Far 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 thousands of years, the American Indian developed its traditions 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 today the U.S. we have learned much. It’s a story of beautiful craft work and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed highly elaborate structures and public works.
While there was inevitable tribal conflict, that was simply a slight blemish in the history 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 our direction, the intention was to explore new resources – however the quality of environment and the bounty of everything from timber to wildlife subsequently 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 transporting over inadequately prepared colonists as fast as possible. At first, 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 understood that their survival was doubtful with no native help.
Thus followed years of relative peace as the settlers got themselves established on American land. But the drive to push inland came soon after. Kings and queens from thousands of miles away were anxious to locate additional resources, and some colonists came for freedom and opportunity.
They needed more space. And so began the process of forcing the American Indian out of the way.
It took the form of cash payments, barter, and notoriously, treaties that were almost consistently neglected 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 areas 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 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 met hardship as the constant stream of European immigrants into northeastern American cities pushed a stream of immigrants into the western lands already occupied by these various 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 along with the authority over Oregon country, Texas and California; America’s expansion did not end there. Between 1830 and 1860 the U.S. roughly doubled the amount of land under 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, combined with the discovery of gold in 1849, presented alluring opportunities for those prepared make the huge journey westward. As a result, 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 group-inhabited West.
Native American Tribes
Native American Policy can be defined as the regulations and procedures 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 nation, it implemented the European policies towards these local peoples, but over two centuries the U.S. designed its own widely varying regulations regarding the evolving perspectives and requirements of Native American oversight.
In 1824, in order to administrate the U.S. government’s Native American policies, Congress formed a new bureau 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, independent political communities with numerous 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 customs.
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With the steady stream of settlers in to Indian “” land, Eastern newspapers published sensationalized stories of cruel native tribes committing 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 often helped settlers cross over the Plains. Not only did the American Indians offer wild game and other necessities 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 likelihood of an attack.
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To quiet these concerns, in 1851 the U.S. government placed 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 agreed never to go after settlers; in return the federal government agreed to honor the boundaries of each tribe’s territory and make total 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 amongst their tribes to be able to accept the terms of the treaty.
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This peaceful agreement between the U.S. government and the Native American tribes didn’t last very long. After hearing reports of fertile land and great 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 plan of restricting Native Americans to reservations, limited swaths of acreage within a group’s territory “” earmarked exclusively for Indian use, to be able to offer 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 migrate to reservations in exchange for protection from attacks by white settlers. In addition, the Indians were offered a yearly payment that would include cash in addition to food, livestock, household goods and agricultural equipment. These reservations were created in an attempt to clear the way for heightened U.S. expansion and administration in the West, as well as to keep the Native Americans isolated from the whites in order to lessen the chance for conflict.
History of the Plains Indians
These agreements had many complications. Most importantly many of the native peoples didn’t properly understand the document that they were signing or the conditions within it; furthermore, the treaties did not acknowledge the cultural practices of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government bureaus accountable for applying these policies were plagued with poor management and corruption. In fact many treaty terms were never executed.
The U.S. government almost never fulfilled their side of the agreements even when the Native Americans moved quietly to their reservations. Dishonest bureau agents sometimes sold off the supplies that were intended for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Additionally, as settlers required more territory in the West, the government frequently reduced the size of reservation lands. By this time, most of the Native American peoples were dissatisfied with the treaties and angered by the settlers’ persistent 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, fought back. As they struggled to preserve their lands and their tribes’ survival, more than one thousand skirmishes and battles broke out in the West between 1861 and 1891. In an attempt to make Native Americans onto the reservations and to end the violence, the U.S. government responded to these conflicts with significant military campaigns. Obviously the U.S. government’s Indian regulations required of a change.
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Native American policy changed considerably after the Civil War. Reformers believed that the policy of forcing Native Americans on to reservations was far too strict even while industrialists, who were worried about their property and resources, considered assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” as the sole permanent means of assuring Native American survival. In 1871 the government enacted a pivotal law stating that the United States would not deal with Native American tribes as sovereign entities.
This legislation signaled a drastic shift in the government’s working 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 was easier to make the policy of assimilation a broadly recognized part of the cultural mainstream of America.
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Many U.S. government representatives perceived assimilation as the most practical answer to what they deemed “the Indian problem,” and the only permanent means of guaranteeing U.S. interests in the West and the survival of the American Indians. In order to accomplish this, the government urged Native Americans to relocate out of their traditional dwellings, move into wooden buildings 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 men to cut their long hair. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations founded tribunals to impose federal polices that often prohibited traditional ethnic and spiritual practices.
To boost the assimilation process, the government started Indian training centers that tried to quickly and forcefully Americanize Indian youth. According to the director of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, the schools were developed to “kill the Indian and save the man.” In order to make this happen goal, the schools required students to speak only English, put on proper American fashion and to replace their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new policies helped bring Native Americans nearer to the conclusion of their traditional tribal identity and the start of their existence as citizens under the absolute control of the U.S. government.
Native American Treaties with the United States
In 1887, Congress enacted the General Allotment Act, the most significant element of the U.S. government’s assimilation platform, which was created to “civilize” American Indians by educating them to be farmers. In order to achieve this, Congress wanted to create private ownership of Indian property by splitting up reservations, which were collectively owned, and providing each family their own plot of land.
Additionally, by pushing the Native Americans onto small plots, 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 received 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 inspire individual enterprise, while cutting down the expense of Indian administration and serving up prime land 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 regulations that outlawed their traditional way of life but failed to provide the critical resources to support their businesses and families. Dividing the reservations into small parcels of land brought about the significant decrease of Indian-owned land. Inside thirty years, the people had lost more than two-thirds of the region that they had controlled before the Dawes Act was enacted in 1887; the majority of the remaining land was purchased by white settlers.
Usually, 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. Consequently, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were often not able to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, as the creators of the Act had intended. It also generated animosity among Indians for the U.S. government, as the allotment operation often ruined land that was the spiritual and cultural center of their days.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed radically. Through U.S. government policies, American Indians were forced from their housing 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 have been cheated out of their territory, food and approach to life, as the federal government’s Indian plans coerced them inside reservations and tried to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands could not survive relocation, assimilation and military defeat; by 1890 the Native American population was decreased to less than 250,000 people. Thanks to generations of discriminatory and dodgy policies implemented by the United States authorities between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was altered forever.
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