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 territory, it was settled by the forefathers of bands we now call Sioux, or Cherokee, or Iroquois.
For centuries, the American Indian developed its traditions and legacy without disturbance. And that history is captivating.
From Mayan and Incan ruins, from the mounds left in the central and southern parts of what’s today the U.S. we have learned much. It’s a story of beautiful art and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed highly elaborate buildings and public works.
While there was inevitable 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 sent the first ships in our direction, the aim was to explore new resources – but the quality of weather and the bounty of everything from wood to wildlife soon changed their tune. As those leaders heard back from their explorers, the drive to colonize spread like wildfire.
The English, French and Spanish raced to carve up the “New World” by sending over poorly prepared colonists as fast as they could. At first, they skirmished with the alarmed Indians of America’s eastern seaboard. But that shortly gave way to trade, because the Europeans who came ashore here knew 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 anxious to locate additional resources, and some colonists came for freedom and opportunity.
They needed more space. And so began the process of pushing the American Indian out of the way.
It took the form of cash payments, barter, and notoriously, treaties which were almost uniformly neglected after the Indians were forced away from 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 occupied by these Native American tribes. By the 1850s almost 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 located in contemporary Oklahoma, while the Kiowa and Comanche Native American tribes shared the territory of the Southern Plains.
The Sioux, Crows and Blackfeet dominated the Northern Plains. These Native American groups encountered adversity as the constant stream of European immigrants into northeastern American cities pushed a stream of immigrants into the western lands already occupied by these various 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 wouldn’t end there. Between 1830 and 1860 the U.S. practically doubled the amount of land under 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, combined with the discovery of gold in 1849, presented attractive 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 started 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 procedures established and adapted in the United States to outline the relationship between Native American tribes and the federal government. When the United States initially became an independent country, it implemented the European policies towards these native peoples, but over the course of two centuries the U.S. adapted its own widely varying regulations regarding the evolving perspectives and necessities of Native American oversight.
In 1824, in order to apply the U.S. government’s Native American policies, Congress formed a new agency inside 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, independent political communities with numerous cultural identities; however, at other times the government attempted to compel the Native American tribes to abandon their cultural identity, surrender their land and assimilate into the American culture.
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With the steady flow of settlers in to Indian “” land, Eastern newspapers published 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 in no way the norm; in fact, Native American tribes often helped settlers cross the Plains. Not only did the American Indians peddle wild game and other necessities to travelers, but they served as guides and messengers between wagon trains as well. Despite the good natures of the American Indians, settlers still presumed the possibility of an attack.
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To calm these anxieties, in 1851 the U.S. government held 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 roads and forts in this territory and pledged to not go after settlers; in return the federal government agreed to honor the boundaries of each tribe’s territory and make gross 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 consented to end the hostilities amidst their tribes in order 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 stand long. After hearing tales of fertile land and great mineral wealth in the West, the government soon broke their pledge established in the Treat of Fort Laramie by allowing thousands of non-Indians to flood into the region. With so many newcomers heading west, the federal government established a plan of limiting Native Americans to reservations, limited areas of land within a group’s territory “” earmarked exclusively for Indian use, in order to provide more land for “” non-Indian settlers.
In a series of new treaties the U.S. government compelled Native Americans to abandon 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 cash in addition to foodstuffs, animals, household goods and agricultural equipment. These reservations were created in an effort 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 decrease the potential for friction.
History of the Plains Indians
These deals had many complications. Most significantly many of the native peoples did not properly understand the document that they were confirming or the conditions within it; moreover, the treaties did not acknowledge the cultural practices of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government agencies responsible for applying these policies were overwhelmed with poor management and corruption. In fact many treaty terms were never carried out.
The U.S. government rarely held up their side of the agreements even when the Native Americans relocated quietly to their reservations. Shady bureau agents often sold off the supplies that were meant for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Additionally, as settlers demanded more land in the West, the federal government constantly decreased the size of Indian reservations. By this time, many of the Native American peoples were unhappy with the treaties and angered by settlers’ constant demands for land.
