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 centuries, the American Indian grew its culture and heritage without disturbance. And that history is captivating.
From Mayan and Incan ruins, from the mounds left in the central and southern regions of what’s now the U.S. we have learned quite a bit. It’s a story of beautiful arts and crafts and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed remarkably elaborate structures and public works.
While there was inescapable tribal conflict, that was nothing more than a slight blemish in the history of our ancestors. They were at peace with this beautiful continent and intensely connected to nature.
The European Settler Arrives
When European leaders dispatched the first ships in our direction, the intention was to explore new resources – but the quality of environment 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 carve up the “New World” by shipping over inadequately 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, since the Europeans who came ashore here learned that their survival was doubtful without Indian help.
Thus followed years 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 locate even more resources, and some colonists came for freedom and adventure.
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 uniformly neglected after the Indians were forced 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 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 situated in present day 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 met hardship as the continuous stream of European immigrants into northeastern American cities pushed a stream of immigrants into the western lands already populated by these various 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 wouldn’t end there. Between 1830 and 1860 the United States nearly doubled the amount of land under its control.
These territorial gains coincided with the arrival of hordes 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 attractive possibilities for those willing to make the long journey westward. Consequently, with the military’s protection and the U.S. government’s assistance, many settlers started establishing their homesteads in the Great Plains and other areas of the Native American group-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 define the relationship between Native American tribes and the federal government. When the United States first became a sovereign country, it implemented the European policies towards the indigenous peoples, but over the course of two centuries the U.S. tailored its own widely varying regulations regarding the evolving perspectives and necessities of Native American supervision.
In 1824, in order to administrate the U.S. government’s Native American policies, Congress formed a new bureau within 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, distinct political communities with different cultural identities; however, at other times the government attempted to compel the Native American tribes to abandon their cultural identity, give up their land and assimilate into the American traditions.
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With the steady flow of settlers into Indian controlled land, Eastern newspapers printed sensationalized reports of savage native tribes committing 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 frequently helped settlers cross the Plains. Not only did the American Indians peddle 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 anticipated the possibility of an attack.
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To calm 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 consented to a bounded territory, allowed the government to construct roads and forts in this territory and pledged to not 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 amidst 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 did not stand long. After hearing stories of fertile land and tremendous mineral wealth in the West, the government soon broke their pledge established in the Treat of Fort Laramie by allowing 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, limited areas 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 move to reservations in exchange for protection from attacks by white settlers. In addition, the Indians were offered a yearly stipend that would include money in addition to food, animals, household goods and agricultural tools. These reservations were established in an effort to pave the way for heightened 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 chance for friction.
History of the Plains Indians
These deals had many complications. Most importantly many of the native people did not altogether understand the document that they were confirming or the conditions within it; furthermore, the treaties did not respect the cultural norms of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government agencies accountable for administering these policies were overwhelmed with poor management and corruption. In fact many treaty terms were never accomplished.
The U.S. government rarely held up their side of the agreements even when the Native Americans moved quietly to their reservations. Shady bureau agents repeatedly 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 constantly decreased the size of the reservations. By this time, many 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 dishonorable and unjust policies, some Native American tribes, including bands of Cheyennes, Arapahos, Comanches and Sioux, fought back. As they fought to preserve their territories and their tribes’ survival, more than one 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 reacted to these skirmishes with costly military operations. Obviously the U.S. government’s Indian policies were in need an adjustment.
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Native American policy changed considerably following the Civil War. Reformers believed that the policy of forcing Native Americans into reservations was too severe while industrialists, who were concerned with their land and resources, considered assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” as the sole permanent means of guaranteeing Native American survival. In 1871 the federal government passed a critical law proclaiming that the United States would not treat Native American tribes as independent entities.
This legislation signaled a major change in the government’s working relationship with the native peoples – Congress now considered the Native Americans, not as nations outside of its jurisdictional control, but as wards of the government. By making Native Americans wards of the “” government, Congress believed that it would be easier to make the policy of assimilation a widely accepted part of the cultural mainstream of America.
More On American Indian History
Many U.S. government officials considered assimilation as the most effective solution to what they deemed “the Indian problem,” and the single long-term strategy for insuring U.S. interests in the West and the survival of the American Indians. In order to accomplish this, the government pressed Native Americans to relocate out of their established dwellings, move into wooden houses and turn into farmers.
The federal government passed laws that pressed Native Americans to reject their established appearance and way of life. Some laws banned common spiritual practices while others required Indian men to cut their long hair. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations organized tribunals to implement federal regulations that often prohibited traditional ethnic and religious practices.
To accelerate the assimilation process, the government started Indian facilities that attempted to quickly and vigorously Americanize Indian kids. As per the director 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 forced enrollees to speak only English, put on proper American clothing and to substitute 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 beginning of their life as citizens under the complete control of the U.S. government.
Native American Treaties with the United States
In 1887, Congress approved the General Allotment Act, the most significant element of the U.S. government’s assimilation program, which was developed to “civilize” American Indians by teaching them to become farmers. In order to make this happen, Congress needed to create non-public title of Indian land by splitting up reservations, which were collectively held, and giving each family their own stretch of land.
Additionally, by pushing the Native Americans onto small plots, western developers and settlers could purchase the remaining acreage. The General Allotment Act, better known 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 were given between 40 to 80 acres; the residual acreage was to be sold. Congress was hoping that the Dawes Act would break-up Indian tribes and stimulate individual enterprise, while lowering the cost of Indian supervision and serving up prime land to be purchased by white settlers.
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The Dawes Act turned out to be disastrous for the American Indians; over the next generations they lived under policies that outlawed their traditional way of living but did not provide the vital resources to support their businesses and households. Dividing the reservations into smaller parcels of land brought about the significant decrease of Indian-owned land. Inside thirty years, the tribes had lost in excess of 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.
Regularly, Native Americans were duped out of their allotments or were forced to sell their property in order pay bills and provide for their families. Because of that, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were routinely not able to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, like the creators of the Act had anticipated. Further, it created anger among Indians toward the U.S. government, as the allotment operation often ruined land that was the spiritual and social location of their lives.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed drastically. Due to U.S. government regulations, American Indians were forced from their living spaces as 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 all these years the Indians have been defrauded out of their land, food and way of living, as the “” government’s Indian regulations coerced them on to reservations and attempted to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands could not make it through relocation, cultural destruction and military defeat; by 1890 the Native American population was lowered to fewer than 250,000 people. Thanks to decades of discriminatory and ruthless policies implemented by the United States government between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was changed permanently.
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