Long 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 thousands of years, the American Indian grew its customs and heritage 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 now the U.S. we have learned quite a bit. It’s a story of beautiful craft work and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed highly 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 sent the first ships in this direction, the objective was to discover 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 inadequately prepared colonists as fast as they could. 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 came ashore here learned that their survival was doubtful with no Indian help.
Thus followed years of relative 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 freedom and adventure.
They required 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 uniformly neglected once the Indians were moved away 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 nearly all Native American tribes, roughly 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 contemporary 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 misfortune as the constant stream 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 did not end there. Between 1830 and 1860 the United States nearly doubled the amount of land 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, partnered with the discovery of gold in 1849, presented attractive possibilities for those prepared make the extended quest westward. Consequently, with the military’s protection and the U.S. government’s assistance, many settlers began building 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 procedures made and adapted in the United States to outline 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 these local peoples, but over the course of two centuries the U.S. adapted its own widely varying policies regarding the changing perspectives and requirements of Native American regulation.
In 1824, in order to administrate the U.S. government’s Native American policies, Congress made a new agency within the War Department called the 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, separate political communities with varying cultural identities; however, at other times the government attempted to force the Native American tribes to abandon their cultural identity, surrender their land and assimilate into the American culture.
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With the steady flow of settlers in to Indian controlled land, Eastern newspapers printed sensationalized stories of cruel native tribes committing massive massacres of hundreds of white travelers. Although some settlers lost their lives to American Indian attacks, this was in no way the norm; in fact, Native American tribes often helped settlers cross over the Plains. Not only did the American Indians offer wild game and other supplies to travelers, but they served as guides and messengers between wagon trains as well. Despite the friendly natures of the American Indians, settlers still feared the risk of an attack.
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To calm these anxieties, in 1851 the U.S. government kept 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 roadways and forts in this territory and agreed not to attack 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 between their tribes to be able 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 very long. After hearing testimonies of fertile terrain and tremendous mineral wealth in the West, the government soon broke their promises established in the Treat of Fort Laramie by allowing thousands of non-Indians to flood into the region. With so many newcomers moving 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, in order to offer more land for “” non-Indian settlers.
In a series of new treaties the U.S. government commanded Native Americans to surrender their land and migrate to reservations in exchange for protection from attacks by white settlers. In addition, the Indians were given a yearly stipend that would include money in addition to foodstuffs, livestock, household goods and agricultural equipment. These reservations were established in an effort to pave the way for heightened U.S. growth and involvement in the West, as well as to keep the Native Americans isolated from the whites in order to lessen the potential for friction.
History of the Plains Indians
These accords had many challenges. Most importantly many of the native people did not completely understand the document that they were finalizing or the conditions within it; further, the treaties did not acknowledge the cultural practices of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government institutions responsible for administering these policies were overwhelmed with poor management and corruption. In fact many treaty terms were never carried out.
The U.S. government rarely honored their side of the accords even when the Native Americans relocated quietly to their reservations. Shady bureau agents sometimes 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 continually cut the size of Indian reservations. By this time, most of the Native American people were unhappy with the treaties and angered by the settlers’ endless demands for territory.
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Angered by the government’s dishonest and unjust policies, some Native American tribes, including bands of Cheyennes, Arapahos, Comanches and Sioux, battled back. As they fought to protect their lands and their tribes’ survival, more than one thousand skirmishes and battles broke out in the West between 1861 and 1891. In an effort to push Native Americans onto the reservations and to end the violence, the U.S. government responded to these skirmishes with significant 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 after the Civil War. Reformers felt that the policy of pushing Native Americans inside reservations was far too severe even though industrialists, who were concerned about their property and resources, looked at assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” to be the singular long-term method of ensuring Native American survival. In 1871 the government passed a pivotal law proclaiming that the United States would not deal with Native American tribes as sovereign nations.
This legislation 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 “” government, Congress imagined that it would be better to make the policy of assimilation a widely recognised part of the cultural mainstream of America.
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Many U.S. government administrators perceived assimilation as the most practical solution to what they viewed as “the Indian problem,” and the sole long-term means of guaranteeing U.S. interests in the West and the survival of the American Indians. In order to accomplish this, the government urged Native Americans to relocate out of their customary dwellings, move into wooden dwellings and grow into farmers.
The federal government handed down laws that pressed Native Americans to abandon their established appearance and lifestyle. Some laws banned traditional religious practices while others ordered Indian men to cut their long locks. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations established courts to impose federal polices that often banned traditional cultural and religious practices.
To accelerate the assimilation operation, the government established Indian facilities that attempted to quickly and forcefully Americanize Indian children. According to the director of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, the schools were developed to “kill the Indian and save the man.” In order to accomplish this objective, the schools forced pupils to speak only English, wear proper American fashion and to switch their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new regulations brought Native Americans closer to the conclusion of their traditional tribal identity and the beginning 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 element of the U.S. government’s assimilation program, which was developed to “civilize” American Indians by teaching them to be farmers. In order to accomplish this, Congress planned to establish non-public title of Indian property by splitting up reservations, which were collectively owned, and issuing each family their own parcel of land.
In addition to this, by pushing the Native Americans onto small plots of land, western developers and settlers could purchase the remaining acreage. The General Allotment Act, also 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 wished that the Dawes Act would divide Indian tribes and increase individual enterprise, while reducing the expense of Indian supervision and providing prime land to be purchased by white settlers.
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The Dawes Act turned out to be catastrophic for the American Indians; over the next generations they existed under regulations that outlawed their traditional lifestyle but did not provide the critical resources to support their businesses and households. Splitting the reservations into smaller parcels of land caused the significant decrease of Indian-owned property. Inside 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.
Frequently, Native Americans were duped out of their allotments or were required to sell off their property in order pay bills and feed their families. Because of that, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were often unable to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, as the creators of the Act had expected. Further, it created anger among Indians for the U.S. government, as the allotment process sometimes ruined land that was the spiritual and societal hub of their days.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed substantially. Through U.S. administration regulations, American Indians were forced from their housing because their native lands were parceled out. The Plains, which they had previously roamed alone, were now filling with white settlers.
The Upshot of the Indian Wars
Over the years the Indians had been cheated out of their land, food and lifestyle, as the federal government’s Indian regulations forced them inside reservations and attempted to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands did not survive relocation, assimilation and military loss; by 1890 the Native American population was reduced to less than 250,000 people. 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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