Long 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 grew 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 now the U.S. we have learned plenty. It’s a story of beautiful craft work and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed remarkably elaborate buildings and public works.
While there was inescapable 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 connected to nature.
The European Settler Arrives
When European leaders sent the first vessels in our direction, the plan was to discover new resources – but the quality of climate and the bounty of everything from wood to wildlife soon changed their tune. As those leaders learned from their explorers, the motivation to colonize spread like wildfire.
The English, French and Spanish rushed to carve up the “New World” by shipping over poorly prepared colonists as fast as they could. At the outset, they skirmished with the surprised Indians of America’s eastern seaboard. But that ultimately gave way to trade, since the Europeans who landed here understood their survival was doubtful without Indian help.
Thus followed years 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 restless to locate additional resources, and some colonists came for independence and adventure.
They wanted more space. And so began the process of driving the American Indian out of the way.
It took the shape of cash arrangements, barter, and famously, treaties which were almost consistently ignored once the Indians were pushed 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 territories 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 area of the Southern Plains.
The Sioux, Crows and Blackfeet dominated the Northern Plains. These Native American groups experienced misfortune as the constant stream of European immigrants into northeastern American cities delivered a stream of immigrants into the western lands already populated 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 wouldn’t end there. Between 1830 and 1860 the United States nearly 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 attractive possibilities for those ready to make the long 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 areas of the Native American group-inhabited West.
Native American Tribes
Native American Policy can be defined as the regulations and operations developed and adapted in the United States to outline the relationship between Native American tribes and the federal government. When the United States first became a sovereign nation, it adopted the European policies towards these indigenous peoples, but over two centuries the U.S. adapted its own widely varying policies regarding the evolving perspectives and necessities of Native American supervision.
In 1824, in order to administer the U.S. government’s Native American policies, Congress created 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 different cultural identities; however, at other times the government attempted to force the Native American tribes to abandon their cultural identity, surrender their land and assimilate into the American traditions.
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With the steady stream of settlers in to Indian controlled land, Eastern newspapers circulated sensationalized stories of cruel native tribes committing 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 repeatedly helped settlers cross the Plains. Not only did the American Indians peddle wild game and other necessities to travelers, but they served 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 consented to a bounded territory, allowed the government to construct roadways and forts in this territory and pledged never to assault 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 peacefully to the treaty; in fact the Cheyenne, Sioux, Crow, Arapaho, Assinibione, Mandan, Gros Ventre and Arikara tribes, who entered into the treaty, even consented to end the hostilities between their tribes to be able to accept the conditions of the treaty.
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This peaceful agreement between the U.S. government and the Native American tribes didn’t hold very long. After hearing tales of fertile acreage 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 plan of limiting Native Americans to reservations, modest areas of acreage within a group’s territory that was set aside exclusively for their use, in order to grant more property for “” non-Indian settlers.
In a series of new treaties the U.S. government forced Native Americans to give up 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 money in addition to foodstuffs, animals, household goods and farming tools. These reservations were established in an effort to clear the way for increased U.S. expansion and involvement in the West, as well as to keep the Native Americans divided from the whites in order to lower the chance for conflict.
History of the Plains Indians
These deals had many complications. Most importantly many of the native people did not completely grasp the document that they were finalizing or the conditions within it; moreover, the treaties did not acknowledge the cultural norms of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government institutions responsible for applying these policies were overwhelmed with awful management and corruption. In fact many treaty conditions were never implemented.
The U.S. government rarely honored their side of the agreements even when the Native Americans relocated quietly to their reservations. Shady bureau agents often sold off the supplies that were meant for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Additionally, as settlers required more territory in the West, the government continually decreased the size of the reservations. By this time, most of the Native American peoples were unhappy with the treaties and angered by the settlers’ endless hunger for territory.
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Angered by the government’s deceitful and unjust policies, several Native American tribes, including bands of Cheyennes, Arapahos, Comanches and Sioux, fought back. As they struggled to protect their lands and their tribes’ survival, over a 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 conflicts with costly military campaigns. Obviously the U.S. government’s Indian regulations were in need of a change.
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Native American policy changed radically following the Civil War. Reformers felt that the scheme of pushing Native Americans onto reservations was far too strict while industrialists, who were worried about their property and resources, considered assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” to be the single long-term means of assuring Native American survival. In 1871 the federal government passed a critical law stating that the United States would no longer deal with Native American tribes as sovereign nations.
This law signaled a drastic change in the government’s working relationship with the native peoples – Congress now deemed the Native Americans, not as nations outside of its jurisdiction, but as wards of the government. By making Native Americans wards of the “” government, Congress imagined 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 representatives viewed assimilation as the most effective answer to what they deemed “the Indian problem,” and the sole long-term method of insuring U.S. interests in the West and the survival of the American Indians. In order to accomplish this, the government urged Native Americans to relocate out of their customary dwellings, move into wooden houses and grow into farmers.
The federal government handed down laws that pressed Native Americans to reject their usual appearance and way of living. Some laws banned customary spiritual practices while others instructed 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 prohibited traditional cultural and spiritual practices.
To speed up the assimilation operation, the government established Indian schools that tried to quickly and vigorously Americanize Indian youth. As per the director of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, the schools were created to “kill the Indian and save the man.” To be able to accomplish this objective, the schools required students to speak only English, dress in proper American attire and to substitute their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new policies helped bring Native Americans nearer to the conclusion of their original tribal identity and the beginning of their life as citizens under the complete 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 created to “civilize” American Indians by teaching them to be farmers. In order to accomplish this, Congress wanted to establish private ownership of Indian property by dividing reservations, which were collectively held, and issuing each family their own parcel of land.
In addition to this, by pushing the Native Americans onto small plots of land, western developers and settlers could purchase the remaining land. The General Allotment Act, also referred to 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 wished that the Dawes Act would divide Indian tribes and encourage individual enterprise, while reducing the expense of Indian administration and producing 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 policies that outlawed their traditional way of life yet didn’t provide the necessary resources to support their businesses and families. Dividing the reservations into smaller parcels of land caused the significant decrease of Indian-owned land. Within three decades, the tribes had lost in excess of two-thirds of the territory that they had controlled before the Dawes Act was passed in 1887; the majority of the remaining land was purchased by white settlers.
Frequently, Native Americans were cheated out of their allotments or were required to sell off their property in order to pay bills and feed 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 intended. It also produced animosity among Indians toward the U.S. government, as the allotment method often ruined land that was the spiritual and social focus of their days.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed dramatically. Through U.S. government policies, American Indians were forced from their places of residence because their native lands were parceled out. The Plains, which they had previously roamed without limits, were now filled 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 regulations coerced them on to reservations and tried to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands didn’t endure relocation, assimilation and military defeat; by 1890 the Native American population was lowered to fewer than 250,000 people. As a result of decades of discriminatory and ruthless policies instituted by the United States authorities between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was altered forever.
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