Centuries before the terms Native American or Indian were considered, 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 thousands of years, the American Indian developed its culture and heritage without disturbance. And that history is captivating.
From Mayan and Incan ruins, from the mounds left in the central and southern regions of what’s today the U.S. we have learned much. It’s a story of beautiful artwork and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed remarkably elaborate structures and public works.
While there was inevitable tribal conflict, that was nothing more than a slight blemish in the history of our forebears. They were at peace with this beautiful continent and deeply connected to nature.
The European Settler Arrives
When European leaders dispatched the first vessels in our direction, the goal 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 learned from their explorers, the motivation to colonize spread like wildfire.
The English, French and Spanish raced to carve up the “New World” by shipping over inadequately prepared colonists as fast as possible. At first, they skirmished with the surprised Indians of America’s eastern seaboard. But that soon gave way to trade, since the Europeans who arrived here knew their survival was doubtful without Indian help.
Thus followed decades of comparative peace as the settlers got themselves established on American land. But the pressure to push inland followed soon after. Kings and queens from thousands of miles away were impatient to find additional resources, and some colonists came for independence and opportunity.
They needed more space. And so began the process of pushing the American Indian out of the way.
It took the shape of cash arrangements, barter, and famously, treaties which were nearly uniformly ignored after 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 motivated by the desire to expand westward into regions occupied by these Native American tribes. By the 1850s virtually 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 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 adversity as the continuous stream of European immigrants into northeastern American cities delivered a stream of immigrants into the western lands already inhabited 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 U.S. pretty much 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 alluring possibilities for those willing to make the extended quest westward. Consequently, 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 areas of the Native American group-inhabited West.
Native American Tribes
Native American Policy can be defined as the laws and regulations and procedures made 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 nation, it implemented the European policies towards the native peoples, but throughout two centuries the U.S. designed its own widely varying policies regarding the evolving perspectives and requirements of Native American oversight.
In 1824, in order to administrate the U.S. government’s Native American policies, Congress created a new bureau within 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 varying cultural identities; however, at other times the government attempted to force the Native American tribes to give up their cultural identity, give up their land and assimilate into the American customs.
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With the steady stream of settlers in to Indian “” land, Eastern newspapers published sensationalized stories of savage 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 generally helped settlers cross the Plains. Not only did the American Indians sell 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 likelihood of an attack.
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To soothe these concerns, in 1851 the U.S. government kept a conference with several local Indian tribes and established the Treaty of Fort Laramie. Under this treaty, each Native American tribe accepted a bounded territory, allowed the government to construct roadways and forts in this territory and pledged never to assault settlers; in return the federal government agreed to honor the boundaries of each tribe’s territory and make total 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 agreed to end the hostilities amidst their tribes to be able to accept the terms 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 tales of fertile terrain 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 heading west, the federal government established a plan of limiting Native Americans to reservations, small 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 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, livestock, household goods and agricultural tools. These reservations were established in an attempt to clear the way for increased U.S. expansion and involvement in the West, as well as to keep the Native Americans isolated from the whites in order to decrease the potential for conflict.
History of the Plains Indians
These accords had many complications. Most of all many of the native peoples didn’t properly 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 departments accountable for administering these policies were plagued with awful management and corruption. In fact most treaty conditions were never executed.
The U.S. government rarely held up their side of the agreements even when the Native Americans moved quietly to their reservations. Shady bureau agents repeatedly sold off the supplies that were intended for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Moreover, as settlers needed more territory in the West, the government constantly reduced the size of Indian reservations. By this time, most of the Native American people were unhappy with the treaties and angered by settlers’ constant appetite for territory.
A Look at Native American Symbols
Angered by the government’s dishonest and unfair policies, some Native American tribes, including bands of Cheyennes, Arapahos, Comanches and Sioux, fought back. As they fought to protect their lands and their tribes’ survival, over a 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 conflicts with significant military campaigns. Obviously the U.S. government’s Indian regulations required of a change.
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Native American policy changed drastically following the Civil War. Reformers believed that the policy of driving Native Americans onto reservations was too strict even though industrialists, who were concerned about their property and resources, viewed assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” as the single long-term method of guaranteeing Native American survival. In 1871 the government passed a critical law proclaiming that the United States would not deal with Native American tribes as sovereign entities.
This law signaled a significant change in the government’s working relationship with the native peoples – Congress now considered the Native Americans, not as nations outside of its jurisdiction, but as wards of the government. By making Native Americans wards of the “” government, Congress presumed that it was better to make the policy of assimilation a widely recognized part of the cultural mainstream of America.
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Many U.S. government representatives looked at assimilation as the most practical remedy for what they viewed as “the Indian problem,” and the sole lasting method of guaranteeing 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 customary dwellings, move into wooden homes and become farmers.
The federal government passed laws that required Native Americans to quit their usual appearance and way of living. Some laws banned customary religious practices while others required Indian males to cut their long hair. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations established courts to implement federal regulations that often restricted traditional ethnic and spiritual practices.
To speed up the assimilation course, the government started Indian facilities that tried to quickly and vigorously Americanize Indian kids. As per the director of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, the schools were developed to “kill the Indian and save the man.” In order to achieve this goal, the schools compelled students to speak only English, put on proper American clothing and to switch their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new regulations helped bring Native Americans closer to the conclusion of their classic tribal identity and the start of their existence as citizens under the full control of the U.S. administration.
Native American Treaties with the United States
In 1887, Congress passed the General Allotment Act, the most important part of the U.S. government’s assimilation program, which was written to “civilize” American Indians by teaching them to be farmers. In order to achieve this, Congress planned to increase non-public title of Indian land by splitting up reservations, which were collectively held, and offering each family their own plot of land.
Additionally, by pushing the Native Americans onto limited plots, western developers and settlers could purchase the left over 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 land was to be sold. Congress wished that the Dawes Act would split up Indian tribes and increase individual enterprise, while reducing the expense of Indian supervision and serving up prime property 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 lived under regulations that outlawed their traditional approach to life and yet didn’t supply the necessary resources to support their businesses and families. Dividing the reservations into small parcels of land led to the significant reduction of Indian-owned land. Within thirty years, the tribes had lost more than two-thirds of the region 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 forced to sell off their land in order to pay bills and take care of their own families. Consequently, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were often not able to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, as the makers of the Act had wished. It also created anger among Indians for the U.S. government, as the allotment operation often ruined land that was the spiritual and societal focus of their days.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed substantially. Through U.S. government regulations, American Indians were forced from their places of residence as their native lands were parceled out. The Plains, which they had previously roamed without limits, were now filled with white settlers.
The Upshot of the Indian Wars
Over the years the Indians have been cheated out of their territory, food and lifestyle, as the federal government’s Indian plans shoved them into reservations and attempted to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands would not make it through relocation, cultural destruction and military loss; by 1890 the Native American population was decreased to less than 250,000 people. Thanks to decades of discriminatory and dodgy policies implemented by the United States government between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was changed forever.
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