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 culture and heritage without disturbance. And that history is captivating.
From Mayan and Incan ruins, from the mounds left in the central and southern regions of what’s currently the U.S. we have learned plenty. It’s a story of beautiful arts and crafts and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed remarkably advanced structures and public works.
While there was inescapable tribal conflict, that was nothing more than 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 dispatched the first vessels in our direction, the goal was to discover new resources – but the quality of weather and the bounty of everything from timber 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 raced to carve up the “New World” by transporting over inadequately prepared colonists as fast as they could. Initially, they skirmished with the alarmed Indians of America’s eastern seaboard. But that soon gave way to trade, since the Europeans who arrived here understood their survival was doubtful without 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 additional resources, and some colonists came for freedom and adventure.
They required more space. And so began the process of forcing the American Indian out of the way.
It took the shape of cash arrangements, barter, and notoriously, treaties which were nearly consistently ignored after the Indians were pushed off 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 territories occupied by these Native American tribes. By the 1850s nearly 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 located in present day 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 flow of European immigrants into northeastern American cities delivered 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 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 did not end there. Between 1830 and 1860 the U.S. roughly doubled the amount of acreage 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, combined with the discovery of gold in 1849, presented captivating opportunities for those willing to make the extended trip westward. Therefore, with the military’s protection and the U.S. government’s assistance, many settlers set about establishing 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 regulations and operations established and adapted in the United States to outline the relationship between Native American tribes and the federal government. When the United States first became an independent country, it implemented the European policies towards these local peoples, but over two centuries the U.S. designed its very own widely varying regulations regarding the evolving perspectives and requirements of Native American oversight.
In 1824, in order to execute the U.S. government’s Native American policies, Congress created a new agency 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 numerous cultural identities; however, at other times the government attempted to force the Native American tribes to abandon their cultural identity, hand over their land and assimilate into the American culture.
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With the steady flow of settlers in to Indian controlled land, Eastern newspapers circulated sensationalized stories of cruel native tribes committing massive massacres of hundreds of white travelers. Although some settlers lost their lives to American Indian attacks, this was not the norm; in fact, Native American tribes repeatedly helped settlers cross over 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 risk of an attack.
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To soothe these anxieties, in 1851 the U.S. government placed 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 attack settlers; in return the federal government agreed to honor the boundaries of each tribe’s territory and make 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 entered into the treaty, even agreed to end the hostilities amidst 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 didn’t last very long. After hearing testimonies of fertile acreage and tremendous 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 moving west, the federal government established a policy of restricting Native Americans to reservations, limited swaths of land within a group’s territory that was reserved exclusively for Indian use, in order to provide more land 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 allocated a yearly stipend that would include money in addition to food, livestock, household goods and agricultural tools. These reservations were established in an attempt to clear the way for increasing U.S. expansion and involvement in the West, as well as to keep the Native Americans separate from the whites in order to lower the potential for conflict.
History of the Plains Indians
These agreements had many problems. Most significantly many of the native peoples didn’t entirely understand the document that they were finalizing or the conditions within it; moreover, 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 weighed down with poor management and corruption. In fact many treaty terms were never accomplished.
The U.S. government rarely held up their side of the deals even when the Native Americans migrated quietly to their reservations. Dishonest bureau agents frequently sold the supplies that were meant for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Moreover, as settlers required more land in the West, the government continually cut the size of the reservations. By this time, most of the Native American people were dissatisfied with the treaties and angered by the settlers’ endless hunger for land.
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Angered by the government’s deceitful and unjust policies, some Native American tribes, including bands of Cheyennes, Arapahos, Comanches and Sioux, fought back. As they struggled to maintain 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 reacted to these conflicts with costly military campaigns. Clearly the U.S. government’s Indian policies required 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 harsh even while industrialists, who were worried about their property and resources, regarded assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” as the singular long-term means of assuring Native American survival. In 1871 the government enacted a pivotal law proclaiming that the United States would no longer treat Native American tribes as sovereign nations.
This law signaled a drastic change in the government’s working 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 “” government, Congress believed that it would be easier to make the policy of assimilation a broadly acknowledged part of the cultural mainstream of America.
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Many U.S. government representatives viewed assimilation as the most practical solution to what they deemed “the Indian problem,” and the only lasting strategy for protecting U.S. interests in the West and the survival of the American Indians. In order to accomplish this, the government urged Native Americans to relocate out of their established dwellings, move into wooden homes and grow into farmers.
The federal government passed laws that pressed Native Americans to abandon their traditional appearance and way of living. Some laws outlawed customary spiritual practices while others ordered Indian males to cut their long hair. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations set up tribunals to enforce federal regulations that often prohibited traditional cultural and religious practices.
To speed up the assimilation course, the government set up Indian schools that attempted to quickly and vigorously Americanize Indian children. According to the founder of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, the schools were developed to “kill the Indian and save the man.” In order to make this happen objective, the schools forced students to speak only English, dress in proper American fashion and to substitute their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new regulations helped bring Native Americans closer to the conclusion of their classic tribal identity and the start of their life as citizens under the full control of the U.S. administration.
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 platform, which was written to “civilize” American Indians by educating them to be farmers. In order to accomplish this, Congress needed to increase private title of Indian land by dividing reservations, which were collectively owned, and issuing each family their own stretch of land.
Additionally, by forcing the Native Americans onto small plots of land, western developers and settlers could purchase the left over acreage. The General Allotment Act, often called 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 rest of the acreage was to be sold. Congress wished that the Dawes Act would divide Indian tribes and increase individual enterprise, while cutting down the expense of Indian supervision and providing prime land to be sold to 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 approach to life but failed to offer the necessary resources to support their businesses and families. Splitting the reservations into smaller parcels of land led to the significant reduction of Indian-owned land. Inside thirty years, the people had lost more than two-thirds of the territory that they had controlled before the Dawes Act was passed in 1887; the majority of the remaining land was purchased by white settlers.
Commonly, Native Americans were cheated out of their allotments or were required to sell their land in order to pay bills and provide for their families. Consequently, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were routinely unable to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, like the makers of the Act had intended. Further, it produced anger among Indians for the U.S. government, as the allotment practice often ruined land that was the spiritual and cultural hub of their lives.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed substantially. Through U.S. government policies, American Indians were forced from their places of residence because their native lands were parceled out. The Plains, which they had previously roamed without limits, were now filling with white settlers.
The Upshot of the Indian Wars
Over these years the Indians had been defrauded out of their territory, food and way of life, as the “” government’s Indian policies coerced them into reservations and attempted to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands did not make it through relocation, cultural destruction and military defeat; by 1890 the Native American population was lowered to fewer than 250,000 people. Thanks to decades of discriminatory and corrupt policies instituted by the United States authorities between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was changed forever.
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