Far before the terms Native American or Indian were created, the tribes were spread throughout the Americas. Before any white man set foot on this land, 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 customs 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’s now the U.S. we have learned much. It’s a story of beautiful art and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed remarkably advanced structures and public works.
While there was inevitable tribal conflict, that was just a slight blemish in the narrative of our ancestors. They were at peace with this beautiful continent and deeply connected to nature.
The European Settler Arrives
When European leaders dispatched the first ships in this direction, the aim was to explore 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 drive to colonize spread like wildfire.
The English, French and Spanish raced to slice up the “New World” by transporting over poorly prepared colonists as fast as they could. At the beginning, they skirmished with the surprised Indians of America’s eastern seaboard. But that soon gave way to trade, because the Europeans who landed here understood that their survival was doubtful without Indian help.
Thus followed years of relative 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 restless to locate even more 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 form of cash arrangements, barter, and notoriously, treaties that were almost consistently ignored once the Indians were forced from the land in question.
The U.S. government’s policies towards Native Americans in the second half of the nineteenth century were determined by the desire to expand westward into areas occupied by these Native American tribes. By the 1850s virtually 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 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 encountered misfortune 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 of 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 as well as the authority over Oregon country, Texas and California; America’s expansion wouldn’t end there. Between 1830 and 1860 the United States practically doubled the amount of territory under 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 willing to make the huge journey westward. As a result, with the military’s protection and the U.S. government’s assistance, many settlers started 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 operations established and adapted in the United States to outline 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 indigenous peoples, but throughout two centuries the U.S. adapted its own widely varying regulations regarding the evolving perspectives and requirements of Native American supervision.
In 1824, in order to execute the U.S. government’s Native American policies, Congress made a new bureau inside the War Department called the 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 numerous cultural identities; however, at other times the government attempted to force the Native American tribes to abandon their cultural identity, let go of their land and assimilate into the American culture.
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With the steady flow of settlers in to Indian controlled land, Eastern newspapers published sensationalized stories of savage 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 get across the Plains. Not only did the American Indians offer wild game and other supplies to travelers, but they acted as guides and messengers between wagon trains as well. Despite the good natures of the American Indians, settlers still presumed the likelihood of an attack.
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To soothe these worries, in 1851 the U.S. government presented 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 pledged to never assault 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 between their tribes in order to accept the conditions of the treaty.
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This peaceful agreement between the U.S. government and the Native American tribes did not stand very long. After hearing stories of fertile terrain and tremendous mineral wealth in the West, the government soon broke their promises established in the Treat of Fort Laramie by permitting thousands of non-Indians to flood into the region. With so many newcomers moving west, the federal government established a policy of confining Native Americans to reservations, small areas of land within a group’s territory that was reserved exclusively for their use, in order to give more land 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 stipend that would include money in addition to food, animals, household goods and farming tools. These reservations were established in an attempt to clear the way for increasing U.S. growth and involvement in the West, as well as to keep the Native Americans divided from the whites in order to lessen the chance for friction.
History of the Plains Indians
These agreements had many complications. Most of all many of the native peoples did not entirely grasp the document that they were signing or the conditions within it; further, the treaties did not respect the cultural practices of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government bureaus responsible for applying these policies were overwhelmed with poor management and corruption. In fact many treaty provisions were never accomplished.
The U.S. government rarely held up 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 federal government frequently reduced the size of reservation lands. By this time, most of the Native American people were unhappy with the treaties and angered by settlers’ endless demands for land.
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Angered by the government’s dishonorable and unjust policies, several Native American tribes, including bands of Cheyennes, Arapahos, Comanches and Sioux, battled back. As they fought 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 effort to push Native Americans onto the reservations and to end the violence, the U.S. government responded to these incursions with significant military campaigns. Clearly the U.S. government’s Indian policies were in need of a change.
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Native American policy changed drastically after the Civil War. Reformers believed that the policy of driving Native Americans into reservations was far too strict 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 lone permanent method of guaranteeing Native American survival. In 1871 the government approved a pivotal law proclaiming that the United States would no longer treat Native American tribes as autonomous nations.
This legislation signaled a significant change in the government’s relationship with the native peoples – Congress now considered 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 believed that it was easier to make the policy of assimilation a broadly acknowledged part of the cultural mainstream of America.
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Many U.S. government officials perceived assimilation as the most effective remedy for what they deemed “the Indian problem,” and the single permanent method of 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 customary dwellings, move into wooden homes and become farmers.
The federal government enacted laws that pressed Native Americans to reject their traditional appearance and way of living. Some laws banned traditional spiritual practices while others required Indian males to cut their long hair. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations established tribunals to impose federal polices that often restricted traditional cultural and spiritual practices.
To hasten the assimilation course, the government started Indian facilities that attempted to quickly and forcefully Americanize Indian children. According to the founder 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 compelled pupils to speak only English, dress in proper American fashion and to replace their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new regulations brought Native Americans closer to the end of their established tribal identity and the start of their daily life as citizens under the absolute control of the U.S. authorities.
Native American Treaties with the United States
In 1887, Congress handed down the General Allotment Act, the most important component of the U.S. government’s assimilation program, which was developed to “civilize” American Indians by teaching them to become farmers. In order to achieve this, Congress wanted to create private title of Indian property by splitting up reservations, which were collectively held, and offering each family their own stretch of land.
In addition to this, by forcing the Native Americans onto small plots of land, western developers and settlers could purchase the remaining acreage. The General Allotment Act, also known 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 wished that the Dawes Act would break up Indian tribes and increase individual enterprise, while cutting down the expense of Indian supervision 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 decades they lived under regulations that outlawed their traditional approach to life but failed to provide the critical resources to support their businesses and families. Dividing the reservations into smaller parcels of land brought about the significant reduction of Indian-owned land. Within thirty years, the tribes had lost over two-thirds of the acreage that they had controlled before the Dawes Act was enacted in 1887; the majority of the remaining land was sold to white settlers.
Regularly, Native Americans were duped out of their allotments or were forced to sell their property in order to pay bills and feed their families. Because of that, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were generally unable to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, as the creators of the policy had desired. Aside from that it produced resentment among Indians for the U.S. government, as the allotment method sometimes destroyed land that was the spiritual and social hub of their lives.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed tremendously. Through U.S. administration policies, American Indians were forced from their places of residence as their native lands were parceled out. The Plains, which they had previously roamed alone, were now filled up with white settlers.
The Upshot of the Indian Wars
Over these years the Indians have been defrauded out of their territory, food and approach to life, as the federal government’s Indian plans forced them onto reservations and attempted to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands could not make it through relocation, cultural destruction and military loss; by 1890 the Native American population was reduced to less than 250,000 persons. As a result of generations 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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