Centuries 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 centuries, the American Indian grew its customs and legacy without interference. And that history is captivating.
From Mayan and Incan ruins, from the mounds left in the central and southern parts of what is today the U.S. we have learned much. It’s a narrative of beautiful artwork and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed remarkably advanced structures and public works.
While there was inevitable tribal conflict, that was simply a slight blemish in the account of our forebears. They were at peace with this beautiful continent and intensely connected to nature.
The European Settler Arrives
When European leaders dispatched the first vessels in this direction, the goal was to discover new resources – however the quality of environment and the bounty of everything from timber 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 raced to slice up the “New World” by transporting over inadequately prepared colonists as fast as they could. Initially, they skirmished with the alarmed Indians of America’s eastern seaboard. But that ultimately gave way to trade, because the Europeans who landed here understood that their survival was doubtful without 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 impatient to locate even more resources, and some colonists came for freedom and adventure.
They wanted more space. And so began the process of driving the American Indian out of the way.
It took the form of cash arrangements, barter, and notoriously, treaties which were almost consistently neglected once the Indians were moved 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 territories inhabited 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 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 hardship as the continuous flow of European immigrants into northeastern American cities delivered a stream of immigrants into the western lands already occupied by these various groups of Indians.
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The early nineteenth century in 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 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 roughly doubled the amount of territory 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 attractive opportunities for those prepared make the huge quest westward. Therefore, 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 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 these native peoples, but throughout two centuries the U.S. designed its own widely varying policies regarding the evolving perspectives and requirements of Native American oversight.
In 1824, in order to execute the U.S. government’s Native American policies, Congress formed a new agency within the War Department called the 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 varying cultural identities; however, at other times the government attempted to compel the Native American tribes to abandon their cultural identity, surrender their land and assimilate into the American traditions.
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With the steady stream of settlers into Indian “” land, Eastern newspapers published 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 not the norm; in fact, Native American tribes repeatedly helped settlers cross over the Plains. Not only did the American Indians offer wild game and other necessities 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 possibility of an attack.
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To calm these worries, in 1851 the U.S. government held a conference with several local Indian tribes and established the Treaty of Fort Laramie. Within this treaty, each Native American tribe accepted 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 total 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 entered into the treaty, even agreed 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 didn’t hold long. After hearing stories of fertile acreage and great 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 area. With so many newcomers heading west, the federal government established a plan of confining Native Americans to reservations, modest areas of land within a group’s territory “” set aside exclusively for their use, to be able to offer more land for the non-Indian settlers.
In a series of new treaties the U.S. government forced Native Americans to surrender 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, livestock, household goods and agricultural equipment. These reservations were established in an effort to clear the way for increasing U.S. growth and involvement in the West, as well as to keep the Native Americans divided from the whites in order to lower the chance for friction.
History of the Plains Indians
These agreements had many complications. Most of all many of the native people didn’t entirely grasp the document that they were confirming or the conditions within it; moreover, 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 plagued with poor management and corruption. In fact most treaty provisions were never implemented.
The U.S. government almost never honored their side of the deals even when the Native Americans migrated quietly to their reservations. Unethical bureau agents repeatedly sold off the supplies that were intended for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Additionally, as settlers needed more land in the West, the government constantly decreased the size of Indian reservations. By this time, most of the Native American people were dissatisfied with the treaties and angered by settlers’ persistent appetite for territory.
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Angered by the government’s dishonest and unjust policies, some Native American tribes, including bands of Cheyennes, Arapahos, Comanches and Sioux, battled back. As they struggled to maintain their lands and their tribes’ survival, more than one 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 campaigns. Obviously the U.S. government’s Indian policies required an adjustment.
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Native American policy changed drastically following the Civil War. Reformers felt that the scheme of forcing Native Americans onto reservations was far too harsh while industrialists, who were concerned about their land and resources, viewed assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” to be the single permanent strategy for ensuring Native American survival. In 1871 the government approved a critical law stating that the United States would no longer treat Native American tribes as sovereign nations.
This legislation signaled a significant change in the government’s working relationship with the native peoples – Congress now deemed the Native Americans, not as countries outside of its jurisdiction, 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 widely acknowledged part of the cultural mainstream of America.
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Many U.S. government officials looked at assimilation as the most practical answer to what they deemed “the Indian problem,” and the single 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 relocate out of their traditional dwellings, move into wooden dwellings and become farmers.
The federal government handed down laws that forced Native Americans to abandon their traditional appearance and way of living. Some laws banned common spiritual practices while others required Indian men to cut their long locks. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations established tribunals to impose federal polices that often restricted traditional cultural and spiritual practices.
To speed the assimilation course, the government set up Indian training centers that tried to quickly and forcefully Americanize Indian kids. As per the director of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, the schools were designed to “kill the Indian and save the man.” In order to accomplish this objective, the schools required students to speak only English, wear proper American clothing and to substitute their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new policies helped bring Native Americans nearer to the end of their original 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 enacted the General Allotment Act, the most significant component of the U.S. government’s assimilation program, which was developed to “civilize” American Indians by teaching them to be farmers. In order to achieve this, Congress planned to create non-public title of Indian property by splitting up reservations, which were collectively held, and providing each family their own plot 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, also known as 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 received between 40 to 80 acres; the rest of the territory was to be sold. Congress expected that the Dawes Act would break up Indian tribes and encourage individual enterprise, while trimming the expense of Indian administration and producing 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 decades they existed under regulations that outlawed their traditional approach to life but failed to provide the critical resources to support their businesses and families. Splitting the reservations into small parcels of land triggered the significant decrease of Indian-owned property. Inside three decades, the tribes had lost over two-thirds of the territory that they had controlled before the Dawes Act was enacted 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 their land in order to pay bills and provide for their own families. Consequently, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were routinely not able to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, as the makers of the policy had intended. Aside from that it produced resentment among Indians for the U.S. government, as the allotment practice often destroyed land that was the spiritual and societal location of their activities.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed tremendously. 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 without limits, were now inhabited with white settlers.
The Upshot of the Indian Wars
Over all these years the Indians have been cheated out of their property, food and approach to life, as the federal government’s Indian regulations coerced them on to reservations and tried to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands would not survive relocation, assimilation and military loss; by 1890 the Native American population was decreased to under 250,000 people. Thanks to decades of discriminatory and corrupt policies instituted by the United States authorities between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was altered forever.
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