Far 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 culture and legacy without disturbance. And that history is fascinating.
From Mayan and Incan ruins, from the mounds left in the central and southern regions of what is currently the U.S. we have learned quite a bit. It’s a story of beautiful arts and crafts and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed remarkably elaborate structures and public works.
While there was unavoidable tribal conflict, that was nothing more than a slight blemish in the experience of our ancestors. 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 plan was to explore new resources – but the quality of environment and the bounty of everything from wood 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 rushed to slice up the “New World” by shipping over poorly 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 learned their survival was doubtful without native 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 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 form of cash arrangements, barter, and famously, treaties which were almost uniformly ignored once 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 territories inhabited by these Native American tribes. By the 1850s virtually 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 present day 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 experienced hardship as the steady flow of European immigrants into northeastern American cities pushed a stream of immigrants into the western lands already inhabited by these diverse groups of Indians.
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The early nineteenth century in 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 along with the authority over Oregon country, Texas and California; America’s expansion did not end there. Between 1830 and 1860 the United States pretty much doubled the amount of acreage within 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 attractive opportunities for those willing to make the long quest westward. As a result, 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 tribe-inhabited West.
Native American Tribes
Native American Policy can be defined as the regulations and operations established and adapted in the United States to define the relationship between Native American tribes and the federal government. When the United States first became a sovereign nation, it adopted the European policies towards the indigenous peoples, but throughout two centuries the U.S. adapted its very own widely varying regulations regarding the changing perspectives and necessities of Native American supervision.
In 1824, in order to administer the U.S. government’s Native American policies, Congress formed a new agency 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, separate political communities with different 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 traditions.
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With the steady flow of settlers in to Indian “” land, Eastern newspapers printed sensationalized reports of savage native tribes committing 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 repeatedly helped settlers get across the Plains. Not only did the American Indians sell wild game and other necessities to travelers, but they served as guides and messengers between wagon trains as well. Despite the friendly natures of the American Indians, settlers still anticipated the risk of an attack.
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To quiet these anxieties, in 1851 the U.S. government placed 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 roadways and forts in this territory and pledged to not assault settlers; in return the federal government agreed to honor the boundaries of each tribe’s territory and make gross 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 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 accord between the U.S. government and the Native American tribes did not stand very long. After hearing reports of fertile terrain and tremendous 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 policy of confining Native Americans to reservations, limited swaths of land within a group’s territory that was reserved exclusively for their use, to be able to give more territory for “” non-Indian settlers.
In a series of new treaties the U.S. government made Native Americans to give up their land and migrate to reservations in exchange for protection from attacks by white settlers. In addition, the Indians were offered a yearly stipend that would include money in addition to foodstuffs, livestock, household goods and farming tools. These reservations were created in an attempt to pave the way for heightened U.S. growth and involvement in the West, as well as to keep the Native Americans separate from the whites in order to decrease the chance for conflict.
History of the Plains Indians
These agreements had many challenges. Most importantly many of the native peoples didn’t properly grasp the document that they were signing or the conditions within it; moreover, the treaties did not acknowledge the cultural norms of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government institutions accountable for applying these policies were plagued with poor management and corruption. In fact most treaty terms were never carried out.
The U.S. government almost never honored their side of the accords 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. Moreover, as settlers needed more territory in the West, the government frequently decreased the size of reservation lands. By this time, most of the Native American peoples were unhappy with the treaties and angered by settlers’ endless appetite for land.
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Angered by the government’s deceitful and unfair policies, several Native American tribes, including bands of Cheyennes, Arapahos, Comanches and Sioux, fought back. As they fought 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 compel Native Americans onto the reservations and to end the violence, the U.S. government reacted to these skirmishes with costly military campaigns. Clearly the U.S. government’s Indian regulations were in need of a change.
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Native American policy shifted drastically following the Civil War. Reformers believed that the policy of driving Native Americans on to reservations was 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 only permanent method of ensuring Native American survival. In 1871 the government passed a critical law stating that the United States would no longer treat Native American tribes as sovereign nations.
This legislation signaled a major change in the government’s 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 easier 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 perceived assimilation as the most practical answer to what they viewed as “the Indian problem,” and the sole long-term method 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 traditional dwellings, move into wooden buildings and turn into farmers.
The federal government handed down laws that forced Native Americans to quit their usual appearance and way of life. Some laws outlawed traditional religious practices while others ordered Indian men to cut their long hair. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations founded courts to impose federal polices that often prohibited traditional cultural and spiritual practices.
To boost the assimilation process, the government established Indian training centers that tried to quickly and forcefully Americanize Indian youth. According to the director 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 goal, the schools compelled pupils to speak only English, dress in proper American fashion and to substitute 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 start of their daily life as citizens under the full control of the U.S. administration.
Native American Treaties with the United States
In 1887, Congress approved the General Allotment Act, the most significant part of the U.S. government’s assimilation platform, which was intended to “civilize” American Indians by teaching them to become farmers. In order to achieve this, Congress wanted to increase non-public title of Indian land by dividing reservations, which were collectively owned, and issuing each family their own block of land.
In addition to this, by forcing the Native Americans onto limited plots of land, western developers and settlers could purchase the remaining territory. The General Allotment Act, also 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 received between 40 to 80 acres; the rest of the territory was to be sold. Congress hoped that the Dawes Act would break up Indian tribes and stimulate individual enterprise, while reducing the expense of Indian administration and serving up prime land to be sold to white settlers.
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The Dawes Act proved to be disastrous for the American Indians; over the next generations they existed under regulations that outlawed their traditional lifestyle and yet didn’t offer the necessary resources to support their businesses and families. Dividing the reservations into small parcels of land triggered the significant decrease of Indian-owned land. Within thirty years, the tribes had lost over 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.
Commonly, 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 families. As a result, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were routinely not able to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, as the makers of the policy had intended. Further, it generated anger among Indians toward the U.S. government, as the allotment practice sometimes destroyed land that was the spiritual and social centre of their days.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed drastically. Due to U.S. government policies, American Indians were forced from their living spaces as their native lands were parceled out. The Plains, which they had previously roamed without restriction, were now filling with white settlers.
The Upshot of the Indian Wars
Over these years the Indians have been defrauded out of their property, food and approach to life, as the federal government’s Indian policies shoved them into reservations and attempted to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands didn’t make it through relocation, assimilation and military loss; by 1890 the Native American population was decreased to less than 250,000 persons. Due to generations of discriminatory and corrupt policies implemented by the United States authorities between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was changed forever.
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