Ages before the terms Native American or Indian were necessary, the tribes were spread throughout 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 interference. 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 narrative of beautiful artwork and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed remarkably advanced buildings and public works.
While there was inescapable tribal conflict, that was just a slight blemish in the experience of our ancestors. They were at peace with this beautiful continent and intensely connected to nature.
The European Settler Arrives
When European leaders sent the first vessels in this direction, the plan was to explore new resources – however the quality of weather and the bounty of everything from timber 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 rushed to carve up the “New World” by shipping over poorly prepared colonists as fast as they could. At the outset, they skirmished with the surprised Indians of America’s eastern seaboard. But that shortly gave way to trade, since the Europeans who arrived here understood their survival was doubtful without Indian help.
Thus followed decades of comparative peace as the settlers got themselves established on American land. But the pressure to push inland followed soon after. Kings and queens from thousands of miles away were restless to find even more resources, and some colonists came for freedom and adventure.
They required more space. And so began the process of forcing the American Indian out of the way.
It took the shape of cash payments, barter, and notoriously, treaties that were almost consistently ignored 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 regions occupied by these Native American tribes. By the 1850s almost 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 situated 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 hardship 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 in 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 along with the authority over Oregon country, Texas and California; America’s expansion did not end there. Between 1830 and 1860 the United States pretty much 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, combined with the discovery of gold in 1849, presented attractive opportunities for those ready to make the extended journey westward. Therefore, with the military’s protection and the U.S. government’s assistance, many settlers set about establishing their homesteads in the Great Plains and other areas of the Native American tribe-inhabited West.
Native American Tribes
Native American Policy can be defined as the laws and operations made 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 native peoples, but throughout two centuries the U.S. adapted its very own widely varying regulations regarding the evolving perspectives and necessities of Native American regulation.
In 1824, in order to administrate 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, 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, hand over their land and assimilate into the American customs.
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With the steady flow of settlers into Indian “” land, Eastern newspapers circulated sensationalized reports 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 generally 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 good natures of the American Indians, settlers still feared the possibility of an attack.
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To quiet these concerns, in 1851 the U.S. government presented 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 to never 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 peacefully 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 between their tribes in order to accept the conditions of the treaty.
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This peaceful agreement between the U.S. government and the Native American tribes did not stand very long. After hearing testimonies of fertile terrain and great 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 area. With so many newcomers heading west, the federal government established a policy of limiting Native Americans to reservations, modest swaths of acreage within a group’s territory that was earmarked exclusively for Indian use, to be able to grant more land for the non-Indian settlers.
In a series of new treaties the U.S. government commanded Native Americans to give up their land and migrate to reservations in exchange for protection from attacks by white settlers. In addition, the Indians were allocated a yearly payment that would include cash in addition to food, animals, household goods and farming equipment. These reservations were created in an effort to clear the way for heightened U.S. expansion and administration in the West, as well as to keep the Native Americans separate from the whites in order to decrease the chance for conflict.
History of the Plains Indians
These accords had many challenges. Most of all many of the native people did not properly grasp the document that they were confirming 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 administering these policies were weighed down with poor management and corruption. In fact most treaty provisions were never executed.
The U.S. government rarely fulfilled their side of the deals even when the Native Americans migrated quietly to their reservations. Unethical bureau agents repeatedly sold off the supplies that were intended for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Additionally, as settlers required more land in the West, the government continually decreased the size of Indian reservations. By this time, most of the Native American peoples were unhappy with the treaties and angered by the settlers’ persistent appetite for land.
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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 protect their lands and their tribes’ survival, more than one thousand skirmishes and battles broke out in the West between 1861 and 1891. In an effort to push Native Americans onto the reservations and to end the violence, the U.S. government responded to these incursions with significant military campaigns. Obviously the U.S. government’s Indian regulations were in need an adjustment.
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Native American policy shifted dramatically after the Civil War. Reformers believed that the policy of driving Native Americans into reservations was too strict even while industrialists, who were concerned with their land and resources, thought of assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” as the only long-term strategy for guaranteeing Native American survival. In 1871 the federal government passed a pivotal law stating that the United States would no longer treat Native American tribes as independent nations.
This law signaled a significant shift 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 concluded that it was easier to make the policy of assimilation a widely 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 deemed “the Indian problem,” and the sole lasting means of protecting 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 established dwellings, move into wooden buildings and turn into farmers.
The federal government enacted laws that required Native Americans to quit their traditional appearance and lifestyle. Some laws banned customary religious practices while others ordered Indian men to cut their long hair. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations organized courts to impose federal regulations that often banned traditional cultural and religious practices.
To speed up the assimilation operation, the government started Indian schools that tried to quickly and vigorously Americanize Indian kids. As per the director 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 students to speak only English, put on proper American clothing and to switch their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new regulations helped bring Native Americans nearer to the end of their classic tribal identity and the start of their life as citizens under the complete control of the U.S. authorities.
Native American Treaties with the United States
In 1887, Congress approved the General Allotment Act, the most important component of the U.S. government’s assimilation program, which was created to “civilize” American Indians by educating them to become farmers. In order to make this happen, Congress wanted to create non-public title of Indian land by splitting up reservations, which were collectively held, and giving each family their own block of land.
Additionally, by pushing the Native Americans onto limited plots of land, western developers and settlers could purchase the left over acreage. The General Allotment Act, better known as the Dawes Act, required that the Indian lands be surveyed and each family be provided with an allotment of between 80 and 160 acres, while unmarried adults received between 40 to 80 acres; the remaining territory was to be sold. Congress hoped that the Dawes Act would breakup Indian tribes and inspire individual enterprise, while lowering the expense of Indian administration and providing prime property to be purchased by 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 policies that outlawed their traditional way of living and yet did not provide the vital resources to support their businesses and households. Dividing the reservations into smaller parcels of land brought about the significant decrease of Indian-owned property. Within thirty years, the tribes had lost over 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.
Regularly, Native Americans were duped out of their allotments or were required to sell their property in order pay bills and feed their families. Consequently, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were routinely unable to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, as the creators of the Act had expected. Further, it created resentment among Indians toward the U.S. government, as the allotment practice often ruined land that was the spiritual and social center of their activities.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed dramatically. Due to U.S. government regulations, American Indians were forced from their places of residence 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 all these years the Indians ended up cheated out of their property, food and way of life, as the federal government’s Indian regulations forced them onto reservations and attempted to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands could not make it through relocation, cultural destruction and military defeat; by 1890 the Native American population was reduced to fewer than 250,000 persons. Due to decades of discriminatory and dodgy policies instituted by the United States government between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was changed forever.
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