Centuries 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 customs and legacy without disturbance. And that history is captivating.
From Mayan and Incan ruins, from the mounds left in the central and southern parts of what’s currently the U.S. we have learned quite a bit. It’s a tale of beautiful art and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed remarkably advanced buildings and public works.
While there was inevitable tribal conflict, that was simply a slight blemish in the narrative of our forebears. They were at peace with this beautiful continent and deeply plugged into nature.
The European Settler Arrives
When European leaders dispatched the first vessels in our direction, the objective was to discover new resources – but the quality of environment and the bounty of everything from timber 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 transporting over inadequately prepared colonists as fast as they could. In the beginning, 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 understood that their survival was doubtful with no Indian help.
Thus followed decades of relative peace as the settlers got themselves established on American soil. But the drive to push inland followed soon after. Kings and queens from thousands of miles away were anxious to locate additional resources, and some colonists came for freedom and adventure.
They required 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 almost consistently ignored after the Indians were moved from the land in question.
The U.S. government’s policies towards Native Americans in the second half of the nineteenth century were influenced by the desire to expand westward into territories 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 land of the Southern Plains.
The Sioux, Crows and Blackfeet dominated the Northern Plains. These Native American groups experienced adversity as the steady stream of European immigrants into northeastern American cities delivered a stream of immigrants into the western lands already inhabited by these various groups of 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 along with the authority over Oregon country, Texas and California; America’s expansion did not end there. Between 1830 and 1860 the United States roughly doubled the amount of territory under 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, partnered with the discovery of gold in 1849, presented attractive opportunities for those ready to make the extended quest westward. As a result, 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 procedures developed and adapted in the United States to summarize 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 these native peoples, but over the course of two centuries the U.S. tailored its own widely varying regulations regarding the changing perspectives and necessities of Native American supervision.
In 1824, in order to apply the U.S. government’s Native American policies, Congress formed a new bureau within the War Department referred to as 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, independent political communities with numerous cultural identities; however, at other times the government attempted to force the Native American tribes to abandon their cultural identity, let go of their land and assimilate into the American customs.
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With the steady flow of settlers in to Indian “” land, Eastern newspapers circulated sensationalized stories of savage native tribes committing massive massacres of hundreds of white travelers. Although some settlers lost their lives to American Indian attacks, this was certainly not the norm; in fact, Native American tribes frequently helped settlers get across the Plains. Not only did the American Indians sell 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 anticipated the possibility 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. Within this treaty, each Native American tribe consented to a bounded territory, allowed the government to construct tracks and forts in this territory and pledged never to go after 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 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 long. After hearing stories of fertile terrain and great mineral wealth in the West, the government soon broke their assurances established in the Treat of Fort Laramie by allowing thousands of non-Indians to flood into the region. With so many newcomers moving west, the federal government established a plan of confining Native Americans to reservations, modest swaths of acreage within a group’s territory “” earmarked exclusively for Indian use, to be able to give more property 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 cash 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. growth and involvement in the West, as well as to keep the Native Americans separate from the whites in order to lessen the potential for conflict.
History of the Plains Indians
These accords had many problems. Most importantly many of the native people didn’t entirely grasp the document that they were confirming or the conditions within it; furthermore, the treaties did not consider the cultural practices of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government departments accountable for administering these policies were plagued with awful management and corruption. In fact many treaty terms were never implemented.
The U.S. government rarely held up their side of the agreements even when the Native Americans went quietly to their reservations. Unethical bureau agents often sold the supplies that were meant for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Additionally, as settlers needed more land in the West, the government continually cut the size of Indian reservations. By this time, most of the Native American peoples were unhappy with the treaties and angered by the settlers’ persistent appetite for territory.
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Angered by the government’s deceitful and unfair policies, some Native American tribes, including bands of Cheyennes, Arapahos, Comanches and Sioux, battled back. As they struggled 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 compel Native Americans onto the reservations and to end the violence, the U.S. government reacted to these incursions with significant military campaigns. Clearly the U.S. government’s Indian policies were in need of a change.
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Native American policy shifted radically following the Civil War. Reformers believed that the policy of forcing Native Americans inside reservations was too harsh while industrialists, who were worried about their land and resources, regarded assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” as the lone long-term means of assuring Native American survival. In 1871 the federal government enacted a critical law proclaiming that the United States would not deal with Native American tribes as independent entities.
This law signaled a significant shift in the government’s relationship with the native peoples – Congress now deemed 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 imagined that it would be better to make the policy of assimilation a broadly acknowledged part of the cultural mainstream of America.
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Many U.S. government administrators viewed assimilation as the most effective solution to what they deemed “the Indian problem,” and the sole long-term method 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 relocate out of their traditional dwellings, move into wooden houses and become farmers.
The federal government handed down laws that required Native Americans to quit their established appearance and way of living. Some laws banned customary religious practices while others ordered Indian males to cut their long hair. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations founded tribunals to enforce federal regulations that often restricted traditional cultural and spiritual practices.
To speed the assimilation process, the government established Indian schools that tried to quickly and forcefully Americanize Indian kids. As per the director of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, the schools were developed to “kill the Indian and save the man.” In order to achieve this objective, the schools required students to speak only English, wear proper American attire and to switch their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new regulations helped bring Native Americans closer to the end of their established tribal identity and the start of their existence as citizens under the full control of the U.S. authorities.
Native American Treaties with the United States
In 1887, Congress enacted the General Allotment Act, the most significant part of the U.S. government’s assimilation platform, which was created to “civilize” American Indians by educating them to be farmers. In order to accomplish this, Congress needed to create private ownership of Indian property by dividing reservations, which were collectively owned, and offering 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, also referred to 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 were given between 40 to 80 acres; the residual territory was to be sold. Congress wished that the Dawes Act would divide Indian tribes and increase individual enterprise, while lowering the expense of Indian supervision and providing prime land to be sold to white settlers.
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The Dawes Act turned out to be disastrous for the American Indians; over the next generations they existed under regulations that outlawed their traditional way of life yet failed to provide the vital resources to support their businesses and households. Splitting the reservations into smaller parcels of land brought about the significant decrease of Indian-owned land. Inside three decades, the tribes 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 purchased by white settlers.
Usually, Native Americans were duped out of their allotments or were forced to sell off their property in order pay bills and take care of their own families. As a result, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were generally not able to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, like the creators of the policy had anticipated. It also developed animosity among Indians toward the U.S. government, as the allotment process sometimes destroyed land that was the spiritual and cultural location of their activities.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed tremendously. Through 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 alone, were now filled with white settlers.
The Upshot of the Indian Wars
Over these years the Indians had been defrauded out of their property, food and lifestyle, as the federal government’s Indian regulations forced them on to reservations and tried to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands would not make it through relocation, assimilation and military defeat; by 1890 the Native American population was lowered to fewer than 250,000 people. As a result of generations of discriminatory and ruthless policies instituted by the United States government between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was altered permanently.
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