Way before the terms Native American or Indian were created, 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 centuries, the American Indian developed its culture and legacy without disturbance. And that history is fascinating.
From Mayan and Incan ruins, from the mounds left in the central and southern parts of what is currently the U.S. we have learned much. It’s a story of beautiful arts and crafts and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed remarkably elaborate structures and public works.
While there was inevitable tribal conflict, that was simply a slight blemish in the tale of our ancestors. They were at peace with this beautiful continent and intensely plugged into nature.
The European Settler Arrives
When European leaders dispatched the first ships in this direction, the aim was to explore new resources – but the quality of climate and the bounty of everything from wood 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 rushed to slice up the “New World” by sending over inadequately prepared colonists as fast as they could. Initially, they skirmished with the surprised Indians of America’s eastern seaboard. But that soon gave way to trade, because the Europeans who arrived here understood their survival was doubtful with no Indian help.
Thus followed years 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 anxious to find additional resources, and some colonists came for independence and adventure.
They required more space. And so began the process of pushing the American Indian out of the way.
It took the form of cash arrangements, barter, and notoriously, treaties that were almost uniformly neglected after the Indians were moved from 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 occupied by these Native American tribes. By the 1850s virtually 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 territory of the Southern Plains.
The Sioux, Crows and Blackfeet dominated the Northern Plains. These Native American groups experienced misfortune as the constant stream of European immigrants into northeastern American cities pushed a stream of immigrants into the western lands already inhabited by these diverse 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 as well as the authority over Oregon country, Texas and California; America’s expansion wouldn’t end there. Between 1830 and 1860 the U.S. 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 captivating opportunities for those willing to make the huge quest 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 regulations and procedures developed and adapted in the United States to define the relationship between Native American tribes and the federal government. When the United States first became an independent nation, it adopted the European policies towards these indigenous peoples, but throughout two centuries the U.S. adapted its own widely varying policies regarding the evolving perspectives and requirements of Native American supervision.
In 1824, in order to apply the U.S. government’s Native American policies, Congress formed a new agency inside 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 varying cultural identities; however, at other times the government attempted to compel the Native American tribes to abandon their cultural identity, let go of their land and assimilate into the American culture.
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With the steady flow of settlers into 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 not the norm; in fact, Native American tribes repeatedly helped settlers get across the Plains. Not only did the American Indians offer wild game and other necessities to travelers, but they acted as guides and messengers between wagon trains as well. Despite the friendly natures of the American Indians, settlers still feared the risk of an attack.
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To quiet these concerns, 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 pledged never to 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 quietly 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 amidst 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 didn’t stand long. After hearing tales of fertile acreage and great mineral wealth in the West, the government soon broke their promises established in the Treat of Fort Laramie by allowing thousands of non-Indians to flood into the area. With so many newcomers moving west, the federal government established a policy of confining Native Americans to reservations, limited swaths of land within a group’s territory “” set aside exclusively for their use, in order to give more land for “” non-Indian settlers.
In a series of new treaties the U.S. government compelled 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 offered a yearly payment that would include money in addition to food, livestock, household goods and agricultural tools. 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 isolated from the whites in order to lessen the chance for friction.
History of the Plains Indians
These accords had many complications. Most significantly many of the native people did not entirely grasp the document that they were signing or the conditions within it; furthermore, the treaties did not acknowledge the cultural practices of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government bureaus accountable for administering these policies were overwhelmed with poor management and corruption. In fact many treaty conditions were never carried out.
The U.S. government almost never fulfilled their side of the agreements even when the Native Americans moved quietly to their reservations. Dishonest bureau agents repeatedly sold the supplies that were meant for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Moreover, as settlers demanded more land in the West, the government constantly cut the size of the reservations. By this time, many of the Native American peoples were unhappy with the treaties and angered by settlers’ endless appetite for territory.
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Angered by the government’s dishonorable and unfair policies, several 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 effort to compel Native Americans onto the reservations and to end the violence, the U.S. government responded to these hostilities with costly military campaigns. Obviously the U.S. government’s Indian policies were in need of a change.
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Native American policy changed drastically following the Civil War. Reformers felt that the policy of forcing Native Americans inside reservations was far too harsh even though industrialists, who were worried about their land and resources, regarded assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” as the single permanent means of guaranteeing Native American survival. In 1871 the government approved a pivotal law stating that the United States would no longer treat Native American tribes as sovereign entities.
This legislation signaled a significant change in the government’s working relationship with the native peoples – Congress now viewed 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 easier to make the policy of assimilation a widely acknowledged part of the cultural mainstream of America.
More On American Indian History
Many U.S. government representatives viewed assimilation as the most practical solution to what they deemed “the Indian problem,” and the only lasting method of protecting U.S. interests in the West and the survival of the American Indians. In order to accomplish this, the government pressed Native Americans to move out of their traditional dwellings, move into wooden buildings and grow into farmers.
The federal government enacted laws that forced Native Americans to reject their usual appearance and lifestyle. Some laws banned common religious practices while others required Indian men to cut their long locks. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations set up tribunals to impose federal regulations that often prohibited traditional ethnic and religious practices.
To speed up the assimilation operation, the government established Indian facilities that attempted to quickly and forcefully Americanize Indian youth. According to the founder of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, the schools were developed to “kill the Indian and save the man.” In order to achieve this objective, the schools forced enrollees to speak only English, dress in proper American fashion and to switch their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new policies helped bring Native Americans closer to the conclusion of their traditional 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 passed the General Allotment Act, the most important element of the U.S. government’s assimilation platform, which was written to “civilize” American Indians by educating them to become farmers. In order to achieve this, Congress wanted to establish private title of Indian property by dividing reservations, which were collectively owned, and issuing each family their own parcel of land.
In addition to this, by pushing the Native Americans onto limited plots of land, western developers and settlers could purchase the remaining territory. The General Allotment Act, better known as the Dawes Act, required that the Indian lands be surveyed and every family be awarded an allotment of between 80 and 160 acres, while unmarried adults received between 40 to 80 acres; the residual territory was to be sold. Congress was hoping that the Dawes Act would split up Indian tribes and encourage individual enterprise, while reducing the cost of Indian administration and providing prime property to be purchased by white settlers.
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The Dawes Act turned out to be catastrophic for the American Indians; over the next decades they existed under policies that outlawed their traditional way of living but did not offer the crucial resources to support their businesses and households. Dividing the reservations into small parcels of land caused the significant decrease of Indian-owned land. Within three decades, 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 sold to white settlers.
Regularly, Native Americans were cheated out of their allotments or were required to sell their land in order pay bills and provide for their own families. As a result, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were generally unable to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, as the creators of the policy had intended. Further, it produced anger among Indians for the U.S. government, as the allotment practice often ruined land that was the spiritual and cultural hub of their days.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed tremendously. Due to U.S. administration regulations, 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 these years the Indians had been cheated out of their territory, food and way of life, as the “” government’s Indian regulations shoved them into reservations and tried to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands did not make it through relocation, assimilation and military defeat; by 1890 the Native American population was lowered to less than 250,000 persons. Due to generations of discriminatory and dodgy policies implemented by the United States authorities between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was altered forever.
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