Way before the terms Native American or Indian were created, the tribes were spread throughout 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 developed its customs and legacy without interference. And that history is captivating.
From Mayan and Incan ruins, from the mounds left in the central and southern parts of what’s now the U.S. we have learned much. It’s a narrative of beautiful artwork and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed remarkably elaborate buildings and public works.
While there was inevitable tribal conflict, that was nothing more than a slight blemish in the tale of our forebears. They were at peace with this beautiful continent and intensely connected to 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 weather 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 raced to slice up the “New World” by shipping over inadequately prepared colonists as fast as possible. At first, they skirmished with the alarmed Indians of America’s eastern seaboard. But that soon gave way to trade, since the Europeans who arrived here understood that their survival was doubtful without native help.
Thus followed years 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 restless to find additional resources, and some colonists came for freedom and adventure.
They needed more space. And so began the process of forcing the American Indian out of the way.
It took the shape of cash payments, barter, and notoriously, treaties that were almost consistently ignored once the Indians were forced away 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 occupied by these Native American tribes. By the 1850s nearly all Native American tribes, roughly 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 adversity as the steady 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.
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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 nearly 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 attractive opportunities for those willing to make the huge journey westward. Therefore, with the military’s protection and the U.S. government’s assistance, many settlers set about establishing 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 operations made and adapted in the United States to summarize the relationship between Native American tribes and the federal government. When the United States initially became an independent country, it implemented the European policies towards the native peoples, but throughout two centuries the U.S. designed its own widely varying regulations regarding the evolving perspectives and requirements of Native American supervision.
In 1824, in order to apply the U.S. government’s Native American policies, Congress made a new bureau within the War Department called the 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 varying cultural identities; however, at other times the government attempted to force the Native American tribes to abandon 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 printed sensationalized reports of cruel 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 cross over the Plains. Not only did the American Indians offer wild game and other supplies to travelers, but they served 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 soothe these worries, in 1851 the U.S. government held a conference with several local Indian tribes and established the Treaty of Fort Laramie. Within this treaty, each Native American tribe accepted a bounded territory, allowed the government to construct roads and forts in this territory and pledged not to 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 amidst their tribes in order to accept the conditions of the treaty.
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This peaceful agreement between the U.S. government and the Native American tribes did not hold long. After hearing reports 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 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 that was reserved exclusively for Indian use, to be able to grant more property for the non-Indian settlers.
In a series of new treaties the U.S. government commanded 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 money in addition to food, livestock, household goods and agricultural tools. These reservations were established in an attempt to pave the way for heightened U.S. expansion 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 agreements had many problems. Most importantly many of the native people did not altogether understand the document that they were signing or the conditions within it; moreover, the treaties did not consider the cultural norms of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government agencies responsible for administering these policies were weighed down with poor management and corruption. In fact most treaty terms were never accomplished.
The U.S. government rarely held up their side of the accords even when the Native Americans moved quietly to their reservations. Shady bureau agents frequently sold off the supplies that were intended for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Additionally, as settlers required more territory in the West, the government frequently cut the size of the reservations. By this time, most of the Native American peoples were dissatisfied with the treaties and angered by settlers’ endless hunger for land.
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, 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 coerce Native Americans onto the reservations and to end the violence, the U.S. government reacted to these hostilities with costly military operations. Obviously the U.S. government’s Indian regulations required an adjustment.
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Native American policy shifted dramatically after the Civil War. Reformers believed that the policy of forcing Native Americans on to reservations was too harsh even though industrialists, who were concerned about their land and resources, regarded assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” as the single long-term method of ensuring Native American survival. In 1871 the government approved a critical law proclaiming that the United States would no longer 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 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 concluded that it would be 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 practical remedy for what they viewed as “the Indian problem,” and the only 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 relocate out of their established dwellings, move into wooden dwellings and become farmers.
The federal government enacted laws that required Native Americans to abandon their traditional appearance and lifestyle. Some laws outlawed common spiritual practices while others ordered Indian males to cut their long locks. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations organized tribunals to enforce federal polices that often prohibited traditional ethnic and religious practices.
To accelerate the assimilation process, the government started Indian schools that tried to quickly and forcefully Americanize Indian children. 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 enrollees to speak only English, put on proper American clothing and to switch their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new regulations brought Native Americans nearer to the end of their established tribal identity and the beginning of their daily life 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 important element of the U.S. government’s assimilation program, which was designed to “civilize” American Indians by educating them to be farmers. In order to make this happen, Congress planned to increase private ownership of Indian land by dividing reservations, which were collectively held, and giving each family their own parcel of land.
In addition to this, by pushing the Native Americans onto limited plots of land, western developers and settlers could purchase the left over land. The General Allotment Act, also referred to as the Dawes Act, required that the Indian lands be surveyed and every family be given 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 encourage individual enterprise, while trimming the cost of Indian supervision and serving up prime property 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 life and yet did not supply the crucial resources to support their businesses and families. Splitting the reservations into small parcels of land caused the significant decrease of Indian-owned land. Within three decades, the tribes had lost over 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.
Frequently, Native Americans were duped out of their allotments or were required to sell their property in order pay bills and provide for their families. Consequently, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were often not able to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, like the creators of the policy had anticipated. Aside from that it created resentment among Indians toward the U.S. government, as the allotment method sometimes destroyed land that was the spiritual and societal hub of their days.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed drastically. Due to U.S. administration policies, American Indians were forced from their homes as their native lands were parceled out. The Plains, which they had previously roamed without limits, were now inhabited with white settlers.
The Upshot of the Indian Wars
Over the years the Indians had been cheated out of their land, food and lifestyle, as the federal government’s Indian policies forced them on to reservations and attempted to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands didn’t make it through relocation, assimilation and military loss; by 1890 the Native American population was decreased to fewer than 250,000 people. As a result of decades of discriminatory and dodgy policies instituted by the United States authorities between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was altered forever.
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