Long 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 land, 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 culture and heritage without disturbance. And that history is captivating.
From Mayan and Incan ruins, from the mounds left in the central and southern parts of what is now the U.S. we have learned much. It’s a story of beautiful artwork and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed highly advanced structures and public works.
While there was unavoidable tribal conflict, that was just a slight blemish in the tale of our ancestors. They were at peace with this beautiful continent and deeply plugged into nature.
The European Settler Arrives
When European leaders dispatched the first ships in this direction, the plan was to discover new resources – however the quality of climate and the bounty of everything from timber 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 slice up the “New World” by sending over inadequately prepared colonists as fast as they could. At the beginning, they skirmished with the surprised Indians of America’s eastern seaboard. But that shortly gave way to trade, since the Europeans who landed here understood that their survival was doubtful with no native help.
Thus followed decades of relative peace as the settlers got themselves established on American soil. But the drive to push inland came soon after. Kings and queens from thousands of miles away were impatient to locate additional resources, and some colonists came for freedom and adventure.
They wanted more space. And so began the process of forcing the American Indian out of the way.
It took the shape of cash arrangements, barter, and notoriously, treaties which were almost uniformly neglected after the Indians were pushed off 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 occupied 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 present day 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 encountered adversity as the constant 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 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 in addition to the authority over Oregon country, Texas and California; America’s expansion did not end there. Between 1830 and 1860 the United States pretty much doubled the amount of acreage 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, combined with the discovery of gold in 1849, presented attractive possibilities for those ready to make the extended 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 areas of the Native American tribe-inhabited West.
Native American Tribes
Native American Policy can be defined as the laws and operations 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 implemented the European policies towards these indigenous peoples, but throughout 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 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, distinct 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 traditions.
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With the steady flow of settlers in to Indian “” land, Eastern newspapers printed 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 repeatedly helped settlers cross over the Plains. Not only did the American Indians sell wild game and other supplies to travelers, but they served 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 anxieties, 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 roads and forts in this territory and agreed to never assault 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 signed the treaty, even agreed 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 stand very long. After hearing tales of fertile land and tremendous mineral wealth in the West, the government soon broke their pledge 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 policy of confining Native Americans to reservations, limited swaths of acreage within a group’s territory “” set aside exclusively for Indian use, in order to provide more land for the non-Indian settlers.
In a series of new treaties the U.S. government made Native Americans to abandon their land and move 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 foodstuffs, animals, household goods and agricultural equipment. These reservations were created in an effort to clear the way for increasing U.S. expansion and administration in the West, as well as to keep the Native Americans isolated from the whites in order to decrease the chance for friction.
History of the Plains Indians
These deals had many problems. Most significantly many of the native peoples didn’t altogether grasp the document that they were signing or the conditions within it; furthermore, the treaties did not respect the cultural practices of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government institutions accountable for administering these policies were plagued with awful management and corruption. In fact most treaty terms were never accomplished.
The U.S. government almost never honored their side of the deals even when the Native Americans migrated quietly to their reservations. Dishonest bureau agents frequently sold off the supplies that were intended for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Additionally, as settlers required more property in the West, the government continually decreased the size of the reservations. By this time, many of the Native American people were unhappy with the treaties and angered by the settlers’ persistent hunger for land.
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Angered by the government’s deceitful and unfair policies, several Native American tribes, including bands of Cheyennes, Arapahos, Comanches and Sioux, fought back. As they fought to defend their lands and their tribes’ survival, more than one thousand skirmishes and battles broke out in the West between 1861 and 1891. In an effort to coerce Native Americans onto the reservations and to end the violence, the U.S. government responded to these hostilities with significant military operations. Clearly the U.S. government’s Indian regulations required an adjustment.
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Native American policy changed dramatically after the Civil War. Reformers believed that the scheme of pushing Native Americans on to reservations was too severe while industrialists, who were concerned with their property and resources, thought of assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” to be the only long-term method of ensuring Native American survival. In 1871 the federal government approved a pivotal law stating that the United States would not deal with Native American tribes as independent entities.
This law signaled a drastic change in the government’s 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 “” government, Congress imagined that it would be easier to make the policy of assimilation a widely recognized part of the cultural mainstream of America.
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Many U.S. government administrators considered assimilation as the most practical remedy for 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 pushed Native Americans to move out of their traditional dwellings, move into wooden dwellings and turn into farmers.
The federal government passed laws that forced Native Americans to abandon 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 established tribunals to impose federal regulations that often restricted traditional ethnic and religious practices.
To hasten the assimilation operation, the government set up Indian facilities that attempted to quickly and vigorously Americanize Indian youth. According to 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 objective, the schools required students to speak only English, put on proper American clothing and to switch their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new policies helped bring Native Americans nearer to the end of their traditional tribal identity and the beginning of their daily life as citizens under the complete 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 component of the U.S. government’s assimilation program, which was intended to “civilize” American Indians by teaching them to become farmers. In order to achieve this, Congress wanted to increase non-public ownership of Indian land by dividing reservations, which were collectively owned, and allowing each family their own plot of land.
Additionally, by forcing the Native Americans onto limited plots of land, western developers and settlers could purchase the remaining land. The General Allotment Act, better known 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 land was to be sold. Congress expected that the Dawes Act would break-up Indian tribes and stimulate individual enterprise, while trimming the expense of Indian supervision and providing prime land 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 generations they existed under policies that outlawed their traditional way of life but did not offer the necessary resources to support their businesses and families. Dividing the reservations into smaller parcels of land brought about the significant decrease of Indian-owned property. Inside three decades, the people had lost over two-thirds of the territory that they had controlled before the Dawes Act was enacted in 1887; the majority of the remaining land was purchased by white settlers.
Regularly, Native Americans were cheated out of their allotments or were forced to sell their property in order to pay bills and feed their own 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 intended. It also produced animosity among Indians for the U.S. government, as the allotment practice sometimes ruined land that was the spiritual and cultural location of their activities.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed significantly. Due to U.S. administration regulations, American Indians were forced from their housing because their native lands were parceled out. The Plains, which they had previously roamed without restriction, were now filled up with white settlers.
The Upshot of the Indian Wars
Over these years the Indians have been defrauded out of their property, food and approach to life, as the federal government’s Indian policies coerced them on to reservations and attempted to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands could not endure relocation, assimilation and military defeat; by 1890 the Native American population was decreased to less than 250,000 people. Thanks to decades of discriminatory and corrupt policies instituted by the United States authorities between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was altered permanently.
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