Woes of the “Forgotten Foes”: Indigenous People and the Mexican-American War
Updated: Aug 12
By Maya Rodgers
An Apache scout on horseback, mid-to-late 19th century (Photo by Edward S. Curtis)
Many people in the U.S. are well aware of the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, when President Jefferson bought much of the land that would become the U.S. from Napoleon Bonaparte. Fewer people, however, remember how the rest of the land west of the Rocky Mountains became part of the U.S. This process occurred due to the Mexican-American War, which concluded in 1848 with the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. This treaty paid the Mexican government the same sum of money for Mexican territory as Napoleon had been paid for the Louisiana Purchase. And while the Mexican-American War is now remembered mainly through the Alamo and the acquisition of much of the western United States, what often gets lost is the war’s impact on the peoples who resided in these territories.
Modern-day Mexico recognizes 56 indigenous languages and approximately 11% of the country’s population identifies as indigenous. And while many states in Mexico have large populations of proud indigenous Mexicans, such as Oaxaca, the histories, oral traditions, and cultures of many tribes were fractured due to the Mexican-American War. A 2019 article details how the 1848 treaty split the land of 36 indigenous tribes in two. And while some protections exist to allow tribal members access to land across country borders, recent activities such as President Trump’s expanded border wall, stringent measures to prove indigenous identity in the eyes of the federal government, and increased surveillance by ICE have made it more difficult for indigenous people to access sacred land. This land is essential for tribal culture and tradition. The constraints of white Western ideas of property, cultural heritage, record keeping, and ownership have been and continue to be used to control the rights and expressions of indigenous people in North America.
The better-known peoples who inhabited the land that became modern-day Mexico and the U.S. were the Maya, the Olmecs, the Aztecs, and the Zapotecs. However, many smaller tribes without the same record-keeping systems and expansive powers of these civilizations also existed. Many of these groups continue to exist today without much external or historical recognition. In the context of the Mexican-American War, many indigenous peoples fought against the terror inflicted by the U.S., only for their land and identities to be erased. And the legacy of imperialism and colonialism in the U.S. and Mexico continues to harm indigenous people today. According to a 2015 UN report, over 80% of Mexico’s indigenous population lives in extreme poverty, facing higher mortality rates and lower education and literacy rates compared to the country as a whole. It is important for us not only to advocate for and support indigenous tribes, but also to learn about, appreciate, and support their beauty, culture, and creativity. People are more than their struggles, but the struggles that indigenous people face require genuine allies, which we all should strive to become.