Long before the terms Native American or Indian were considered, 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 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 quite a bit. It’s a narrative of beautiful artwork and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed highly elaborate structures and public works.
While there was inevitable tribal conflict, that was nothing more than 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 sent the first vessels in our direction, the goal was to explore new resources – however the quality of weather and the bounty of everything from timber to wildlife subsequently changed their tune. As those leaders heard back 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. Initially, they skirmished with the alarmed Indians of America’s eastern seaboard. But that shortly gave way to trade, since the Europeans who arrived here understood their survival was doubtful with no Indian help.
Thus followed decades of relative peace as the settlers got themselves established on American soil. But the pressure to push inland followed soon after. Kings and queens from thousands of miles away were impatient to find additional resources, and some colonists came for freedom and opportunity.
They needed more space. And so began the process of pushing the American Indian out of the way.
It took the form of cash payments, barter, and famously, treaties which were almost uniformly neglected once 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 influenced by the desire to expand westward into territories 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 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 encountered hardship as the constant 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 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 along with the authority over Oregon country, Texas and California; America’s expansion did not end there. Between 1830 and 1860 the United States nearly doubled the amount of acreage within 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 possibilities 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 started establishing 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 regulations 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 initially became an independent nation, it adopted the European policies towards these indigenous peoples, but throughout two centuries the U.S. adapted its very own widely varying policies 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 formed a new bureau 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 different cultural identities; however, at other times the government attempted to compel the Native American tribes to give up their cultural identity, surrender their land and assimilate into the American customs.
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With the steady flow of settlers into Indian controlled land, Eastern newspapers printed sensationalized stories of cruel native tribes committing widespread 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 frequently helped settlers get across the Plains. Not only did the American Indians sell wild game and other necessities to travelers, but they acted as guides and messengers between wagon trains as well. Despite the good natures of the American Indians, settlers still feared the risk of an attack.
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To soothe these fears, 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 not to assault settlers; in return the federal government agreed to honor the boundaries of each tribe’s territory and make total 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 amongst 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 did not hold very long. After hearing tales of fertile land 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 policy of restricting Native Americans to reservations, limited swaths of land within a group’s territory “” earmarked exclusively for their use, to be able to give more territory for “” non-Indian settlers.
In a series of new treaties the U.S. government forced Native Americans to give up 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 farming tools. These reservations were established in an attempt to pave the way for heightened U.S. growth and involvement in the West, as well as to keep the Native Americans isolated from the whites in order to reduce the chance for friction.
History of the Plains Indians
These agreements had many problems. Most importantly many of the native peoples did not entirely understand the document that they were signing or the conditions within it; further, the treaties did not acknowledge the cultural norms of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government departments responsible for administering these policies were weighed down with poor management and corruption. In fact many treaty terms were never accomplished.
The U.S. government almost never fulfilled their side of the agreements even when the Native Americans went quietly to their reservations. Unethical bureau agents frequently sold off the supplies that were intended for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Moreover, as settlers demanded more territory in the West, the federal government frequently reduced the size of the reservations. By this time, most of the Native American people were dissatisfied with the treaties and angered by settlers’ constant demands for territory.
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Angered by the government’s deceitful and unjust policies, some Native American tribes, including bands of Cheyennes, Arapahos, Comanches and Sioux, fought back. As they fought to defend their lands and their tribes’ survival, over a thousand skirmishes and battles broke out in the West between 1861 and 1891. In an attempt to make Native Americans onto the reservations and to end the violence, the U.S. government responded to these skirmishes with significant military campaigns. Clearly the U.S. government’s Indian regulations required an adjustment.
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Native American policy changed considerably following the Civil War. Reformers felt that the scheme of driving Native Americans onto reservations was far too severe even while industrialists, who were concerned about their land and resources, regarded assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” to be the singular permanent method of guaranteeing Native American survival. In 1871 the government enacted a critical law stating that the United States would not treat Native American tribes as sovereign nations.
This law signaled a major shift in the government’s working relationship with the native peoples – Congress now considered the Native Americans, not as nations outside of its jurisdiction, but as wards of the government. By making Native Americans wards of the “” government, Congress believed that it would be better to make the policy of assimilation a broadly accepted part of the cultural mainstream of America.
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Many U.S. government administrators viewed assimilation as the most effective remedy for what they viewed as “the Indian problem,” and the single long-term means of 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 relocate out of their traditional dwellings, move into wooden homes and become farmers.
The federal government enacted laws that pressed Native Americans to abandon their usual appearance and way of living. Some laws banned traditional spiritual practices while others ordered Indian males to cut their long hair. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations organized courts to implement federal regulations that often prohibited traditional ethnic and spiritual practices.
To speed the assimilation operation, the government started Indian schools that attempted to quickly and vigorously Americanize Indian children. According to the director of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, the schools were developed to “kill the Indian and save the man.” In order to accomplish this objective, the schools compelled enrollees to speak only English, dress in 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 existence as citizens under the complete control of the U.S. government.
Native American Treaties with the United States
In 1887, Congress approved the General Allotment Act, the most important part of the U.S. government’s assimilation program, which was intended to “civilize” American Indians by teaching them to become farmers. In order to accomplish this, Congress wanted to create non-public title of Indian property by dividing reservations, which were collectively owned, and giving each family their own plot of land.
In addition to this, by pushing the Native Americans onto small plots of land, western developers and settlers could purchase the remaining territory. 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 remaining land was to be sold. Congress wished that the Dawes Act would split up Indian tribes and stimulate individual enterprise, while lowering the cost of Indian administration 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 policies that outlawed their traditional way of life but failed to supply the necessary resources to support their businesses and households. Splitting the reservations into smaller parcels of land caused the significant reduction of Indian-owned property. Within thirty years, the tribes had lost in excess of two-thirds of the territory that they had controlled before the Dawes Act was passed in 1887; the majority of the remaining land was purchased by white settlers.
Regularly, Native Americans were cheated out of their allotments or were forced to sell off their land in order pay bills and provide for their own families. Consequently, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were often not able to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, like the creators of the Act had desired. It also generated resentment among Indians toward the U.S. government, as the allotment practice sometimes ruined land that was the spiritual and social focus of their activities.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed substantially. Due to U.S. administration regulations, American Indians were forced from their homes because 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 these years the Indians had been defrauded out of their land, food and way of living, as the federal government’s Indian policies shoved them into reservations and attempted to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands didn’t endure relocation, cultural destruction and military loss; by 1890 the Native American population was decreased to less than 250,000 people. Due to generations of discriminatory and dodgy policies implemented by the United States government between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was altered permanently.
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