Centuries 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 legacy without interference. And that history is captivating.
From Mayan and Incan ruins, from the mounds left in the central and southern regions of what is now the U.S. we have learned quite a bit. It’s a narrative of beautiful craft work and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed highly advanced buildings and public works.
While there was inevitable tribal conflict, that was just a slight blemish in the account of our ancestors. They were at peace with this beautiful continent and deeply connected to nature.
The European Settler Arrives
When European leaders dispatched the first ships in this direction, the intention was to explore new resources – but 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 rushed to carve up the “New World” by transporting over inadequately prepared colonists as fast as they could. Initially, 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 learned that 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 find even more resources, and some colonists came for independence and opportunity.
They required more space. And so began the process of pushing the American Indian out of the way.
It took the form of cash arrangements, barter, and notoriously, treaties that were nearly uniformly neglected after 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 inhabited by these Native American tribes. By the 1850s virtually 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 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 experienced misfortune as the steady stream of European immigrants into northeastern American cities delivered a stream of immigrants into the western lands already inhabited 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 wouldn’t end there. Between 1830 and 1860 the United States pretty much doubled the amount of land under 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 possibilities for those willing to make the huge journey westward. Therefore, with the military’s protection and the U.S. government’s assistance, many settlers began 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 established and adapted in the United States to summarize the relationship between Native American tribes and the federal government. When the United States first became a sovereign nation, it adopted the European policies towards the local peoples, but over two centuries the U.S. designed its very own widely varying regulations regarding the changing perspectives and necessities of Native American oversight.
In 1824, in order to administer 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 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 numerous 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 culture.
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With the steady stream 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 not the norm; in fact, Native American tribes frequently helped settlers cross over the Plains. Not only did the American Indians peddle 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 possibility of an attack.
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To calm 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 accepted a bounded territory, allowed the government to construct roadways and forts in this territory and pledged to never attack settlers; in return the federal government agreed to honor the boundaries of each tribe’s territory and make gross 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 signed the treaty, even consented to end the hostilities between 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 did not last long. After hearing reports of fertile acreage 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 area. With so many newcomers moving west, the federal government established a policy of limiting Native Americans to reservations, limited areas of land within a group’s territory “” reserved exclusively for Indian use, in order to provide more property for “” non-Indian settlers.
In a series of new treaties the U.S. government compelled Native Americans to abandon their land and migrate to reservations in exchange for protection from attacks by white settlers. In addition, the Indians were offered a yearly payment that would include cash in addition to food, animals, household goods and farming equipment. These reservations were created in an attempt to pave the way for increased U.S. growth and involvement in the West, as well as to keep the Native Americans isolated from the whites in order to reduce the chance for conflict.
History of the Plains Indians
These agreements had many challenges. Most importantly many of the native people did not entirely grasp the document that they were finalizing or the conditions within it; furthermore, the treaties did not consider the cultural norms of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government agencies accountable for applying these policies were plagued with poor management and corruption. In fact many treaty terms were never executed.
The U.S. government almost never honored their side of the agreements even when the Native Americans moved quietly to their reservations. Dishonest bureau agents repeatedly sold the supplies that were intended for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Additionally, as settlers needed more property in the West, the federal government frequently reduced the size of Indian reservations. By this time, most of the Native American peoples were unhappy with the treaties and angered by the settlers’ constant appetite for territory.
A Look at Native American Symbols
Angered by the government’s dishonest and unjust policies, several Native American tribes, including bands of Cheyennes, Arapahos, Comanches and Sioux, fought back. As they fought to preserve 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 force Native Americans onto the reservations and to end the violence, the U.S. government reacted to these hostilities with costly military operations. Clearly the U.S. government’s Indian policies were in need of a change.
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Native American policy changed drastically following the Civil War. Reformers felt that the scheme of forcing Native Americans into reservations was too harsh while industrialists, who were worried about their land and resources, thought of assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” to be the only permanent strategy for ensuring Native American survival. In 1871 the government passed a critical law stating that the United States would not deal with Native American tribes as independent nations.
This legislation signaled a drastic shift in the government’s working relationship with the native peoples – Congress now considered the Native Americans, not as countries outside of its jurisdiction, but as wards of the government. By making Native Americans wards of the “” government, Congress presumed that it was better to make the policy of assimilation a broadly accepted part of the cultural mainstream of America.
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Many U.S. government representatives considered assimilation as the most practical solution to what they deemed “the Indian problem,” and the single lasting means of insuring 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 customary dwellings, move into wooden dwellings and become farmers.
The federal government enacted laws that pressed Native Americans to quit their established appearance and way of living. Some laws outlawed customary spiritual practices while others required Indian men to cut their long hair. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations organized courts to implement federal regulations that often banned traditional cultural and spiritual practices.
To accelerate the assimilation process, the government started Indian training centers that tried to quickly and forcefully Americanize Indian children. According to the founder of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, the schools were created to “kill the Indian and save the man.” In order to achieve this goal, the schools required enrollees to speak only English, dress in 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 classic tribal identity and the start of their existence as citizens under the absolute control of the U.S. administration.
Native American Treaties with the United States
In 1887, Congress passed the General Allotment Act, the most significant element of the U.S. government’s assimilation platform, which was intended to “civilize” American Indians by educating them to be farmers. In order to achieve this, Congress planned to increase private title of Indian land by splitting up reservations, which were collectively owned, and issuing each family their own stretch of land.
Additionally, by pushing the Native Americans onto limited plots of land, western developers and settlers could purchase the remaining acreage. The General Allotment Act, referred to as the Dawes Act, required that the Indian lands be surveyed and each family be given an allotment of between 80 and 160 acres, while unmarried adults received between 40 to 80 acres; the residual territory was to be sold. Congress thought that the Dawes Act would split up Indian tribes and increase individual enterprise, while lowering the cost of Indian supervision and producing 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 existed under regulations that outlawed their traditional way of living and yet failed to provide the necessary resources to support their businesses and families. Dividing the reservations into small parcels of land triggered the significant reduction of Indian-owned property. Within thirty years, the people had lost more than two-thirds of the acreage that they had controlled before the Dawes Act was enacted in 1887; the majority of the remaining land was sold to white settlers.
Frequently, Native Americans were duped out of their allotments or were required to sell their land in order pay bills and provide for their families. Because of that, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were generally not able to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, like the creators of the policy had desired. Aside from that it produced anger among Indians for the U.S. government, as the allotment operation sometimes destroyed land that was the spiritual and cultural hub of their days.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed dramatically. Due to U.S. government policies, American Indians were forced from their places of residence 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 these years the Indians had been defrauded out of their territory, food and way of life, as the federal government’s Indian policies forced them on to reservations and tried to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands could not survive relocation, assimilation and military defeat; by 1890 the Native American population was lowered to under 250,000 people. Thanks to decades of discriminatory and dodgy policies implemented by the United States authorities between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was altered forever.
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