Centuries before the terms Native American or Indian were necessary, 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 grew its culture and legacy without interference. And that history is fascinating.
From Mayan and Incan ruins, from the mounds left in the central and southern parts of what is today the U.S. we have learned much. It’s a narrative of beautiful craft work and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed remarkably elaborate structures and public works.
While there was inescapable tribal conflict, that was just a slight blemish in the history 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 vessels in this direction, the goal was to explore new resources – however the quality of weather and the bounty of everything from timber 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 raced to slice up the “New World” by transporting over inadequately prepared colonists as fast as possible. At the outset, they skirmished with the alarmed Indians of America’s eastern seaboard. But that ultimately gave way to trade, because the Europeans who arrived here knew their survival was doubtful without native help.
Thus followed decades of relative 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 additional 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 shape of cash arrangements, barter, and notoriously, treaties that were almost consistently neglected after the Indians were forced 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 areas occupied 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 territory of the Southern Plains.
The Sioux, Crows and Blackfeet dominated the Northern Plains. These Native American groups experienced misfortune as the steady 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 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 along with 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 territory 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, partnered with the discovery of gold in 1849, presented attractive opportunities for those ready to make the extended trip westward. Therefore, 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 regulations and operations developed and adapted in the United States to summarize 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 indigenous peoples, but over two centuries the U.S. designed its own widely varying policies regarding the evolving perspectives and requirements of Native American supervision.
In 1824, in order to execute the U.S. government’s Native American policies, Congress created a new bureau inside the War Department referred to as 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, distinct political communities with varying 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 stream of settlers in to Indian controlled land, Eastern newspapers circulated sensationalized reports of savage native tribes carrying out widespread massacres of hundreds of white travelers. Although some settlers lost their lives to American Indian attacks, this was far from the norm; in fact, Native American tribes routinely helped settlers get across the Plains. Not only did the American Indians peddle 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 presumed the likelihood of an attack.
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To quiet these fears, in 1851 the U.S. government presented 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 roads and forts in this territory and agreed to not 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 amongst 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 didn’t last 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 area. With so many newcomers moving west, the federal government established a policy of limiting Native Americans to reservations, modest swaths of land within a group’s territory “” earmarked exclusively for Indian use, in order to offer more land for the non-Indian settlers.
In a series of new treaties the U.S. government forced 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 equipment. These reservations were created in an attempt to clear the way for increased U.S. growth and involvement in the West, as well as to keep the Native Americans divided from the whites in order to lessen the potential for friction.
History of the Plains Indians
These agreements had many challenges. Most of all many of the native people did not altogether grasp 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 institutions responsible for administering these policies were weighed down with poor management and corruption. In fact most treaty terms were never accomplished.
The U.S. government almost never honored their side of the agreements even when the Native Americans migrated quietly to their reservations. Shady bureau agents often sold off the supplies that were intended for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Additionally, as settlers demanded more property in the West, the federal government frequently reduced the size of the reservations. By this time, most of the Native American people were unhappy with the treaties and angered by the settlers’ constant demands 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, 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 make Native Americans onto the reservations and to end the violence, the U.S. government reacted to these conflicts with costly military campaigns. Obviously the U.S. government’s Indian regulations were in need of a change.
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Native American policy changed drastically following the Civil War. Reformers felt that the scheme of driving Native Americans on to reservations was too strict even while industrialists, who were concerned about their land and resources, viewed assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” to be the sole long-term strategy for assuring Native American survival. In 1871 the federal government passed a pivotal law proclaiming that the United States would not treat Native American tribes as independent nations.
This law signaled a major change in the government’s working relationship with the native peoples – Congress now considered 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 presumed that it was 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 administrators looked at assimilation as the most effective answer to what they deemed “the Indian problem,” and the sole permanent strategy for insuring U.S. interests in the West and the survival of the American Indians. In order to accomplish this, the government pressed Native Americans to move out of their customary dwellings, move into wooden homes and turn into farmers.
The federal government enacted laws that pressed Native Americans to quit their established appearance and lifestyle. Some laws outlawed traditional spiritual practices while others instructed Indian males to cut their long hair. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations founded tribunals to implement federal regulations that often banned traditional cultural and spiritual practices.
To speed up the assimilation course, the government established Indian training centers that attempted to quickly and vigorously Americanize Indian youth. As per the founder of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, the schools were created to “kill the Indian and save the man.” To be able to accomplish this objective, the schools compelled pupils to speak only English, wear proper American fashion and to substitute their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new regulations helped bring Native Americans nearer to the end of their established tribal identity and the start of their life as citizens under the complete control of the U.S. administration.
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 developed to “civilize” American Indians by teaching them to become farmers. In order to accomplish this, Congress needed to establish private title of Indian land by dividing reservations, which were collectively owned, and offering each family their own stretch of land.
Additionally, by pushing the Native Americans onto small plots, western developers and settlers could purchase the remaining acreage. The General Allotment Act, referred to 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 was hoping that the Dawes Act would divide Indian tribes and stimulate individual enterprise, while cutting down the expense of Indian supervision and serving up prime land to be sold to white settlers.
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The Dawes Act turned out to be disastrous for the American Indians; over the next generations they existed under regulations that outlawed their traditional lifestyle but didn’t supply the crucial resources to support their businesses and families. Dividing the reservations into smaller parcels of land led to the significant reduction of Indian-owned land. Inside thirty years, 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.
Usually, Native Americans were cheated out of their allotments or were required to sell off their land in order pay bills and feed their families. Consequently, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were generally not able to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, as the makers of the Act had wished. This also produced anger among Indians for the U.S. government, as the allotment process sometimes destroyed land that was the spiritual and cultural hub of their lives.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed significantly. Through U.S. administration regulations, American Indians were forced from their homes because their native lands were parceled out. The Plains, which they had previously roamed without restriction, were now filled up with white settlers.
The Upshot of the Indian Wars
Over all these years the Indians ended up cheated out of their territory, food and approach to life, as the federal government’s Indian regulations forced them inside reservations and tried to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands did not endure relocation, cultural destruction and military loss; by 1890 the Native American population was lowered to under 250,000 persons. Thanks to generations of discriminatory and corrupt policies implemented by the United States government between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was altered forever.
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