Far before the terms Native American or Indian were considered, the tribes were spread throughout 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 thousands of years, the American Indian developed its culture and legacy without interference. And that history is captivating.
From Mayan and Incan ruins, from the mounds left in the central and southern parts of what is currently the U.S. we have learned quite a bit. It’s a tale of beautiful craft work and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed remarkably advanced structures and public works.
While there was inevitable tribal conflict, that was just a slight blemish in the experience of our forebears. They were at peace with this beautiful continent and deeply connected to nature.
The European Settler Arrives
When European leaders sent the first ships in this direction, the objective was to explore new resources – however 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 drive to colonize spread like wildfire.
The English, French and Spanish rushed to carve up the “New World” by sending over inadequately prepared colonists as fast as they could. At first, they skirmished with the surprised Indians of America’s eastern seaboard. But that shortly gave way to trade, because the Europeans who landed here understood their survival was doubtful with no native help.
Thus followed years of relative peace as the settlers got themselves established on American land. But the pressure to push inland came soon after. Kings and queens from thousands of miles away were anxious to locate additional resources, and some colonists came for freedom and adventure.
They required more space. And so began the process of forcing the American Indian out of the way.
It took the shape of cash arrangements, barter, and notoriously, treaties that were almost consistently neglected once the Indians were pushed from the land 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 virtually all Native American tribes, roughly 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 land of the Southern Plains.
The Sioux, Crows and Blackfeet dominated the Northern Plains. These Native American groups met misfortune as the constant flow of European immigrants into northeastern American cities pushed a stream of immigrants into the western lands already populated by these various groups of Indians.
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The early nineteenth century of the United States was marked by its continual 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 as well as the authority over Oregon country, Texas and California; America’s expansion wouldn’t end there. Between 1830 and 1860 the United States pretty much doubled the amount of acreage under its control.
These territorial gains coincided with the arrival of troves 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 attractive possibilities for those willing to make the huge journey westward. As a result, with the military’s protection and the U.S. government’s assistance, many settlers set about establishing 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 regulations and operations developed and adapted in the United States to define the relationship between Native American tribes and the federal government. When the United States first became a sovereign country, it implemented the European policies towards the native peoples, but over two centuries the U.S. designed its very own widely varying regulations regarding the changing perspectives and requirements of Native American oversight.
In 1824, in order to execute the U.S. government’s Native American policies, Congress made a new bureau within the War Department called the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which worked closely with the U.S. Army to enforce their policies. At times the federal government recognized the Indians as self-governing, independent political communities with different 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 customs.
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With the steady flow of settlers into Indian “” land, Eastern newspapers published sensationalized stories 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 not the norm; in fact, Native American tribes generally helped settlers get across 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 good natures of the American Indians, settlers still anticipated the possibility of an attack.
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To calm these concerns, in 1851 the U.S. government placed a conference with several local Indian tribes and established the Treaty of Fort Laramie. Within this treaty, each Native American tribe consented to a bounded territory, allowed the government to construct tracks and forts in this territory and agreed not to ever assault settlers; in return the federal government agreed to honor the boundaries of each tribe’s territory and make annual 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 signed the treaty, even agreed to end the hostilities amidst their tribes in order to accept the terms of the treaty.
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This peaceful accord between the U.S. government and the Native American tribes didn’t 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 permitting thousands of non-Indians to flood into the area. With so many newcomers heading west, the federal government established a policy of limiting Native Americans to reservations, limited swaths of land within a group’s territory “” earmarked exclusively for Indian use, in order to provide more land for the non-Indian settlers.
In a series of new treaties the U.S. government commanded Native Americans to surrender their land and move to reservations in exchange for protection from attacks by white settlers. In addition, the Indians were offered a yearly payment that would include money in addition to foodstuffs, livestock, household goods and agricultural equipment. These reservations were created in an attempt to pave the way for increasing U.S. expansion and involvement in the West, as well as to keep the Native Americans divided from the whites in order to lessen the potential for conflict.
History of the Plains Indians
These agreements had many problems. Most significantly many of the native peoples did not entirely understand the document that they were finalizing or the conditions within it; further, the treaties did not acknowledge the cultural norms of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government agencies responsible for administering these policies were weighed down with awful management and corruption. In fact most treaty conditions were never carried out.
