Long before the terms Native American or Indian were created, 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 traditions and heritage without interference. And that history is captivating.
From Mayan and Incan ruins, from the mounds left in the central and southern regions of what is now the U.S. we have learned much. It’s a tale of beautiful craft work and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed highly advanced buildings and public works.
While there was inescapable tribal conflict, that was simply a slight blemish in the account of our ancestors. They were at peace with this beautiful continent and intensely connected to nature.
The European Settler Arrives
When European leaders dispatched the first ships in this direction, the goal was to discover new resources – but the quality of environment and the bounty of everything from timber to wildlife soon changed their tune. As those leaders heard back from their explorers, the motivation to colonize spread like wildfire.
The English, French and Spanish raced to slice up the “New World” by shipping over poorly prepared colonists as fast as they could. Initially, they skirmished with the alarmed Indians of America’s eastern seaboard. But that ultimately gave way to trade, since the Europeans who landed here learned that their survival was doubtful without Indian help.
Thus followed years of comparative peace as the settlers got themselves established on American soil. But the drive to push inland came soon after. Kings and queens from thousands of miles away were restless to find even more resources, and some colonists came for independence and opportunity.
They needed more space. And so began the process of forcing the American Indian out of the way.
It took the form of cash arrangements, barter, and notoriously, treaties which were almost uniformly neglected after the Indians were moved from the territory in question.
The U.S. government’s policies towards Native Americans in the second half of the nineteenth century were influenced by the desire to expand westward into regions inhabited by these Native American tribes. By the 1850s almost 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 contemporary 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 hardship as the constant flow of European immigrants into northeastern American cities delivered a stream of immigrants into the western lands already occupied by these diverse 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 along with the authority over Oregon country, Texas and California; America’s expansion wouldn’t end there. Between 1830 and 1860 the U.S. pretty much doubled the amount of acreage within its control.
These territorial gains coincided with the arrival of hordes of European and Asian immigrants who wished to join the surge of American settlers heading west. This, partnered with the discovery of gold in 1849, presented captivating opportunities for those prepared make the huge journey westward. Therefore, with the military’s protection and the U.S. government’s assistance, many settlers started building their homesteads in the Great Plains and other parts of the Native American group-inhabited West.
Native American Tribes
Native American Policy can be defined as the laws and regulations and procedures established and adapted in the United States to define the relationship between Native American tribes and the federal government. When the United States initially became an independent nation, it adopted the European policies towards the local peoples, but over the course of two centuries the U.S. adapted its own widely varying regulations regarding the changing perspectives and necessities of Native American regulation.
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 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 varying cultural identities; however, at other times the government attempted to force the Native American tribes to give up their cultural identity, hand over their land and assimilate into the American traditions.
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With the steady flow of settlers in to Indian “” land, Eastern newspapers printed sensationalized stories of cruel 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 routinely helped settlers cross over the Plains. Not only did the American Indians offer wild game and other necessities to travelers, but they acted as guides and messengers between wagon trains as well. Despite the genial natures of the American Indians, settlers still presumed the risk of an attack.
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To soothe these fears, in 1851 the U.S. government presented a conference with several local Indian tribes and established the Treaty of Fort Laramie. Under this treaty, each Native American tribe consented to a bounded territory, allowed the government to construct roadways and forts in this territory and agreed to not attack 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 peacefully to the treaty; in fact the Cheyenne, Sioux, Crow, Arapaho, Assinibione, Mandan, Gros Ventre and Arikara tribes, who signed the treaty, even consented to end the hostilities between their tribes to be able to accept the conditions of the treaty.
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This peaceful accord between the U.S. government and the Native American tribes did not last very long. After hearing reports of fertile acreage and tremendous mineral wealth in the West, the government soon broke their assurances established in the Treat of Fort Laramie by allowing thousands of non-Indians to flood into the region. With so many newcomers moving west, the federal government established a plan of confining Native Americans to reservations, limited areas of acreage within a group’s territory that was reserved exclusively for Indian use, to be able to give more land for “” non-Indian settlers.
In a series of new treaties the U.S. government forced Native Americans to abandon their land and migrate to reservations in exchange for protection from attacks by white settlers. In addition, the Indians were allocated a yearly stipend that would include cash in addition to foodstuffs, animals, household goods and farming tools. These reservations were created in an effort to pave the way for heightened U.S. expansion and administration in the West, as well as to keep the Native Americans divided from the whites in order to reduce the potential for friction.
