized groups, and it is critical that we highlight those voices to show that throughout history, there have been people who understood that such acts were immoral and unacceptable, regardless of the times.