Ages before the terms Native American or Indian were necessary, the tribes were spread all over the Americas. Before any white man set foot on this land, it was settled by the forefathers of bands we now call Sioux, or Cherokee, or Iroquois.
For centuries, the American Indian grew its customs and heritage without interference. And that history is fascinating.
From Mayan and Incan ruins, from the mounds left in the central and southern parts of what’s currently the U.S. we have learned quite a bit. It’s a story of beautiful artwork and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed remarkably elaborate buildings and public works.
While there was unavoidable tribal conflict, that was just a slight blemish in the history of our forebears. They were at peace with this beautiful continent and deeply connected to nature.
The European Settler Arrives
When European leaders dispatched the first ships in this direction, the objective was to discover new resources – but the quality of weather and the bounty of everything from wood to wildlife soon changed their tune. As those leaders learned from their explorers, the motivation to colonize spread like wildfire.
The English, French and Spanish raced to slice up the “New World” by transporting over poorly prepared colonists as fast as they could. Initially, they skirmished with the surprised Indians of America’s eastern seaboard. But that ultimately gave way to trade, since the Europeans who arrived here understood that their survival was doubtful without native help.
Thus followed decades of relative peace as the settlers got themselves established on American soil. But the pressure to push inland came soon after. Kings and queens from thousands of miles away were impatient to locate even more resources, and some colonists came for freedom and opportunity.
They needed more space. And so began the process of forcing the American Indian out of the way.
It took the shape of cash payments, barter, and notoriously, treaties which were almost consistently neglected after the Indians were forced off the territory in question.
The U.S. government’s policies towards Native Americans in the second half of the nineteenth century were determined by the desire to expand westward into regions inhabited by these Native American tribes. By the 1850s nearly all Native American tribes, approximately 360,000 in number, lived to the west of the Mississippi River. These American Indians, some from the Northwestern and Southeastern territories, were confined to Indian Territory situated in present day Oklahoma, while the Kiowa and Comanche Native American tribes shared the area of the Southern Plains.
The Sioux, Crows and Blackfeet dominated the Northern Plains. These Native American groups encountered misfortune as the constant flow of European immigrants into northeastern American cities delivered a stream of immigrants into the western lands already inhabited by these diverse groups of Indians.
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The early nineteenth century of the United States was marked by its steady expansion to the Mississippi River. However, due to the Gadsden purchase, that lead to U.S. control of the borderlands of southern New Mexico and Arizona in addition to the authority over Oregon country, Texas and California; America’s expansion would not end there. Between 1830 and 1860 the United States practically doubled the amount of acreage within its control.
These territorial gains coincided with the arrival of hordes of European and Asian immigrants who wanted to join the surge of American settlers heading west. This, combined with the discovery of gold in 1849, presented captivating opportunities for those prepared make the long trip westward. As a result, with the military’s protection and the U.S. government’s assistance, many settlers set about building their homesteads in the Great Plains and other areas of the Native American tribe-inhabited West.
Native American Tribes
Native American Policy can be defined as the laws and regulations and procedures made and adapted in the United States to define the relationship between Native American tribes and the federal government. When the United States initially became a sovereign nation, it adopted the European policies towards the native peoples, but over the course of two centuries the U.S. tailored its own widely varying regulations regarding the changing perspectives and requirements of Native American supervision.
In 1824, in order to administer the U.S. government’s Native American policies, Congress created a new agency within the War Department referred to as Bureau of Indian Affairs, which worked directly with the U.S. Army to enforce their policies. At times the federal government recognized the Indians as self-governing, distinct political communities with numerous cultural identities; however, at other times the government attempted to compel the Native American tribes to abandon their cultural identity, hand over their land and assimilate into the American culture.
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With the steady flow of settlers in to Indian controlled land, Eastern newspapers circulated sensationalized reports of savage native tribes carrying out massive massacres of hundreds of white travelers. Although some settlers lost their lives to American Indian attacks, this was in no way the norm; in fact, Native American tribes repeatedly helped settlers cross over the Plains. Not only did the American Indians sell wild game and other necessities to travelers, but they acted as guides and messengers between wagon trains as well. Despite the friendly natures of the American Indians, settlers still anticipated the risk of an attack.
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To calm these concerns, in 1851 the U.S. government held a conference with several local Indian tribes and established the Treaty of Fort Laramie. Under this treaty, each Native American tribe accepted a bounded territory, allowed the government to construct tracks and forts in this territory and agreed not to attack settlers; in return the federal government agreed to honor the boundaries of each tribe’s territory and make total payments to the Indians. The Native American tribes responded quietly to the treaty; in fact the Cheyenne, Sioux, Crow, Arapaho, Assinibione, Mandan, Gros Ventre and Arikara tribes, who entered into the treaty, even consented to end the hostilities amongst their tribes in order to accept the terms of the treaty.
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This peaceful agreement between the U.S. government and the Native American tribes did not stand long. After hearing stories of fertile acreage and tremendous mineral wealth in the West, the government soon broke their promises established in the Treat of Fort Laramie by allowing thousands of non-Indians to flood into the area. With so many newcomers moving west, the federal government established a plan of limiting Native Americans to reservations, small swaths of acreage within a group’s territory that was reserved exclusively for Indian use, to be able to grant more land for the non-Indian settlers.
