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 thousands of years, the American Indian grew 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 now the U.S. we have learned plenty. It’s a tale of beautiful craft work and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed highly elaborate buildings and public works.
While there was inescapable 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 plugged into nature.
The European Settler Arrives
When European leaders sent the first ships in this direction, the plan was to explore new resources – but the quality of weather and the bounty of everything from wood to wildlife subsequently changed their tune. As those leaders heard back from their explorers, the motivation 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 shortly gave way to trade, because the Europeans who arrived here knew their survival was doubtful with no Indian help.
Thus followed years of comparative 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 restless to locate even more resources, and some colonists came for freedom and opportunity.
They needed more space. And so began the process of pushing the American Indian out of the way.
It took the form of cash arrangements, barter, and famously, treaties which were almost uniformly neglected after the Indians were forced away from the land 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 territories inhabited by these Native American tribes. By the 1850s nearly all Native American tribes, roughly 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 territory of the Southern Plains.
The Sioux, Crows and Blackfeet dominated the Northern Plains. These Native American groups experienced hardship as the constant stream of European immigrants into northeastern American cities pushed a stream of immigrants into the western lands already populated 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 roughly doubled the amount of territory 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, combined with the discovery of gold in 1849, presented captivating opportunities for those prepared make the long journey westward. As a result, with the military’s protection and the U.S. government’s assistance, many settlers set about 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 laws and operations developed and adapted in the United States to outline the relationship between Native American tribes and the federal government. When the United States first became an independent nation, it implemented the European policies towards the native peoples, but over two centuries the U.S. tailored its very own widely varying regulations regarding the changing 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 within 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 different 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 customs.
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With the steady flow of settlers into Indian “” land, Eastern newspapers printed sensationalized reports 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 not the norm; in fact, Native American tribes repeatedly helped settlers cross over 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 friendly natures of the American Indians, settlers still anticipated the risk of an attack.
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To calm these concerns, in 1851 the U.S. government kept 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 pledged not 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 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 amongst their tribes in order to accept the terms of the treaty.
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This peaceful accord between the U.S. government and the Native American tribes did not hold long. After hearing tales of fertile land and tremendous mineral wealth in the West, the government soon broke their assurances established in the Treat of Fort Laramie by allowing thousands of non-Indians to flood into the area. 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 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 move to reservations in exchange for protection from attacks by white settlers. In addition, the Indians were given a yearly stipend that would include cash in addition to food, livestock, household goods and agricultural equipment. These reservations were created in an effort to clear the way for heightened U.S. growth and involvement in the West, as well as to keep the Native Americans divided from the whites in order to reduce the potential for conflict.
History of the Plains Indians
These accords had many challenges. Most importantly many of the native peoples didn’t completely understand the document that they were finalizing or the conditions within it; further, 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 awful management and corruption. In fact most treaty terms were never carried out.
The U.S. government rarely fulfilled their side of the agreements even when the Native Americans moved quietly to their reservations. Shady bureau agents repeatedly sold off the supplies that were intended for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Additionally, as settlers needed more property in the West, the federal government frequently decreased the size of Indian reservations. By this time, most of the Native American people were dissatisfied with the treaties and angered by the settlers’ endless hunger for land.
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Angered by the government’s dishonorable and unjust policies, some Native American tribes, including bands of Cheyennes, Arapahos, Comanches and Sioux, battled 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 make Native Americans onto the reservations and to end the violence, the U.S. government responded to these conflicts with significant military operations. Clearly the U.S. government’s Indian regulations required an adjustment.
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Native American policy shifted considerably after the Civil War. Reformers felt that the policy of driving Native Americans on to reservations was far too strict even though industrialists, who were concerned with their land and resources, looked at assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” to be the only permanent strategy for ensuring Native American survival. In 1871 the government enacted a critical law stating that the United States would no longer deal with Native American tribes as independent entities.
This legislation signaled a major change in the government’s working relationship with the native peoples – Congress now deemed the Native Americans, not as countries outside of its jurisdictional control, but as wards of the government. By making Native Americans wards of the U.S. government, Congress concluded 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 representatives viewed assimilation as the most effective answer to what they viewed as “the Indian problem,” and the only permanent method of insuring 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 established dwellings, move into wooden buildings and turn into farmers.
The federal government passed laws that forced Native Americans to quit their usual appearance and lifestyle. Some laws banned 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 enforce federal regulations that often banned traditional ethnic and spiritual practices.
To boost the assimilation process, the government started Indian schools that attempted to quickly and forcefully Americanize Indian kids. As per the director of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, the schools were developed to “kill the Indian and save the man.” In order to achieve this objective, the schools compelled students to speak only English, dress in proper American fashion and to replace their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new regulations brought Native Americans nearer to the end of their established tribal identity and the start of their daily life as citizens under the complete 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 platform, which was intended to “civilize” American Indians by teaching them to become farmers. In order to make this happen, Congress wanted to increase non-public title of Indian property by dividing reservations, which were collectively owned, and allowing each family their own block of land.
In addition to this, by pushing the Native Americans onto limited plots of land, western developers and settlers could purchase the remaining acreage. The General Allotment Act, referred to 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 expected that the Dawes Act would breakup Indian tribes and increase individual enterprise, while lowering the cost of Indian supervision and providing prime land to be purchased by white settlers.
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The Dawes Act proved to be disastrous for the American Indians; over the next decades they existed under regulations that outlawed their traditional approach to life yet did not provide the critical resources to support their businesses and families. Splitting the reservations into smaller parcels of land caused the significant decrease of Indian-owned land. Within thirty years, the people had lost more than two-thirds of the territory that they had controlled before the Dawes Act was passed in 1887; the majority of the remaining land was sold to white settlers.
Commonly, Native Americans were duped out of their allotments or were required to sell off their property in order to pay bills and provide for their own families. Because of that, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were generally not able to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, like the makers of the Act had anticipated. This also created anger among Indians toward the U.S. government, as the allotment operation often destroyed land that was the spiritual and societal focus of their days.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed substantially. Through U.S. administration policies, American Indians were forced from their homes as their native lands were parceled out. The Plains, which they had previously roamed without limits, were now inhabited with white settlers.
The Upshot of the Indian Wars
Over the years the Indians had been cheated out of their territory, food and approach to life, as the federal government’s Indian policies coerced them into reservations and tried to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands didn’t survive relocation, assimilation and military defeat; by 1890 the Native American population was lowered to less than 250,000 people. Thanks to generations of discriminatory and corrupt policies instituted by the United States government between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was changed permanently.
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