On Wednesday, Donald Trump laid a wreath at the gravesite of President Andrew Jackson, who was born 250 years ago, on March 15, 1767. Supporters have compared Trump’s rise to that of Jackson, a similarly divisive and controversial president who championed a populism embraced by non-elite white men. A portrait of Jackson now hangs in the Oval Office and on the night of Trump’s 2016 victory, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani told NBC news that Trump is the “greatest victory for the people of America since Andrew Jackson.”
As some media outlets have pointed out, the comparison isn’t quite apt. Unlike Trump, Jackson held public office three times before he first ran for the presidency in 1824. Before that, he was known as a national war hero for his defeat of the British in the 1815 Battle of New Orleans.
But there are important similarities. In addition to his populist rhetoric, Jackson is known for his 1830 Indian Removal Act, which violated Native American sovereignty by opening tribal lands to white ownership and development. Now, reports are suggesting that by privatizing oil-rich tribal lands, Trump is threatening to do the same.
In 1828, Jackson was elected president with the promise of removing eastern Native American nations to reservations west of the Mississippi River. Although most Americans supported the move, Jackson faced stiff resistance from many Native Americans and some white allies.
After passage of the 1830 Indian Removal Act, Jackson led treaty negotiations to remove — usually forcibly — an estimated 70,000 Native Americans. The journey west was deadly. Somewhere between 4,000 to 8,000 Cherokee died on the notorious “Trail of Tears” to Oklahoma Territory. This was around 20 to 25 percent of all eastern Cherokee, while the deportation of the Muscogee (Creek) resulted in the deaths of 50 percent of their population.
As Cherokee chief John Ross and others noted, the Indian Removal Act ignored federal treaties that guaranteed Native American sovereignty. After banishing Native Americans from the eastern United States, Jackson led the privatization and speculation of some 140 million acres of their ancestral homelands.
Now, Reuters is reporting that Trump is considering privatizing tribal lands. There’s significant incentive for Trump, a pipeline-friendly president, to do so. Although tribal lands make up only 2 percent of American land, they hold one-fifth of the country’s oil and gas reserves. Privatization would have major implications for not just Native American sovereignty, but also energy development and environmental protection.
The move is being promoted by a small group of advisers to Trump on Native American issues. They see it as a way to free 56 million acres of tribal lands from federal protections that restrict development. Tribes can drill on this land but only under regulations that many consider more confining than those governing private lands.
Markwayne Mullin, a U.S. representative from Oklahoma and a member of the Cherokee nation, promotes privatization. “We should take tribal land away from public treatment,” Mullin told Reuters, “As long as we can do it without unintended consequences, I think we will have broad support around Indian country.” He hopes that the proposal might result in legislation by 2018.
Other advisers, like Ross Swimmer, suggest that land ownership be restricted to Native American buyers to keep the land and profits in the hands of tribal members. For tribes suffering from chronic underfunding and unemployment, the idea of opening up energy reserves, which are estimated to be worth $1.5 trillion, is tempting.
Many others maintain that privatization is simply another attempt to undermine Native American sovereignty. Tom Goldtooth, a member of the Navajo and Dakota nations, stresses, “privatization has been the goal since colonization — to strip Native nations of their sovereignty.” Critics point to Trump’s support of the controversial Dakota Access pipeline, opposed by the Standing Rock Sioux, as evidence that the president might not be interested in protecting Native American sovereignty.
Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal stands out among several key federal policies, including the 1887 Dawes Act and the 1953 Termination Policy, that made Native American land available for private ownership and development. It remains to be seen how Trump’s policies toward tribal lands and natural resources plays out. But if reports of privatization prove true, comparisons between Trump and Jackson will only increase.