Ages before the terms Native American or Indian were created, the tribes were spread throughout 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 customs and legacy without disturbance. And that history is captivating.
From Mayan and Incan ruins, from the mounds left in the central and southern regions of what’s today the U.S. we have learned plenty. It’s a tale of beautiful art and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed highly advanced buildings and public works.
While there was inevitable tribal conflict, that was nothing more than a slight blemish in the narrative 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 ships in this direction, the plan was to explore new resources – however the quality of weather 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 raced to slice up the “New World” by sending 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, since the Europeans who came ashore here learned that their survival was doubtful with no Indian help.
Thus followed decades of comparative 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 anxious to find additional resources, and some colonists came for independence and opportunity.
They wanted more space. And so began the process of forcing the American Indian out of the way.
It took the form of cash payments, barter, and famously, treaties that were nearly consistently ignored after the Indians were pushed 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 nearly 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 territory of the Southern Plains.
The Sioux, Crows and Blackfeet dominated the Northern Plains. These Native American groups encountered hardship as the constant stream of European immigrants into northeastern American cities delivered a stream of immigrants into the western lands already inhabited by these various 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 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 alluring possibilities for those prepared make the long journey westward. Therefore, with the military’s protection and the U.S. government’s assistance, many settlers began establishing 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 operations established and adapted in the United States to outline the relationship between Native American tribes and the federal government. When the United States initially became a sovereign country, it adopted the European policies towards the native peoples, but over the course of two centuries the U.S. designed its own widely varying policies regarding the evolving perspectives and necessities of Native American regulation.
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 closely 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 compel the Native American tribes to give up their cultural identity, hand over their land and assimilate into the American customs.
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With the steady flow of settlers in to Indian controlled land, Eastern newspapers circulated 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 certainly 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 supplies to travelers, but they acted as guides and messengers between wagon trains as well. Despite the genial natures of the American Indians, settlers still feared the risk of an attack.
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To calm these fears, 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 consented to a bounded territory, allowed the government to construct roadways and forts in this territory and pledged to never go after 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 entered into the treaty, even consented to end the hostilities amongst 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 stand long. After hearing testimonies of fertile acreage 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 policy of limiting Native Americans to reservations, small areas of land within a group’s territory “” reserved exclusively for their use, in order to provide more property for the non-Indian settlers.
In a series of new treaties the U.S. government commanded Native Americans to abandon 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 tools. These reservations were created in an effort to pave the way for heightened U.S. expansion and administration in the West, as well as to keep the Native Americans separate from the whites in order to lessen the chance for conflict.
History of the Plains Indians
These deals had many problems. Most importantly many of the native peoples didn’t altogether understand the document that they were finalizing or the conditions within it; furthermore, the treaties did not respect the cultural practices of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government agencies accountable for administering these policies were overwhelmed with poor management and corruption. In fact many treaty terms were never accomplished.
The U.S. government rarely held up their side of the accords even when the Native Americans relocated quietly to their reservations. Unethical bureau agents sometimes sold off the supplies that were intended for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Moreover, as settlers needed more land in the West, the government constantly reduced the size of Indian reservations. By this time, many of the Native American people were unhappy with the treaties and angered by the settlers’ endless hunger for territory.
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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 maintain 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 push Native Americans onto the reservations and to end the violence, the U.S. government responded to these hostilities with costly military operations. Clearly the U.S. government’s Indian regulations required of a change.
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Native American policy shifted radically following the Civil War. Reformers felt that the scheme of pushing 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 sole permanent means of ensuring Native American survival. In 1871 the government passed a pivotal law stating that the United States would no longer deal with Native American tribes as independent entities.
This legislation signaled a significant change in the government’s relationship with the native peoples – Congress now viewed the Native Americans, not as nations outside of its jurisdiction, but as wards of the government. By making Native Americans wards of the U.S. government, Congress imagined that it was better to make the policy of assimilation a broadly recognized part of the cultural mainstream of America.
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Many U.S. government officials looked at assimilation as the most practical remedy for what they deemed “the Indian problem,” and the only long-term strategy for protecting U.S. interests in the West and the survival of the American Indians. In order to accomplish this, the government pressed Native Americans to relocate out of their customary dwellings, move into wooden buildings and become farmers.
The federal government handed down laws that forced Native Americans to abandon their usual appearance and way of living. Some laws outlawed traditional religious practices while others required Indian men to cut their long locks. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations founded courts to enforce federal polices that often banned traditional ethnic and spiritual practices.
To speed up the assimilation operation, the government started Indian facilities that attempted to quickly and forcefully Americanize Indian kids. According to the founder of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, the schools were designed to “kill the Indian and save the man.” In order to achieve this objective, the schools compelled enrollees to speak only English, put on proper American clothing and to substitute their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new policies helped bring Native Americans nearer to the end of their original tribal identity and the start of their life as citizens under the complete control of the U.S. government.
Native American Treaties with the United States
In 1887, Congress approved the General Allotment Act, the most important element of the U.S. government’s assimilation program, which was intended to “civilize” American Indians by teaching them to be farmers. In order to make this happen, Congress planned to establish private title of Indian property by dividing reservations, which were collectively owned, and offering each family their own plot of land.
Additionally, by forcing the Native Americans onto limited plots, western developers and settlers could purchase the left over territory. The General Allotment Act, often called the Dawes Act, required that the Indian lands be surveyed and each family be awarded an allotment of between 80 and 160 acres, while unmarried adults were given between 40 to 80 acres; the remaining acreage was to be sold. Congress wished that the Dawes Act would breakup Indian tribes and inspire individual enterprise, while reducing the expense of Indian administration and producing prime property to be purchased by 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 approach to life but failed to provide the necessary resources to support their businesses and families. Splitting the reservations into small parcels of land brought about the significant reduction of Indian-owned property. Within three decades, the tribes had lost more than two-thirds of the acreage that they had controlled before the Dawes Act was enacted in 1887; the majority of the remaining land was purchased by white settlers.
Regularly, Native Americans were cheated out of their allotments or were required to sell their land in order pay bills and feed their own families. Because of that, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were often not able to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, like the creators of the Act had intended. This also created resentment among Indians for the U.S. government, as the allotment process often destroyed land that was the spiritual and cultural centre of their activities.
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 without restriction, were now filled up with white settlers.
The Upshot of the Indian Wars
Over all these years the Indians have been cheated out of their property, food and lifestyle, as the “” government’s Indian regulations forced them on to reservations and attempted to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands did not survive relocation, cultural destruction and military defeat; by 1890 the Native American population was reduced to under 250,000 persons. Thanks to generations of discriminatory and ruthless policies implemented by the United States authorities between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was changed forever.
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