Centuries 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 thousands of years, 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 parts of what is today the U.S. we have learned quite a bit. It’s a story of beautiful art and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed remarkably advanced structures and public works.
While there was unavoidable tribal conflict, that was simply a slight blemish in the narrative of our ancestors. They were at peace with this beautiful continent and intensely plugged into nature.
The European Settler Arrives
When European leaders dispatched the first vessels in our direction, the aim was to discover new resources – but the quality of climate and the bounty of everything from wood 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 slice up the “New World” by transporting over inadequately prepared colonists as fast as possible. Initially, they skirmished with the surprised Indians of America’s eastern seaboard. But that ultimately gave way to trade, because the Europeans who landed here learned their survival was doubtful without native help.
Thus followed decades of relative peace as the settlers got themselves established on American land. But the drive to push inland came soon after. Kings and queens from thousands of miles away were anxious to find even more resources, and some colonists came for freedom and adventure.
They wanted more space. And so began the process of driving the American Indian out of the way.
It took the form of cash payments, barter, and famously, treaties that were almost uniformly neglected after the Indians were forced 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 territories occupied by these Native American tribes. By the 1850s almost 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 experienced misfortune 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 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 along with the authority over Oregon country, Texas and California; America’s expansion would 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 captivating opportunities 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 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 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 initially became an independent nation, it implemented the European policies towards these indigenous peoples, but throughout two centuries the U.S. designed its own widely varying regulations regarding the changing perspectives and requirements of Native American regulation.
In 1824, in order to execute the U.S. government’s Native American policies, Congress formed a new agency within 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, separate political communities with varying 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 flow 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 in no way 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 good natures of the American Indians, settlers still feared the likelihood of an attack.
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To calm these anxieties, 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 roads and forts in this territory and pledged never to go after 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 consented to end the hostilities amidst 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 did not last very long. After hearing stories of fertile land and tremendous mineral wealth in the West, the government soon broke their assurances established in the Treat of Fort Laramie by permitting thousands of non-Indians to flood into the area. With so many newcomers heading west, the federal government established a plan of confining Native Americans to reservations, small swaths of acreage within a group’s territory “” set aside exclusively for their use, to be able to offer more land for “” non-Indian settlers.
In a series of new treaties the U.S. government forced Native Americans to abandon their land and move to reservations in exchange for protection from attacks by white settlers. In addition, the Indians were allocated a yearly payment that would include money in addition to foodstuffs, livestock, household goods and farming equipment. These reservations were created in an effort to pave the way for increasing U.S. growth and involvement in the West, as well as to keep the Native Americans divided from the whites in order to lower the potential for friction.
History of the Plains Indians
These agreements had many challenges. Most significantly many of the native peoples did not altogether understand the document that they were confirming or the conditions within it; moreover, the treaties did not acknowledge the cultural norms of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government institutions accountable for applying these policies were plagued with poor management and corruption. In fact many treaty provisions were never implemented.
The U.S. government almost never fulfilled their side of the deals even when the Native Americans went quietly to their reservations. Shady bureau agents frequently sold off the supplies that were meant for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Moreover, as settlers needed more territory in the West, the federal government frequently cut the size of Indian reservations. By this time, most of the Native American people were dissatisfied with the treaties and angered by the settlers’ constant hunger 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 fought to maintain their lands 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 reacted to these hostilities with significant military campaigns. Clearly the U.S. government’s Indian policies were in need of a change.
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Native American policy changed considerably after the Civil War. Reformers felt that the policy of pushing Native Americans on to reservations was too harsh while industrialists, who were concerned about their land and resources, viewed assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” as the lone permanent method of guaranteeing Native American survival. In 1871 the federal government passed a critical law stating that the United States would no longer deal with Native American tribes as sovereign entities.
This law signaled a major shift in the government’s relationship with the native peoples – Congress now deemed 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 accepted part of the cultural mainstream of America.
More On American Indian History
Many U.S. government officials looked at assimilation as the most effective answer to what they deemed “the Indian problem,” and the only permanent strategy for protecting U.S. interests in the West and the survival of the American Indians. In order to accomplish this, the government pushed Native Americans to move out of their established dwellings, move into wooden buildings and grow into farmers.
The federal government handed down laws that forced Native Americans to reject their traditional appearance and way of life. Some laws outlawed traditional religious practices while others ordered Indian males to cut their long hair. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations organized courts to impose federal polices that often banned traditional ethnic and religious practices.
To boost the assimilation operation, the government set up Indian training centers that tried to quickly and forcefully Americanize Indian kids. According to the director 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 goal, the schools compelled pupils to speak only English, wear proper American attire and to substitute their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new policies helped bring Native Americans nearer to the conclusion of their established tribal identity and the beginning of their existence as citizens under the complete control of the U.S. government.
Native American Treaties with the United States
In 1887, Congress passed the General Allotment Act, the most significant part of the U.S. government’s assimilation program, which was created to “civilize” American Indians by educating them to be farmers. In order to achieve this, Congress planned to establish private title of Indian property by splitting up reservations, which were collectively owned, and giving each family their own block 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 provided with an allotment of between 80 and 160 acres, while unmarried adults received between 40 to 80 acres; the remaining land was to be sold. Congress was hoping that the Dawes Act would break-up Indian tribes and increase individual enterprise, while cutting down the cost of Indian administration and serving up prime property to be sold to white settlers.
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The Dawes Act turned out to be disastrous for the American Indians; over the next generations they existed under regulations that outlawed their traditional approach to life and yet didn’t offer the necessary resources to support their businesses and households. Dividing the reservations into small parcels of land caused the significant decrease of Indian-owned land. Inside three decades, the people 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.
Commonly, Native Americans were cheated out of their allotments or were required to sell their land in order pay bills and take care of their own families. Because of that, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were generally not able to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, as the creators of the Act had expected. This also developed animosity among Indians for the U.S. government, as the allotment method often destroyed land that was the spiritual and social focus of their days.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed significantly. Due to U.S. administration regulations, American Indians were forced from their living spaces because their native lands were parceled out. The Plains, which they had previously roamed alone, were now filled with white settlers.
The Upshot of the Indian Wars
Over the years the Indians have been cheated out of their territory, food and lifestyle, as the federal government’s Indian regulations forced them on to reservations and attempted to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands would not survive relocation, cultural destruction and military loss; by 1890 the Native American population was lowered to less than 250,000 people. Thanks to decades of discriminatory and dodgy policies implemented by the United States authorities between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was altered forever.
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