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 land, 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 customs and heritage without disturbance. And that history is captivating.
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 plenty. It’s a story of beautiful artwork and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed remarkably elaborate buildings and public works.
While there was inescapable tribal conflict, that was simply 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 sent the first vessels in our direction, the objective was to explore new resources – however the quality of environment 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 rushed to carve up the “New World” by sending over poorly prepared colonists as fast as they could. In the beginning, they skirmished with the alarmed Indians of America’s eastern seaboard. But that shortly gave way to trade, because the Europeans who came ashore here learned their survival was doubtful with no Indian help.
Thus followed years of comparative peace as the settlers got themselves established on American soil. But the pressure to push inland followed soon after. Kings and queens from thousands of miles away were anxious to find additional resources, and some colonists came for freedom and opportunity.
They required 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 that were almost uniformly neglected after the Indians were moved away 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 areas inhabited by these Native American tribes. By the 1850s virtually 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 area of the Southern Plains.
The Sioux, Crows and Blackfeet dominated the Northern Plains. These Native American groups encountered adversity as the constant flow of European immigrants into northeastern American cities pushed a stream of immigrants into the western lands already populated by these diverse 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 wouldn’t end there. Between 1830 and 1860 the United States roughly doubled the amount of territory within its control.
These territorial gains coincided with the arrival of hordes 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 attractive possibilities for those willing to make the huge 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 parts of the Native American tribe-inhabited West.
Native American Tribes
Native American Policy can be defined as the laws and procedures made and adapted in the United States to summarize 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 these native peoples, but throughout two centuries the U.S. adapted its own widely varying policies regarding the evolving perspectives and requirements of Native American regulation.
In 1824, in order to administrate the U.S. government’s Native American policies, Congress formed a new agency within the War Department called the 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 numerous cultural identities; however, at other times the government attempted to compel the Native American tribes to give up their cultural identity, let go of their land and assimilate into the American customs.
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With the steady stream of settlers into Indian controlled land, Eastern newspapers published sensationalized stories of cruel native tribes committing 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 often helped settlers get across the Plains. Not only did the American Indians peddle 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 possibility of an attack.
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To calm these worries, in 1851 the U.S. government organised 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 roadways and forts in this territory and agreed never to go after 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 quietly 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 amongst their tribes in order 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 hold very long. After hearing testimonies of fertile land and great 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 limiting Native Americans to reservations, limited areas of land within a group’s territory that was set aside exclusively for their use, in order to offer more property for the non-Indian settlers.
In a series of new treaties the U.S. government commanded Native Americans to surrender 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 foodstuffs, livestock, household goods and agricultural tools. These reservations were established in an attempt to clear the way for heightened U.S. growth and administration 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 problems. Most importantly many of the native people didn’t altogether grasp the document that they were finalizing or the conditions within it; moreover, the treaties did not consider the cultural norms of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government institutions responsible for administering these policies were plagued with poor management and corruption. In fact many treaty conditions were never carried out.
The U.S. government almost never held up their side of the agreements even when the Native Americans moved quietly to their reservations. Dishonest bureau agents often sold off the supplies that were intended for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Moreover, as settlers demanded more property in the West, the federal government frequently decreased the size of the reservations. By this time, most of the Native American peoples were unhappy with the treaties and angered by settlers’ endless demands for land.
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Angered by the government’s dishonest 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 make Native Americans onto the reservations and to end the violence, the U.S. government reacted to these conflicts with costly military campaigns. Clearly the U.S. government’s Indian policies were in need an adjustment.
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Native American policy changed considerably following the Civil War. Reformers believed that the scheme of pushing Native Americans into reservations was far too severe even though industrialists, who were concerned with their land and resources, thought of assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” as the single permanent method of assuring 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 sovereign nations.
This legislation signaled a major shift in the government’s working relationship with the native peoples – Congress now regarded the Native Americans, not as nations 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 widely acknowledged part of the cultural mainstream of America.
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Many U.S. government officials looked at assimilation as the most effective answer to what they viewed as “the Indian problem,” and the only lasting method of 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 relocate out of their established dwellings, move into wooden homes and grow into farmers.
The federal government enacted laws that forced Native Americans to reject their established appearance and lifestyle. Some laws outlawed common spiritual practices while others instructed Indian males to cut their long hair. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations established courts to implement federal polices that often prohibited traditional ethnic and spiritual practices.
To speed the assimilation operation, the government set up Indian training centers that attempted to quickly and forcefully Americanize Indian children. As per the founder of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, the schools were designed to “kill the Indian and save the man.” In order to accomplish this goal, the schools required students to speak only English, dress in proper American clothing and to replace their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new policies brought Native Americans closer to the end of their traditional tribal identity and the start of their existence as citizens under the full control of the U.S. administration.
Native American Treaties with the United States
In 1887, Congress approved the General Allotment Act, the most significant element of the U.S. government’s assimilation platform, which was created to “civilize” American Indians by teaching them to become farmers. In order to accomplish this, Congress planned to establish private ownership of Indian property by dividing reservations, which were collectively owned, and allowing each family their own parcel of land.
In addition to this, by pushing 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 every family be provided with an allotment of between 80 and 160 acres, while unmarried adults received between 40 to 80 acres; the residual acreage was to be sold. Congress thought that the Dawes Act would breakup Indian tribes and inspire individual enterprise, while cutting down 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 lived under regulations that outlawed their traditional lifestyle and yet didn’t provide the crucial resources to support their businesses and families. Splitting the reservations into smaller parcels of land led to the significant reduction of Indian-owned land. Within thirty years, the tribes had lost in excess of two-thirds of the region that they had controlled before the Dawes Act was enacted in 1887; the majority of the remaining land was sold to white settlers.
Regularly, Native Americans were duped out of their allotments or were required to sell their property in order to pay bills and take care of their own families. Because of that, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were routinely unable to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, like the creators of the policy had desired. It also generated anger among Indians for the U.S. government, as the allotment method often ruined land that was the spiritual and cultural center of their days.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed dramatically. 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 inhabited with white settlers.
The Upshot of the Indian Wars
Over all these years the Indians had been defrauded out of their territory, food and way of life, as the federal government’s Indian plans shoved them into reservations and attempted to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands did not endure relocation, cultural destruction and military defeat; by 1890 the Native American population was lowered to less than 250,000 persons. Thanks to decades of discriminatory and ruthless policies instituted by the United States government between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was altered permanently.
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