Far before the terms Native American or Indian were necessary, the tribes were spread all over 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 legacy without interference. And that history is fascinating.
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 much. It’s a narrative of beautiful craft work and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed highly advanced buildings and public works.
While there was unavoidable tribal conflict, that was simply a slight blemish in the history of our ancestors. They were at peace with this beautiful continent and deeply plugged into nature.
The European Settler Arrives
When European leaders dispatched the first vessels in our direction, the objective was to explore new resources – but the quality of climate and the bounty of everything from timber to wildlife soon changed their tune. As those leaders heard back from their explorers, the drive to colonize spread like wildfire.
The English, French and Spanish raced to slice up the “New World” by shipping over inadequately prepared colonists as fast as they could. At the outset, they skirmished with the alarmed Indians of America’s eastern seaboard. But that soon gave way to trade, since the Europeans who came ashore here understood that 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 find additional resources, and some colonists came for freedom and opportunity.
They wanted more space. And so began the process of driving the American Indian out of the way.
It took the shape of cash payments, barter, and famously, treaties which were almost uniformly neglected after the Indians were pushed away from the territory in question.
The U.S. government’s policies towards Native Americans in the second half of the nineteenth century were motivated by the desire to expand westward into territories inhabited 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 territory of the Southern Plains.
The Sioux, Crows and Blackfeet dominated the Northern Plains. These Native American groups met adversity as the continuous flow of European immigrants into northeastern American cities pushed a stream of immigrants into the western lands already occupied by these various groups of Indians.
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The early nineteenth century of 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 practically doubled the amount of acreage under its control.
These territorial gains coincided with the arrival of troves 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 attractive opportunities for those ready to make the long journey westward. As a result, with the military’s protection and the U.S. government’s assistance, many settlers set about building their homesteads in the Great Plains and other areas of the Native American tribe-inhabited West.
Native American Tribes
Native American Policy can be defined as the laws and regulations and operations made 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 native peoples, but over the course of two centuries the U.S. tailored its very own widely varying regulations regarding the evolving perspectives and requirements of Native American oversight.
In 1824, in order to administer the U.S. government’s Native American policies, Congress created a new agency 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, independent political communities with different cultural identities; however, at other times the government attempted to force the Native American tribes to abandon their cultural identity, let go of 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 published sensationalized reports of cruel native tribes committing widespread massacres of hundreds of white travelers. Although some settlers lost their lives to American Indian attacks, this was certainly not the norm; in fact, Native American tribes repeatedly helped settlers cross over the Plains. Not only did the American Indians peddle wild game and other necessities to travelers, but they served as guides and messengers between wagon trains as well. Despite the friendly natures of the American Indians, settlers still anticipated the risk of an attack.
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To calm these fears, in 1851 the U.S. government placed a conference with several local Indian tribes and established the Treaty of Fort Laramie. Within this treaty, each Native American tribe consented to a bounded territory, allowed the government to construct roads and forts in this territory and agreed not to 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 peacefully to the treaty; in fact the Cheyenne, Sioux, Crow, Arapaho, Assinibione, Mandan, Gros Ventre and Arikara tribes, who entered into the treaty, even consented to end the hostilities between their tribes in order to accept the terms of the treaty.
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This peaceful accord between the U.S. government and the Native American tribes didn’t hold very long. After hearing reports of fertile terrain 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 area. With so many newcomers heading west, the federal government established a policy of restricting Native Americans to reservations, limited swaths of land within a group’s territory that was earmarked exclusively for Indian use, to be able to provide more property for “” non-Indian settlers.
In a series of new treaties the U.S. government commanded Native Americans to give up their land and move to reservations in exchange for protection from attacks by white settlers. In addition, the Indians were allocated a yearly payment that would include money in addition to food, livestock, household goods and agricultural equipment. These reservations were created in an effort to pave the way for heightened U.S. expansion and administration in the West, as well as to keep the Native Americans isolated from the whites in order to lower the potential for conflict.
History of the Plains Indians
These agreements had many challenges. Most significantly 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 acknowledge the cultural norms of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government bureaus responsible for administering these policies were overwhelmed with poor management and corruption. In fact most treaty conditions were never accomplished.
The U.S. government rarely honored their side of the agreements even when the Native Americans went quietly to their reservations. Unethical bureau agents sometimes sold off the supplies that were meant for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Additionally, 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’ constant appetite for territory.
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Angered by the government’s deceitful and unjust policies, several Native American tribes, including bands of Cheyennes, Arapahos, Comanches and Sioux, fought back. As they struggled to maintain their lands and their tribes’ survival, over a 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 responded to these skirmishes with costly military campaigns. Obviously the U.S. government’s Indian regulations were in need of a change.
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Native American policy shifted considerably following the Civil War. Reformers felt that the scheme of driving Native Americans into reservations was far too harsh even while industrialists, who were concerned with their land and resources, looked at assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” as the single long-term strategy for ensuring Native American survival. In 1871 the federal government enacted a pivotal law stating that the United States would no longer treat Native American tribes as independent nations.
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 presumed that it was better 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 representatives perceived assimilation as the most effective solution to what they viewed as “the Indian problem,” and the single permanent strategy for 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 houses and become farmers.
The federal government handed down laws that pressed Native Americans to quit their established appearance and way of living. Some laws outlawed common spiritual practices while others ordered Indian men to cut their long locks. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations set up courts to implement federal polices that often prohibited traditional cultural and spiritual practices.
To accelerate the assimilation operation, the government established Indian schools that tried to quickly and vigorously 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 achieve this goal, the schools forced students to speak only English, put on proper American attire and to switch 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 life as citizens under the absolute control of the U.S. government.
Native American Treaties with the United States
In 1887, Congress handed down the General Allotment Act, the most significant part of the U.S. government’s assimilation program, which was written to “civilize” American Indians by educating them to be farmers. In order to accomplish this, Congress planned to create non-public ownership of Indian property by splitting up reservations, which were collectively owned, and issuing each family their own stretch of land.
In addition to this, by pushing the Native Americans onto small plots, western developers and settlers could purchase the remaining land. The General Allotment Act, better 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 rest of the land was to be sold. Congress expected that the Dawes Act would break-up Indian tribes and encourage individual enterprise, while reducing the cost of Indian supervision and providing 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 decades they lived under policies that outlawed their traditional lifestyle and yet did not offer the critical resources to support their businesses and families. Splitting the reservations into small parcels of land brought about the significant decrease of Indian-owned land. Within thirty years, the tribes had lost over 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 required to sell off their property in order pay bills and take care of their own families. Consequently, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were generally not able to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, like the makers of the Act had desired. This also developed animosity among Indians toward the U.S. government, as the allotment process often destroyed land that was the spiritual and societal focus of their activities.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed significantly. Through U.S. government regulations, American Indians were forced from their housing because 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 these years the Indians ended up cheated out of their land, food and approach to life, as the federal government’s Indian plans coerced them onto reservations and attempted to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands would not survive relocation, assimilation and military defeat; by 1890 the Native American population was decreased to fewer than 250,000 persons. Thanks to generations of discriminatory and ruthless policies implemented by the United States government between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was changed forever.
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