In a series of new treaties the U.S. government made Native Americans to surrender their land and migrate to reservations in exchange for protection from attacks by white settlers. In addition, the Indians were offered a yearly payment that would include cash in addition to food, animals, household goods and agricultural tools. These reservations were established in an attempt to clear the way for heightened U.S. expansion and involvement in the West, as well as to keep the Native Americans separate from the whites in order to lessen the potential for conflict.
History of the Plains Indians
These agreements had many challenges. Most significantly many of the native people didn’t altogether understand the document that they were signing or the conditions within it; moreover, the treaties did not consider the cultural practices of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government agencies accountable for applying these policies were weighed down with poor management and corruption. In fact many treaty provisions were never executed.
The U.S. government almost never honored their side of the deals even when the Native Americans migrated quietly to their reservations. Dishonest bureau agents repeatedly sold the supplies that were intended for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Moreover, as settlers required more territory in the West, the government continually decreased the size of the reservations. By this time, many of the Native American peoples were unhappy with the treaties and angered by the settlers’ constant appetite for territory.
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Angered by the government’s dishonorable and unfair policies, several Native American tribes, including bands of Cheyennes, Arapahos, Comanches and Sioux, battled back. As they fought to defend their territories and their tribes’ survival, over a thousand skirmishes and battles broke out in the West between 1861 and 1891. In an attempt to coerce Native Americans onto the reservations and to end the violence, the U.S. government reacted to these skirmishes with significant military operations. Clearly the U.S. government’s Indian regulations required an adjustment.
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Native American policy shifted radically following the Civil War. Reformers believed that the scheme of driving Native Americans inside reservations was too severe even though industrialists, who were concerned with their land and resources, looked at assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” as the singular long-term method of assuring Native American survival. In 1871 the federal government passed a pivotal law stating that the United States would not deal with Native American tribes as sovereign entities.
This law signaled a drastic shift in the government’s working relationship with the native peoples – Congress now deemed the Native Americans, not as nations outside of its jurisdictional control, but as wards of the government. By making Native Americans wards of the U.S. government, Congress imagined that it would be better to make the policy of assimilation a widely recognized part of the cultural mainstream of America.
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Many U.S. government representatives looked at assimilation as the most practical remedy for what they viewed as “the Indian problem,” and the sole permanent strategy for guaranteeing U.S. interests in the West and the survival of the American Indians. In order to accomplish this, the government pressed Native Americans to relocate out of their traditional dwellings, move into wooden dwellings and grow into farmers.
The federal government handed down laws that required Native Americans to reject their traditional appearance and way of living. Some laws outlawed common spiritual practices while others required Indian men to cut their long locks. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations organized tribunals to impose federal regulations that often banned traditional ethnic and religious practices.
To speed the assimilation operation, the government started Indian facilities that tried to quickly and vigorously Americanize Indian kids. According to the director of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, the schools were created to “kill the Indian and save the man.” In order to achieve this objective, the schools compelled students to speak only English, wear proper American attire and to substitute their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new policies helped bring Native Americans nearer to the end of their classic tribal identity and the start of their existence as citizens under the absolute control of the U.S. administration.
Native American Treaties with the United States
In 1887, Congress passed the General Allotment Act, the most significant part of the U.S. government’s assimilation program, which was developed to “civilize” American Indians by teaching them to become farmers. In order to achieve this, Congress needed to establish non-public title of Indian land by dividing reservations, which were collectively held, and allowing each family their own block of land.
In addition to this, by forcing the Native Americans onto limited plots, western developers and settlers could purchase the left over acreage. The General Allotment Act, better known as the Dawes Act, required that the Indian lands be surveyed and each family be given an allotment of between 80 and 160 acres, while unmarried adults were given between 40 to 80 acres; the residual territory was to be sold. Congress hoped that the Dawes Act would divide Indian tribes and inspire individual enterprise, while trimming the cost of Indian administration and providing prime land to be sold to white settlers.
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The Dawes Act proved to be catastrophic for the American Indians; over the next generations they lived under policies that outlawed their traditional way of living yet did not provide the crucial resources to support their businesses and families. Splitting the reservations into smaller parcels of land triggered the significant reduction of Indian-owned property. Inside three decades, the tribes had lost more than two-thirds of the territory that they had controlled before the Dawes Act was enacted in 1887; the majority of the remaining land was purchased by white settlers.
Frequently, Native Americans were cheated out of their allotments or were forced to sell off their land in order pay bills and feed their own families. Because of that, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were often unable to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, like the makers of the Act had intended. It also generated resentment among Indians for the U.S. government, as the allotment practice often destroyed land that was the spiritual and cultural centre of their lives.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed radically. Through U.S. administration policies, American Indians were forced from their living spaces as their native lands were parceled out. The Plains, which they had previously roamed alone, were now filled up with white settlers.
The Upshot of the Indian Wars
Over these years the Indians had been cheated out of their property, food and approach to life, as the “” government’s Indian regulations coerced them into reservations and tried to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands did not make it through relocation, assimilation and military loss; by 1890 the Native American population was decreased to under 250,000 persons. Thanks to generations of discriminatory and dodgy policies implemented by the United States authorities between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was altered forever.
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