Centuries 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 land, it was settled by the forefathers of bands we now call Sioux, or Cherokee, or Iroquois.
For centuries, the American Indian developed its customs and heritage 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 now the U.S. we have learned quite a bit. It’s a story of beautiful arts and crafts and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed highly elaborate structures and public works.
While there was unavoidable tribal conflict, that was simply a slight blemish in the tale of our ancestors. They were at peace with this beautiful continent and deeply plugged into 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 climate and the bounty of everything from wood to wildlife subsequently changed their tune. As those leaders heard back from their explorers, the drive to colonize spread like wildfire.
The English, French and Spanish rushed to carve up the “New World” by transporting 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 knew that their survival was doubtful without Indian help.
Thus followed years of comparative peace as the settlers got themselves established on American land. But the drive to push inland followed soon after. Kings and queens from thousands of miles away were restless to locate even more resources, and some colonists came for freedom and adventure.
They wanted 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 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 influenced 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 located 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 continuous flow of European immigrants into northeastern American cities delivered a stream of immigrants into the western lands already populated by these diverse 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 would not end there. Between 1830 and 1860 the United States nearly doubled the amount of territory under its control.
These territorial gains coincided with the arrival of hordes 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 captivating opportunities for those prepared make the extended 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 parts of the Native American group-inhabited West.
Native American Tribes
Native American Policy can be defined as the laws and 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 initially became an independent nation, it adopted the European policies towards the local peoples, but throughout two centuries the U.S. adapted its own widely varying regulations regarding the evolving perspectives and requirements of Native American regulation.
In 1824, in order to administrate the U.S. government’s Native American policies, Congress created a new bureau inside 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, separate political communities with numerous cultural identities; however, at other times the government attempted to compel the Native American tribes to abandon 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 controlled land, Eastern newspapers circulated 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 far from the norm; in fact, Native American tribes frequently 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 friendly natures of the American Indians, settlers still presumed the risk of an attack.
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To calm these worries, 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 tracks and forts in this territory and pledged to never go after settlers; in return the federal government agreed to honor the boundaries of each tribe’s territory and make total 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 consented 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 did not last long. After hearing testimonies of fertile land and great mineral wealth in the West, the government soon broke their assurances 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 confining Native Americans to reservations, limited areas of acreage within a group’s territory “” reserved exclusively for Indian use, to be able to offer 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 food, livestock, household goods and farming tools. These reservations were created in an attempt to clear the way for increased U.S. expansion and administration in the West, as well as to keep the Native Americans divided from the whites in order to decrease the chance for friction.
History of the Plains Indians
These accords had many complications. Most significantly 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 accountable for administering these policies were overwhelmed with poor management and corruption. In fact many treaty conditions were never implemented.
The U.S. government rarely fulfilled their side of the accords even when the Native Americans relocated quietly to their reservations. Dishonest bureau agents often sold off the supplies that were intended for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Additionally, as settlers needed more property in the West, the government continually decreased the size of reservation lands. By this time, most of the Native American peoples were unhappy with the treaties and angered by settlers’ persistent hunger 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 territories and their tribes’ survival, over a 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 reacted to these hostilities with significant military operations. Clearly the U.S. government’s Indian policies were in need an adjustment.
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Native American policy shifted radically after the Civil War. Reformers believed that the policy of forcing Native Americans into reservations was far too strict even while industrialists, who were concerned about their property and resources, thought of assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” as the lone long-term means of guaranteeing Native American survival. In 1871 the federal government passed a critical law stating that the United States would no longer treat Native American tribes as independent nations.
This law signaled a drastic change in the government’s working relationship with the native peoples – Congress now deemed the Native Americans, not as countries outside of its jurisdictional control, but as wards of the government. By making Native Americans wards of the “” government, Congress believed that it would be 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 effective answer to what they viewed as “the Indian problem,” and the sole lasting strategy for protecting U.S. interests in the West and the survival of the American Indians. In order to accomplish this, the government pressed Native Americans to relocate out of their traditional dwellings, move into wooden dwellings and become farmers.
The federal government handed down laws that required Native Americans to abandon their usual appearance and lifestyle. Some laws banned customary spiritual practices while others instructed Indian men to cut their long hair. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations organized courts to enforce federal polices that often restricted traditional ethnic and spiritual practices.
To boost the assimilation operation, the government started Indian facilities that tried to quickly and forcefully Americanize Indian youth. According to the director of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, the schools were created to “kill the Indian and save the man.” In order to make this happen objective, the schools required enrollees to speak only English, dress in proper American fashion and to switch their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new regulations helped bring Native Americans closer to the end of their traditional tribal identity and the beginning of their daily life as citizens under the full control of the U.S. authorities.
Native American Treaties with the United States
In 1887, Congress passed the General Allotment Act, the most important element of the U.S. government’s assimilation platform, which was written to “civilize” American Indians by educating them to become farmers. In order to accomplish this, Congress wanted to create non-public ownership of Indian land by splitting up reservations, which were collectively held, and issuing each family their own stretch of land.
Additionally, by forcing the Native Americans onto small plots of land, western developers and settlers could purchase the left over land. The General Allotment Act, referred to as the Dawes Act, required that the Indian lands be surveyed and each family be provided with an allotment of between 80 and 160 acres, while unmarried adults were given between 40 to 80 acres; the residual acreage was to be sold. Congress expected that the Dawes Act would breakup Indian tribes and encourage individual enterprise, while reducing the expense of Indian administration and providing prime land to be purchased by white settlers.
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The Dawes Act proved to be disastrous for the American Indians; over the next generations they existed under policies that outlawed their traditional approach to life and yet didn’t supply the necessary resources to support their businesses and families. Splitting the reservations into small parcels of land brought about the significant reduction of Indian-owned land. Inside thirty years, the tribes had lost over two-thirds of the acreage 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 duped out of their allotments or were forced to sell off their land in order to pay bills and feed their families. Because of that, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were generally not able to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, as the makers of the policy had desired. It also developed resentment among Indians for the U.S. government, as the allotment operation sometimes destroyed land that was the spiritual and societal hub of their days.
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 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 the years the Indians have been defrauded out of their property, food and way of life, as the federal government’s Indian plans coerced them onto reservations and attempted to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands did not endure relocation, cultural destruction and military defeat; by 1890 the Native American population was lowered to fewer than 250,000 people. Thanks to generations of discriminatory and ruthless policies implemented by the United States authorities between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was altered permanently.
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