Ages before the terms Native American or Indian were necessary, 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 grew its customs and heritage without disturbance. And that history is fascinating.
From Mayan and Incan ruins, from the mounds left in the central and southern regions of what’s today the U.S. we have learned plenty. It’s a tale of beautiful art 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 ancestors. 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 this direction, the goal was to discover new resources – however the quality of environment and the bounty of everything from wood to wildlife soon changed their tune. As those leaders heard back from their explorers, the motivation 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 possible. At the outset, they skirmished with the surprised Indians of America’s eastern seaboard. But that soon gave way to trade, because the Europeans who landed here knew 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 impatient to locate additional resources, and some colonists came for freedom and opportunity.
They required more space. And so began the process of forcing the American Indian out of the way.
It took the form of cash payments, barter, and famously, treaties which were almost consistently neglected after the Indians were moved away from the land in question.
The U.S. government’s policies towards Native Americans in the second half of the nineteenth century were motivated by the desire to expand westward into regions occupied by these Native American tribes. By the 1850s almost 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 present day 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 encountered adversity as the steady flow of European immigrants into northeastern American cities delivered a stream of immigrants into the western lands already occupied by these various groups of Indians.
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The early nineteenth century in 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 would not end there. Between 1830 and 1860 the United States pretty much 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, combined with the discovery of gold in 1849, presented captivating possibilities for those ready to make the long journey westward. Consequently, with the military’s protection and the U.S. government’s assistance, many settlers began 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 regulations and procedures made 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 country, it adopted the European policies towards the native peoples, but over two centuries the U.S. tailored its own widely varying policies regarding the evolving perspectives and necessities of Native American regulation.
In 1824, in order to execute the U.S. government’s Native American policies, Congress formed a new bureau inside 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, separate political communities with numerous cultural identities; however, at other times the government attempted to force the Native American tribes to give up their cultural identity, hand over their land and assimilate into the American customs.
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With the steady stream of settlers in to Indian “” land, Eastern newspapers circulated sensationalized stories of cruel native tribes committing widespread 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 repeatedly helped settlers get across 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 good natures of the American Indians, settlers still feared the likelihood of an attack.
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To calm 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 accepted a bounded territory, allowed the government to construct roadways and forts in this territory and agreed to not 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 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 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 didn’t hold long. After hearing testimonies of fertile acreage 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 region. With so many newcomers moving west, the federal government established a plan of limiting Native Americans to reservations, small swaths of land within a group’s territory that was set aside exclusively for Indian use, to be able to give more property for “” non-Indian settlers.
In a series of new treaties the U.S. government commanded Native Americans to surrender their land and move to reservations in exchange for protection from attacks by white settlers. In addition, the Indians were given a yearly payment that would include cash in addition to food, animals, household goods and farming equipment. These reservations were created in an effort to clear the way for heightened U.S. growth and administration in the West, as well as to keep the Native Americans divided from the whites in order to lessen the chance for friction.
History of the Plains Indians
These agreements had many challenges. Most significantly many of the native peoples didn’t completely understand the document that they were finalizing or the conditions within it; furthermore, the treaties did not consider the cultural practices of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government institutions responsible for administering these policies were plagued with poor management and corruption. In fact many treaty conditions were never executed.
The U.S. government rarely held up their side of the agreements even when the Native Americans went quietly to their reservations. Shady bureau agents repeatedly sold the supplies that were meant for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Additionally, as settlers needed more property in the West, the government frequently cut the size of Indian reservations. By this time, many of the Native American people were dissatisfied with the treaties and angered by the settlers’ persistent demands for land.
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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 protect their territories 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 responded to these conflicts with significant military operations. Obviously the U.S. government’s Indian policies were in need an adjustment.
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Native American policy shifted considerably following the Civil War. Reformers believed that the scheme of driving Native Americans inside reservations was too strict while industrialists, who were worried about their property and resources, thought of assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” to be the single permanent method of guaranteeing Native American survival. In 1871 the government enacted a pivotal law proclaiming that the United States would no longer treat Native American tribes as independent nations.
This law signaled a significant shift in the government’s 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 U.S. government, Congress believed that it was 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 officials considered assimilation as the most practical solution to what they deemed “the Indian problem,” and the only long-term strategy for guaranteeing U.S. interests in the West and the survival of the American Indians. In order to accomplish this, the government pressed Native Americans to move out of their traditional dwellings, move into wooden buildings and turn into farmers.
The federal government passed laws that required Native Americans to abandon their usual appearance and lifestyle. Some laws banned common religious practices while others required Indian males to cut their long hair. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations founded courts to implement federal polices that often restricted traditional cultural and religious practices.
To boost the assimilation operation, the government started Indian schools that attempted to quickly and forcefully Americanize Indian kids. According to the director of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, the schools were designed to “kill the Indian and save the man.” To be able to accomplish this objective, the schools forced students to speak only English, dress in proper American fashion and to substitute their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new policies brought Native Americans nearer to the end of their original tribal identity and the beginning of their life as citizens under the complete control of the U.S. administration.
Native American Treaties with the United States
In 1887, Congress passed the General Allotment Act, the most significant component of the U.S. government’s assimilation program, which was created to “civilize” American Indians by teaching them to be farmers. In order to make this happen, Congress needed to create non-public title of Indian land by splitting up reservations, which were collectively held, and giving each family their own block of land.
Additionally, by forcing the Native Americans onto small plots, western developers and settlers could purchase the left over territory. 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 received between 40 to 80 acres; the residual acreage was to be sold. Congress was hoping that the Dawes Act would breakup Indian tribes and increase individual enterprise, while trimming the expense of Indian supervision and providing 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 policies that outlawed their traditional way of living but did not offer the critical resources to support their businesses and households. Splitting the reservations into small parcels of land triggered the significant reduction of Indian-owned property. Within thirty years, the tribes had lost more than two-thirds of the acreage that they had controlled before the Dawes Act was passed in 1887; the majority of the remaining land was purchased by white settlers.
Commonly, Native Americans were duped out of their allotments or were required to sell their land in order pay bills and take care of their own families. Consequently, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were routinely not able to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, as the creators of the policy had desired. It also created animosity among Indians toward the U.S. government, as the allotment practice often destroyed land that was the spiritual and social hub of their activities.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed tremendously. Due to U.S. government policies, American Indians were forced from their housing 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 all these years the Indians ended up defrauded out of their property, food and way of life, as the “” government’s Indian plans forced them onto reservations and attempted to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands could not endure relocation, cultural destruction and military loss; by 1890 the Native American population was decreased to fewer than 250,000 persons. As a result of generations of discriminatory and corrupt policies implemented by the United States government between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was changed permanently.
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