Way before the terms Native American or Indian were considered, 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 legacy without interference. And that history is captivating.
From Mayan and Incan ruins, from the mounds left in the central and southern regions of what is now the U.S. we have learned plenty. It’s a story of beautiful artwork and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed remarkably elaborate structures and public works.
While there was inescapable tribal conflict, that was simply a slight blemish in the account of our forebears. They were at peace with this beautiful continent and deeply connected to nature.
The European Settler Arrives
When European leaders sent the first vessels in our direction, the plan was to explore new resources – however the quality of weather and the bounty of everything from wood to wildlife soon changed their tune. As those leaders learned from their explorers, the motivation to colonize spread like wildfire.
The English, French and Spanish raced to carve up the “New World” by transporting 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 ultimately gave way to trade, since the Europeans who came ashore here knew 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 drive to push inland came soon after. Kings and queens from thousands of miles away were restless to find even more resources, and some colonists came for independence and adventure.
They required more space. And so began the process of forcing the American Indian out of the way.
It took the form of cash payments, barter, and notoriously, treaties that were almost consistently neglected once the Indians were forced 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 areas occupied 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 land of the Southern Plains.
The Sioux, Crows and Blackfeet dominated the Northern Plains. These Native American groups encountered adversity 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 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 along with the authority over Oregon country, Texas and California; America’s expansion would not end there. Between 1830 and 1860 the United States roughly doubled the amount of territory within 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 possibilities for those ready to make the huge journey westward. Therefore, 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 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 country, it implemented the European policies towards these indigenous peoples, but over two centuries the U.S. adapted its very own widely varying regulations regarding the changing perspectives and necessities of Native American oversight.
In 1824, in order to apply the U.S. government’s Native American policies, Congress made a new bureau within the War Department referred to as 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, independent political communities with numerous cultural identities; however, at other times the government attempted to force the Native American tribes to abandon their cultural identity, hand over their land and assimilate into the American traditions.
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With the steady stream of settlers into Indian controlled land, Eastern newspapers circulated 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 certainly not the norm; in fact, Native American tribes routinely helped settlers get across the Plains. Not only did the American Indians sell wild game and other supplies to travelers, but they served as guides and messengers between wagon trains as well. Despite the good natures of the American Indians, settlers still feared the likelihood of an attack.
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To soothe 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 consented to a bounded territory, allowed the government to construct roads and forts in this territory and agreed never to attack 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 agreed to end the hostilities amongst their tribes to be able to accept the terms of the treaty.
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This peaceful accord between the U.S. government and the Native American tribes did not stand long. After hearing testimonies of fertile terrain and great mineral wealth in the West, the government soon broke their assurances established in the Treat of Fort Laramie by allowing thousands of non-Indians to flood into the region. With so many newcomers moving west, the federal government established a policy of confining Native Americans to reservations, limited swaths of acreage within a group’s territory “” reserved exclusively for their use, in order to offer more territory for “” non-Indian settlers.
In a series of new treaties the U.S. government compelled Native Americans to surrender their land and move to reservations in exchange for protection from attacks by white settlers. In addition, the Indians were offered a yearly payment that would include cash in addition to foodstuffs, animals, household goods and agricultural tools. These reservations were established in an effort to pave the way for increased U.S. growth and administration in the West, as well as to keep the Native Americans isolated from the whites in order to reduce the potential for conflict.
History of the Plains Indians
These accords had many challenges. Most significantly many of the native people did not altogether understand the document that they were signing or the conditions within it; furthermore, the treaties did not consider the cultural norms of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government institutions accountable for administering these policies were overwhelmed with poor management and corruption. In fact most treaty provisions were never accomplished.
The U.S. government almost never fulfilled their side of the accords even when the Native Americans moved quietly to their reservations. Dishonest bureau agents sometimes sold off the supplies that were intended for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Moreover, as settlers needed more territory in the West, the government frequently reduced the size of Indian reservations. By this time, many of the Native American peoples were unhappy with the treaties and angered by the settlers’ endless hunger for land.
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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, fought back. As they fought to protect their territories 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 incursions with significant military campaigns. Obviously the U.S. government’s Indian policies required an adjustment.
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Native American policy shifted drastically after the Civil War. Reformers felt that the scheme of driving Native Americans onto reservations was far too harsh even while industrialists, who were concerned with their land and resources, considered assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” as the sole permanent strategy for guaranteeing Native American survival. In 1871 the federal government approved a pivotal law proclaiming that the United States would no longer deal with Native American tribes as sovereign entities.
This legislation signaled a drastic shift in the government’s relationship with the native peoples – Congress now viewed the Native Americans, not as countries outside of its jurisdictional control, but as wards of the government. By making Native Americans wards of the “” government, Congress believed that it would be easier to make the policy of assimilation a broadly recognised part of the cultural mainstream of America.
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Many U.S. government administrators considered assimilation as the most effective answer to what they deemed “the Indian problem,” and the single permanent method of insuring U.S. interests in the West and the survival of the American Indians. In order to accomplish this, the government urged Native Americans to relocate out of their customary dwellings, move into wooden houses and become farmers.
The federal government enacted laws that forced Native Americans to abandon their established appearance and lifestyle. Some laws banned common spiritual practices while others required Indian males to cut their long locks. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations founded tribunals to implement federal polices that often prohibited traditional cultural and spiritual practices.
To hasten the assimilation operation, the government set up Indian facilities that attempted to quickly and vigorously Americanize Indian youth. As per the founder 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 compelled students to speak only English, dress in proper American attire and to substitute 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 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 approved the General Allotment Act, the most significant component of the U.S. government’s assimilation platform, which was designed to “civilize” American Indians by educating them to be farmers. In order to accomplish this, Congress planned to increase non-public ownership of Indian property by dividing reservations, which were collectively held, and providing each family their own plot of land.
In addition to this, by forcing the Native Americans onto small plots of land, western developers and settlers could purchase the left over acreage. The General Allotment Act, also referred to 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 were given 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 inspire individual enterprise, while cutting down the cost of Indian supervision and producing 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 existed under regulations that outlawed their traditional way of life but did not supply the critical resources to support their businesses and families. Splitting the reservations into smaller parcels of land caused the significant reduction of Indian-owned property. Inside three decades, the tribes had lost more than two-thirds of the territory that they had controlled before the Dawes Act was passed in 1887; the majority of the remaining land was sold to white settlers.
Commonly, Native Americans were cheated out of their allotments or were forced to sell their land in order to pay bills and take care of their families. Consequently, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were generally not able to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, as the makers of the policy had anticipated. Further, it generated resentment among Indians for the U.S. government, as the allotment operation sometimes ruined land that was the spiritual and social hub of their activities.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed radically. Through U.S. government policies, American Indians were forced from their housing as their native lands were parceled out. The Plains, which they had previously roamed without restriction, were now filling with white settlers.
The Upshot of the Indian Wars
Over all these years the Indians have been defrauded out of their territory, food and approach to life, as the federal government’s Indian regulations coerced them onto reservations and tried to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands did not survive relocation, cultural destruction and military loss; by 1890 the Native American population was reduced to under 250,000 people. Thanks to generations of discriminatory and ruthless policies instituted by the United States government between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was altered forever.
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