Centuries before the terms Native American or Indian were created, 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 parts of what is currently the U.S. we have learned plenty. It’s a story of beautiful arts and crafts and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed remarkably elaborate structures and public works.
While there was inescapable tribal conflict, that was just a slight blemish in the experience of our forebears. 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 our direction, the objective was to discover new resources – however the quality of weather and the bounty of everything from timber 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 raced to carve up the “New World” by shipping over inadequately prepared colonists as fast as they could. Initially, they skirmished with the surprised Indians of America’s eastern seaboard. But that shortly gave way to trade, because the Europeans who arrived here knew 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 anxious to find even more resources, and some colonists came for independence and opportunity.
They required 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 notoriously, treaties that were almost uniformly ignored once the Indians were moved from the territory 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 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 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 adversity 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 of 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. roughly doubled the amount of land within its control.
These territorial gains coincided with the arrival of troves of European and Asian immigrants who wished to join the surge of American settlers heading west. This, combined with the discovery of gold in 1849, presented alluring possibilities 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 began 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 regulations and operations made and adapted in the United States to define the relationship between Native American tribes and the federal government. When the United States initially became a sovereign nation, it adopted the European policies towards the native peoples, but over two centuries the U.S. tailored its own widely varying policies regarding the evolving perspectives and necessities of Native American oversight.
In 1824, in order to apply the U.S. government’s Native American policies, Congress made a new agency 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, independent political communities with numerous cultural identities; however, at other times the government attempted to force the Native American tribes to give up their cultural identity, let go of their land and assimilate into the American traditions.
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With the steady stream of settlers into Indian controlled land, Eastern newspapers circulated sensationalized reports of savage native tribes carrying out 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 repeatedly helped settlers cross 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 genial natures of the American Indians, settlers still presumed the risk of an attack.
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To quiet these concerns, in 1851 the U.S. government presented 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 tracks and forts in this territory and agreed never to 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 entered into 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 accord between the U.S. government and the Native American tribes didn’t stand long. After hearing testimonies of fertile land 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 region. With so many newcomers moving west, the federal government established a policy of restricting Native Americans to reservations, limited areas of land within a group’s territory “” set aside exclusively for their use, in order to provide more territory for the non-Indian settlers.
In a series of new treaties the U.S. government made 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 stipend that would include cash in addition to food, animals, household goods and agricultural equipment. These reservations were established in an effort to clear the way for increased U.S. growth and administration 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 deals had many complications. Most significantly many of the native peoples did not properly grasp the document that they were signing or the conditions within it; moreover, the treaties did not respect the cultural practices of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government institutions responsible for applying these policies were plagued with awful management and corruption. In fact many treaty provisions were never executed.
The U.S. government almost never fulfilled their side of the agreements even when the Native Americans went quietly to their reservations. Dishonest bureau agents frequently sold off the supplies that were meant for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Additionally, as settlers demanded more territory in the West, the government frequently reduced the size of Indian reservations. By this time, most of the Native American people were unhappy with the treaties and angered by settlers’ endless hunger for territory.
A Look at Native American Symbols
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 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 coerce Native Americans onto the reservations and to end the violence, the U.S. government reacted to these conflicts with costly military operations. Obviously the U.S. government’s Indian regulations were in need an adjustment.
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Native American policy changed considerably following the Civil War. Reformers believed that the policy of driving Native Americans inside reservations was far too harsh 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 singular long-term strategy for ensuring Native American survival. In 1871 the federal government enacted a pivotal law stating that the United States would not deal with Native American tribes as sovereign nations.
This law signaled a significant change in the government’s relationship with the native peoples – Congress now viewed the Native Americans, not as countries outside of its jurisdiction, 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 accepted part of the cultural mainstream of America.
More On American Indian History
Many U.S. government administrators looked at assimilation as the most practical answer to what they viewed as “the Indian problem,” and the sole long-term method of insuring U.S. interests in the West and the survival of the American Indians. In order to accomplish this, the government pressed Native Americans to move out of their customary dwellings, move into wooden dwellings and grow into farmers.
The federal government handed down laws that pressed Native Americans to quit their traditional appearance and way of life. Some laws outlawed common spiritual practices while others instructed Indian men to cut their long locks. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations established tribunals to enforce federal regulations that often restricted traditional cultural and religious practices.
To hasten the assimilation process, the government started Indian training centers that attempted to quickly and forcefully Americanize Indian youth. According to 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, wear proper American attire and to substitute their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new regulations helped bring Native Americans closer to the conclusion of their original tribal identity and the start of their existence as citizens under the absolute 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 designed to “civilize” American Indians by teaching them to be farmers. In order to achieve this, Congress needed to create non-public ownership of Indian property by dividing reservations, which were collectively held, and providing each family their own parcel of land.
Additionally, by forcing the Native Americans onto small 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 were given between 40 to 80 acres; the rest of the acreage was to be sold. Congress wished that the Dawes Act would break up Indian tribes and stimulate individual enterprise, while cutting down the cost 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 lived under regulations that outlawed their traditional lifestyle but failed to supply the crucial resources to support their businesses and households. Dividing the reservations into small parcels of land led to the significant decrease of Indian-owned property. Within three decades, the people had lost more than 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 required to sell their land in order pay bills and take care of their families. Because of that, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were routinely unable to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, as the makers of the Act had anticipated. It also created resentment among Indians for the U.S. government, as the allotment operation sometimes destroyed land that was the spiritual and cultural hub of their activities.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed drastically. Through U.S. government regulations, American Indians were forced from their housing 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 all these years the Indians had been defrauded out of their property, food and way of life, as the “” government’s Indian policies coerced 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 lowered to less than 250,000 people. Due to decades of discriminatory and corrupt policies instituted by the United States authorities between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was changed forever.
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