Way before the terms Native American or Indian were created, 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 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 currently the U.S. we have learned quite a bit. It’s a tale of beautiful arts and crafts 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 experience of our forebears. They were at peace with this beautiful continent and deeply plugged into nature.
The European Settler Arrives
When European leaders sent the first vessels in our direction, the intention was to discover new resources – however the quality of weather and the bounty of everything from timber to wildlife soon changed their tune. As those leaders learned from their explorers, the motivation to colonize spread like wildfire.
The English, French and Spanish raced to slice up the “New World” by sending over poorly prepared colonists as fast as they could. At the outset, they skirmished with the surprised Indians of America’s eastern seaboard. But that ultimately gave way to trade, because the Europeans who came ashore here knew their survival was doubtful with no native help.
Thus followed years 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 impatient to locate even more resources, and some colonists came for freedom and adventure.
They wanted 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 from the land 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 inhabited by these Native American tribes. By the 1850s almost 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 encountered hardship as the steady stream of European immigrants into northeastern American cities delivered a stream of immigrants into the western lands already occupied 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 did not end there. Between 1830 and 1860 the U.S. practically 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, combined with the discovery of gold in 1849, presented alluring opportunities for those ready to make the extended journey westward. Therefore, with the military’s protection and the U.S. government’s assistance, many settlers started establishing their homesteads in the Great Plains and other parts of the Native American tribe-inhabited West.
Native American Tribes
Native American Policy can be defined as the laws and regulations and operations established 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 throughout two centuries the U.S. designed its very own widely varying policies regarding the changing perspectives and requirements of Native American supervision.
In 1824, in order to execute the U.S. government’s Native American policies, Congress created a new bureau inside the War Department referred to as Bureau of Indian Affairs, which worked directly with the U.S. Army to enforce their policies. At times the federal government recognized the Indians as self-governing, distinct 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, give up 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 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 in no way the norm; in fact, Native American tribes frequently helped settlers get across 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 anticipated the risk of an attack.
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To quiet these concerns, in 1851 the U.S. government placed 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 agreed not to assault 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 quietly 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 last very long. After hearing testimonies of fertile terrain 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 heading west, the federal government established a policy of confining Native Americans to reservations, modest areas of acreage within a group’s territory that was set aside exclusively for their use, in order to provide more territory for the non-Indian settlers.
In a series of new treaties the U.S. government compelled Native Americans to surrender their land and move to reservations in exchange for protection from attacks by white settlers. In addition, the Indians were offered a yearly payment that would include money in addition to foodstuffs, livestock, household goods and farming equipment. These reservations were created in an effort to pave 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 lessen the chance for friction.
History of the Plains Indians
These accords had many problems. Most of all many of the native people did not entirely understand the document that they were finalizing or the conditions within it; furthermore, the treaties did not consider the cultural practices of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government bureaus accountable for administering these policies were weighed down with poor management and corruption. In fact most treaty provisions were never carried out.
The U.S. government almost never fulfilled their side of the agreements even when the Native Americans migrated quietly to their reservations. Unethical bureau agents repeatedly sold the supplies that were meant for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Moreover, as settlers required more property in the West, the government continually reduced the size of reservation lands. By this time, most of the Native American people were unhappy with the treaties and angered by settlers’ constant hunger 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, battled back. As they struggled to defend their lands and their tribes’ survival, over a thousand skirmishes and battles broke out in the West between 1861 and 1891. In an effort to compel Native Americans onto the reservations and to end the violence, the U.S. government responded to these hostilities with significant military operations. Obviously the U.S. government’s Indian policies were in need of a change.
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Native American policy changed dramatically after the Civil War. Reformers believed that the policy of forcing Native Americans into reservations was far too strict while industrialists, who were worried about their property and resources, viewed assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” to be the lone long-term means of guaranteeing Native American survival. In 1871 the federal government enacted a pivotal law stating that the United States would not deal with Native American tribes as sovereign nations.
This legislation signaled a significant shift in the government’s working relationship with the native peoples – Congress now deemed 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 better to make the policy of assimilation a widely recognized part of the cultural mainstream of America.
More On American Indian History
Many U.S. government representatives viewed assimilation as the most effective answer to what they deemed “the Indian problem,” and the single permanent strategy for insuring 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 customary dwellings, move into wooden houses and become farmers.
The federal government handed down laws that forced Native Americans to reject their usual appearance and way of life. Some laws outlawed traditional spiritual practices while others required Indian males to cut their long locks. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations organized courts to impose federal regulations that often prohibited traditional cultural and spiritual practices.
To speed the assimilation operation, the government set up Indian schools that tried to quickly and forcefully Americanize Indian youth. According to the founder of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, the schools were created to “kill the Indian and save the man.” To be able to make this happen goal, the schools compelled pupils to speak only English, dress in proper American fashion and to replace their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new policies brought Native Americans nearer to the conclusion of their original tribal identity and the beginning of their existence as citizens under the complete control of the U.S. authorities.
Native American Treaties with the United States
In 1887, Congress enacted 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 become farmers. In order to accomplish this, Congress needed to establish private ownership of Indian land by splitting up reservations, which were collectively held, and issuing each family their own plot of land.
In addition to this, by forcing the Native Americans onto small plots, western developers and settlers could purchase the remaining land. The General Allotment Act, also known as the Dawes Act, required that the Indian lands be surveyed and every family be awarded an allotment of between 80 and 160 acres, while unmarried adults received between 40 to 80 acres; the remaining land was to be sold. Congress expected that the Dawes Act would break up Indian tribes and increase individual enterprise, while reducing the expense of Indian administration and producing prime property to be purchased by white settlers.
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The Dawes Act turned out to be disastrous for the American Indians; over the next generations they lived under regulations that outlawed their traditional approach to life and yet did not offer the necessary resources to support their businesses and families. Splitting the reservations into small parcels of land brought about the significant reduction of Indian-owned land. Inside three decades, the tribes had lost over two-thirds of the region that they had controlled before the Dawes Act was passed in 1887; the majority of the remaining land was purchased by white settlers.
Usually, Native Americans were cheated out of their allotments or were required to sell their property in order pay bills and provide for their families. Because of that, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were routinely not able to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, like the makers of the Act had intended. This also created resentment among Indians for the U.S. government, as the allotment operation sometimes destroyed land that was the spiritual and social centre of their days.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed substantially. Through U.S. administration policies, American Indians were forced from their housing as 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 all these years the Indians had been defrauded out of their property, food and way of living, as the federal government’s Indian policies coerced them on to reservations and tried to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands didn’t endure relocation, assimilation and military loss; by 1890 the Native American population was lowered to fewer than 250,000 people. Due to decades of discriminatory and dodgy policies instituted by the United States authorities between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was changed permanently.
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