Way 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 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 regions of what is today the U.S. we have learned plenty. It’s a tale of beautiful craft work and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed highly elaborate structures and public works.
While there was inescapable tribal conflict, that was simply 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 sent the first ships in our direction, the aim was to explore new resources – but the quality of weather and the bounty of everything from wood 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 raced to carve up the “New World” by sending over inadequately prepared colonists as fast as they could. Initially, they skirmished with the alarmed Indians of America’s eastern seaboard. But that shortly gave way to trade, because the Europeans who came ashore here learned their survival was doubtful with no Indian help.
Thus followed years of relative peace as the settlers got themselves established on American soil. But the pressure to push inland came soon after. Kings and queens from thousands of miles away were anxious to find additional resources, and some colonists came for independence and opportunity.
They needed more space. And so began the process of forcing the American Indian out of the way.
It took the shape of cash payments, barter, and notoriously, treaties that were nearly consistently ignored once the Indians were forced 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 regions occupied by these Native American tribes. By the 1850s nearly all Native American tribes, roughly 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 territory of the Southern Plains.
The Sioux, Crows and Blackfeet dominated the Northern Plains. These Native American groups met hardship as the steady flow of European immigrants into northeastern American cities delivered a stream of immigrants into the western lands already populated by these various groups of Indians.
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The early nineteenth century in 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 would not end there. Between 1830 and 1860 the United States practically 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 attractive opportunities for those ready to make the huge journey 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 parts of the Native American group-inhabited West.
Native American Tribes
Native American Policy can be defined as the laws and regulations 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 first became a sovereign country, it adopted the European policies towards these indigenous peoples, but over the course of two centuries the U.S. adapted its very own widely varying regulations 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 made 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, separate political communities with different cultural identities; however, at other times the government attempted to compel the Native American tribes to give up their cultural identity, surrender their land and assimilate into the American traditions.
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With the steady stream of settlers into Indian controlled land, Eastern newspapers published sensationalized reports of cruel native tribes committing widespread 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 cross the Plains. Not only did the American Indians offer wild game and other necessities to travelers, but they acted as guides and messengers between wagon trains as well. Despite the genial natures of the American Indians, settlers still feared the likelihood of an attack.
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To quiet these concerns, 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 roadways and forts in this territory and agreed not to ever attack settlers; in return the federal government agreed to honor the boundaries of each tribe’s territory and make gross 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 consented to end the hostilities amidst their tribes in order to accept the terms of the treaty.
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This peaceful accord between the U.S. government and the Native American tribes didn’t hold long. After hearing tales of fertile terrain and great mineral wealth in the West, the government soon broke their assurances established in the Treat of Fort Laramie by permitting thousands of non-Indians to flood into the area. With so many newcomers moving west, the federal government established a plan of confining Native Americans to reservations, small swaths of acreage within a group’s territory “” earmarked exclusively for their use, in order to grant more land for “” non-Indian settlers.
In a series of new treaties the U.S. government forced 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 stipend that would include cash in addition to food, livestock, household goods and farming tools. These reservations were established in an attempt to pave the way for increasing U.S. growth and involvement in the West, as well as to keep the Native Americans isolated from the whites in order to decrease the potential for friction.
History of the Plains Indians
These agreements had many challenges. Most of all many of the native people didn’t altogether grasp the document that they were confirming or the conditions within it; furthermore, the treaties did not consider the cultural norms of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government bureaus accountable for applying these policies were overwhelmed with poor management and corruption. In fact most treaty terms were never implemented.
The U.S. government almost never held up their side of the accords even when the Native Americans went quietly to their reservations. Shady bureau agents sometimes sold off the supplies that were intended for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Additionally, as settlers required more territory in the West, the government frequently cut the size of reservation lands. By this time, many of the Native American people were dissatisfied with the treaties and angered by settlers’ constant hunger for land.
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Angered by the government’s dishonorable and unfair policies, several Native American tribes, including bands of Cheyennes, Arapahos, Comanches and Sioux, fought back. As they struggled to maintain their territories and their tribes’ survival, over a thousand skirmishes and battles broke out in the West between 1861 and 1891. In an effort to make Native Americans onto the reservations and to end the violence, the U.S. government reacted to these skirmishes with costly military operations. Clearly the U.S. government’s Indian policies were in need an adjustment.
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Native American policy shifted considerably after the Civil War. Reformers believed that the policy of pushing Native Americans on to reservations was too strict even though industrialists, who were worried about their property and resources, regarded assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” as the sole long-term means of guaranteeing Native American survival. In 1871 the federal government passed a pivotal law proclaiming that the United States would not deal with Native American tribes as sovereign nations.
This law signaled a significant shift 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 U.S. government, Congress presumed that it would be easier to make the policy of assimilation a widely accepted part of the cultural mainstream of America.
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Many U.S. government administrators looked at assimilation as the most effective answer to what they viewed as “the Indian problem,” and the only lasting strategy for guaranteeing U.S. interests in the West and the survival of the American Indians. In order to accomplish this, the government urged Native Americans to move out of their traditional dwellings, move into wooden buildings and turn into farmers.
The federal government enacted laws that required Native Americans to quit their established appearance and way of living. Some laws banned common religious practices while others ordered Indian males to cut their long hair. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations established tribunals to implement federal regulations that often banned traditional cultural and spiritual practices.
To accelerate the assimilation operation, the government started Indian schools that tried to quickly and forcefully Americanize Indian children. As per the director of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, the schools were designed to “kill the Indian and save the man.” In order to achieve this goal, the schools compelled pupils to speak only English, wear proper American clothing and to replace their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new regulations brought Native Americans nearer to the end of their original tribal identity and the beginning of their existence 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 important element 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 wanted to create non-public ownership of Indian property by dividing reservations, which were collectively owned, and issuing each family their own parcel of land.
Additionally, by forcing the Native Americans onto limited plots, western developers and settlers could purchase the remaining territory. The General Allotment Act, 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 remaining acreage was to be sold. Congress was hoping that the Dawes Act would divide Indian tribes and increase individual enterprise, while lowering the expense of Indian administration and serving up prime property to be purchased by 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 policies that outlawed their traditional way of life but didn’t supply the vital resources to support their businesses and families. Splitting the reservations into smaller parcels of land caused the significant decrease of Indian-owned land. Inside three decades, the tribes had lost in excess of two-thirds of the territory 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 duped out of their allotments or were forced to sell off their land in order pay bills and feed their families. As a result, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were routinely unable to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, like the creators of the Act had wished. It also produced anger among Indians toward the U.S. government, as the allotment practice sometimes destroyed land that was the spiritual and social location of their lives.
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 living spaces 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 all these years the Indians had been defrauded out of their land, food and way of life, as the “” government’s Indian policies shoved them into reservations and tried 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 lowered to under 250,000 persons. Thanks to generations of discriminatory and ruthless policies implemented by the United States government between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was changed forever.
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