Far before the terms Native American or Indian were necessary, 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 centuries, the American Indian developed its traditions and heritage without disturbance. And that history is captivating.
From Mayan and Incan ruins, from the mounds left in the central and southern parts of what’s today the U.S. we have learned quite a bit. It’s a narrative of beautiful arts and crafts and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed remarkably advanced structures and public works.
While there was inevitable tribal conflict, that was just a slight blemish in the tale of our forebears. They were at peace with this beautiful continent and intensely connected to nature.
The European Settler Arrives
When European leaders sent the first vessels in our direction, the intention was to explore new resources – however the quality of environment and the bounty of everything from timber to wildlife subsequently changed their tune. As those leaders heard back from their explorers, the drive to colonize spread like wildfire.
The English, French and Spanish rushed to slice up the “New World” by sending over inadequately prepared colonists as fast as they could. At the outset, they skirmished with the surprised 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 without Indian help.
Thus followed decades of relative peace as the settlers got themselves established on American soil. But the drive to push inland came soon after. Kings and queens from thousands of miles away were anxious to locate additional resources, and some colonists came for independence and adventure.
They wanted 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 notoriously, treaties that were nearly consistently ignored once the Indians were forced off the land 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 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 met misfortune as the continuous flow 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 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 U.S. nearly doubled the amount of acreage 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 alluring opportunities for those ready to make the extended trip westward. As a result, with the military’s protection and the U.S. government’s assistance, many settlers started 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 operations made and adapted in the United States to outline the relationship between Native American tribes and the federal government. When the United States initially became a sovereign nation, it adopted the European policies towards the native peoples, but over two centuries the U.S. designed its own widely varying regulations regarding the changing perspectives and necessities of Native American supervision.
In 1824, in order to administrate the U.S. government’s Native American policies, Congress made 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, distinct political communities with varying cultural identities; however, at other times the government attempted to force 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 published sensationalized reports of cruel 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 repeatedly helped settlers cross the Plains. Not only did the American Indians sell wild game and other necessities to travelers, but they served as guides and messengers between wagon trains as well. Despite the good natures of the American Indians, settlers still presumed the likelihood of an attack.
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To soothe these anxieties, in 1851 the U.S. government kept 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 not to ever go after 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 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 amongst their tribes in order to accept the terms of the treaty.
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This peaceful agreement between the U.S. government and the Native American tribes didn’t last long. After hearing tales of fertile terrain and great 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 plan of limiting Native Americans to reservations, modest areas of land within a group’s territory “” set aside exclusively for their use, in order to offer more land for the non-Indian settlers.
In a series of new treaties the U.S. government made Native Americans to surrender their land and move 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 attempt to pave the way for increasing 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 chance for conflict.
History of the Plains Indians
These deals had many challenges. Most importantly many of the native people didn’t properly understand the document that they were signing or the conditions within it; further, the treaties did not respect 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 terms were never carried out.
The U.S. government almost never honored their side of the deals even when the Native Americans migrated quietly to their reservations. Shady bureau agents often sold off the supplies that were intended for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Moreover, as settlers needed more property in the West, the federal government constantly decreased the size of the reservations. By this time, many of the Native American peoples were unhappy with the treaties and angered by settlers’ endless hunger for land.
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Angered by the government’s dishonorable and unjust policies, several Native American tribes, including bands of Cheyennes, Arapahos, Comanches and Sioux, fought back. As they struggled to maintain 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 compel Native Americans onto the reservations and to end the violence, the U.S. government reacted to these skirmishes with costly military operations. Clearly the U.S. government’s Indian policies required an adjustment.
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Native American policy shifted drastically following the Civil War. Reformers felt that the scheme of driving Native Americans onto reservations was too harsh even while industrialists, who were worried about their land and resources, looked at assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” as the only permanent strategy for guaranteeing Native American survival. In 1871 the federal government approved a critical law proclaiming that the United States would not treat Native American tribes as sovereign entities.
This legislation signaled a significant shift in the government’s working relationship with the native peoples – Congress now deemed the Native Americans, not as countries outside of its jurisdictional control, but as wards of the government. By making Native Americans wards of the U.S. government, Congress concluded that it would be easier 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 perceived 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 established dwellings, move into wooden dwellings and become farmers.
The federal government enacted laws that forced Native Americans to quit their usual appearance and way of life. Some laws outlawed customary spiritual practices while others ordered Indian men to cut their long hair. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations founded tribunals to impose federal polices that often restricted traditional ethnic and religious practices.
To speed the assimilation operation, the government established Indian schools that attempted to quickly and forcefully Americanize Indian kids. As per the director of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, the schools were created to “kill the Indian and save the man.” To be able to achieve this objective, the schools required pupils to speak only English, wear proper American attire and to replace their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new regulations brought Native Americans closer to the end of their established tribal identity and the beginning of their daily life as citizens under the complete control of the U.S. authorities.
Native American Treaties with the United States
In 1887, Congress approved the General Allotment Act, the most significant part of the U.S. government’s assimilation platform, which was developed to “civilize” American Indians by educating them to become farmers. In order to make this happen, Congress needed to create non-public title of Indian property by dividing reservations, which were collectively held, and giving each family their own block of land.
Additionally, by forcing 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 remaining land was to be sold. Congress wished that the Dawes Act would split up Indian tribes and inspire individual enterprise, while cutting down the expense of Indian supervision 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 yet failed to offer the necessary resources to support their businesses and households. Splitting the reservations into smaller parcels of land led to the significant decrease of Indian-owned property. Inside thirty years, the tribes had lost over two-thirds of the acreage that they had controlled before the Dawes Act was enacted in 1887; the majority of the remaining land was sold to white settlers.
Frequently, Native Americans were duped out of their allotments or were required 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 often not able to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, like the makers of the Act had desired. Further, it generated resentment among Indians for the U.S. government, as the allotment practice often destroyed land that was the spiritual and cultural focus of their activities.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed drastically. Through U.S. government regulations, American Indians were forced from their living spaces because their native lands were parceled out. The Plains, which they had previously roamed without restriction, were now filled with white settlers.
The Upshot of the Indian Wars
Over the years the Indians had been defrauded out of their property, food and way of life, as the federal government’s Indian policies forced them into reservations and tried to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands didn’t endure relocation, cultural destruction and military defeat; by 1890 the Native American population was decreased to less than 250,000 people. As a result of decades of discriminatory and ruthless policies instituted by the United States government between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was changed permanently.
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