Centuries before the terms Native American or Indian were considered, 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 centuries, the American Indian grew 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’s now the U.S. we have learned plenty. It’s a story of beautiful art and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed highly elaborate structures and public works.
While there was inescapable tribal conflict, that was nothing more than a slight blemish in the history 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 vessels in our direction, the aim was to discover new resources – but the quality of weather and the bounty of everything from timber to wildlife soon 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 sending over inadequately prepared colonists as fast as possible. At the beginning, they skirmished with the alarmed Indians of America’s eastern seaboard. But that shortly gave way to trade, because the Europeans who landed here learned that 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 impatient to locate even more 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 arrangements, barter, and notoriously, treaties which were almost uniformly ignored once the Indians were moved away 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 territories occupied by these Native American tribes. By the 1850s nearly 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 met hardship as the continuous flow of European immigrants into northeastern American cities pushed a stream of immigrants into the western lands already inhabited by these diverse 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 wouldn’t end there. Between 1830 and 1860 the United States pretty much doubled the amount of territory 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 attractive opportunities for those willing to make the extended trip westward. Consequently, with the military’s protection and the U.S. government’s assistance, many settlers began 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 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 initially became a sovereign nation, it adopted the European policies towards the native peoples, but over the course of two centuries the U.S. designed its very own widely varying regulations regarding the evolving perspectives and necessities of Native American regulation.
In 1824, in order to administer the U.S. government’s Native American policies, Congress formed a new bureau inside 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, separate 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 “” land, Eastern newspapers published sensationalized stories 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 far from the norm; in fact, Native American tribes often helped settlers get across the Plains. Not only did the American Indians sell 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 feared the likelihood of an attack.
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To quiet these fears, 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 consented to a bounded territory, allowed the government to construct tracks and forts in this territory and agreed never 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 peacefully 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 conditions of the treaty.
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This peaceful agreement between the U.S. government and the Native American tribes didn’t last long. After hearing tales of fertile terrain 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, modest areas of land within a group’s territory that was earmarked exclusively for Indian use, to be able to provide more property for “” non-Indian settlers.
In a series of new treaties the U.S. government commanded 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 stipend that would include money in addition to foodstuffs, livestock, household goods and agricultural equipment. These reservations were created in an effort to clear the way for heightened U.S. growth and administration in the West, as well as to keep the Native Americans isolated from the whites in order to reduce the chance for conflict.
History of the Plains Indians
These agreements had many challenges. Most importantly many of the native peoples didn’t completely grasp the document that they were signing or the conditions within it; further, the treaties did not consider the cultural practices of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government departments accountable for administering these policies were weighed down with poor management and corruption. In fact many treaty provisions were never carried out.
The U.S. government rarely honored their side of the agreements even when the Native Americans migrated quietly to their reservations. Unethical bureau agents frequently sold off the supplies that were meant for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Additionally, as settlers required more property in the West, the federal government frequently cut the size of the reservations. By this time, most of the Native American people were unhappy with the treaties and angered by settlers’ constant appetite for land.
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Angered by the government’s deceitful and unjust policies, several Native American tribes, including bands of Cheyennes, Arapahos, Comanches and Sioux, battled back. As they struggled to protect their territories and their tribes’ survival, over a 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 skirmishes with costly military operations. Obviously the U.S. government’s Indian regulations required of a change.
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Native American policy changed considerably following the Civil War. Reformers believed that the policy of driving Native Americans on to reservations was far too harsh even while industrialists, who were worried about their land and resources, looked at assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” as the lone long-term method of ensuring Native American survival. In 1871 the federal government enacted a critical law proclaiming that the United States would no longer treat Native American tribes as independent nations.
This legislation signaled a major change in the government’s relationship with the native peoples – Congress now considered 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 believed that it would be easier to make the policy of assimilation a widely accepted part of the cultural mainstream of America.
More On American Indian History
Many U.S. government officials perceived assimilation as the most practical solution to what they deemed “the Indian problem,” and the only permanent strategy for 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 relocate out of their established dwellings, move into wooden dwellings and grow into farmers.
The federal government passed laws that forced Native Americans to quit their established appearance and lifestyle. Some laws outlawed common religious practices while others required Indian men to cut their long locks. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations set up courts to implement federal regulations that often banned traditional cultural and religious practices.
To accelerate the assimilation process, the government established Indian facilities that tried to quickly and forcefully Americanize Indian youth. As per the director of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, the schools were designed to “kill the Indian and save the man.” To be able to accomplish this objective, the schools compelled pupils to speak only English, dress in proper American attire and to replace their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new regulations helped bring 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 important element of the U.S. government’s assimilation platform, which was created to “civilize” American Indians by educating them to become farmers. In order to accomplish this, Congress needed to establish non-public ownership of Indian land by splitting up reservations, which were collectively held, and offering each family their own stretch of land.
In addition to this, by forcing the Native Americans onto limited plots, western developers and settlers could purchase the left over land. The General Allotment Act, better known as the Dawes Act, required that the Indian lands be surveyed and every family be given 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 was hoping that the Dawes Act would break up Indian tribes and inspire individual enterprise, while reducing the cost of Indian administration and providing prime property to be purchased by white settlers.
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The Dawes Act proved to be catastrophic for the American Indians; over the next generations they existed under regulations that outlawed their traditional approach to life yet did not provide the vital resources to support their businesses and families. Dividing the reservations into smaller parcels of land triggered the significant reduction of Indian-owned property. Within three decades, the people had lost more than two-thirds of the acreage 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 off their property in order to pay bills and provide for their own families. As a result, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were often unable to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, like the creators of the policy had desired. This also produced anger among Indians toward the U.S. government, as the allotment process sometimes destroyed land that was the spiritual and societal hub of their activities.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed radically. Due to U.S. government policies, American Indians were forced from their homes as 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 approach to life, as the “” government’s Indian regulations shoved them on to reservations and attempted to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands did not survive relocation, cultural destruction and military loss; by 1890 the Native American population was reduced to under 250,000 persons. As a result of decades of discriminatory and corrupt policies implemented by the United States government between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was changed forever.
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