History of the Plains Indians
These agreements had many challenges. Most significantly many of the native peoples didn’t completely understand the document that they were finalizing or the conditions within it; further, the treaties did not consider the cultural practices of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government agencies accountable for administering these policies were overwhelmed with poor management and corruption. In fact most treaty conditions were never implemented.
The U.S. government rarely honored their side of the accords even when the Native Americans moved quietly to their reservations. Shady bureau agents repeatedly sold off the supplies that were meant for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Additionally, as settlers needed more land in the West, the government continually decreased the size of the reservations. By this time, many of the Native American people were dissatisfied with the treaties and angered by the settlers’ constant appetite for territory.
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Angered by the government’s deceitful and unjust policies, some Native American tribes, including bands of Cheyennes, Arapahos, Comanches and Sioux, battled back. As they struggled to maintain their lands and their tribes’ survival, more than one thousand skirmishes and battles broke out in the West between 1861 and 1891. In an effort to push Native Americans onto the reservations and to end the violence, the U.S. government responded to these hostilities with costly military operations. Obviously the U.S. government’s Indian regulations were in need of a change.
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Native American policy changed radically following the Civil War. Reformers believed that the scheme of driving Native Americans onto reservations was too strict while industrialists, who were concerned with their property and resources, thought of assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” to be the lone long-term means of assuring Native American survival. In 1871 the government passed a critical law stating that the United States would not deal with Native American tribes as autonomous entities.
This law signaled a drastic change in the government’s relationship with the native peoples – Congress now regarded 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 concluded that it was better to make the policy of assimilation a broadly accepted part of the cultural mainstream of America.
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Many U.S. government administrators viewed assimilation as the most practical solution to what they viewed as “the Indian problem,” and the only lasting method of insuring U.S. interests in the West and the survival of the American Indians. In order to accomplish this, the government urged Native Americans to relocate out of their established dwellings, move into wooden homes and turn into farmers.
The federal government enacted laws that required Native Americans to abandon their traditional appearance and lifestyle. Some laws banned customary spiritual practices while others instructed Indian males to cut their long locks. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations organized tribunals to implement federal polices that often restricted traditional cultural and religious practices.
To hasten the assimilation process, the government started Indian training centers that tried to quickly and vigorously Americanize Indian children. As per the founder of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, the schools were designed to “kill the Indian and save the man.” In order to accomplish this goal, the schools required pupils to speak only English, wear proper American clothing and to replace their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new regulations brought Native Americans closer to the end of their original tribal identity and the beginning of their life as citizens under the full 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 platform, which was intended to “civilize” American Indians by teaching them to be farmers. In order to make this happen, Congress needed to create private title of Indian land by dividing reservations, which were collectively held, and issuing each family their own stretch of land.
Additionally, by pushing the Native Americans onto limited plots of land, western developers and settlers could purchase the left over acreage. The General Allotment Act, also 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 received between 40 to 80 acres; the residual territory was to be sold. Congress hoped that the Dawes Act would break-up Indian tribes and stimulate individual enterprise, while reducing the expense of Indian supervision and producing prime land to be sold to white settlers.
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The Dawes Act turned out to be catastrophic for the American Indians; over the next generations they lived under regulations that outlawed their traditional approach to life but failed to provide the necessary resources to support their businesses and households. Splitting the reservations into smaller parcels of land triggered the significant decrease of Indian-owned land. Inside three decades, the tribes had lost more than two-thirds of the region that they had controlled before the Dawes Act was enacted in 1887; the majority of the remaining land was sold to white settlers.
Regularly, Native Americans were duped out of their allotments or were forced to sell off their land in order to pay bills and feed their own families. Because of that, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were generally unable to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, like the creators of the policy had desired. This also created anger among Indians for the U.S. government, as the allotment operation sometimes destroyed land that was the spiritual and societal centre of their activities.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed significantly. Due to U.S. government policies, American Indians were forced from their housing as their native lands were parceled out. The Plains, which they had previously roamed alone, were now filled with white settlers.
The Upshot of the Indian Wars
Over the years the Indians ended up cheated out of their land, food and approach to life, as the “” government’s Indian plans coerced them inside reservations and attempted to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands could not make it through relocation, cultural destruction and military defeat; by 1890 the Native American population was reduced to less than 250,000 persons. Thanks to decades of discriminatory and ruthless policies instituted by the United States government between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was altered forever.
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