Ages before the terms Native American or Indian were considered, the tribes were spread throughout 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 grew its customs and legacy without disturbance. And that history is captivating.
From Mayan and Incan ruins, from the mounds left in the central and southern parts of what is 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 simply a slight blemish in the narrative of our forebears. They were at peace with this beautiful continent and intensely plugged into nature.
The European Settler Arrives
When European leaders sent the first ships in our direction, the aim was to explore new resources – but the quality of climate and the bounty of everything from timber to wildlife soon changed their tune. As those leaders learned from their explorers, the motivation to colonize spread like wildfire.
The English, French and Spanish rushed to slice up the “New World” by shipping over poorly prepared colonists as fast as possible. At first, they skirmished with the alarmed Indians of America’s eastern seaboard. But that shortly gave way to trade, because the Europeans who landed here learned that their survival was doubtful without Indian help.
Thus followed decades of comparative 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 restless to find even more resources, and some colonists came for freedom and opportunity.
They required 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 notoriously, treaties that were nearly consistently neglected after the Indians were moved from the territory 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 regions inhabited by these Native American tribes. By the 1850s almost 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 contemporary Oklahoma, while the Kiowa and Comanche Native American tribes shared the land of the Southern Plains.
The Sioux, Crows and Blackfeet dominated the Northern Plains. These Native American groups experienced adversity as the constant flow of European immigrants into northeastern American cities delivered a stream of immigrants into the western lands already populated 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 in addition to the authority over Oregon country, Texas and California; America’s expansion did not end there. Between 1830 and 1860 the United States pretty much doubled the amount of acreage within 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, partnered with the discovery of gold in 1849, presented alluring possibilities for those ready to make the extended journey westward. Consequently, with the military’s protection and the U.S. government’s assistance, many settlers began 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 operations established and adapted in the United States to define 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 the local peoples, but over two centuries the U.S. adapted its own widely varying regulations regarding the changing 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 agency 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 give up their cultural identity, give up their land and assimilate into the American customs.
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With the steady flow of settlers in to Indian controlled land, Eastern newspapers published sensationalized stories 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 not the norm; in fact, Native American tribes repeatedly helped settlers cross 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 genial natures of the American Indians, settlers still presumed the possibility of an attack.
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To soothe these anxieties, 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 consented to a bounded territory, allowed the government to construct roadways and forts in this territory and pledged not 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 quietly 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 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 did not hold very long. After hearing tales of fertile land 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 region. With so many newcomers heading west, the federal government established a policy of confining Native Americans to reservations, modest swaths of land within a group’s territory that was earmarked exclusively for their use, in order to offer more territory for “” non-Indian settlers.
In a series of new treaties the U.S. government compelled Native Americans to abandon 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 foodstuffs, animals, household goods and farming equipment. These reservations were created in an effort to clear the way for increased U.S. growth and involvement in the West, as well as to keep the Native Americans separate from the whites in order to reduce the potential for friction.
History of the Plains Indians
These agreements had many challenges. Most importantly many of the native peoples did not entirely grasp the document that they were confirming or the conditions within it; further, the treaties did not respect the cultural norms of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government institutions accountable for applying these policies were plagued with poor management and corruption. In fact many treaty conditions were never executed.
The U.S. government rarely honored their side of the agreements even when the Native Americans went quietly to their reservations. Dishonest bureau agents frequently sold the supplies that were intended for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Moreover, as settlers needed more property in the West, the government constantly 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 hunger for territory.
A Look at Native American Symbols
Angered by the government’s dishonest and unjust policies, several Native American tribes, including bands of Cheyennes, Arapahos, Comanches and Sioux, fought 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 effort to make Native Americans onto the reservations and to end the violence, the U.S. government reacted to these hostilities with significant military operations. Clearly the U.S. government’s Indian policies required of a change.
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Native American policy changed considerably following the Civil War. Reformers believed that the policy of driving Native Americans inside reservations was too severe while industrialists, who were concerned about their property and resources, looked at assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” to be the singular long-term means of ensuring Native American survival. In 1871 the federal government passed a critical law stating that the United States would no longer deal with Native American tribes as independent nations.
This law signaled a significant shift in the government’s working relationship with the native peoples – Congress now viewed the Native Americans, not as nations outside of its jurisdiction, but as wards of the government. By making Native Americans wards of the U.S. government, Congress presumed that it would be better 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 practical remedy for what they viewed as “the Indian problem,” and the single long-term strategy for 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 move out of their established dwellings, move into wooden homes and grow into farmers.
The federal government enacted laws that required Native Americans to reject their traditional appearance and way of life. Some laws banned common spiritual practices while others instructed Indian men to cut their long hair. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations organized tribunals to impose federal polices that often restricted traditional ethnic and spiritual practices.
To hasten the assimilation process, the government set up Indian facilities that tried to quickly and vigorously Americanize Indian children. As per the founder of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, the schools were developed to “kill the Indian and save the man.” In order to accomplish this objective, the schools compelled pupils to speak only English, dress in proper American fashion and to switch their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new regulations brought Native Americans closer to the end of their traditional 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 approved the General Allotment Act, the most important part 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 establish non-public ownership of Indian land by splitting up reservations, which were collectively owned, and allowing each family their own stretch of land.
Additionally, by forcing the Native Americans onto limited 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 every 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 thought that the Dawes Act would break-up Indian tribes and stimulate individual enterprise, while trimming the expense of Indian supervision and providing prime property to be purchased by white settlers.
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The Dawes Act proved to be catastrophic for the American Indians; over the next generations they existed under policies that outlawed their traditional approach to life but failed to supply the crucial resources to support their businesses and families. Splitting the reservations into smaller parcels of land led to the significant decrease of Indian-owned land. Within 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.
Commonly, Native Americans were cheated out of their allotments or were forced to sell off their property in order pay bills and feed their own families. Consequently, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were routinely not able to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, like the creators of the policy had anticipated. This also developed resentment among Indians toward the U.S. government, as the allotment operation often ruined land that was the spiritual and cultural location of their days.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed significantly. Due to U.S. government 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 the years the Indians had been cheated out of their property, food and way of life, as the federal government’s Indian regulations shoved them into reservations and attempted to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands didn’t make it through relocation, cultural destruction and military loss; by 1890 the Native American population was reduced to less than 250,000 persons. Thanks to 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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