Far before the terms Native American or Indian were necessary, 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 traditions and heritage without disturbance. And that history is captivating.
From Mayan and Incan ruins, from the mounds left in the central and southern regions of what’s 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 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 dispatched the first ships in this direction, the goal was to discover new resources – but the quality of environment and the bounty of everything from timber to wildlife soon changed their tune. As those leaders learned 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, since the Europeans who came ashore here learned that their survival was doubtful without Indian help.
Thus followed years of relative 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 even more 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 arrangements, barter, and notoriously, treaties that were almost consistently ignored after the Indians were pushed 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 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 territory of the Southern Plains.
The Sioux, Crows and Blackfeet dominated the Northern Plains. These Native American groups encountered misfortune as the continuous flow of European immigrants into northeastern American cities delivered a stream of immigrants into the western lands already inhabited 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 would not end there. Between 1830 and 1860 the United States practically doubled the amount of acreage within its control.
These territorial gains coincided with the arrival of troves 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 alluring opportunities for those prepared make the huge trip westward. Consequently, with the military’s protection and the U.S. government’s assistance, many settlers began establishing 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 define the relationship between Native American tribes and the federal government. When the United States first 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 regulations regarding the changing perspectives and requirements of Native American regulation.
In 1824, in order to administer the U.S. government’s Native American policies, Congress made 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, separate political communities with different cultural identities; however, at other times the government attempted to force the Native American tribes to give up their cultural identity, hand over their land and assimilate into the American customs.
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With the steady flow of settlers in to Indian controlled land, Eastern newspapers circulated sensationalized stories of cruel native tribes committing 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 routinely helped settlers get across the Plains. Not only did the American Indians sell wild game and other supplies 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 likelihood of an attack.
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To quiet these worries, in 1851 the U.S. government presented 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 tracks and forts in this territory and agreed never to 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 consented to end the hostilities amidst 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 didn’t last very long. After hearing tales of fertile acreage and great 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 region. With so many newcomers moving west, the federal government established a policy of restricting Native Americans to reservations, small areas of acreage within a group’s territory that was reserved exclusively for Indian use, in order to offer more territory for the non-Indian settlers.
In a series of new treaties the U.S. government made Native Americans to surrender their land and move to reservations in exchange for protection from attacks by white settlers. In addition, the Indians were given a yearly stipend that would include cash in addition to foodstuffs, animals, household goods and farming tools. These reservations were created in an effort to pave 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 reduce the chance for friction.
History of the Plains Indians
These agreements had many complications. Most importantly many of the native peoples didn’t properly understand the document that they were signing or the conditions within it; furthermore, the treaties did not consider the cultural norms of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government agencies accountable for administering these policies were overwhelmed with poor management and corruption. In fact many treaty provisions were never executed.
The U.S. government almost never held up their side of the accords even when the Native Americans moved quietly to their reservations. Unethical bureau agents repeatedly sold the supplies that were intended for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Moreover, as settlers needed more property in the West, the government frequently cut the size of the reservations. By this time, most of the Native American peoples were dissatisfied with the treaties and angered by the settlers’ persistent appetite 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 territories 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 significant military operations. Clearly the U.S. government’s Indian regulations required an adjustment.
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Native American policy shifted dramatically after the Civil War. Reformers felt that the scheme of pushing Native Americans into reservations was far too strict even while industrialists, who were worried about their land and resources, thought of assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” as the only permanent strategy for guaranteeing Native American survival. In 1871 the government approved a critical law proclaiming that the United States would no longer deal with Native American tribes as independent nations.
This legislation signaled a significant change in the government’s working relationship with the native peoples – Congress now viewed 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 presumed that it was easier to make the policy of assimilation a broadly acknowledged part of the cultural mainstream of America.
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Many U.S. government officials considered assimilation as the most effective answer to what they viewed as “the Indian problem,” and the only lasting means of protecting 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 traditional dwellings, move into wooden houses and grow into farmers.
The federal government handed down laws that forced Native Americans to reject their traditional appearance and way of life. Some laws banned customary religious practices while others instructed Indian males to cut their long locks. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations organized courts to enforce federal regulations that often banned traditional cultural and spiritual practices.
To speed the assimilation operation, the government set up Indian schools that tried to quickly and forcefully 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.” To be able to make this happen objective, the schools required pupils to speak only English, wear proper American attire and to replace their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new regulations helped bring Native Americans closer to the end of their traditional tribal identity and the beginning of their existence as citizens under the absolute control of the U.S. authorities.
Native American Treaties with the United States
In 1887, Congress enacted the General Allotment Act, the most important part of the U.S. government’s assimilation platform, which was written to “civilize” American Indians by educating them to be farmers. In order to make this happen, Congress planned to establish non-public title of Indian land by splitting up reservations, which were collectively held, and issuing each family their own stretch of land.
In addition to this, by forcing the Native Americans onto small plots, western developers and settlers could purchase the left over land. 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 received between 40 to 80 acres; the rest of the land was to be sold. Congress hoped that the Dawes Act would split up Indian tribes and inspire individual enterprise, while trimming the expense of Indian supervision and providing prime property to be sold to white settlers.
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The Dawes Act proved to be catastrophic for the American Indians; over the next generations they lived under policies that outlawed their traditional way of life but failed to supply the crucial resources to support their businesses and households. Splitting the reservations into small parcels of land led to the significant reduction of Indian-owned property. Within thirty years, the people had lost in excess of two-thirds of the region that they had controlled before the Dawes Act was passed in 1887; the majority of the remaining land was sold to white settlers.
Commonly, Native Americans were cheated out of their allotments or were required to sell their property in order to pay bills and feed their families. As a result, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were generally not able to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, like the makers of the Act had expected. Further, it generated anger among Indians toward the U.S. government, as the allotment operation sometimes ruined land that was the spiritual and societal location of their lives.
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 housing because their native lands were parceled out. The Plains, which they had previously roamed without restriction, were now inhabited with white settlers.
The Upshot of the Indian Wars
Over the years the Indians have been cheated out of their territory, food and lifestyle, as the federal government’s Indian plans coerced them onto reservations and attempted to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands did not survive relocation, cultural destruction and military defeat; by 1890 the Native American population was reduced to less than 250,000 people. Due to decades 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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