Way before the terms Native American or Indian were created, 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 developed its culture and legacy without disturbance. And that history is captivating.
From Mayan and Incan ruins, from the mounds left in the central and southern regions of what is today the U.S. we have learned quite a bit. It’s a story 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 experience of our forebears. 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 discover new resources – however the quality of weather and the bounty of everything from timber 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 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 shortly gave way to trade, because the Europeans who came ashore here learned their survival was doubtful with no native help.
Thus followed years of relative peace as the settlers got themselves established on American soil. But the pressure 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 independence and opportunity.
They required more space. And so began the process of pushing the American Indian out of the way.
It took the shape of cash payments, barter, and famously, treaties that were almost uniformly neglected once the Indians were forced away from the land 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 areas occupied by these Native American tribes. By the 1850s nearly all Native American tribes, roughly 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 land of the Southern Plains.
The Sioux, Crows and Blackfeet dominated the Northern Plains. These Native American groups experienced misfortune as the constant flow of European immigrants into northeastern American cities pushed a stream of immigrants into the western lands already inhabited by these diverse groups of Indians.
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The early nineteenth century of 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 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. pretty much doubled the amount of territory within 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 possibilities for those willing to make the huge trip westward. Therefore, with the military’s protection and the U.S. government’s assistance, many settlers began 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 regulations and procedures developed and adapted in the United States to outline the relationship between Native American tribes and the federal government. When the United States first became a sovereign nation, it adopted the European policies towards these indigenous peoples, but over the course of two centuries the U.S. designed its very own widely varying policies regarding the changing perspectives and necessities of Native American regulation.
In 1824, in order to execute the U.S. government’s Native American policies, Congress made 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, 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, surrender 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 circulated sensationalized stories of savage native tribes committing massive massacres of hundreds of white travelers. Although some settlers lost their lives to American Indian attacks, this was far from the norm; in fact, Native American tribes often helped settlers cross over 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 anticipated the risk of an attack.
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To quiet these worries, in 1851 the U.S. government presented 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 agreed to never go after settlers; in return the federal government agreed to honor the boundaries of each tribe’s territory and make gross 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 signed the treaty, even consented to end the hostilities between 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 last long. After hearing testimonies 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 area. With so many newcomers moving west, the federal government established a policy of limiting Native Americans to reservations, modest swaths of land within a group’s territory “” earmarked exclusively for their use, in order to offer more property for “” non-Indian settlers.
In a series of new treaties the U.S. government made Native Americans to surrender their land and migrate 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, livestock, household goods and agricultural equipment. These reservations were established in an effort to clear 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 lessen the potential for conflict.
History of the Plains Indians
These agreements had many challenges. Most significantly many of the native peoples didn’t properly understand the document that they were signing 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 responsible for administering these policies were overwhelmed with awful management and corruption. In fact most treaty provisions were never executed.
The U.S. government almost never honored their side of the accords even when the Native Americans went quietly to their reservations. Unethical bureau agents repeatedly sold off the supplies that were meant for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Additionally, as settlers needed more property in the West, the federal government frequently reduced the size of Indian reservations. By this time, many of the Native American people were dissatisfied with the treaties and angered by settlers’ constant hunger for territory.
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Angered by the government’s dishonest and unfair policies, several Native American tribes, including bands of Cheyennes, Arapahos, Comanches and Sioux, fought back. As they fought to protect 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 of a change.
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Native American policy changed radically after the Civil War. Reformers felt that the policy of pushing Native Americans on to reservations was far too severe even though industrialists, who were concerned with their property and resources, viewed assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” to be the lone permanent method of guaranteeing Native American survival. In 1871 the government enacted a critical law proclaiming that the United States would not treat Native American tribes as autonomous nations.
This law signaled a major change in the government’s working relationship with the native peoples – Congress now regarded 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 would be better to make the policy of assimilation a widely recognized part of the cultural mainstream of America.
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Many U.S. government officials viewed assimilation as the most effective remedy for what they viewed as “the Indian problem,” and the only permanent method of protecting 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 dwellings and become farmers.
The federal government passed laws that forced Native Americans to quit their usual appearance and way of living. Some laws banned common religious practices while others required Indian men to cut their long locks. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations established tribunals to enforce federal regulations that often prohibited traditional ethnic and religious practices.
To boost the assimilation course, the government started Indian facilities that tried to quickly and forcefully Americanize Indian children. 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 goal, the schools compelled pupils to speak only English, put on proper American fashion and to replace their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new policies brought Native Americans closer to the end of their traditional tribal identity and the beginning of their life as citizens under the complete control of the U.S. administration.
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 platform, which was written to “civilize” American Indians by teaching them to become farmers. In order to achieve this, Congress needed to establish private title of Indian land by splitting up reservations, which were collectively held, and offering each family their own stretch of land.
Additionally, by pushing the Native Americans onto limited plots of land, western developers and settlers could purchase the left over land. The General Allotment Act, often called the Dawes Act, required that the Indian lands be surveyed and each family be given an allotment of between 80 and 160 acres, while unmarried adults were given between 40 to 80 acres; the rest of the territory was to be sold. Congress was hoping that the Dawes Act would break up Indian tribes and encourage individual enterprise, while trimming the expense of Indian administration and serving up prime property to be purchased by 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 approach to life and yet failed to provide the critical resources to support their businesses and households. Dividing the reservations into smaller parcels of land caused the significant reduction of Indian-owned property. Inside three decades, the people had lost in excess of 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 cheated out of their allotments or were required to sell off their land in order pay bills and provide for their own families. Because of that, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were often not able to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, like the makers of the policy had desired. This also created resentment among Indians toward the U.S. government, as the allotment process often destroyed land that was the spiritual and cultural location of their activities.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed tremendously. Through U.S. administration regulations, American Indians were forced from their places of residence as their native lands were parceled out. The Plains, which they had previously roamed without restriction, were now filled up with white settlers.
The Upshot of the Indian Wars
Over all these years the Indians had been defrauded out of their territory, food and way of life, as the federal government’s Indian regulations shoved them inside reservations and attempted to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands would not survive relocation, cultural destruction and military loss; by 1890 the Native American population was lowered to less than 250,000 persons. Due to decades of discriminatory and ruthless policies implemented by the United States government between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was altered forever.
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