The truth about $20

Generally, ethnic cleansing is not a term we Americans associate with famous and important figures that have been immortalized by having their likenesses displayed on our legal tender.

However, ethnic cleansing can unfortunately be associated with the man gracing our $20 bill. This man is none other than President Andrew Jackson, who presided over the lion’s share of the forced relocation of 100,000 Native Americans.

In more modern times, ethnic cleansing came into our national conscience as a result of the war in Yugoslavia and, in particular, Serbian president and war criminal Slobodan Milosevic’s mass removal of 800,000 ethnic Albanians from the Serbian ancestral homeland of Kosovo.

Jackson, or Old Hickory as he was known, was the United States’ seventh president, a general in the Army and commander of the American forces at the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812. This battle saw a numerically superior British force fall to Jackson’s troops. Jackson was seen as a hero after this surprising victory, ensuring his future ascendance to the highest office in the land.

Once in office, Jackson supported and fast-tracked the United States Indian Removal Act. This bill required Native Americans living in the American Southeast to leave their homes and relocate thousands of miles west to what is present-day Oklahoma.

In modern times this area also goes by another name: Tornado Alley. A dubious distinction, and a very unfortunate place to have to relocate to. The natives resisted initially but were eventually forced west.

Just like Milosevic’s actions, this event was little more than a land grab. Milosevic wanted Kosovo to be a part of Serbia once more. Jackson also wanted the land, as well as the subjugation of the natives. In 1830, the year the Indian Removal Act was signed into law by Jackson, the Cherokee alone were in possession of six million acres in Georgia, with their own laws and constitution to boot, thanks to treaties with the U.S. federal government.

As many as 8,000 out of 20,000 Cherokee were said to have died as a result of the policies designed to rid the American Southeast of Native Americans. In the present day, this would likely be designated a crime against humanity, and the perpetrators would be subject to being dragged before the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

So why is a man responsible for crimes against humanity allowed to grace the cover of the $20 bill?

Ignorance is one excuse. During a run-up to the highly anticipated Aug. 30 football match pitting the No. 1 ranked and defending Bowl Championship Series national champion the Florida State Seminoles against the Oklahoma State Cowboys, a group of OSU fans held up a banner with the hashtag #Trail_of_Tears. The sign also said to “Send ‘Em Home.” This act of insensitivity caused a national uproar which brought the frequent trivialization of native suffering to the forefront of the national conscience.

The students probably thought their actions would be acceptable because, in their minds, the sign is harmless and all in good fun. These students are but a small sampling of a wider trend of ambivalence, apathy and a general lack of respect for what Native Americans endured at the hands of European settlers, and eventually the U.S. government.

Another example of the ongoing mockery that is made of Native American suffering is the name of the three-time Super Bowl winning football team, the Washington Redskins. Historically speaking, it is ironic yet fitting that the National Football League team, now representing the power center from which the Indian Removal Act was passed, is named after a racial slur.

This issue could be approaching a critical mass, as the editorial board at the Washington Post has recently stopped referring to the Redskins by name unless absolutely necessary and, according to a statement from the board, are “[waiting] for the National Football League to catch up with thoughtful opinion and common decency.”

While it would be overreaching for the U.S. federal government to attempt to influence the outcome of the Washington Redskins dilemma due to it being a business matter, it can at least set a good example and catch up to the “thoughtful opinion and common decency” the Washington Post editorial board spoke of.

If the U.S. wants to show that it is truly sorry for what can be categorized as sanctioned ethnic cleansing, then a good start would be to remove the face of a shameful period in American history from our legal tender. The U.S. needs to remove Jackson from the face of the $20 bill.