Pacific Postcards

America’s Claim to Power through Infrastructure and Displacement- Finnie

The Pacific embodies more than just an undiscovered body of water, but a representation of the possible power source and the race to conquer and claim such entity at any cost, especially in the age of exploration, becoming a major focus of the developing power that was the United States in the late 19th century. Motivated by capitalistic aspirations, this desire for power is reflected through the emphasis the United States placed upon infrastructure with the intention of not only seeking trade relations with China but utilizing the Northern Pacific Railroad as a tool of continental imperialism, with such tribes embodying solely an obstacle to conquer, a pattern witnessed with other resources. The Puyallup Indians, previous occupants of Tacoma, the territory selected for the Northern Pacific Railroad terminus with aim of connecting St. Paul to China, underwent displacement as stated in this 1893 agreement. This agreement details the stipulations for the acquisition and labor process between the commissioner of the railroad and the chief of the tribe. Such agreement reflects the notable power of the United States, demonstrated in their ability to exploit not only resources but labor and land as seen with the process of building the Northern Pacific Railroad. The imperialistic behavior assumed in inquiry for the land, the utilization of infrastructure's importance, and the supremacist stance embraced by the United States is visibly reflected through the language and details of the agreement, exhibiting the power status claim to the Pacific granted and its inherent resources embodied.

Driven by a desire for power, access, and control over the land occupied by the territories guaranteed not only global power but secured the American dream of manifest destiny. The agreement, issued by the Office of the Indian affairs historically experienced a shift from the War Department to the Department of the Interior earlier in the 19th century indicating the aim to expand and conquer westward. Yet, as Manu Karuka explains in Empire’s Tracks, the territory was dubbed the frontier implied as the “meeting point between savagery and civilization” (Karuka 168). This term reflects the deeper concept of the frontier’s embodiment as a “process and a relationship” in the eyes of the curious colonizer, the Americans (169). Such connotation applied to the territory also emphasizes the patronizing attitude inherently assumed by the Americans towards the Natives. Historically motivated by the idea of limited available free land, this prominent American characteristic was expected to slow post the conquering of the west, yet just sparked further interest in shifting from continental to overseas expansion inspiring the fixation on acquiring this specific tribal land. Although claimed “free” in Karuka’s writing, the acquisition of such land came at the cost of violence towards indigenous groups and the displacement of the native’s that previously occupied the land, visible in the treaty as “the land is not free, but instead richly known and richly claimed” (175). The vitality of acquiring such land is heavily emphasized in the agreement with the claim that “said branch line must pass through the reservation.” The definite vocabulary choice utilized in the agreement like “must” proves the forceful characteristics of the imperialists, painting it to be less of an agreement and more of a demand. This forceful language disregards the fact that other routes were a possibility as Sean Fraga analyzes in his piece, An Outlet to the Western Sea. Fraga points out that after much analysis and comparison, Tacoma was chosen due to its believed prime location being the nearest to the sea, with the closest possible access to connect the United States to Asia, the main goal for the Northern Pacific Railroad “to link the globe’s two aqueous sides” (443). Such emphasis on the particular terraqueous geography Tacoma offered resulted in the displacement of the Puyallup Indians, removing them from their ancestral territory and altering their relationships with such land through regulations ranging from labor to alcohol usage as stated in the agreement. The theft of these indigenous lands along with the attempt to replace the relationships proves the struggle that accompanies continental imperialism as the historic relationships culturally embedded between the tribes and their land is a dynamic that even a global power like the United States cannot mimic attempted by “conceiving the territorial, legal, political, and economic unit of the settler ‘nation’” (Karuka 171). Karuka describes this craving for expansion as a quintessential element of American life, as this energy will “continually demand a wider field for its exercise" (169). In such circumstances, "field for exercise" references the opportunity to conquer, connect, and expand westward beyond continental barriers. As the United States strove for global power beyond barriers of continental territory, acquiring control over these reservations was simply a stepping stone to achieving this, yet a stepping stone that held vital power in claiming access to the wealth of opportunity that the land held.