The U.S. government almost never honored their side of the deals even when the Native Americans moved quietly to their reservations. Dishonest bureau agents frequently sold off the supplies that were meant for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Additionally, as settlers required more territory in the West, the government frequently cut the size of Indian reservations. By this time, many of the Native American peoples were dissatisfied with the treaties and angered by the settlers’ endless appetite for territory.
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Angered by the government’s dishonest and unjust policies, several Native American tribes, including bands of Cheyennes, Arapahos, Comanches and Sioux, fought back. As they fought to maintain their territories and their tribes’ survival, more than one thousand skirmishes and battles broke out in the West between 1861 and 1891. In an effort to coerce Native Americans onto the reservations and to end the violence, the U.S. government responded to these hostilities with costly military campaigns. Clearly the U.S. government’s Indian regulations were in need an adjustment.
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Native American policy shifted drastically after the Civil War. Reformers felt that the policy of forcing Native Americans on to reservations was too severe even though industrialists, who were concerned with their land and resources, viewed assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” as the sole long-term means of ensuring Native American survival. In 1871 the federal government passed a pivotal law proclaiming that the United States would no longer deal with Native American tribes as sovereign entities.
This legislation signaled a major shift in the government’s working relationship with the native peoples – Congress now considered the Native Americans, not as countries outside of its jurisdiction, but as wards of the government. By making Native Americans wards of the U.S. government, Congress believed that it was better to make the policy of assimilation a widely accepted part of the cultural mainstream of America.
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Many U.S. government administrators perceived assimilation as the most practical solution to what they deemed “the Indian problem,” and the only permanent strategy for protecting U.S. interests in the West and the survival of the American Indians. In order to accomplish this, the government pushed Native Americans to move out of their established dwellings, move into wooden homes and grow into farmers.
The federal government handed down laws that required Native Americans to quit their traditional appearance and way of life. Some laws banned traditional spiritual practices while others required Indian males to cut their long locks. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations founded tribunals to enforce federal polices that often restricted traditional cultural and spiritual practices.
To speed the assimilation course, the government set up Indian training centers that tried to quickly and forcefully Americanize Indian kids. According to the founder of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, the schools were created to “kill the Indian and save the man.” In order to accomplish this goal, the schools required enrollees to speak only English, put on proper American clothing and to replace their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new policies helped bring Native Americans nearer to the conclusion of their traditional tribal identity and the start of their existence as citizens under the complete control of the U.S. government.
Native American Treaties with the United States
In 1887, Congress passed the General Allotment Act, the most important component of the U.S. government’s assimilation program, which was designed to “civilize” American Indians by educating them to become farmers. In order to accomplish this, Congress wanted to establish private ownership of Indian property by dividing reservations, which were collectively owned, and offering each family their own block of land.
Additionally, by forcing the Native Americans onto small plots, western developers and settlers could purchase the remaining acreage. The General Allotment Act, better known as the Dawes Act, required that the Indian lands be surveyed and every family be given an allotment of between 80 and 160 acres, while unmarried adults were given between 40 to 80 acres; the rest of the territory was to be sold. Congress thought that the Dawes Act would breakup Indian tribes and increase individual enterprise, while trimming the cost of Indian supervision and producing prime property to be sold to white settlers.
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The Dawes Act proved to be disastrous for the American Indians; over the next decades they lived under policies that outlawed their traditional approach to life yet didn’t offer the critical resources to support their businesses and households. Dividing the reservations into small parcels of land led to the significant reduction of Indian-owned property. Within thirty years, the people had lost in excess of two-thirds of the acreage that they had controlled before the Dawes Act was enacted in 1887; the majority of the remaining land was purchased by white settlers.
Usually, Native Americans were duped out of their allotments or were forced to sell their property in order pay bills and take care of their families. Because of that, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were generally not able to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, like the makers of the policy had anticipated. This also created animosity among Indians for the U.S. government, as the allotment operation often ruined land that was the spiritual and social hub of their lives.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed tremendously. Due to U.S. administration policies, American Indians were forced from their housing because their native lands were parceled out. The Plains, which they had previously roamed without limits, were now inhabited with white settlers.
The Upshot of the Indian Wars
Over the years the Indians have been defrauded out of their territory, food and approach to life, as the federal government’s Indian plans coerced them inside reservations and attempted to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands didn’t survive relocation, cultural destruction and military loss; by 1890 the Native American population was lowered to less than 250,000 persons. As a result of generations of discriminatory and dodgy policies instituted by the United States authorities between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was changed permanently.
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