Ages before the terms Native American or Indian were necessary, 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 thousands of years, the American Indian developed its customs and heritage without disturbance. And that history is fascinating.
From Mayan and Incan ruins, from the mounds left in the central and southern regions of what is currently the U.S. we have learned much. It’s a tale of beautiful arts and crafts and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed highly elaborate buildings and public works.
While there was unavoidable tribal conflict, that was just a slight blemish in the narrative of our ancestors. 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 our 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 learned 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 possible. In the beginning, they skirmished with the surprised Indians of America’s eastern seaboard. But that soon gave way to trade, since the Europeans who came ashore here learned their survival was doubtful without Indian help.
Thus followed decades of relative peace as the settlers got themselves established on American land. But the pressure to push inland came soon after. Kings and queens from thousands of miles away were anxious to locate even more resources, and some colonists came for independence and opportunity.
They needed more space. And so began the process of driving the American Indian out of the way.
It took the shape of cash arrangements, barter, and famously, treaties which were almost consistently ignored once 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 territories inhabited by these Native American tribes. By the 1850s virtually 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 located in contemporary Oklahoma, while the Kiowa and Comanche Native American tribes shared the land of the Southern Plains.
The Sioux, Crows and Blackfeet dominated the Northern Plains. These Native American groups experienced hardship as the steady 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 along with 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 acreage under 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 attractive possibilities for those prepared make the extended quest westward. As a result, with the military’s protection and the U.S. government’s assistance, many settlers started 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 regulations and operations developed and adapted in the United States to define the relationship between Native American tribes and the federal government. When the United States initially became a sovereign nation, it adopted the European policies towards these native peoples, but over two centuries the U.S. tailored its own widely varying policies regarding the evolving perspectives and necessities of Native American regulation.
In 1824, in order to administrate the U.S. government’s Native American policies, Congress created 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 varying cultural identities; however, at other times the government attempted to force the Native American tribes to abandon their cultural identity, surrender their land and assimilate into the American culture.
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With the steady stream of settlers into Indian controlled land, Eastern newspapers printed sensationalized stories 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 far from the norm; in fact, Native American tribes routinely helped settlers cross over the Plains. Not only did the American Indians peddle 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 presumed the possibility of an attack.
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To calm these worries, 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 roads and forts in this territory and pledged to not go after settlers; in return the federal government agreed to honor the boundaries of each tribe’s territory and make total 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 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 hold very 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 heading west, the federal government established a policy of confining Native Americans to reservations, small swaths of land within a group’s territory “” earmarked exclusively for Indian use, to be able to offer more territory for “” non-Indian settlers.
In a series of new treaties the U.S. government compelled Native Americans to surrender their land and migrate 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, animals, household goods and farming tools. These reservations were established in an attempt to pave the way for increased U.S. expansion and administration in the West, as well as to keep the Native Americans isolated from the whites in order to lessen the potential for conflict.
History of the Plains Indians
These accords had many complications. Most of all many of the native people didn’t completely grasp the document that they were confirming or the conditions within it; further, the treaties did not acknowledge the cultural practices of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government agencies responsible for administering these policies were overwhelmed with poor management and corruption. In fact many treaty terms were never carried out.
The U.S. government rarely held up their side of the accords even when the Native Americans relocated quietly to their reservations. Dishonest bureau agents repeatedly sold off the supplies that were meant for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Additionally, as settlers demanded more land in the West, the federal government frequently cut the size of the reservations. By this time, many of the Native American peoples were dissatisfied with the treaties and angered by settlers’ persistent appetite for territory.
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Angered by the government’s dishonest and unfair policies, some 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 attempt to push Native Americans onto the reservations and to end the violence, the U.S. government reacted to these incursions with costly military campaigns. Clearly the U.S. government’s Indian regulations were in need of a change.
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Native American policy shifted dramatically after the Civil War. Reformers believed that the scheme of pushing Native Americans into reservations was too severe while industrialists, who were worried about their property and resources, viewed assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” as the only long-term strategy for assuring Native American survival. In 1871 the federal government approved a pivotal law stating that the United States would no longer treat Native American tribes as autonomous nations.
This legislation signaled a major shift in the government’s relationship with the native peoples – Congress now regarded 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 believed that it would be better to make the policy of assimilation a broadly acknowledged part of the cultural mainstream of America.
More On American Indian History
Many U.S. government administrators looked at assimilation as the most practical solution to what they viewed as “the Indian problem,” and the single long-term means of guaranteeing 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 dwellings and turn into farmers.
The federal government enacted laws that required Native Americans to quit their traditional appearance and lifestyle. Some laws banned common religious practices while others required Indian men to cut their long hair. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations set up courts to implement federal polices that often banned traditional ethnic and spiritual practices.
To speed the assimilation operation, the government established Indian schools that attempted to quickly and forcefully Americanize Indian children. As per the founder of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, the schools were developed to “kill the Indian and save the man.” To be able to make this happen goal, the schools required enrollees to speak only English, dress in proper American attire and to switch their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new policies brought Native Americans closer to the end of their classic tribal identity and the start of their existence as citizens under the full control of the U.S. authorities.
Native American Treaties with the United States
In 1887, Congress handed down the General Allotment Act, the most significant component of the U.S. government’s assimilation program, which was developed to “civilize” American Indians by educating them to become farmers. In order to make this happen, Congress planned to create non-public ownership of Indian land by dividing reservations, which were collectively held, and offering each family their own plot of land.
In addition to this, by pushing the Native Americans onto small plots, western developers and settlers could purchase the left over land. The General Allotment Act, also referred to 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 were given between 40 to 80 acres; the residual land was to be sold. Congress wished that the Dawes Act would breakup Indian tribes and encourage individual enterprise, while cutting down the cost of Indian administration and providing prime property to be sold to white settlers.
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The Dawes Act turned out to be catastrophic for the American Indians; over the next decades they lived under regulations that outlawed their traditional lifestyle yet failed to provide the critical resources to support their businesses and households. Splitting the reservations into smaller parcels of land brought about the significant reduction of Indian-owned property. Inside three decades, the tribes had lost over 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 duped out of their allotments or were forced to sell off their land in order to pay bills and take care of their families. Consequently, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were often unable to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, as the makers of the Act had intended. This also produced animosity among Indians toward the U.S. government, as the allotment practice sometimes destroyed land that was the spiritual and cultural center of their lives.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed dramatically. Through U.S. administration regulations, American Indians were forced from their places of residence because their native lands were parceled out. The Plains, which they had previously roamed alone, were now filling with white settlers.
The Upshot of the Indian Wars
Over these years the Indians ended up defrauded out of their property, food and way of life, as the federal government’s Indian regulations coerced them on to reservations and attempted to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands did not make it through relocation, cultural destruction and military loss; by 1890 the Native American population was reduced to less than 250,000 persons. Due to decades of discriminatory and ruthless policies implemented by the United States authorities between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was altered permanently.
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