Way before the terms Native American or Indian were considered, the tribes were spread all over 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 grew its customs and heritage without disturbance. And that history is fascinating.
From Mayan and Incan ruins, from the mounds left in the central and southern parts of what is today the U.S. we have learned quite a bit. It’s a tale of beautiful arts and crafts and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed highly advanced buildings and public works.
While there was unavoidable tribal conflict, that was just a slight blemish in the tale of our ancestors. They were at peace with this beautiful continent and intensely plugged into nature.
The European Settler Arrives
When European leaders dispatched the first ships in this direction, the goal was to explore new resources – however the quality of environment 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 raced to slice up the “New World” by shipping 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 ultimately gave way to trade, since the Europeans who came ashore here learned 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 came soon after. Kings and queens from thousands of miles away were restless to find additional resources, and some colonists came for freedom and opportunity.
They wanted 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 famously, treaties which were almost consistently ignored after the Indians were pushed away 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 regions inhabited 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 territory of the Southern Plains.
The Sioux, Crows and Blackfeet dominated the Northern Plains. These Native American groups encountered misfortune as the steady flow of European immigrants into northeastern American cities delivered 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 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 U.S. nearly doubled the amount of acreage 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 attractive possibilities for those prepared make the long trip westward. Therefore, 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 tribe-inhabited West.
Native American Tribes
Native American Policy can be defined as the laws and regulations and procedures developed and adapted in the United States to summarize the relationship between Native American tribes and the federal government. When the United States initially became a sovereign nation, it adopted the European policies towards the indigenous peoples, but over two centuries the U.S. designed its own widely varying regulations regarding the changing perspectives and requirements of Native American oversight.
In 1824, in order to execute the U.S. government’s Native American policies, Congress formed a new agency within 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, distinct political communities with different cultural identities; however, at other times the government attempted to compel the Native American tribes to give up their cultural identity, give up their land and assimilate into the American traditions.
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With the steady flow of settlers in to Indian “” land, Eastern newspapers circulated sensationalized stories of cruel native tribes carrying out massive massacres of hundreds of white travelers. Although some settlers lost their lives to American Indian attacks, this was in no way the norm; in fact, Native American tribes repeatedly helped settlers get across the Plains. Not only did the American Indians peddle wild game and other supplies to travelers, but they served as guides and messengers between wagon trains as well. Despite the friendly natures of the American Indians, settlers still feared the risk of an attack.
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To soothe these worries, in 1851 the U.S. government organised 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 roads and forts in this territory and agreed not to go after 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 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 terms of the treaty.
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This peaceful agreement between the U.S. government and the Native American tribes did not hold long. After hearing stories of fertile acreage and tremendous 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 moving west, the federal government established a policy of restricting Native Americans to reservations, modest swaths of land within a group’s territory “” reserved exclusively for their use, in order 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 migrate 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 food, animals, household goods and agricultural equipment. These reservations were established in an effort to pave the way for increased U.S. expansion and administration in the West, as well as to keep the Native Americans isolated from the whites in order to decrease the potential for conflict.
History of the Plains Indians
These agreements had many complications. Most of all many of the native people did not altogether understand the document that they were confirming or the conditions within it; further, the treaties did not consider the cultural norms of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government bureaus accountable for administering these policies were plagued with awful management and corruption. In fact many treaty provisions were never executed.
The U.S. government almost never honored their side of the deals even when the Native Americans migrated quietly to their reservations. Dishonest bureau agents often sold the supplies that were intended for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Moreover, as settlers needed more land in the West, the government continually decreased 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 territory.
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Angered by the government’s dishonorable 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 coerce Native Americans onto the reservations and to end the violence, the U.S. government responded to these conflicts with costly military operations. Obviously the U.S. government’s Indian policies required an adjustment.
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Native American policy changed dramatically after the Civil War. Reformers felt that the policy of pushing Native Americans onto reservations was far too strict even while industrialists, who were worried about their land and resources, regarded assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” to be the single long-term means of ensuring Native American survival. In 1871 the federal government approved a critical law stating that the United States would not treat Native American tribes as autonomous entities.
This law signaled a drastic shift in the government’s 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 presumed that it was easier to make the policy of assimilation a broadly accepted part of the cultural mainstream of America.
More On American Indian History
Many U.S. government representatives looked at assimilation as the most effective solution to what they deemed “the Indian problem,” and the sole permanent means 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 move out of their traditional dwellings, move into wooden dwellings and turn into farmers.
The federal government enacted laws that forced Native Americans to reject their established appearance and way of life. Some laws banned customary spiritual 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 banned traditional ethnic and spiritual practices.
To accelerate the assimilation operation, the government started Indian schools that tried to quickly and vigorously Americanize Indian kids. According to the founder of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, the schools were developed to “kill the Indian and save the man.” To be able to achieve this objective, the schools required pupils to speak only English, put on proper American attire and to switch their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new policies brought Native Americans nearer to the conclusion of their original tribal identity and the beginning of their existence as citizens under the absolute control of the U.S. administration.
Native American Treaties with the United States
In 1887, Congress enacted the General Allotment Act, the most significant component of the U.S. government’s assimilation program, which was created to “civilize” American Indians by teaching them to become farmers. In order to accomplish this, Congress wanted to increase private ownership of Indian property by dividing reservations, which were collectively held, and providing each family their own stretch 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, referred to 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 received between 40 to 80 acres; the residual land was to be sold. Congress wished that the Dawes Act would split up Indian tribes and stimulate individual enterprise, while reducing the cost of Indian administration and serving up 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 decades they existed under regulations that outlawed their traditional lifestyle yet didn’t provide the necessary resources to support their businesses and families. Dividing the reservations into small parcels of land led to the significant reduction of Indian-owned property. Inside three decades, the tribes had lost over two-thirds of the region 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 duped out of their allotments or were forced to sell their land in order to pay bills and provide for their families. As a result, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were routinely not able to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, like the makers of the policy had intended. Aside from that it developed anger among Indians toward the U.S. government, as the allotment process sometimes ruined land that was the spiritual and social location of their lives.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed significantly. Through U.S. government policies, American Indians were forced from their living spaces as their native lands were parceled out. The Plains, which they had previously roamed without restriction, were now filled with white settlers.
The Upshot of the Indian Wars
Over these years the Indians had been defrauded out of their territory, food and way of life, as the federal government’s Indian regulations forced them on to reservations and tried to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands would not make it through relocation, assimilation and military defeat; by 1890 the Native American population was decreased to fewer than 250,000 people. 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 changed forever.
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