Ages 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 land, it was settled by the forefathers of bands we now call Sioux, or Cherokee, or Iroquois.
For thousands of years, the American Indian grew its customs 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 is currently the U.S. we have learned much. It’s a story of beautiful art and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed remarkably advanced buildings 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 connected to nature.
The European Settler Arrives
When European leaders dispatched the first ships in our direction, the intention was to explore new resources – but the quality of weather 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 carve up the “New World” by transporting over inadequately prepared colonists as fast as they could. In the beginning, they skirmished with the alarmed Indians of America’s eastern seaboard. But that ultimately gave way to trade, because the Europeans who arrived here knew their survival was doubtful without native help.
Thus followed decades of comparative peace as the settlers got themselves established on American land. But the drive to push inland followed soon after. Kings and queens from thousands of miles away were restless to locate additional resources, and some colonists came for freedom and opportunity.
They required more space. And so began the process of driving the American Indian out of the way.
It took the form of cash arrangements, barter, and famously, treaties which were almost consistently neglected after the Indians were pushed off the land 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 regions occupied by these Native American tribes. By the 1850s virtually all Native American tribes, approximately 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 contemporary Oklahoma, while the Kiowa and Comanche Native American tribes shared the area of the Southern Plains.
The Sioux, Crows and Blackfeet dominated the Northern Plains. These Native American groups encountered adversity as the constant flow of European immigrants into northeastern American cities pushed a stream of immigrants into the western lands already occupied by these diverse groups of Indians.
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The early nineteenth century of 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 in addition to 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 land within its control.
These territorial gains coincided with the arrival of hordes of European and Asian immigrants who wanted to join the surge of American settlers heading west. This, partnered with the discovery of gold in 1849, presented attractive possibilities for those ready to make the long journey westward. Consequently, 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 parts of the Native American tribe-inhabited West.
Native American Tribes
Native American Policy can be defined as the laws and procedures 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 a sovereign nation, it implemented the European policies towards these indigenous peoples, but over the course of two centuries the U.S. tailored its own widely varying regulations regarding the changing perspectives and necessities of Native American regulation.
In 1824, in order to administer the U.S. government’s Native American policies, Congress created a new bureau 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, distinct political communities with varying cultural identities; however, at other times the government attempted to force the Native American tribes to give up their cultural identity, give up their land and assimilate into the American culture.
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With the steady stream of settlers in to Indian “” land, Eastern newspapers printed sensationalized stories of savage native tribes committing widespread massacres of hundreds of white travelers. Although some settlers lost their lives to American Indian attacks, this was in no way the norm; in fact, Native American tribes routinely 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 friendly natures of the American Indians, settlers still anticipated the possibility of an attack.
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To quiet these worries, in 1851 the U.S. government kept a conference with several local Indian tribes and established the Treaty of Fort Laramie. Under this treaty, each Native American tribe accepted a bounded territory, allowed the government to construct tracks and forts in this territory and pledged never to assault settlers; in return the federal government agreed to honor the boundaries of each tribe’s territory and make 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 consented 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 did not hold very long. After hearing stories of fertile acreage and tremendous mineral wealth in the West, the government soon broke their promises established in the Treat of Fort Laramie by permitting thousands of non-Indians to flood into the region. With so many newcomers moving west, the federal government established a plan of limiting Native Americans to reservations, limited areas of acreage within a group’s territory that was earmarked exclusively for Indian use, to be able to offer more territory for the 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 stipend that would include money in addition to food, livestock, household goods and farming equipment. These reservations were created in an attempt to clear the way for increased U.S. expansion and involvement in the West, as well as to keep the Native Americans separate from the whites in order to lower the potential for friction.
History of the Plains Indians
These deals had many problems. Most importantly many of the native people did not altogether grasp the document that they were finalizing or the conditions within it; furthermore, the treaties did not respect the cultural practices of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government agencies responsible for applying these policies were plagued with poor management and corruption. In fact many treaty provisions were never implemented.
