Long before the terms Native American or Indian were considered, 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 thousands of years, the American Indian developed its traditions and heritage without interference. And that history is fascinating.
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 narrative of beautiful arts and crafts and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed remarkably advanced buildings and public works.
While there was inevitable tribal conflict, that was simply a slight blemish in the narrative of our ancestors. They were at peace with this beautiful continent and deeply plugged into nature.
The European Settler Arrives
When European leaders sent the first vessels in this direction, the goal was to explore new resources – however the quality of climate and the bounty of everything from wood 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 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 ultimately gave way to trade, because 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 soil. But the pressure to push inland came soon after. Kings and queens from thousands of miles away were anxious to locate even more resources, and some colonists came for independence and adventure.
They needed more space. And so began the process of forcing the American Indian out of the way.
It took the shape of cash payments, barter, and notoriously, treaties which were nearly consistently ignored once the Indians were pushed off 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 almost 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 located in present day Oklahoma, while the Kiowa and Comanche Native American tribes shared the area of the Southern Plains.
The Sioux, Crows and Blackfeet dominated the Northern Plains. These Native American groups experienced hardship as the steady stream of European immigrants into northeastern American cities pushed 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 wouldn’t end there. Between 1830 and 1860 the United States nearly doubled the amount of territory 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, combined with the discovery of gold in 1849, presented captivating opportunities for those prepared make the huge journey westward. Consequently, with the military’s protection and the U.S. government’s assistance, many settlers set about establishing 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 operations established and adapted in the United States to summarize 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 local peoples, but over two centuries the U.S. adapted its own widely varying regulations regarding the evolving perspectives and requirements of Native American supervision.
In 1824, in order to administrate the U.S. government’s Native American policies, Congress created a new agency within 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 varying cultural identities; however, at other times the government attempted to force the Native American tribes to give up their cultural identity, hand over their land and assimilate into the American culture.
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With the steady flow of settlers into Indian “” land, Eastern newspapers printed sensationalized reports of cruel native tribes carrying out 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 get across the Plains. Not only did the American Indians sell wild game and other supplies to travelers, but they acted as guides and messengers between wagon trains as well. Despite the good natures of the American Indians, settlers still anticipated the likelihood of an attack.
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To calm these fears, 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 accepted a bounded territory, allowed the government to construct roads and forts in this territory and agreed to not attack 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 signed the treaty, even consented to end the hostilities amongst their tribes in order to accept the conditions of the treaty.
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This peaceful agreement between the U.S. government and the Native American tribes didn’t stand long. After hearing stories 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 area. With so many newcomers heading west, the federal government established a plan of restricting Native Americans to reservations, modest swaths of acreage within a group’s territory that was earmarked exclusively for their use, to be able to offer more land for “” non-Indian settlers.
In a series of new treaties the U.S. government made Native Americans to abandon their land and migrate 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 foodstuffs, animals, household goods and agricultural equipment. These reservations were created 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 separate from the whites in order to lessen the chance for friction.
History of the Plains Indians
These agreements had many problems. Most significantly many of the native people did not properly understand the document that they were signing 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 applying these policies were overwhelmed with awful management and corruption. In fact many treaty conditions were never executed.
The U.S. government rarely fulfilled their side of the agreements even when the Native Americans moved quietly to their reservations. Unethical bureau agents often sold the supplies that were intended for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Moreover, as settlers demanded more property in the West, the federal government continually reduced the size of the reservations. By this time, many of the Native American people were unhappy with the treaties and angered by the settlers’ endless demands for territory.
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Angered by the government’s dishonorable and unfair 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 attempt to push Native Americans onto the reservations and to end the violence, the U.S. government responded to these hostilities with costly military operations. Obviously the U.S. government’s Indian policies were in need an adjustment.
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Native American policy shifted drastically following the Civil War. Reformers believed that the policy of pushing Native Americans onto reservations was far too harsh while industrialists, who were worried about their property and resources, regarded assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” as the singular long-term method of guaranteeing Native American survival. In 1871 the federal government approved a critical law proclaiming that the United States would not deal with Native American tribes as sovereign entities.
This law signaled a drastic shift in the government’s working relationship with the native peoples – Congress now deemed 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 concluded that it was easier to make the policy of assimilation a widely accepted part of the cultural mainstream of America.
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Many U.S. government representatives perceived assimilation as the most effective solution to what they deemed “the Indian problem,” and the only permanent 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 traditional dwellings, move into wooden homes and grow into farmers.
The federal government enacted laws that forced Native Americans to reject their traditional appearance and way of life. Some laws banned traditional spiritual practices while others ordered Indian males to cut their long locks. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations organized courts to enforce federal polices that often prohibited traditional ethnic and spiritual practices.
To speed the assimilation process, the government started Indian training centers that attempted to quickly and forcefully Americanize Indian kids. According to the director of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, the schools were created to “kill the Indian and save the man.” In order to make this happen objective, the schools forced pupils to speak only English, wear proper American fashion and to switch their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new regulations helped bring Native Americans closer to the conclusion of their classic 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 enacted 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 be farmers. In order to achieve this, Congress planned to establish non-public ownership of Indian property by splitting up reservations, which were collectively held, and allowing each family their own parcel of land.
In addition to this, by pushing the Native Americans onto limited plots, western developers and settlers could purchase the remaining land. The General Allotment Act, also known as the Dawes Act, required that the Indian lands be surveyed and each family be provided with an allotment of between 80 and 160 acres, while unmarried adults were given between 40 to 80 acres; the remaining land was to be sold. Congress wished that the Dawes Act would divide Indian tribes and encourage individual enterprise, while cutting down the cost of Indian supervision and providing prime property to be sold to white settlers.
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The Dawes Act proved to be disastrous for the American Indians; over the next decades they lived under policies that outlawed their traditional approach to life and yet didn’t provide the critical resources to support their businesses and families. Dividing the reservations into smaller parcels of land triggered the significant decrease of Indian-owned property. Within three decades, the tribes had lost in excess of two-thirds of the acreage that they had controlled before the Dawes Act was enacted in 1887; the majority of the remaining land was purchased by white settlers.
Commonly, Native Americans were duped out of their allotments or were forced to sell off their property in order to pay bills and provide for their own families. Because of that, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were routinely unable to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, as the creators of the policy had expected. Further, it produced anger among Indians for the U.S. government, as the allotment method often ruined land that was the spiritual and societal center of their lives.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed substantially. Due to U.S. administration policies, American Indians were forced from their living spaces 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 had been cheated out of their territory, food and lifestyle, as the federal government’s Indian plans coerced them on to reservations and attempted to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands didn’t endure relocation, assimilation and military defeat; by 1890 the Native American population was lowered to fewer than 250,000 persons. As a result of generations of discriminatory and corrupt policies instituted by the United States authorities between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was changed permanently.
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