Way 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 centuries, the American Indian grew its traditions and heritage without interference. And that history is captivating.
From Mayan and Incan ruins, from the mounds left in the central and southern regions of what is currently the U.S. we have learned plenty. It’s a tale of beautiful craft work and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed remarkably elaborate buildings and public works.
While there was unavoidable tribal conflict, that was just a slight blemish in the history of our ancestors. 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 our direction, the plan was to explore new resources – but the quality of climate and the bounty of everything from timber 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 raced to slice up the “New World” by shipping over poorly prepared colonists as fast as they could. At first, they skirmished with the alarmed Indians of America’s eastern seaboard. But that shortly gave way to trade, because the Europeans who arrived here learned their survival was doubtful without native help.
Thus followed years of comparative peace as the settlers got themselves established on American land. But the pressure 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 adventure.
They needed more space. And so began the process of driving the American Indian out of the way.
It took the shape of cash payments, barter, and famously, treaties which were almost consistently neglected after the Indians were forced 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 territories occupied by these Native American tribes. By the 1850s almost all Native American tribes, approximately 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 situated 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 hardship as the steady flow of European immigrants into northeastern American cities pushed a stream of immigrants into the western lands already inhabited by these diverse 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 nearly doubled the amount of land within 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 alluring possibilities for those willing 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 parts of the Native American group-inhabited West.
Native American Tribes
Native American Policy can be defined as the laws and operations 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 these local peoples, but throughout two centuries the U.S. designed its very own widely varying regulations regarding the changing perspectives and necessities of Native American regulation.
In 1824, in order to execute the U.S. government’s Native American policies, Congress created a new agency inside the War Department referred to as Bureau of Indian Affairs, which worked directly 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 give up their cultural identity, let go of their land and assimilate into the American traditions.
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With the steady flow of settlers in to Indian “” land, Eastern newspapers published sensationalized stories of cruel native tribes carrying out 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 routinely helped settlers cross 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 feared the likelihood of an attack.
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To quiet these concerns, 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 not to attack 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 consented to end the hostilities amidst their tribes to be able to accept the conditions 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 great 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 limiting Native Americans to reservations, limited swaths of acreage within a group’s territory that was reserved exclusively for Indian use, in order to offer more land for the non-Indian settlers.
In a series of new treaties the U.S. government compelled Native Americans to surrender their land and migrate to reservations in exchange for protection from attacks by white settlers. In addition, the Indians were offered a yearly stipend that would include cash in addition to foodstuffs, livestock, household goods and agricultural equipment. These reservations were created in an attempt to pave the way for increasing U.S. growth and involvement in the West, as well as to keep the Native Americans isolated 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 peoples didn’t entirely understand the document that they were signing or the conditions within it; furthermore, the treaties did not consider the cultural norms of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government departments responsible for applying these policies were weighed down with poor management and corruption. In fact many treaty provisions were never carried out.
The U.S. government rarely fulfilled their side of the agreements even when the Native Americans went quietly to their reservations. Unethical bureau agents frequently sold off the supplies that were intended for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Moreover, as settlers demanded more territory in the West, the federal government frequently decreased the size of reservation lands. By this time, most of the Native American peoples were unhappy with the treaties and angered by the settlers’ constant hunger for territory.
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Angered by the government’s deceitful and unjust policies, some Native American tribes, including bands of Cheyennes, Arapahos, Comanches and Sioux, battled back. As they fought to maintain their territories and their tribes’ survival, more than one thousand skirmishes and battles broke out in the West between 1861 and 1891. In an attempt to coerce Native Americans onto the reservations and to end the violence, the U.S. government reacted to these conflicts with significant military operations. Clearly the U.S. government’s Indian regulations required an adjustment.
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Native American policy changed drastically after the Civil War. Reformers felt that the scheme of pushing Native Americans on to reservations was far too severe while industrialists, who were worried about their land and resources, thought of assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” to be the single permanent strategy for assuring Native American survival. In 1871 the federal government approved a critical law stating that the United States would not treat Native American tribes as independent entities.
This legislation signaled a drastic shift in the government’s working relationship with the native peoples – Congress now considered the Native Americans, not as nations 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 better to make the policy of assimilation a widely recognized 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 single long-term method of 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 relocate out of their customary dwellings, move into wooden buildings and become farmers.
The federal government passed laws that required Native Americans to reject their established appearance and way of living. Some laws outlawed traditional spiritual practices while others required Indian males to cut their long locks. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations organized courts to implement federal regulations that often prohibited traditional ethnic and religious practices.
To speed up the assimilation operation, the government set up Indian training centers that attempted to quickly and forcefully Americanize Indian children. As per the founder 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 compelled pupils to speak only English, dress in proper American clothing and to replace 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 life as citizens under the absolute control of the U.S. government.
Native American Treaties with the United States
In 1887, Congress handed down the General Allotment Act, the most important part of the U.S. government’s assimilation program, which was written to “civilize” American Indians by educating them to become farmers. In order to achieve this, Congress planned to create private title of Indian land by splitting up reservations, which were collectively owned, and issuing each family their own parcel of land.
In addition to this, by pushing the Native Americans onto limited plots, western developers and settlers could purchase the remaining territory. The General Allotment Act, also known 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 rest of the acreage was to be sold. Congress thought that the Dawes Act would divide Indian tribes and encourage individual enterprise, while lowering the cost of Indian supervision and providing prime land to be sold to white settlers.
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The Dawes Act proved to be catastrophic for the American Indians; over the next generations they lived under policies that outlawed their traditional approach to life and yet did not offer the critical resources to support their businesses and families. Dividing the reservations into smaller parcels of land triggered the significant reduction of Indian-owned property. Inside thirty years, the people had lost over two-thirds of the region that they had controlled before the Dawes Act was enacted in 1887; the majority of the remaining land was sold to white settlers.
Frequently, Native Americans were cheated out of their allotments or were forced to sell their land 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, as the makers of the Act had wished. Further, it developed anger among Indians toward the U.S. government, as the allotment process often destroyed land that was the spiritual and cultural focus of their lives.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed radically. Due to U.S. government regulations, American Indians were forced from their places of residence because 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 all these years the Indians have been defrauded out of their property, food and lifestyle, as the federal government’s Indian plans forced them onto reservations and tried to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands did not endure relocation, assimilation and military defeat; by 1890 the Native American population was reduced 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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