I’m a Native American activist, and my white ancestor painted Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill

Good ‘ol Andrew.
Good ‘ol Andrew.
Image: AP Photo/File, Dan Loh
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I was shocked when I found out that my ancestor Thomas Sully, a 19th-century artist in Philadelphia, painted the portrait that has graced the American $20 bill since 1928. I had known Sully had painted Andrew Jackson—he painted many famous people at the time, from Thomas Jefferson to a young Queen Victoria—but something about this particular portrait, and its claim to fame, felt different.

As my dad, a proud Dakota man likes to say, “He should have shot him, not painted him.”

As a Native American woman, I rejoiced when I learned Andrew Jackson was going to lose his prominent spot on the front of the $20. It felt particularly sweet that Jackson—the infamous architect of a forced removal plan that killed thousands of Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, and Seminole women, children, and men—was going to be replaced by Harriet Tubman. Talk about someone who represents the very best of what Americans can be, especially when faced with inhumanity on a scale that most of us can hardly imagine. The contrast was striking: the selflessly brave with the casually ruthless.

Then I learned that Jackson would still be on the $20 bill, just on the back, where the engraving of notable federal buildings is usually found. I was outraged. By keeping Jackson on the bill, the US Treasury Department reminds Americans that we are still unwilling to fully grasp our nation’s history. We may call ourselves “the land of the free,” but in fact it is the taking of land and theft of lives that really created what this country is today.

Thomas Sully’s son was colonel Alfred Sully, a brigadier general in the American Civil War who arrived on the doorstep of our people, the Yankton Dakota Sioux, in 1863. At the time, Sully was in hot pursuit of the desperate remnants of our cousins, the Santee Dakota Sioux. The Santee had fled Minnesota after the Minnesota Sioux Uprising (also known as the Dakota War of 1862). The US had failed to honor treaties guaranteeing payment in return for land, as well as other concessions, and the Santee were starving. The last straw allegedly came when a corrupt Indian agent told a Dakota father to feed his starving daughter grass. The Indian agent’s body was found not long after, reportedly stuffed with grass.

Colonel Sully demanded my ancestors hand the Santee over to the US government. When we refused, he threatened to kill us all. It’s a story that is sadly unremarkable despite its brutal undertones—it has been repeated over and over again throughout the history of the US.

Earlier this year, I covered the Bundy takeover of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. Ammon Bundy claimed to be occupying public lands in order to return the land to the “original owners” and to be “freeing these lands up, and getting ranchers back to ranching, getting the loggers back to logging, getting the miners back to mining,” without fearing the tyranny of the federal government. How ironic, as the true original owners, of course, were Native Americans.

In fact, Bundy’s words reminded me of a speech Jackson gave as the leader of a group of Tennessee militia fighting the British in the War of 1812:

“Who are we? And for what are we going to fight? Are we the titled slaves of George III? The military conscripts of Napoleon the Great? Or the frozen peasants of the Russian Czar? No—we are the free born sons of America; the citizens of the only republic now existing in the world; and the only people on earth who possess rights, liberties, and property which they dare call their own.”

Once again, this fight for “freedom” involved fighting not just the British, but their allies, the free people of the Muscogee Creek tribe. In one battle, Jackson’s militia reportedly killed 1,000 Creek and burned down their village. As US president, he pushed for the passage of the Indian Removal Act. He later replaced these free communities with plantations worked by enslaved African Americans. This was his definition of freedom, apparently.

In this context, what does freedom even mean? For our people, it has meant the transformation of our wealth into pieces of paper, of which there never is enough. It’s not clear that American bills, of any denomination, have earned the right to have a woman like Harriet Tubman on them. Here was a woman who worked to take people out of slavery now set to decorate something that has arguably been used to enslave us.

Returning to the story of colonel Sully, the officer eventually relented, and to this day the Santee enjoy a reservation across the Missouri River from us in what is now Nebraska. He later met a young part-French Yankton woman, and he took her as his wife. Their daughter, Mary Sully, is my great-great-grandmother.

In 1974, Alfred Sully’s grandson, Langdon, wrote a book about his (and my) ancestor entitled No Tears for the General: The Life of Alfred Sully. In it, he omitted the existence of his Yankton Dakota relatives. He did not even mention his cousin, Vine Deloria, Jr., who wrote the acclaimed 1969 bestseller Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto.

And yet, my side of the family remembers this connection. It ties us to our survival, and ensures that we will never forget the horror of that time. Sully and Jackson are two sides of the same coin. A coin that was paid for by suffering that remains unacknowledged. We talk about our country in terms of “freedom,” but our new $20 is a reminder that freedom in the American tradition means very different things depending on who is doing the telling.