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 traditions and heritage without interference. And that history is fascinating.
From Mayan and Incan ruins, from the mounds left in the central and southern regions of what’s now the U.S. we have learned quite a bit. It’s a narrative of beautiful craft work and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed highly elaborate structures and public works.
While there was inevitable tribal conflict, that was simply a slight blemish in the experience of our forebears. They were at peace with this beautiful continent and deeply plugged into nature.
The European Settler Arrives
When European leaders sent the first vessels in this direction, the plan was to explore new resources – but the quality of weather and the bounty of everything from timber to wildlife soon changed their tune. As those leaders heard back 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 beginning, they skirmished with the alarmed Indians of America’s eastern seaboard. But that soon gave way to trade, because the Europeans who arrived here knew that their survival was doubtful with no native help.
Thus followed decades of relative peace as the settlers got themselves established on American soil. But the drive to push inland came soon after. Kings and queens from thousands of miles away were impatient to find even more resources, and some colonists came for independence and opportunity.
They needed 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 that were nearly uniformly neglected once the Indians were pushed away from the land 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 areas inhabited by these Native American tribes. By the 1850s nearly 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 situated 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 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 United States nearly doubled the amount of territory 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, partnered with the discovery of gold in 1849, presented captivating possibilities for those willing to make the huge quest westward. Therefore, with the military’s protection and the U.S. government’s assistance, many settlers began building 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 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 country, it adopted the European policies towards these indigenous peoples, but over two centuries the U.S. tailored its very own widely varying regulations regarding the changing perspectives and necessities of Native American oversight.
In 1824, in order to execute the U.S. government’s Native American policies, Congress created 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, distinct 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, hand over their land and assimilate into the American traditions.
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With the steady flow of settlers in to Indian controlled land, Eastern newspapers printed 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 in no way the norm; in fact, Native American tribes often helped settlers cross 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 genial natures of the American Indians, settlers still presumed the risk of an attack.
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To quiet these worries, 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 roads 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 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 signed the treaty, even consented to end the hostilities between 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 didn’t stand long. After hearing reports of fertile acreage 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 confining Native Americans to reservations, limited areas of acreage within a group’s territory that was reserved exclusively for their use, to be able to offer more land for the non-Indian settlers.
In a series of new treaties the U.S. government forced Native Americans to abandon their land and migrate to reservations in exchange for protection from attacks by white settlers. In addition, the Indians were allocated a yearly stipend that would include cash in addition to foodstuffs, animals, household goods and agricultural tools. These reservations were created in an effort to pave the way for heightened U.S. expansion and involvement in the West, as well as to keep the Native Americans isolated from the whites in order to lessen the potential for conflict.
History of the Plains Indians
These deals had many problems. Most significantly many of the native people did not entirely 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 accountable for applying these policies were overwhelmed with poor management and corruption. In fact many treaty provisions were never executed.
The U.S. government rarely honored their side of the agreements even when the Native Americans migrated quietly to their reservations. Unethical bureau agents sometimes sold the supplies that were meant for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Additionally, as settlers required more land in the West, the government frequently cut the size of reservation lands. By this time, many of the Native American peoples were dissatisfied with the treaties and angered by the settlers’ constant hunger for land.
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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, fought back. As they fought to defend 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 responded to these hostilities with significant military operations. Clearly the U.S. government’s Indian regulations were in need of a change.
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Native American policy shifted dramatically after the Civil War. Reformers felt that the policy of driving Native Americans onto reservations was far too harsh even while industrialists, who were concerned about their property and resources, viewed assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” to be the only long-term method of assuring Native American survival. In 1871 the federal government approved a pivotal law proclaiming that the United States would no longer treat Native American tribes as independent entities.
This law signaled a major shift in the government’s working 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 U.S. government, Congress presumed that it would be better to make the policy of assimilation a broadly recognized part of the cultural mainstream of America.
More On American Indian History
Many U.S. government representatives looked at assimilation as the most practical solution to what they deemed “the Indian problem,” and the single lasting means 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 move out of their customary dwellings, move into wooden houses and turn into farmers.
The federal government enacted laws that pressed Native Americans to quit their established appearance and way of living. Some laws outlawed traditional spiritual practices while others instructed Indian males to cut their long locks. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations organized courts to enforce federal polices that often prohibited traditional cultural and religious practices.
To accelerate the assimilation operation, the government set up Indian facilities that attempted to quickly and forcefully Americanize Indian children. According to the founder of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, the schools were created to “kill the Indian and save the man.” To be able to achieve this objective, the schools forced pupils to speak only English, put on proper American fashion and to substitute their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new regulations helped bring Native Americans closer to the conclusion of their traditional 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 enacted the General Allotment Act, the most important component of the U.S. government’s assimilation platform, which was written to “civilize” American Indians by teaching them to become farmers. In order to accomplish this, Congress planned to create private title of Indian property by splitting up reservations, which were collectively owned, and allowing 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 left over acreage. 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 remaining territory was to be sold. Congress thought that the Dawes Act would divide Indian tribes and encourage individual enterprise, while lowering the expense of Indian supervision and producing 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 way of life yet failed to supply the vital resources to support their businesses and families. Dividing the reservations into small parcels of land led to the significant reduction of Indian-owned property. Within thirty years, the tribes had lost in excess of 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 required to sell off their property in order pay bills and provide for their families. Because of that, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were often unable to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, as the makers of the Act had wished. Aside from that it created animosity among Indians toward the U.S. government, as the allotment process often ruined land that was the spiritual and societal location of their days.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed dramatically. Due to U.S. government policies, American Indians were forced from their living spaces because their native lands were parceled out. The Plains, which they had previously roamed without restriction, were now inhabited with white settlers.
The Upshot of the Indian Wars
Over these years the Indians had been cheated out of their property, food and approach to life, as the federal government’s Indian regulations coerced them inside reservations and attempted to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands did not endure relocation, cultural destruction and military loss; by 1890 the Native American population was reduced to under 250,000 persons. Due to decades of discriminatory and ruthless policies implemented by the United States government between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was changed permanently.
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