Ages before the terms Native American or Indian were considered, the tribes were spread all over the Americas. Before any white man set foot on this territory, it was settled by the forefathers of bands we now call Sioux, or Cherokee, or Iroquois.
For thousands of years, the American Indian grew its traditions 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 is currently the U.S. we have learned quite a bit. It’s a story of beautiful artwork and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed remarkably advanced structures and public works.
While there was unavoidable tribal conflict, that was nothing more than a slight blemish in the narrative of our ancestors. They were at peace with this beautiful continent and intensely plugged into nature.
The European Settler Arrives
When European leaders dispatched the first ships in our direction, the goal was to explore new resources – however the quality of climate and the bounty of everything from wood to wildlife soon changed their tune. As those leaders learned from their explorers, the drive to colonize spread like wildfire.
The English, French and Spanish rushed to slice up the “New World” by shipping over inadequately prepared colonists as fast as they could. At the beginning, they skirmished with the alarmed Indians of America’s eastern seaboard. But that ultimately gave way to trade, since the Europeans who came ashore here understood their survival was doubtful without native help.
Thus followed decades of comparative peace as the settlers got themselves established on American land. But the pressure to push inland followed soon after. Kings and queens from thousands of miles away were impatient to locate even more resources, and some colonists came for independence and opportunity.
They needed more space. And so began the process of pushing the American Indian out of the way.
It took the shape of cash payments, barter, and famously, treaties which were nearly uniformly ignored after 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 areas inhabited by these Native American tribes. By the 1850s almost 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 land of the Southern Plains.
The Sioux, Crows and Blackfeet dominated the Northern Plains. These Native American groups met misfortune as the continuous stream of European immigrants into northeastern American cities pushed a stream of immigrants into the western lands already occupied by these diverse groups of Indians.
Video: American 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 in addition to the authority over Oregon country, Texas and California; America’s expansion would not end there. Between 1830 and 1860 the United States nearly doubled the amount of land within its control.
These territorial gains coincided with the arrival of troves 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 prepared make the huge quest 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 tribe-inhabited West.
Native American Tribes
Native American Policy can be defined as the laws and regulations and operations made and adapted in the United States to define the relationship between Native American tribes and the federal government. When the United States first became a sovereign country, it implemented the European policies towards the local peoples, but over the course of two centuries the U.S. tailored its own widely varying policies regarding the evolving perspectives and requirements of Native American oversight.
In 1824, in order to apply 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, separate political communities with different cultural identities; however, at other times the government attempted to force the Native American tribes to give up their cultural identity, surrender their land and assimilate into the American customs.
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With the steady flow of settlers in to Indian controlled land, Eastern newspapers published sensationalized reports of savage native tribes carrying out massive 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 frequently helped settlers get across the Plains. Not only did the American Indians offer 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 presumed the risk 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 tracks and forts in this territory and agreed not to go after 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 amidst their tribes to be able 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 stand very long. After hearing testimonies of fertile land and great 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 region. With so many newcomers heading west, the federal government established a policy of restricting Native Americans to reservations, modest swaths of acreage within a group’s territory “” earmarked exclusively for Indian use, to be able to offer more property for “” non-Indian settlers.
In a series of new treaties the U.S. government commanded Native Americans to give up their land and migrate to reservations in exchange for protection from attacks by white settlers. In addition, the Indians were given a yearly stipend that would include money in addition to food, animals, household goods and farming equipment. These reservations were established in an effort to pave the way for increased U.S. growth and administration in the West, as well as to keep the Native Americans divided from the whites in order to lower the potential for conflict.
History of the Plains Indians
These accords had many problems. Most significantly many of the native peoples did not completely understand the document that they were signing or the conditions within it; further, the treaties did not acknowledge the cultural practices of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government bureaus responsible for applying these policies were plagued with awful management and corruption. In fact many treaty terms were never carried out.
The U.S. government almost never fulfilled their side of the deals even when the Native Americans relocated quietly to their reservations. Shady bureau agents frequently sold off the supplies that were meant for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Additionally, as settlers required more land in the West, the federal government continually reduced the size of reservation lands. By this time, many of the Native American people were dissatisfied with the treaties and angered by the settlers’ endless hunger for territory.
A Look at Native American Symbols
Angered by the government’s dishonorable and unfair policies, some Native American tribes, including bands of Cheyennes, Arapahos, Comanches and Sioux, battled back. As they fought to protect their territories and their tribes’ survival, more than one thousand skirmishes and battles broke out in the West between 1861 and 1891. In an effort to push Native Americans onto the reservations and to end the violence, the U.S. government responded to these skirmishes with costly military operations. Clearly the U.S. government’s Indian policies required an adjustment.
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Native American policy shifted radically following the Civil War. Reformers believed that the policy of forcing Native Americans into reservations was too severe even while industrialists, who were worried about their property and resources, looked at assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” to be the singular long-term means of ensuring Native American survival. In 1871 the federal government approved a critical law proclaiming that the United States would not treat Native American tribes as autonomous nations.
This law signaled a significant change in the government’s working relationship with the native peoples – Congress now deemed 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 believed that it was better to make the policy of assimilation a widely accepted part of the cultural mainstream of America.
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Many U.S. government officials looked at assimilation as the most effective solution to what they viewed as “the Indian problem,” and the only long-term means of protecting U.S. interests in the West and the survival of the American Indians. In order to accomplish this, the government pushed Native Americans to move out of their traditional dwellings, move into wooden dwellings and grow into farmers.
The federal government enacted laws that pressed Native Americans to abandon their usual appearance and lifestyle. Some laws outlawed traditional spiritual practices while others ordered Indian men to cut their long hair. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations set up tribunals to implement federal polices that often prohibited traditional cultural and spiritual practices.
To hasten the assimilation operation, the government set up Indian facilities that attempted to quickly and forcefully Americanize Indian children. According to the director of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, the schools were developed to “kill the Indian and save the man.” To be able to achieve this goal, the schools required students to speak only English, put on 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 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 teaching them to be farmers. In order to make this happen, Congress planned to increase private title of Indian property by splitting up reservations, which were collectively owned, and allowing each family their own parcel of land.
In addition to this, by pushing the Native Americans onto small plots of land, western developers and settlers could purchase the left over land. The General Allotment Act, often called 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 received between 40 to 80 acres; the residual land was to be sold. Congress expected that the Dawes Act would break-up Indian tribes and increase individual enterprise, while cutting down the cost of Indian supervision and serving up prime property to be purchased by white settlers.
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The Dawes Act proved to be disastrous for the American Indians; over the next decades they existed under regulations that outlawed their traditional way of living but did not supply the critical resources to support their businesses and families. Splitting the reservations into small parcels of land brought about the significant reduction of Indian-owned property. Within thirty years, the people had lost in excess of 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.
Frequently, Native Americans were duped out of their allotments or were forced to sell off their property in order to pay bills and feed their families. Consequently, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were routinely unable to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, like the makers of the policy had anticipated. Aside from that it produced anger among Indians toward the U.S. government, as the allotment operation often ruined land that was the spiritual and social centre of their lives.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed drastically. Through U.S. administration regulations, American Indians were forced from their living spaces because their native lands were parceled out. The Plains, which they had previously roamed alone, were now filled up with white settlers.
The Upshot of the Indian Wars
Over these years the Indians ended up cheated out of their territory, food and approach to life, as the federal government’s Indian regulations shoved them into reservations and attempted to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands didn’t make it through relocation, cultural destruction and military defeat; by 1890 the Native American population was decreased to less than 250,000 people. Thanks to generations of discriminatory and ruthless policies instituted by the United States government between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was changed forever.
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