Long 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 legacy without interference. And that history is captivating.
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 plenty. It’s a tale of beautiful arts and crafts and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed highly advanced structures and public works.
While there was inescapable tribal conflict, that was just a slight blemish in the experience of our ancestors. They were at peace with this beautiful continent and deeply connected to nature.
The European Settler Arrives
When European leaders sent the first vessels in this direction, the aim was to explore new resources – but the quality of climate 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 rushed to carve up the “New World” by sending over poorly prepared colonists as fast as they could. Initially, they skirmished with the alarmed Indians of America’s eastern seaboard. But that soon gave way to trade, because the Europeans who arrived here understood that their survival was doubtful with no Indian help.
Thus followed decades of relative peace as the settlers got themselves established on American land. But the pressure to push inland came soon after. Kings and queens from thousands of miles away were restless to locate additional resources, and some colonists came for freedom and opportunity.
They wanted more space. And so began the process of driving the American Indian out of the way.
It took the shape of cash payments, barter, and famously, treaties which were almost uniformly neglected after the Indians were forced away from the territory 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 areas 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 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 met adversity as the continuous flow 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 along with the authority over Oregon country, Texas and California; America’s expansion would not end there. Between 1830 and 1860 the U.S. practically 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, partnered with the discovery of gold in 1849, presented attractive opportunities for those ready to make the long journey westward. As a result, with the military’s protection and the U.S. government’s assistance, many settlers started 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 laws and regulations 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 first became a sovereign nation, it adopted the European policies towards these indigenous peoples, but over the course of two centuries the U.S. designed its very own widely varying policies regarding the evolving perspectives and necessities of Native American supervision.
In 1824, in order to administer the U.S. government’s Native American policies, Congress made a new agency inside 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 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 stream of settlers into Indian controlled land, Eastern newspapers printed sensationalized reports of savage native tribes committing widespread 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 routinely helped settlers get across the Plains. Not only did the American Indians offer 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 worries, 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 consented to a bounded territory, allowed the government to construct roadways and forts in this territory and pledged to never attack 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 peacefully to the treaty; in fact the Cheyenne, Sioux, Crow, Arapaho, Assinibione, Mandan, Gros Ventre and Arikara tribes, who signed the treaty, even consented to end the hostilities between their tribes to be able to accept the conditions of the treaty.
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This peaceful agreement between the U.S. government and the Native American tribes didn’t hold very 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 region. With so many newcomers heading west, the federal government established a plan of confining Native Americans to reservations, small swaths of land within a group’s territory that was reserved exclusively for their use, to be able to grant more land for the non-Indian settlers.
In a series of new treaties the U.S. government compelled Native Americans to surrender their land and move 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 agricultural equipment. These reservations were created in an effort to clear the way for heightened U.S. growth and administration in the West, as well as to keep the Native Americans divided from the whites in order to reduce the potential for friction.
History of the Plains Indians
These deals had many problems. Most of all many of the native peoples did not altogether understand the document that they were finalizing or the conditions within it; further, the treaties did not respect the cultural norms of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government bureaus responsible for administering these policies were weighed down with poor management and corruption. In fact most treaty conditions were never executed.
The U.S. government rarely fulfilled their side of the accords even when the Native Americans migrated quietly to their reservations. Dishonest bureau agents frequently sold off the supplies that were meant for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Moreover, as settlers required more territory in the West, the federal government constantly decreased the size of Indian reservations. By this time, many of the Native American people were dissatisfied with the treaties and angered by the settlers’ persistent appetite for land.
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Angered by the government’s dishonorable and unfair 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 make Native Americans onto the reservations and to end the violence, the U.S. government reacted to these hostilities with significant military campaigns. Obviously the U.S. government’s Indian policies required an adjustment.
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Native American policy shifted dramatically after the Civil War. Reformers believed that the scheme of forcing Native Americans onto reservations was far too harsh even though industrialists, who were worried about their property and resources, regarded assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” as the only long-term means of ensuring Native American survival. In 1871 the government passed a critical law proclaiming that the United States would no longer treat Native American tribes as autonomous entities.
This legislation signaled a drastic change in the government’s working relationship with the native peoples – Congress now regarded 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 concluded that it would be better to make the policy of assimilation a widely accepted part of the cultural mainstream of America.
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Many U.S. government administrators looked at assimilation as the most effective solution to what they deemed “the Indian problem,” and the single permanent strategy for 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 established dwellings, move into wooden buildings and turn into farmers.
The federal government passed laws that required Native Americans to quit their traditional appearance and lifestyle. Some laws banned customary spiritual practices while others required Indian males to cut their long locks. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations organized courts to impose federal polices that often banned traditional cultural and religious practices.
To hasten the assimilation process, the government established Indian training centers that tried to quickly and vigorously Americanize Indian kids. As per the founder 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 objective, the schools compelled enrollees to speak only English, dress in proper American attire and to switch their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new regulations brought Native Americans nearer to the conclusion of their original tribal identity and the beginning of their life as citizens under the full control of the U.S. government.
Native American Treaties with the United States
In 1887, Congress enacted the General Allotment Act, the most important part of the U.S. government’s assimilation program, which was designed to “civilize” American Indians by teaching them to become farmers. In order to achieve this, Congress wanted to create non-public ownership of Indian land by splitting up reservations, which were collectively owned, and providing each family their own parcel of land.
Additionally, by pushing the Native Americans onto small plots of land, western developers and settlers could purchase the left over land. The General Allotment Act, also known as the Dawes Act, required that the Indian lands be surveyed and every family be given 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 wished that the Dawes Act would break-up Indian tribes and encourage individual enterprise, while lowering 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 catastrophic for the American Indians; over the next decades they lived under policies that outlawed their traditional lifestyle but did not provide the vital resources to support their businesses and households. Splitting the reservations into small parcels of land caused the significant decrease of Indian-owned property. Within three decades, the tribes had lost more than 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.
Regularly, Native Americans were cheated out of their allotments or were required to sell off their property in order pay bills and feed their own families. Because of that, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were routinely not able to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, as the makers of the Act had anticipated. This also produced anger among Indians toward the U.S. government, as the allotment operation sometimes ruined land that was the spiritual and social focus of their lives.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed tremendously. Due to U.S. government policies, American Indians were forced from their housing as 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 these years the Indians have been cheated out of their territory, food and approach to life, as the federal government’s Indian policies forced them into 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 persons. Thanks to decades of discriminatory and dodgy policies instituted by the United States government between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was changed permanently.
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