Centuries before the terms Native American or Indian were created, 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 centuries, the American Indian developed its culture 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 tale of beautiful craft work and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed remarkably advanced buildings and public works.
While there was unavoidable tribal conflict, that was just a slight blemish in the account of our forebears. 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 objective was to explore new resources – but the quality of weather and the bounty of everything from wood to wildlife subsequently changed their tune. As those leaders heard back from their explorers, the motivation to colonize spread like wildfire.
The English, French and Spanish rushed to carve up the “New World” by shipping over inadequately prepared colonists as fast as possible. At the outset, they skirmished with the surprised Indians of America’s eastern seaboard. But that soon gave way to trade, since the Europeans who came ashore here knew that their survival was doubtful without native help.
Thus followed years of comparative peace as the settlers got themselves established on American soil. But the drive to push inland followed soon after. Kings and queens from thousands of miles away were impatient to find even more resources, and some colonists came for independence and opportunity.
They wanted more space. And so began the process of pushing the American Indian out of the way.
It took the form of cash arrangements, barter, and famously, treaties that were almost consistently neglected once the Indians were pushed off the land in question.
The U.S. government’s policies towards Native Americans in the second half of the nineteenth century were motivated by the desire to expand westward into regions occupied by these Native American tribes. By the 1850s nearly all Native American tribes, approximately 360,000 in number, were living 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 area of the Southern Plains.
The Sioux, Crows and Blackfeet dominated the Northern Plains. These Native American groups encountered adversity as the continuous 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 in 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 did not end there. Between 1830 and 1860 the United States practically doubled the amount of acreage 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 alluring opportunities for those willing to make the huge journey westward. Consequently, 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 parts of the Native American group-inhabited West.
Native American Tribes
Native American Policy can be defined as the laws and procedures established and adapted in the United States to summarize 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 indigenous peoples, but over the course of two centuries the U.S. designed its own widely varying regulations regarding the changing perspectives and requirements of Native American regulation.
In 1824, in order to execute the U.S. government’s Native American policies, Congress created a new agency 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, separate political communities with different cultural identities; however, at other times the government attempted to compel the Native American tribes to give up their cultural identity, give up their land and assimilate into the American traditions.
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With the steady flow of settlers into Indian “” land, Eastern newspapers published sensationalized stories of savage native tribes committing massive massacres of hundreds of white travelers. Although some settlers lost their lives to American Indian attacks, this was certainly not the norm; in fact, Native American tribes often helped settlers get across the Plains. Not only did the American Indians offer wild game and other supplies to travelers, but they acted as guides and messengers between wagon trains as well. Despite the friendly natures of the American Indians, settlers still presumed the possibility of an attack.
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To soothe these fears, in 1851 the U.S. government kept a conference with several local Indian tribes and established the Treaty of Fort Laramie. Within this treaty, each Native American tribe accepted a bounded territory, allowed the government to construct roadways and forts in this territory and agreed not to ever 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 quietly to the treaty; in fact the Cheyenne, Sioux, Crow, Arapaho, Assinibione, Mandan, Gros Ventre and Arikara tribes, who entered into the treaty, even agreed to end the hostilities amidst their tribes in order to accept the conditions of the treaty.
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This peaceful agreement between the U.S. government and the Native American tribes did not last long. After hearing reports of fertile terrain 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 moving west, the federal government established a policy of confining Native Americans to reservations, limited swaths of acreage within a group’s territory “” set aside 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 compelled Native Americans to give up their land and move to reservations in exchange for protection from attacks by white settlers. In addition, the Indians were allocated a yearly payment that would include money in addition to food, animals, household goods and farming tools. These reservations were established in an effort to clear the way for increasing U.S. expansion and involvement in the West, as well as to keep the Native Americans isolated from the whites in order to reduce the potential for friction.
History of the Plains Indians
These agreements had many complications. Most of all many of the native peoples didn’t properly understand the document that they were confirming or the conditions within it; furthermore, the treaties did not respect the cultural norms of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government departments responsible for applying these policies were overwhelmed with poor management and corruption. In fact most treaty conditions were never accomplished.
