Far 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 customs and legacy without disturbance. And that history is fascinating.
From Mayan and Incan ruins, from the mounds left in the central and southern regions of what is today the U.S. we have learned plenty. It’s a tale of beautiful arts and crafts and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed highly advanced structures and public works.
While there was inevitable tribal conflict, that was simply a slight blemish in the narrative of our ancestors. They were at peace with this beautiful continent and deeply plugged into nature.
The European Settler Arrives
When European leaders dispatched the first ships in our direction, the plan was to discover new resources – but the quality of weather and the bounty of everything from wood to wildlife soon 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 slice up the “New World” by transporting over poorly prepared colonists as fast as they could. In the beginning, they skirmished with the alarmed Indians of America’s eastern seaboard. But that soon gave way to trade, because the Europeans who landed here learned their survival was doubtful without native help.
Thus followed years of comparative 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 anxious to locate additional resources, and some colonists came for independence and adventure.
They needed more space. And so began the process of forcing the American Indian out of the way.
It took the shape of cash arrangements, barter, and famously, treaties that were almost consistently neglected after the Indians were forced away from 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 areas inhabited by these Native American tribes. By the 1850s almost 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 located 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 met adversity as the steady stream of European immigrants into northeastern American cities pushed a stream of immigrants into the western lands already populated by these various 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 in addition to 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 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 opportunities for those ready to make the huge quest 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 group-inhabited West.
Native American Tribes
Native American Policy can be defined as the laws and regulations and procedures established 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 country, it adopted the European policies towards these local peoples, but over the course of two centuries the U.S. adapted its own widely varying policies regarding the evolving perspectives and necessities of Native American supervision.
In 1824, in order to execute the U.S. government’s Native American policies, Congress formed a new agency 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 varying cultural identities; however, at other times the government attempted to compel the Native American tribes to give up their cultural identity, let go of their land and assimilate into the American customs.
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With the steady stream of settlers into Indian controlled land, Eastern newspapers circulated 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 routinely helped settlers cross over the Plains. Not only did the American Indians peddle wild game and other supplies to travelers, but they acted as guides and messengers between wagon trains as well. Despite the friendly natures of the American Indians, settlers still anticipated the risk of an attack.
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To calm these worries, in 1851 the U.S. government kept 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 not to attack 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 quietly 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 long. After hearing testimonies of fertile acreage and tremendous 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 area. With so many newcomers moving west, the federal government established a plan of restricting Native Americans to reservations, small swaths of acreage within a group’s territory that was set aside exclusively for Indian use, to be able to grant more territory for “” non-Indian settlers.
In a series of new treaties the U.S. government made Native Americans to abandon their land and move to reservations in exchange for protection from attacks by white settlers. In addition, the Indians were allocated a yearly stipend that would include money in addition to food, livestock, household goods and farming tools. These reservations were created in an effort to pave the way for increasing U.S. expansion and involvement in the West, as well as to keep the Native Americans divided from the whites in order to lessen the potential for conflict.
History of the Plains Indians
These agreements had many challenges. Most importantly many of the native peoples did not entirely understand 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 departments responsible for applying these policies were weighed down with awful management and corruption. In fact many treaty terms were never executed.
The U.S. government almost never honored their side of the accords even when the Native Americans moved quietly to their reservations. Shady bureau agents repeatedly sold the supplies that were intended for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Additionally, as settlers demanded more property in the West, the federal government frequently cut the size of Indian reservations. By this time, many of the Native American peoples were dissatisfied with the treaties and angered by the settlers’ constant hunger for land.
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Angered by the government’s dishonorable and unjust policies, some Native American tribes, including bands of Cheyennes, Arapahos, Comanches and Sioux, battled back. As they struggled to maintain their territories and their tribes’ survival, over a thousand skirmishes and battles broke out in the West between 1861 and 1891. In an attempt to coerce Native Americans onto the reservations and to end the violence, the U.S. government responded to these hostilities with significant military campaigns. Obviously the U.S. government’s Indian policies required of a change.
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Native American policy changed dramatically following the Civil War. Reformers believed that the policy of driving Native Americans into reservations was too harsh even while industrialists, who were worried about their property and resources, viewed assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” as the only long-term method of guaranteeing Native American survival. In 1871 the government enacted a critical law stating that the United States would no longer deal with Native American tribes as autonomous entities.
This law signaled a drastic change in the government’s working 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 U.S. government, Congress imagined that it would be easier to make the policy of assimilation a widely recognised part of the cultural mainstream of America.
More On American Indian History
Many U.S. government officials perceived assimilation as the most effective solution to what they deemed “the Indian problem,” and the single lasting 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 move out of their customary dwellings, move into wooden houses and turn into farmers.
The federal government passed laws that required Native Americans to reject their established appearance and lifestyle. Some laws banned common spiritual practices while others required Indian men to cut their long hair. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations set up courts to impose federal regulations that often banned traditional cultural and spiritual practices.
To speed the assimilation operation, the government set up Indian training centers that tried to quickly and vigorously Americanize Indian children. According to the director 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 compelled students to speak only English, wear proper American fashion and to substitute their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new regulations brought Native Americans nearer to the conclusion of their original tribal identity and the start of their daily life as citizens under the complete control of the U.S. administration.
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 program, which was created to “civilize” American Indians by teaching them to become farmers. In order to accomplish this, Congress wanted to increase non-public ownership of Indian property by splitting up reservations, which were collectively held, and offering each family their own parcel of land.
Additionally, by pushing the Native Americans onto limited plots of land, western developers and settlers could purchase the remaining territory. The General Allotment Act, also referred to as the Dawes Act, required that the Indian lands be surveyed and every family be provided with 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 hoped that the Dawes Act would break-up Indian tribes and encourage individual enterprise, while trimming the expense of Indian supervision and producing prime property to be purchased by white settlers.
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The Dawes Act proved to be catastrophic for the American Indians; over the next decades they existed under regulations that outlawed their traditional way of life and yet didn’t offer the critical resources to support their businesses and families. Splitting the reservations into smaller parcels of land led to the significant decrease of Indian-owned property. Inside three decades, the tribes had lost over 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.
Commonly, Native Americans were duped out of their allotments or were forced to sell off their land in order to pay bills and provide for their families. As a result, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were often unable to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, like the creators of the Act had anticipated. This also generated resentment among Indians toward the U.S. government, as the allotment practice often ruined land that was the spiritual and social location of their activities.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed substantially. Due to U.S. government policies, American Indians were forced from their places of residence as their native lands were parceled out. The Plains, which they had previously roamed alone, were now filled with white settlers.
The Upshot of the Indian Wars
Over all these years the Indians ended up defrauded out of their property, food and way of life, as the federal government’s Indian policies forced them into reservations and tried to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands would not survive relocation, assimilation and military loss; by 1890 the Native American population was decreased to less than 250,000 persons. Due to generations of discriminatory and dodgy policies instituted by the United States government between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was altered permanently.
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