Way before the terms Native American or Indian were created, 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 culture 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’s currently the U.S. we have learned much. It’s a narrative of beautiful arts and crafts and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed remarkably elaborate structures and public works.
While there was unavoidable tribal conflict, that was just a slight blemish in the experience 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 this direction, the goal 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 raced to carve up the “New World” by sending over poorly prepared colonists as fast as possible. In the beginning, 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 Indian help.
Thus followed decades 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 locate 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 arrangements, barter, and famously, treaties that were almost uniformly neglected 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 influenced by the desire to expand westward into territories occupied by these Native American tribes. By the 1850s nearly all Native American tribes, approximately 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 territory of the Southern Plains.
The Sioux, Crows and Blackfeet dominated the Northern Plains. These Native American groups experienced misfortune as the constant 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 in addition to the authority over Oregon country, Texas and California; America’s expansion did not end there. Between 1830 and 1860 the United States nearly doubled the amount of territory 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 alluring possibilities for those prepared make the long journey westward. As a result, with the military’s protection and the U.S. government’s assistance, many settlers started building 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 established and adapted in the United States to outline the relationship between Native American tribes and the federal government. When the United States initially became a sovereign country, it implemented the European policies towards these local peoples, but over the course of two centuries the U.S. designed its own widely varying policies regarding the evolving perspectives and requirements of Native American regulation.
In 1824, in order to apply the U.S. government’s Native American policies, Congress made a new agency 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, independent political communities with varying cultural identities; however, at other times the government attempted to compel the Native American tribes to give up their cultural identity, hand over 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 savage 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 often helped settlers get across 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 presumed the risk of an attack.
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To quiet these anxieties, in 1851 the U.S. government held 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 roadways and forts in this territory and agreed never to assault 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 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 in order 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 testimonies of fertile terrain 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 area. With so many newcomers heading west, the federal government established a plan of limiting Native Americans to reservations, limited swaths of acreage within a group’s territory that was set aside exclusively for their use, to be able to offer more territory for the 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 foodstuffs, 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 lower the chance for friction.
History of the Plains Indians
These agreements had many challenges. Most of all many of the native people didn’t altogether understand the document that they were confirming or the conditions within it; furthermore, 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 overwhelmed with poor management and corruption. In fact many treaty provisions were never carried out.
The U.S. government almost never fulfilled their side of the deals even when the Native Americans relocated quietly to their reservations. Unethical bureau agents frequently sold the supplies that were intended for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Additionally, as settlers demanded more territory in the West, the government frequently cut the size of the reservations. By this time, many of the Native American peoples were dissatisfied with the treaties and angered by settlers’ endless demands for territory.
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Angered by the government’s dishonest and unfair policies, several Native American tribes, including bands of Cheyennes, Arapahos, Comanches and Sioux, battled back. As they struggled 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 compel Native Americans onto the reservations and to end the violence, the U.S. government responded to these hostilities with significant military campaigns. Clearly the U.S. government’s Indian policies were in need an adjustment.
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Native American policy changed considerably following the Civil War. Reformers felt that the scheme of pushing Native Americans onto reservations was too strict while industrialists, who were concerned with their land and resources, thought of assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” to be the sole permanent method of guaranteeing Native American survival. In 1871 the government enacted a critical law proclaiming that the United States would not treat Native American tribes as sovereign nations.
This legislation signaled a major change in the government’s working relationship with the native peoples – Congress now deemed 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 was 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 administrators considered assimilation as the most practical solution to what they deemed “the Indian problem,” and the single long-term means of insuring 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 traditional dwellings, move into wooden homes and grow into farmers.
The federal government passed laws that pressed Native Americans to quit their established appearance and way of life. Some laws banned customary religious practices while others instructed Indian males to cut their long locks. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations set up tribunals to implement federal polices that often prohibited traditional cultural and religious practices.
To hasten the assimilation course, the government set up Indian facilities that attempted to quickly and forcefully Americanize Indian youth. According to the founder of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, the schools were designed to “kill the Indian and save the man.” In order to achieve this goal, the schools forced students to speak only English, wear proper American clothing and to replace their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new regulations helped bring Native Americans nearer to the end of their traditional tribal identity and the beginning of their life as citizens under the complete control of the U.S. government.
Native American Treaties with the United States
In 1887, Congress approved the General Allotment Act, the most significant element of the U.S. government’s assimilation program, which was designed to “civilize” American Indians by teaching them to be farmers. In order to make this happen, Congress wanted to establish private title of Indian property by splitting up reservations, which were collectively held, and allowing each family their own plot of land.
In addition to this, by pushing the Native Americans onto limited plots, western developers and settlers could purchase the left over acreage. The General Allotment Act, also referred to as the Dawes Act, required that the Indian lands be surveyed and each family be provided with an allotment of between 80 and 160 acres, while unmarried adults were given between 40 to 80 acres; the remaining land was to be sold. Congress expected that the Dawes Act would break up Indian tribes and encourage individual enterprise, while reducing the cost of Indian supervision and producing prime land to be purchased by white settlers.
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The Dawes Act proved to be catastrophic for the American Indians; over the next decades they lived under regulations that outlawed their traditional approach to life yet didn’t offer the necessary resources to support their businesses and families. Splitting the reservations into small parcels of land caused the significant reduction of Indian-owned land. Within three decades, 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 sold to white settlers.
Commonly, Native Americans were cheated out of their allotments or were forced to sell off their property in order to pay bills and provide for their families. Because of that, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were often not able to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, as the creators of the policy had anticipated. It also developed animosity among Indians toward the U.S. government, as the allotment practice sometimes destroyed land that was the spiritual and social hub of their activities.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed radically. Through U.S. administration policies, American Indians were forced from their living spaces as their native lands were parceled out. The Plains, which they had previously roamed without limits, were now filled up with white settlers.
The Upshot of the Indian Wars
Over the years the Indians have been cheated out of their land, food and way of life, as the “” government’s Indian policies shoved them onto reservations and tried to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands didn’t make it through relocation, cultural destruction and military defeat; by 1890 the Native American population was decreased to under 250,000 persons. As a result of decades of discriminatory and corrupt policies instituted by the United States authorities between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was altered forever.
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