The U.S. government rarely honored their side of the agreements even when the Native Americans migrated quietly to their reservations. Dishonest bureau agents often sold the supplies that were meant for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Additionally, as settlers needed more land in the West, the federal government frequently decreased the size of reservation lands. By this time, many of the Native American peoples 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 unfair policies, some Native American tribes, including bands of Cheyennes, Arapahos, Comanches and Sioux, battled back. As they struggled 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 force Native Americans onto the reservations and to end the violence, the U.S. government responded to these skirmishes with significant military campaigns. Obviously the U.S. government’s Indian regulations were in need of a change.
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Native American policy shifted dramatically after the Civil War. Reformers felt that the scheme of driving Native Americans on to reservations was far too strict even while industrialists, who were worried about their property and resources, considered assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” to be the lone permanent method of assuring Native American survival. In 1871 the government approved a critical law stating that the United States would no longer deal with Native American tribes as autonomous nations.
This legislation signaled a significant change in the government’s working relationship with the native peoples – Congress now viewed the Native Americans, not as nations 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 easier to make the policy of assimilation a broadly acknowledged part of the cultural mainstream of America.
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Many U.S. government administrators perceived assimilation as the most practical answer to what they viewed as “the Indian problem,” and the single lasting means of protecting U.S. interests in the West and the survival of the American Indians. In order to accomplish this, the government urged Native Americans to move out of their customary dwellings, move into wooden homes and turn into farmers.
The federal government enacted laws that forced Native Americans to abandon their usual appearance and lifestyle. Some laws outlawed customary spiritual practices while others required Indian men to cut their long hair. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations organized tribunals to impose federal polices that often prohibited traditional ethnic and religious practices.
To speed up the assimilation operation, the government set up Indian schools that tried to quickly and forcefully Americanize Indian children. According to the founder of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, the schools were designed to “kill the Indian and save the man.” In order to achieve this goal, the schools forced students to speak only English, dress in proper American fashion and to switch their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new policies helped bring Native Americans closer to the end of their original tribal identity and the beginning of their daily life as citizens under the complete control of the U.S. authorities.
Native American Treaties with the United States
In 1887, Congress approved the General Allotment Act, the most significant component of the U.S. government’s assimilation platform, which was written to “civilize” American Indians by teaching them to become farmers. In order to achieve this, Congress planned to create private ownership of Indian property by splitting up reservations, which were collectively held, and offering each family their own stretch of land.
Additionally, by pushing the Native Americans onto limited plots, western developers and settlers could purchase the remaining territory. The General Allotment Act, better known as the Dawes Act, required that the Indian lands be surveyed and every family be provided with an allotment of between 80 and 160 acres, while unmarried adults received between 40 to 80 acres; the remaining acreage was to be sold. Congress wished that the Dawes Act would break up Indian tribes and stimulate individual enterprise, while lowering the cost of Indian administration and producing prime property to be purchased by 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 yet did not provide the necessary resources to support their businesses and households. Splitting the reservations into smaller parcels of land caused the significant decrease of Indian-owned land. Within three decades, the tribes had lost in excess of 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.
Frequently, Native Americans were cheated out of their allotments or were required to sell their land in order pay bills and provide for their own families. Consequently, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were often unable to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, as the makers of the policy had expected. Further, it produced resentment among Indians for the U.S. government, as the allotment method often destroyed land that was the spiritual and social center of their days.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed significantly. Through U.S. administration regulations, American Indians were forced from their housing because 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 the years the Indians ended up defrauded out of their property, food and lifestyle, as the federal government’s Indian regulations shoved them inside reservations and attempted to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands would not survive relocation, assimilation and military defeat; by 1890 the Native American population was reduced to less than 250,000 people. Due to decades of discriminatory and dodgy policies implemented by the United States authorities between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was altered permanently.
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