Way before the terms Native American or Indian were necessary, 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 traditions and legacy without disturbance. And that history is fascinating.
From Mayan and Incan ruins, from the mounds left in the central and southern regions of what is currently the U.S. we have learned quite a bit. It’s a narrative of beautiful art and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed remarkably elaborate buildings and public works.
While there was inescapable tribal conflict, that was simply a slight blemish in the history of our forebears. They were at peace with this beautiful continent and deeply plugged into nature.
The European Settler Arrives
When European leaders dispatched the first ships in this direction, the plan was to explore new resources – but the quality of climate 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 rushed to carve up the “New World” by shipping over poorly prepared colonists as fast as possible. Initially, they skirmished with the alarmed Indians of America’s eastern seaboard. But that ultimately gave way to trade, because the Europeans who came ashore here learned that their survival was doubtful without Indian help.
Thus followed decades 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 anxious to locate even more resources, and some colonists came for freedom and adventure.
They needed more space. And so began the process of pushing the American Indian out of the way.
It took the form of cash arrangements, barter, and notoriously, treaties which were almost uniformly neglected once the Indians were forced off 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 territories inhabited 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 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 stream of European immigrants into northeastern American cities pushed a stream of immigrants into the western lands already populated 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 would not end there. Between 1830 and 1860 the U.S. practically doubled the amount of land within 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, partnered with the discovery of gold in 1849, presented alluring opportunities for those willing to make the extended trip westward. Consequently, with the military’s protection and the U.S. government’s assistance, many settlers set about building 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 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 a sovereign nation, it implemented the European policies towards these native peoples, but over two centuries the U.S. tailored its very own widely varying regulations regarding the evolving perspectives and requirements of Native American regulation.
In 1824, in order to administer the U.S. government’s Native American policies, Congress made a new agency within 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, independent political communities with varying cultural identities; however, at other times the government attempted to force the Native American tribes to give up their cultural identity, surrender their land and assimilate into the American customs.
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With the steady flow of settlers into Indian “” land, Eastern newspapers published sensationalized reports of cruel native tribes carrying out widespread massacres of hundreds of white travelers. Although some settlers lost their lives to American Indian attacks, this was certainly not the norm; in fact, Native American tribes frequently helped settlers cross over the Plains. Not only did the American Indians sell wild game and other supplies to travelers, but they acted 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 calm these fears, in 1851 the U.S. government kept 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 roads and forts in this territory and pledged not to 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 entered into the treaty, even consented to end the hostilities amongst 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 didn’t stand very long. After hearing tales of fertile acreage and tremendous mineral wealth in the West, the government soon broke their assurances established in the Treat of Fort Laramie by permitting thousands of non-Indians to flood into the area. With so many newcomers moving west, the federal government established a policy of limiting Native Americans to reservations, modest areas of acreage within a group’s territory that was reserved exclusively for their use, in order to offer more territory 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 allocated a yearly stipend that would include cash in addition to food, animals, household goods and agricultural equipment. These reservations were created in an attempt to clear the way for heightened U.S. expansion and involvement in the West, as well as to keep the Native Americans isolated from the whites in order to reduce the chance for friction.
History of the Plains Indians
These deals had many challenges. Most significantly many of the native people did not entirely understand the document that they were finalizing or the conditions within it; further, the treaties did not respect the cultural practices of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government departments responsible for administering these policies were plagued with awful management and corruption. In fact most treaty conditions were never carried out.
The U.S. government rarely fulfilled their side of the agreements even when the Native Americans migrated quietly to their reservations. Shady bureau agents often sold off the supplies that were meant for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Moreover, as settlers required more property in the West, the federal government continually reduced the size of the reservations. By this time, many of the Native American peoples were dissatisfied with the treaties and angered by settlers’ persistent appetite 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, battled back. As they struggled to defend 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 compel Native Americans onto the reservations and to end the violence, the U.S. government reacted to these incursions with costly military operations. Clearly the U.S. government’s Indian policies required an adjustment.
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Native American policy changed dramatically after the Civil War. Reformers believed that the scheme of pushing Native Americans into reservations was far too strict even though industrialists, who were worried about their property and resources, looked at assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” as the single long-term means of ensuring Native American survival. In 1871 the federal government passed a pivotal law proclaiming that the United States would no longer deal with Native American tribes as independent 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 jurisdictional control, but as wards of the government. By making Native Americans wards of the U.S. government, Congress concluded that it would be easier to make the policy of assimilation a widely accepted part of the cultural mainstream of America.
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Many U.S. government representatives perceived assimilation as the most practical solution to what they viewed as “the Indian problem,” and the sole permanent strategy for insuring U.S. interests in the West and the survival of the American Indians. In order to accomplish this, the government pushed Native Americans to move out of their customary dwellings, move into wooden houses and grow into farmers.
The federal government handed down laws that pressed Native Americans to abandon their usual appearance and lifestyle. Some laws outlawed traditional spiritual practices while others ordered Indian men to cut their long locks. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations founded tribunals to enforce federal regulations that often banned traditional ethnic and spiritual practices.
To speed up the assimilation operation, the government set up Indian facilities that attempted to quickly and forcefully Americanize Indian kids. As per 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 achieve this goal, the schools forced enrollees to speak only English, wear proper American attire and to replace their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new policies brought Native Americans closer to the end of their original tribal identity and the start of their existence as citizens under the absolute control of the U.S. administration.
Native American Treaties with the United States
In 1887, Congress approved the General Allotment Act, the most important element of the U.S. government’s assimilation platform, which was written to “civilize” American Indians by teaching them to be farmers. In order to accomplish this, Congress planned to increase non-public title of Indian land by dividing reservations, which were collectively owned, and providing each family their own block of land.
Additionally, by forcing the Native Americans onto small plots, western developers and settlers could purchase the left over acreage. The General Allotment Act, referred to as the Dawes Act, required that the Indian lands be surveyed and every family be given an allotment of between 80 and 160 acres, while unmarried adults received between 40 to 80 acres; the rest of the acreage was to be sold. Congress wished that the Dawes Act would break up Indian tribes and encourage individual enterprise, while cutting down the expense of Indian supervision and producing prime land 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 policies that outlawed their traditional way of living but didn’t offer the necessary resources to support their businesses and households. Dividing the reservations into small parcels of land brought about the significant decrease of Indian-owned property. Within thirty years, the tribes had lost over 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.
Usually, Native Americans were duped out of their allotments or were forced to sell their property in order pay bills and take care of their families. Because of that, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were often not able to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, as the makers of the Act had intended. This also produced animosity among Indians toward the U.S. government, as the allotment operation often destroyed land that was the spiritual and cultural focus 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 housing because their native lands were parceled out. The Plains, which they had previously roamed alone, were now filling with white settlers.
The Upshot of the Indian Wars
Over these years the Indians had been cheated out of their land, food and approach to life, as the “” government’s Indian regulations shoved them on to reservations and attempted to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands would not survive relocation, cultural destruction and military defeat; by 1890 the Native American population was lowered to under 250,000 persons. As a result of decades of discriminatory and dodgy policies instituted by the United States authorities between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was altered permanently.
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