The U.S. government rarely fulfilled their side of the deals even when the Native Americans went quietly to their reservations. Unethical bureau agents sometimes sold the supplies that were intended for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Additionally, as settlers required more land in the West, the federal government continually decreased the size of the reservations. By this time, most of the Native American peoples were dissatisfied with the treaties and angered by settlers’ endless hunger for territory.
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Angered by the government’s dishonorable and unfair policies, some Native American tribes, including bands of Cheyennes, Arapahos, Comanches and Sioux, battled back. As they fought to defend their territories and their tribes’ survival, more than one thousand skirmishes and battles broke out in the West between 1861 and 1891. In an effort to coerce Native Americans onto the reservations and to end the violence, the U.S. government reacted to these incursions with significant military campaigns. Clearly the U.S. government’s Indian regulations required an adjustment.
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Native American policy changed drastically after the Civil War. Reformers believed that the policy of forcing Native Americans inside reservations was far too harsh even while industrialists, who were concerned with their land and resources, viewed assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” to be the singular long-term means of guaranteeing Native American survival. In 1871 the government enacted a pivotal law stating that the United States would no longer treat Native American tribes as independent entities.
This legislation signaled a major change in the government’s relationship with the native peoples – Congress now deemed the Native Americans, not as countries outside of its jurisdiction, but as wards of the government. By making Native Americans wards of the “” government, Congress concluded that it would be easier to make the policy of assimilation a broadly recognised part of the cultural mainstream of America.
More On American Indian History
Many U.S. government administrators looked at assimilation as the most practical answer to what they viewed as “the Indian problem,” and the single permanent means of guaranteeing 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 houses and turn into farmers.
The federal government passed laws that forced Native Americans to quit their traditional appearance and way of life. Some laws outlawed traditional spiritual practices while others ordered Indian males to cut their long locks. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations established tribunals to impose federal regulations that often banned traditional ethnic and religious practices.
To boost the assimilation operation, the government started Indian facilities that attempted to quickly and forcefully Americanize Indian children. According to the founder of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, the schools were designed to “kill the Indian and save the man.” To be able to achieve this goal, the schools forced enrollees to speak only English, wear proper American attire and to switch their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new policies brought Native Americans closer to the end of their original tribal identity and the start of their life as citizens under the complete control of the U.S. government.
Native American Treaties with the United States
In 1887, Congress enacted the General Allotment Act, the most significant element of the U.S. government’s assimilation platform, which was developed to “civilize” American Indians by teaching them to be farmers. In order to achieve this, Congress needed to establish private ownership of Indian property by splitting up reservations, which were collectively owned, and offering each family their own stretch of land.
In addition to this, by pushing the Native Americans onto limited plots, western developers and settlers could purchase the left over land. The General Allotment Act, 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 received between 40 to 80 acres; the remaining acreage was to be sold. Congress thought that the Dawes Act would split up Indian tribes and stimulate individual enterprise, while lowering 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 generations they existed under regulations that outlawed their traditional way of life and yet failed to 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 land. Within thirty years, the people had lost more than 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.
Usually, Native Americans were cheated out of their allotments or were required to sell off their land in order to pay bills and take care of their families. As a result, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were often unable to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, as the creators of the Act had wished. Further, it developed resentment among Indians toward the U.S. government, as the allotment operation sometimes destroyed land that was the spiritual and cultural hub of their activities.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed tremendously. Due to U.S. government policies, American Indians were forced from their homes as 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 these years the Indians ended up defrauded out of their land, food and way of life, as the federal government’s Indian regulations coerced them on to reservations and attempted to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands didn’t endure relocation, cultural destruction and military defeat; by 1890 the Native American population was reduced to less than 250,000 people. Due to generations of discriminatory and ruthless policies instituted by the United States authorities between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was changed permanently.
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