Centuries before the terms Native American or Indian were created, 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 grew its customs and heritage without interference. And that history is fascinating.
From Mayan and Incan ruins, from the mounds left in the central and southern regions of what’s now the U.S. we have learned quite a bit. It’s a story of beautiful art and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed highly advanced structures and public works.
While there was inescapable tribal conflict, that was just a slight blemish in the experience of our forebears. They were at peace with this beautiful continent and intensely connected to nature.
The European Settler Arrives
When European leaders sent the first ships in this direction, the aim was to discover new resources – but the quality of climate and the bounty of everything from timber to wildlife subsequently changed their tune. As those leaders heard back from their explorers, the drive to colonize spread like wildfire.
The English, French and Spanish rushed to slice up the “New World” by shipping over poorly 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 landed here knew their survival was doubtful with no native 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 wanted 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 famously, treaties that were almost uniformly neglected once 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 regions inhabited by these Native American tribes. By the 1850s almost all Native American tribes, roughly 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 area of the Southern Plains.
The Sioux, Crows and Blackfeet dominated the Northern Plains. These Native American groups met misfortune as the constant 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 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 U.S. 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, partnered with the discovery of gold in 1849, presented attractive opportunities for those ready to make the long quest 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 group-inhabited West.
Native American Tribes
Native American Policy can be defined as the laws and procedures made and adapted in the United States to summarize the relationship between Native American tribes and the federal government. When the United States initially became a sovereign country, it implemented the European policies towards these native peoples, but throughout two centuries the U.S. designed its 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 created a new bureau 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, distinct 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 culture.
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With the steady stream of settlers into Indian “” land, Eastern newspapers published sensationalized reports of savage native tribes carrying out massive 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 often helped settlers cross the Plains. Not only did the American Indians offer wild game and other supplies to travelers, but they acted as guides and messengers between wagon trains as well. Despite the good natures of the American Indians, settlers still presumed the likelihood of an attack.
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To soothe these anxieties, in 1851 the U.S. government placed 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 roads and forts in this territory and pledged not to ever assault 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 entered into the treaty, even agreed to end the hostilities between their tribes to be able to accept the conditions of the treaty.
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This peaceful accord between the U.S. government and the Native American tribes didn’t last long. After hearing testimonies of fertile acreage and tremendous 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 region. With so many newcomers heading west, the federal government established a policy of confining Native Americans to reservations, limited areas of acreage within a group’s territory that was set aside exclusively for their use, in order to provide more land for the non-Indian settlers.
In a series of new treaties the U.S. government forced Native Americans to abandon their land and migrate to reservations in exchange for protection from attacks by white settlers. In addition, the Indians were given a yearly payment that would include cash in addition to foodstuffs, livestock, household goods and farming 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 divided from the whites in order to decrease the chance for conflict.
History of the Plains Indians
These deals had many challenges. Most of all many of the native peoples did not completely grasp the document that they were confirming or the conditions within it; further, the treaties did not consider the cultural practices of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government bureaus accountable for administering these policies were weighed down with awful management and corruption. In fact many treaty conditions were never accomplished.
The U.S. government almost never held up their side of the agreements even when the Native Americans moved quietly to their reservations. Unethical bureau agents often sold the supplies that were meant for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Moreover, as settlers demanded more territory in the West, the government frequently decreased the size of reservation lands. By this time, many of the Native American people were unhappy with the treaties and angered by the settlers’ endless appetite for territory.
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Angered by the government’s dishonest and unfair policies, some Native American tribes, including bands of Cheyennes, Arapahos, Comanches and Sioux, fought back. As they struggled to protect 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 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 policies were in need of a change.
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Native American policy shifted dramatically following the Civil War. Reformers believed that the policy of driving Native Americans into reservations was far too harsh even though industrialists, who were worried about their property and resources, thought of assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” as the singular permanent means of ensuring Native American survival. In 1871 the government approved a critical law stating that the United States would no longer deal with Native American tribes as sovereign nations.
This law signaled a major shift in the government’s working relationship with the native peoples – Congress now deemed 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 was better to make the policy of assimilation a widely recognised part of the cultural mainstream of America.
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Many U.S. government representatives looked at 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 move out of their traditional dwellings, move into wooden dwellings and turn into farmers.
The federal government passed laws that pressed Native Americans to abandon their established appearance and lifestyle. Some laws outlawed customary spiritual practices while others instructed Indian males to cut their long hair. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations established tribunals to enforce federal regulations that often restricted traditional cultural and religious practices.
To speed the assimilation operation, the government established Indian schools that tried 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 accomplish this goal, the schools forced pupils to speak only English, wear proper American clothing and to switch 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 passed the General Allotment Act, the most significant element of the U.S. government’s assimilation program, which was designed to “civilize” American Indians by educating them to be farmers. In order to make this happen, Congress wanted to create private ownership of Indian property by dividing reservations, which were collectively held, and giving each family their own stretch of land.
Additionally, by pushing the Native Americans onto limited plots, western developers and settlers could purchase the left over acreage. The General Allotment Act, also known as the Dawes Act, required that the Indian lands be surveyed and each family be awarded an allotment of between 80 and 160 acres, while unmarried adults were given between 40 to 80 acres; the residual land was to be sold. Congress expected that the Dawes Act would break-up Indian tribes and increase individual enterprise, while lowering the cost of Indian administration and providing prime land to be sold to white settlers.
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The Dawes Act turned out to be disastrous for the American Indians; over the next generations they existed under regulations that outlawed their traditional way of living but failed to supply the necessary resources to support their businesses and households. Splitting the reservations into small parcels of land triggered the significant reduction of Indian-owned property. Within three decades, the people had lost in excess of two-thirds of the territory that they had controlled before the Dawes Act was enacted in 1887; the majority of the remaining land was purchased by white settlers.
Commonly, Native Americans were cheated out of their allotments or were forced to sell off their land in order to pay bills and feed their families. Consequently, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were generally not able to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, like the creators of the Act had wished. It also developed anger among Indians for the U.S. government, as the allotment process often ruined land that was the spiritual and societal center of their days.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed significantly. Through 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 the years the Indians ended up cheated out of their territory, food and approach to life, as the “” government’s Indian plans coerced them inside reservations and tried to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands could not endure relocation, cultural destruction and military defeat; by 1890 the Native American population was decreased to under 250,000 persons. As a result of decades 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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