Long before the terms Native American or Indian were considered, 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 culture and heritage without interference. 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 quite a bit. It’s a narrative of beautiful craft work and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed remarkably advanced structures and public works.
While there was inescapable 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 dispatched the first ships in this direction, the aim was to discover new resources – however the quality of climate 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 sending 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, since the Europeans who arrived here knew their survival was doubtful without native help.
Thus followed decades of relative 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 restless to find additional resources, and some colonists came for independence and adventure.
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 almost uniformly ignored once the Indians were moved from the territory 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 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 area 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 as well as the authority over Oregon country, Texas and California; America’s expansion wouldn’t end there. Between 1830 and 1860 the U.S. practically doubled the amount of acreage within 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 alluring possibilities for those ready to make the extended journey westward. Consequently, with the military’s protection and the U.S. government’s assistance, many settlers started building their homesteads in the Great Plains and other areas of the Native American group-inhabited West.
Native American Tribes
Native American Policy can be defined as the laws and regulations and procedures developed and adapted in the United States to define the relationship between Native American tribes and the federal government. When the United States first became an independent country, it adopted the European policies towards the indigenous peoples, but throughout two centuries the U.S. tailored its own widely varying regulations regarding the evolving perspectives and requirements of Native American regulation.
In 1824, in order to apply 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 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 force the Native American tribes to give up their cultural identity, give up their land and assimilate into the American traditions.
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With the steady stream of settlers in to Indian controlled land, Eastern newspapers circulated sensationalized reports of cruel native tribes committing massive massacres of hundreds of white travelers. Although some settlers lost their lives to American Indian attacks, this was far from the norm; in fact, Native American tribes repeatedly helped settlers cross 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 feared the possibility of an attack.
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To soothe these fears, in 1851 the U.S. government held a conference with several local Indian tribes and established the Treaty of Fort Laramie. Under this treaty, each Native American tribe consented to a bounded territory, allowed the government to construct roadways and forts in this territory and pledged never to assault 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 consented to end the hostilities amidst 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 did not last long. After hearing testimonies of fertile land 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 area. With so many newcomers heading west, the federal government established a plan of restricting Native Americans to reservations, limited swaths of acreage within a group’s territory “” set aside 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 allocated a yearly payment that would include cash in addition to foodstuffs, livestock, household goods and farming tools. These reservations were established 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 divided from the whites in order to lower the chance for friction.
History of the Plains Indians
These agreements had many complications. Most significantly many of the native peoples did not altogether grasp 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 departments responsible for administering these policies were overwhelmed with awful management and corruption. In fact many treaty terms were never implemented.
The U.S. government almost never fulfilled their side of the accords even when the Native Americans relocated quietly to their reservations. Shady bureau agents often sold the supplies that were intended for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Additionally, as settlers needed more territory in the West, the government frequently reduced the size of Indian reservations. By this time, most of the Native American peoples were dissatisfied with the treaties and angered by settlers’ constant hunger for territory.
A Look at Native American Symbols
Angered by the government’s dishonorable and unjust 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, more than one thousand skirmishes and battles broke out in the West between 1861 and 1891. In an attempt to make Native Americans onto the reservations and to end the violence, the U.S. government reacted to these conflicts with significant military campaigns. Clearly the U.S. government’s Indian regulations required an adjustment.
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Native American policy changed dramatically after the Civil War. Reformers believed that the scheme of driving Native Americans inside reservations was too harsh while industrialists, who were concerned with their property and resources, viewed assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” to be the only permanent strategy for assuring Native American survival. In 1871 the federal government approved a pivotal law stating that the United States would not treat Native American tribes as autonomous entities.
This legislation signaled a drastic change in the government’s working relationship with the native peoples – Congress now deemed 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 concluded that it was easier to make the policy of assimilation a widely recognised part of the cultural mainstream of America.
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Many U.S. government administrators looked at assimilation as the most effective remedy for what they viewed as “the Indian problem,” and the only lasting means of insuring 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 traditional dwellings, move into wooden houses and become farmers.
The federal government passed laws that forced Native Americans to reject their usual appearance and way of life. Some laws outlawed traditional spiritual practices while others required Indian males to cut their long locks. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations founded courts to enforce federal polices that often restricted traditional cultural and religious practices.
To boost the assimilation course, the government started Indian schools that tried 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.” To be able to achieve this goal, the schools compelled enrollees to speak only English, wear proper American attire and to replace their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new policies brought Native Americans nearer to the end of their traditional tribal identity and the beginning of their existence as citizens under the absolute control of the U.S. authorities.
Native American Treaties with the United States
In 1887, Congress passed the General Allotment Act, the most significant component of the U.S. government’s assimilation platform, which was written to “civilize” American Indians by teaching them to be farmers. In order to achieve this, Congress needed to increase private ownership of Indian property by dividing reservations, which were collectively owned, and providing each family their own stretch of land.
In addition to this, by pushing the Native Americans onto limited plots, 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 each family be awarded an allotment of between 80 and 160 acres, while unmarried adults received between 40 to 80 acres; the remaining acreage was to be sold. Congress expected that the Dawes Act would break up Indian tribes and inspire individual enterprise, while reducing the cost of Indian supervision and serving up prime property to be purchased by white settlers.
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The Dawes Act proved to be disastrous for the American Indians; over the next generations they lived under policies that outlawed their traditional way of living and yet didn’t supply the critical resources to support their businesses and families. Dividing the reservations into small parcels of land caused the significant decrease of Indian-owned property. Within thirty years, the people had lost in excess of 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 cheated out of their allotments or were required to sell their property in order pay bills and provide for their families. As a result, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were routinely not able to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, like the makers of the policy had intended. Further, it generated anger among Indians toward the U.S. government, as the allotment method often ruined land that was the spiritual and societal focus of their days.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed significantly. Due to U.S. government regulations, American Indians were forced from their homes because 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 defrauded out of their land, food and way of living, as the federal government’s Indian regulations forced them into reservations and tried to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands could not endure relocation, assimilation and military defeat; by 1890 the Native American population was decreased to under 250,000 people. 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 forever.
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