Long 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 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 culture and heritage without interference. And that history is captivating.
From Mayan and Incan ruins, from the mounds left in the central and southern parts of what is currently the U.S. we have learned quite a bit. It’s a tale of beautiful arts and crafts 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 narrative of our forebears. They were at peace with this beautiful continent and deeply plugged into nature.
The European Settler Arrives
When European leaders sent the first vessels in this direction, the intention was to explore new resources – however the quality of weather and the bounty of everything from wood to wildlife subsequently 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 sending over poorly prepared colonists as fast as possible. In the beginning, they skirmished with the surprised Indians of America’s eastern seaboard. But that shortly gave way to trade, because the Europeans who came ashore here learned their survival was doubtful with no native help.
Thus followed decades of comparative peace as the settlers got themselves established on American soil. But the pressure to push inland followed soon after. Kings and queens from thousands of miles away were anxious to find additional resources, and some colonists came for freedom and opportunity.
They wanted 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 notoriously, treaties that were nearly uniformly ignored 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 motivated 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, 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 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 as well as the authority over Oregon country, Texas and California; America’s expansion would not end there. Between 1830 and 1860 the U.S. practically doubled the amount of territory within 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 captivating opportunities for those ready to make the huge quest 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 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 define the relationship between Native American tribes and the federal government. When the United States first became an independent country, it implemented the European policies towards the indigenous peoples, but throughout two centuries the U.S. designed its own widely varying regulations regarding the evolving perspectives and necessities of Native American supervision.
In 1824, in order to execute the U.S. government’s Native American policies, Congress made a new agency inside 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, separate political communities with different 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 customs.
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With the steady stream of settlers into Indian controlled land, Eastern newspapers published sensationalized stories 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 repeatedly helped settlers cross over the Plains. Not only did the American Indians offer wild game and other necessities to travelers, but they acted 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 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 tracks and forts in this territory and pledged to not attack settlers; in return the federal government agreed to honor the boundaries of each tribe’s territory and make total 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 entered into 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 accord between the U.S. government and the Native American tribes did not stand long. After hearing tales of fertile land and tremendous mineral wealth in the West, the government soon broke their promises 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 plan of limiting Native Americans to reservations, modest areas of acreage within a group’s territory that was earmarked exclusively for their use, in order to offer more property 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 offered a yearly stipend that would include money in addition to foodstuffs, animals, household goods and agricultural tools. These reservations were created in an attempt to clear the way for heightened U.S. expansion and administration in the West, as well as to keep the Native Americans isolated from the whites in order to lessen the chance for friction.
History of the Plains Indians
These deals had many complications. Most of all many of the native peoples did not completely understand the document that they were finalizing or the conditions within it; further, the treaties did not acknowledge the cultural practices of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government institutions responsible for administering these policies were plagued with awful management and corruption. In fact many treaty provisions were never accomplished.
The U.S. government almost never held up their side of the agreements even when the Native Americans migrated quietly to their reservations. Unethical bureau agents often sold the supplies that were intended for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Additionally, as settlers required more property in the West, the federal government continually decreased the size of Indian reservations. By this time, most of the Native American peoples were dissatisfied with the treaties and angered by the settlers’ endless hunger for land.
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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 protect their lands and their tribes’ survival, more than one thousand skirmishes and battles broke out in the West between 1861 and 1891. In an attempt to force Native Americans onto the reservations and to end the violence, the U.S. government reacted to these skirmishes with costly military operations. Clearly the U.S. government’s Indian regulations required of a change.
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Native American policy changed dramatically after the Civil War. Reformers felt that the scheme of pushing Native Americans inside reservations was far too strict while industrialists, who were concerned about their land and resources, viewed assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” to be the lone long-term method of guaranteeing Native American survival. In 1871 the government enacted a pivotal law proclaiming 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 regarded 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 presumed that it was better to make the policy of assimilation a widely recognised part of the cultural mainstream of America.
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Many U.S. government administrators perceived assimilation as the most effective answer to what they viewed as “the Indian problem,” and the only lasting method 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 established dwellings, move into wooden dwellings and grow into farmers.
The federal government passed laws that required Native Americans to quit their traditional appearance and way of life. Some laws outlawed traditional religious practices while others ordered Indian men to cut their long locks. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations founded courts to impose federal regulations that often banned traditional cultural and spiritual practices.
To hasten the assimilation process, the government set up Indian training centers that tried to quickly and vigorously 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 goal, the schools required enrollees to speak only English, dress in proper American clothing and to replace their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new regulations brought Native Americans nearer to the conclusion of their original tribal identity and the beginning of their existence as citizens under the absolute control of the U.S. authorities.
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 designed to “civilize” American Indians by educating them to become farmers. In order to make this happen, Congress needed to establish non-public ownership of Indian land by dividing reservations, which were collectively held, and providing each family their own parcel of land.
In addition to this, by pushing the Native Americans onto small plots, 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 were given between 40 to 80 acres; the residual acreage was to be sold. Congress wished that the Dawes Act would breakup Indian tribes and encourage individual enterprise, while lowering the expense of Indian administration and providing prime property 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 lived under regulations that outlawed their traditional lifestyle and yet didn’t provide the crucial resources to support their businesses and households. Splitting the reservations into smaller parcels of land triggered the significant reduction of Indian-owned property. Within three decades, the tribes had lost more than two-thirds of the territory that they had controlled before the Dawes Act was enacted in 1887; the majority of the remaining land was sold to white settlers.
Usually, Native Americans were cheated out of their allotments or were required to sell off their property in order pay bills and feed their own families. Because of that, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were often not able to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, as the makers of the Act had wished. Further, it created resentment among Indians for the U.S. government, as the allotment method sometimes ruined land that was the spiritual and societal center of their lives.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed drastically. Through U.S. government policies, 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 inhabited with white settlers.
The Upshot of the Indian Wars
Over all these years the Indians ended up cheated out of their property, food and way of life, as the federal government’s Indian policies forced them inside reservations and attempted to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands did not make it through relocation, cultural destruction and military loss; by 1890 the Native American population was reduced to under 250,000 people. Due to generations of discriminatory and corrupt policies implemented by the United States authorities between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was changed forever.
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