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Angered by the government’s deceitful and unfair policies, some Native American tribes, including bands of Cheyennes, Arapahos, Comanches and Sioux, fought back. As they struggled to preserve their lands and their tribes’ survival, more than one thousand skirmishes and battles broke out in the West between 1861 and 1891. In an attempt to compel Native Americans onto the reservations and to end the violence, the U.S. government responded to these skirmishes with costly military campaigns. Obviously the U.S. government’s Indian policies required an adjustment.
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Native American policy changed considerably after the Civil War. Reformers believed that the scheme of driving Native Americans into reservations was far too harsh even while industrialists, who were concerned about their property and resources, looked at assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” to be the single long-term strategy for assuring Native American survival. In 1871 the government passed a pivotal law stating that the United States would no longer treat Native American tribes as autonomous entities.
This law signaled a drastic shift in the government’s relationship with the native peoples – Congress now deemed the Native Americans, not as countries outside of its jurisdiction, but as wards of the government. By making Native Americans wards of the “” government, Congress imagined that it would be better to make the policy of assimilation a broadly acknowledged part of the cultural mainstream of America.
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Many U.S. government representatives considered assimilation as the most practical solution to what they deemed “the Indian problem,” and the single long-term 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 traditional dwellings, move into wooden homes and turn into farmers.
The federal government enacted laws that pressed Native Americans to quit their established appearance and way of life. Some laws banned common spiritual practices while others ordered Indian men to cut their long locks. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations set up courts to impose federal regulations that often restricted traditional cultural and spiritual practices.
To boost the assimilation course, the government started Indian facilities that attempted to quickly and forcefully Americanize Indian youth. According to the founder of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, the schools were designed to “kill the Indian and save the man.” To be able to accomplish this objective, the schools forced enrollees to speak only English, put on proper American clothing and to switch their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new policies brought Native Americans closer to the conclusion of their traditional tribal identity and the start of their life as citizens under the absolute control of the U.S. administration.
Native American Treaties with the United States
In 1887, Congress handed down the General Allotment Act, the most important element of the U.S. government’s assimilation program, which was developed to “civilize” American Indians by teaching them to become farmers. In order to make this happen, Congress needed to create private title of Indian land by splitting up reservations, which were collectively held, and offering each family their own parcel of land.
In addition to this, by pushing the Native Americans onto limited plots of land, western developers and settlers could purchase the left over territory. The General Allotment Act, referred to as the Dawes Act, required that the Indian lands be surveyed and every family be awarded an allotment of between 80 and 160 acres, while unmarried adults were given between 40 to 80 acres; the remaining acreage was to be sold. Congress hoped that the Dawes Act would split up Indian tribes and inspire individual enterprise, while trimming the expense of Indian administration 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 decades they existed under regulations that outlawed their traditional way of living yet did not offer the vital resources to support their businesses and families. Dividing the reservations into small parcels of land led to the significant decrease of Indian-owned property. Within thirty years, the people had lost over two-thirds of the territory that they had controlled before the Dawes Act was passed in 1887; the majority of the remaining land was sold to white settlers.
Regularly, Native Americans were cheated out of their allotments or were forced to sell off their land in order to pay bills and feed their families. As a result, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were often not able to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, like the makers of the Act had desired. Further, it produced resentment among Indians toward the U.S. government, as the allotment practice often ruined land that was the spiritual and social centre of their activities.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed radically. Due to U.S. government policies, American Indians were forced from their homes as their native lands were parceled out. The Plains, which they had previously roamed without restriction, were now filled with white settlers.
The Upshot of the Indian Wars
Over these years the Indians have been cheated out of their territory, food and lifestyle, as the federal government’s Indian regulations coerced them into reservations and attempted to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands did not survive relocation, cultural destruction and military loss; by 1890 the Native American population was decreased to fewer than 250,000 people. Thanks to generations of discriminatory and corrupt policies instituted by the United States authorities between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was changed permanently.
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