Long 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 developed its culture and legacy without interference. And that history is fascinating.
From Mayan and Incan ruins, from the mounds left in the central and southern regions of what’s now the U.S. we have learned plenty. It’s a story of beautiful craft work and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed highly advanced structures and public works.
While there was inevitable tribal conflict, that was nothing more than a slight blemish in the history of our ancestors. They were at peace with this beautiful continent and intensely connected to nature.
The European Settler Arrives
When European leaders sent the first ships in our direction, the aim 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 heard back from their explorers, the motivation 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 they could. In the beginning, they skirmished with the surprised Indians of America’s eastern seaboard. But that soon gave way to trade, since the Europeans who came ashore here understood their survival was doubtful with no Indian help.
Thus followed decades of comparative peace as the settlers got themselves established on American soil. But the pressure to push inland came soon after. Kings and queens from thousands of miles away were impatient to find even more resources, and some colonists came for independence and opportunity.
They wanted more space. And so began the process of pushing the American Indian out of the way.
It took the form of cash payments, barter, and famously, treaties which were almost uniformly ignored after the Indians were moved away from the territory 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, 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 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 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 of 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 along with the authority over Oregon country, Texas and California; America’s expansion did not end there. Between 1830 and 1860 the United States roughly doubled the amount of acreage within 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, partnered with the discovery of gold in 1849, presented alluring opportunities for those ready to make the extended journey westward. Therefore, with the military’s protection and the U.S. government’s assistance, many settlers began 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 regulations and procedures established and adapted in the United States to summarize the relationship between Native American tribes and the federal government. When the United States initially became an independent country, it implemented the European policies towards these native peoples, but over two centuries the U.S. tailored its own widely varying regulations regarding the evolving perspectives and requirements 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 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 varying cultural identities; however, at other times the government attempted to compel the Native American tribes to abandon their cultural identity, hand over their land and assimilate into the American customs.
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With the steady flow of settlers into Indian controlled 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 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 presumed the possibility 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. 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 ever 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 consented 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 didn’t stand very long. After hearing tales of fertile acreage and great mineral wealth in the West, the government soon broke their assurances 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 reserved exclusively for their use, to be able to provide more property for “” non-Indian settlers.
In a series of new treaties the U.S. government compelled Native Americans to surrender 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 food, livestock, household goods and farming equipment. These reservations were created in an attempt to clear the way for increasing U.S. growth and administration in the West, as well as to keep the Native Americans isolated from the whites in order to reduce the chance for conflict.
History of the Plains Indians
These deals had many problems. Most importantly many of the native peoples didn’t completely understand the document that they were confirming or the conditions within it; moreover, the treaties did not acknowledge the cultural norms of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government bureaus responsible for administering these policies were plagued with poor management and corruption. In fact many treaty provisions were never carried out.
The U.S. government rarely honored their side of the accords even when the Native Americans moved quietly to their reservations. Unethical bureau agents frequently sold off the supplies that were meant for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Moreover, as settlers demanded more land in the West, the federal government continually decreased the size of reservation lands. By this time, many of the Native American peoples were unhappy with the treaties and angered by the settlers’ endless appetite for land.
A Look at Native American Symbols
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 preserve their territories and their tribes’ survival, over a thousand skirmishes and battles broke out in the West between 1861 and 1891. In an attempt to push Native Americans onto the reservations and to end the violence, the U.S. government responded to these incursions with costly military operations. Clearly the U.S. government’s Indian regulations were in need an adjustment.
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Native American policy shifted drastically after the Civil War. Reformers felt that the policy of driving Native Americans onto reservations was far too harsh while industrialists, who were concerned about their property and resources, viewed assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” as the sole permanent strategy for ensuring Native American survival. In 1871 the government approved a pivotal law proclaiming that the United States would not treat Native American tribes as autonomous entities.
This legislation signaled a significant shift in the government’s working relationship with the native peoples – Congress now deemed 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 broadly recognized part of the cultural mainstream of America.
More On American Indian History
Many U.S. government officials considered assimilation as the most effective answer to what they deemed “the Indian problem,” and the sole lasting strategy for protecting U.S. interests in the West and the survival of the American Indians. In order to accomplish this, the government urged Native Americans to move out of their established dwellings, move into wooden buildings and turn into farmers.
The federal government passed laws that required Native Americans to reject their usual appearance and way of living. Some laws outlawed customary religious practices while others required Indian males to cut their long hair. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations organized courts to impose federal polices that often restricted traditional cultural and spiritual practices.
To boost the assimilation process, the government established Indian schools that attempted to quickly and vigorously Americanize Indian youth. According to 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 make this happen objective, the schools required students to speak only English, put on proper American clothing and to switch their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new regulations brought Native Americans nearer to the conclusion of their original 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 approved the General Allotment Act, the most significant element of the U.S. government’s assimilation program, which was written to “civilize” American Indians by educating them to be farmers. In order to make this happen, Congress needed to create private title of Indian land by splitting up reservations, which were collectively held, 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 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 were given between 40 to 80 acres; the rest of the territory was to be sold. Congress hoped that the Dawes Act would divide Indian tribes and encourage individual enterprise, while cutting down the cost of Indian supervision and producing 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 existed under policies that outlawed their traditional approach to life and yet failed to offer the critical resources to support their businesses and households. Dividing the reservations into smaller parcels of land caused the significant reduction of Indian-owned land. Inside thirty years, the tribes had lost in excess of 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.
Frequently, Native Americans were cheated out of their allotments or were forced to sell their property in order pay bills and feed their families. Consequently, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were often not able to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, like the makers of the policy had anticipated. It also developed animosity among Indians toward the U.S. government, as the allotment operation sometimes ruined land that was the spiritual and social centre of their lives.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed drastically. Due to U.S. government policies, American Indians were forced from their homes 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 all these years the Indians ended up defrauded out of their land, food and way of living, as the “” government’s Indian regulations shoved them inside reservations and attempted to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands would not make it through relocation, assimilation and military loss; by 1890 the Native American population was lowered to less than 250,000 people. As a result of decades of discriminatory and dodgy policies implemented by the United States authorities between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was changed permanently.
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