Infrastructure served as a tool of imperialism in the claim for power of the Pacific explaining the approach in which the United States took to acquire control over the natives through labor as the dire necessity for the establishment of the railroad is asserted in the agreement. Karuka claims this infrastructure as a “manifestation of railroad colonialism” a strategic attempt to “control the future” recognizing the political influence railroads withhold (40). Much attention was paid to the details of pursuing such infrastructure, yet little to no consideration was paid to the broader effects of this imperialistic move on the native groups. The agreement discusses the plan for labor, stating “preference will be given in the employment of the laborers.” Structured so in a way that appears to appeal to the native's best interest, yet as Fraga examines, the railroad “catalyzed new economic and political links while simultaneously reinforcing existing power structures” (Fraga 442). Karuka elaborates on this reinforcement of power structures, claiming it to be achieved through hierarchical systems of management, labor, and wages further deepening racial distinctions, as depicted in the agreement’s discussion of the quality and worth of their labor as later discussed. America’s recognition that the “capture and transformation of free land into a space of liberal imperialist freedom occurs through infrastructure” fed into the already present power dynamic held over the natives (Karuka 173). This power dynamic was only further strengthened by the labor forces required for the infrastructure dictating such behavior with consequences like, “a palpable violation of any of the following stipulations shall...the Indians annul and work with a withdrawal of their consent to the granting of said right of way.” Infrastructure not only allowed for influence over the continental territory acquired, but opened a new realm of opportunity to overseas power serving as “the great highway for the trade of China, Japan, and the East Indies, across the continent” (Fraga 444). Although physical connectors, railroads simultaneously created barriers and distinctions between class and race representing physical barriers that served as dividers between communities, cultures, people, and ideas as the divisive language distinguished the “Indians” deepening the barrier between them and the colonizers, by othering them. Infrastructure, and the implicit labor control it includes, held a vital role in not only shaping the West, but allowing authority over the territory, people, and their actions, meanwhile serving as a gateway to overseas expansion.


The entitlement demonstrated in the language of the agreement by the Americans reflects the supremacist attitude aligned with their imperialistic behavior as they sought out access to the Pacific’s global power. There is an inherent belief instilled within the American mindset that their “dominant” culture implied entitlement to the land demonstrating how “continental imperialism proceeds through an active production of ignorance” (Karuka 170). The demeaning language employed in the agreement reflects the belief that their needs trump over the pre- existing lives that occupied such territories and cultivated histories and cultures of their own. Specifically, through the forceful tone of the language present in the agreement, the superiority complex of the Northern Pacific Railroad corporation leader over the Native’s surfaces. Excerpts like, “when the Indian laborers will perform the work required to be done as well and as cheaply as it would be done by,” demonstrate the authoritative qualities of the agreement through language like “when” and “will.” Additionally, the general reference to the Native group as “Indians” illuminates the little acknowledgment and respect paid towards them as an entity. The language reflects the lack of equality within the agreement and the lack of a mutual consensus. Fraga analyzes how the tribal nation was eventually only left with 3% of the remaining reservation as a result of the masses of people that came drawn by the railroad activity to occupy Puyallup land. The method of railroad imperialism supplied not only control and access to raw materials but most importantly control over the land, in particular such land with valuable terraqueous geography. Therefore, unlike past relations witnessed with other native groups, the colonizers solely needed land from the native groups, not needing to cultivate relationships with them as their knowledge and labor was not a necessity. As previously mentioned, such disregard for developing genuine relationships is evident within the divisive othering that occurs when addressing the Indians, proving that this is less of an “agreement” and more of a call for the Natives to follow the orders of the Americans in pursuance of creating the Northern Pacific Railroad. This tendency to take and exploit is no new method of power acquisition for the US, as racism was frequently utilized as a tool to claim control over the natives who they deemed to be inherently subordinate to them, easing the difficulties of justifying their claim to the land. The undermining of Native culture and communities was employed by the Americans as a way of establishing their dominance, being solely economically and power-driven, with little regard to their greater impacts as evident within the language and intent of the agreement.

The Northern Pacific Railroad and the factors necessary to establish such railroad, territory, and labor for infrastructure, served as a key contributing factor to the process for claiming imperialistic power as America expanded westward and overseas, aiming to bridge the gap of the Pacific by taking advantage of such supplied opportunities establishing a supremacist stance over the Natives in such agreement with them. The dynamic of the relations, or lack of so, created between the natives and the people are reflected within this agreement, while simultaneously further highlighting the flaws of America’s path to power, underlining the prominence of the Pacific’s power in such era.

This page has paths: