Far before the terms Native American or Indian were necessary, the tribes were spread all over 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 developed its customs and legacy 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 craft work and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed highly elaborate structures and public works.
While there was inevitable tribal conflict, that was simply a slight blemish in the tale of our ancestors. 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 this direction, the intention was to explore new resources – however the quality of environment 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 transporting over poorly prepared colonists as fast as possible. At the beginning, they skirmished with the alarmed Indians of America’s eastern seaboard. But that soon gave way to trade, because the Europeans who came ashore here learned their survival was doubtful with no native help.
Thus followed decades of comparative peace as the settlers got themselves established on American soil. But the drive 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 freedom and adventure.
They required more space. And so began the process of driving the American Indian out of the way.
It took the form of cash payments, barter, and famously, treaties which were almost uniformly neglected once the Indians were forced 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 areas 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 land of the Southern Plains.
The Sioux, Crows and Blackfeet dominated the Northern Plains. These Native American groups encountered hardship as the continuous stream of European immigrants into northeastern American cities pushed a stream of immigrants into the western lands already inhabited by these various groups of Indians.
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The early nineteenth century of the United States was marked by its continual 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 land under its control.
These territorial gains coincided with the arrival of troves 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 possibilities for those ready to make the extended trip westward. Consequently, with the military’s protection and the U.S. government’s assistance, many settlers set about 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 procedures made and adapted in the United States to outline the relationship between Native American tribes and the federal government. When the United States initially became a sovereign country, it adopted the European policies towards the indigenous peoples, but over two centuries the U.S. designed its own widely varying policies regarding the changing perspectives and necessities of Native American supervision.
In 1824, in order to administrate the U.S. government’s Native American policies, Congress formed a new agency inside the War Department referred to as 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 give up their cultural identity, let go of their land and assimilate into the American traditions.
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With the steady flow of settlers in to Indian controlled land, Eastern newspapers circulated sensationalized stories of savage native tribes committing massive 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 routinely helped settlers get across the Plains. Not only did the American Indians sell wild game and other supplies 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 risk of an attack.
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To calm 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 accepted a bounded territory, allowed the government to construct roads and forts in this territory and agreed to never assault 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 entered into 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 agreement between the U.S. government and the Native American tribes did not last long. After hearing reports of fertile land and tremendous mineral wealth in the West, the government soon broke their pledge established in the Treat of Fort Laramie by permitting 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 that was earmarked exclusively for Indian use, to be able to provide more land for “” non-Indian settlers.
In a series of new treaties the U.S. government made 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 payment that would include cash in addition to foodstuffs, livestock, household goods and farming equipment. These reservations were established in an effort to pave the way for heightened U.S. growth and involvement in the West, as well as to keep the Native Americans separate from the whites in order to reduce the chance for conflict.
History of the Plains Indians
These deals had many complications. Most significantly many of the native peoples did not entirely understand the document that they were signing or the conditions within it; further, the treaties did not acknowledge the cultural norms of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government institutions responsible for administering these policies were overwhelmed with poor management and corruption. In fact most treaty terms were never carried out.
The U.S. government almost never held up their side of the agreements even when the Native Americans relocated quietly to their reservations. Shady bureau agents often sold the supplies that were meant for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Additionally, as settlers needed more land in the West, the government continually cut the size of Indian reservations. By this time, many of the Native American people were unhappy with the treaties and angered by settlers’ endless appetite for territory.
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Angered by the government’s dishonest and unjust policies, some Native American tribes, including bands of Cheyennes, Arapahos, Comanches and Sioux, fought back. As they struggled to preserve 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 coerce Native Americans onto the reservations and to end the violence, the U.S. government responded to these incursions with costly military campaigns. Obviously the U.S. government’s Indian regulations were in need an adjustment.
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Native American policy changed drastically following the Civil War. Reformers felt that the scheme of driving Native Americans into reservations was too harsh while industrialists, who were concerned with their property and resources, considered assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” to be the singular permanent means of ensuring Native American survival. In 1871 the federal government approved a pivotal law proclaiming that the United States would not deal with Native American tribes as autonomous entities.
This law signaled a major shift in the government’s relationship with the native peoples – Congress now considered 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 imagined that it was easier to make the policy of assimilation a broadly recognised part of the cultural mainstream of America.
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Many U.S. government administrators looked at assimilation as the most practical solution 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 pressed Native Americans to move out of their established dwellings, move into wooden homes and grow into farmers.
The federal government passed laws that required Native Americans to reject their established appearance and way of life. Some laws outlawed traditional religious practices while others required Indian males to cut their long hair. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations founded courts to impose federal regulations that often banned traditional cultural and spiritual practices.
To speed the assimilation operation, the government established Indian facilities that attempted 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 objective, the schools forced students to speak only English, dress in proper American attire and to substitute their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new regulations helped bring Native Americans closer to the conclusion of their established tribal identity and the start of their existence as citizens under the complete control of the U.S. authorities.
Native American Treaties with the United States
In 1887, Congress approved the General Allotment Act, the most important part of the U.S. government’s assimilation program, which was created to “civilize” American Indians by teaching them to be farmers. In order to make this happen, Congress planned to create non-public title of Indian land by splitting up reservations, which were collectively owned, and offering each family their own plot of land.
Additionally, by forcing the Native Americans onto small plots, western developers and settlers could purchase the left over territory. 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 were given between 40 to 80 acres; the remaining land was to be sold. Congress was hoping that the Dawes Act would split up Indian tribes and inspire individual enterprise, while reducing the cost of Indian administration and serving up prime land to be sold to white settlers.
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The Dawes Act proved to be catastrophic for the American Indians; over the next generations they existed under policies that outlawed their traditional way of living and yet did not provide the vital resources to support their businesses and families. Dividing the reservations into small parcels of land brought about the significant decrease of Indian-owned land. Within thirty years, the people 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.
Usually, Native Americans were cheated out of their allotments or were required to sell off their property in order to pay bills and feed their own families. Consequently, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were often not able to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, like the makers of the Act had desired. It also produced anger among Indians for the U.S. government, as the allotment operation sometimes ruined land that was the spiritual and societal center of their activities.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed radically. Through U.S. government regulations, 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 filled up with white settlers.
The Upshot of the Indian Wars
Over the years the Indians have been cheated out of their territory, food and lifestyle, as the “” government’s Indian policies shoved them onto 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 decreased to fewer than 250,000 people. As a result of decades of discriminatory and ruthless policies implemented by the United States government between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was changed forever.