Long 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 thousands of years, the American Indian developed its culture 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 is today the U.S. we have learned plenty. It’s a story of beautiful arts and crafts and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed remarkably advanced structures and public works.
While there was unavoidable tribal conflict, that was nothing more than a slight blemish in the tale of our forebears. They were at peace with this beautiful continent and deeply connected to nature.
The European Settler Arrives
When European leaders sent the first ships in our direction, the objective was to discover new resources – however 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 rushed to slice up the “New World” by sending over poorly prepared colonists as fast as they could. At the beginning, they skirmished with the alarmed Indians of America’s eastern seaboard. But that soon gave way to trade, since the Europeans who arrived 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 pressure 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 independence and opportunity.
They needed 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 notoriously, treaties which were nearly uniformly ignored once the Indians were pushed off the territory in question.
The U.S. government’s policies towards Native Americans in the second half of the nineteenth century were influenced by the desire to expand westward into territories inhabited by these Native American tribes. By the 1850s virtually 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 contemporary 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 experienced hardship as the continuous stream of European immigrants into northeastern American cities pushed a stream of immigrants into the western lands already inhabited 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 as well as the authority over Oregon country, Texas and California; America’s expansion wouldn’t end there. Between 1830 and 1860 the United States roughly doubled the amount of land under 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, partnered with the discovery of gold in 1849, presented alluring possibilities for those ready to make the long journey westward. Therefore, with the military’s protection and the U.S. government’s assistance, many settlers started 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 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 an independent country, it implemented the European policies towards the indigenous peoples, but over two centuries the U.S. tailored its very own widely varying policies regarding the changing perspectives and necessities of Native American oversight.
In 1824, in order to administrate the U.S. government’s Native American policies, Congress made 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, separate 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, surrender their land and assimilate into the American customs.
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With the steady stream of settlers into Indian controlled 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 in no way the norm; in fact, Native American tribes frequently helped settlers cross the Plains. Not only did the American Indians offer 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 possibility of an attack.
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To quiet these concerns, in 1851 the U.S. government held a conference with several local Indian tribes and established the Treaty of Fort Laramie. Within this treaty, each Native American tribe accepted a bounded territory, allowed the government to construct roads and forts in this territory and pledged to never go after 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 entered into the treaty, even agreed to end the hostilities amidst their tribes to be able to accept the terms 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 reports of fertile land 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, small swaths of acreage within a group’s territory that was earmarked exclusively for their use, to be able to grant more property for “” 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 allocated a yearly payment that would include cash in addition to food, livestock, household goods and agricultural tools. These reservations were created in an attempt to clear the way for increased U.S. growth and involvement 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 problems. Most of all many of the native people did not properly understand the document that they were signing or the conditions within it; moreover, the treaties did not respect the cultural norms of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government departments accountable for administering these policies were weighed down with awful management and corruption. In fact many treaty conditions were never carried out.
The U.S. government almost never fulfilled their side of the agreements even when the Native Americans went quietly to their reservations. Unethical bureau agents repeatedly sold off the supplies that were intended for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Moreover, as settlers needed more land in the West, the government constantly cut the size of reservation lands. By this time, most of the Native American peoples were unhappy with the treaties and angered by settlers’ endless hunger for land.
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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, 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 effort to coerce Native Americans onto the reservations and to end the violence, the U.S. government responded to these skirmishes with significant military operations. Clearly the U.S. government’s Indian policies were in need an adjustment.
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Native American policy changed radically after the Civil War. Reformers felt that the policy of pushing Native Americans inside reservations was too strict even while industrialists, who were concerned about their property and resources, considered assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” to be the lone permanent means of guaranteeing Native American survival. In 1871 the government enacted a critical law proclaiming that the United States would no longer treat Native American tribes as independent nations.
This legislation signaled a significant 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 U.S. government, Congress imagined that it would be better to make the policy of assimilation a broadly accepted part of the cultural mainstream of America.
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Many U.S. government administrators considered assimilation as the most effective remedy for what they viewed as “the Indian problem,” and the only 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 relocate out of their customary dwellings, move into wooden buildings and grow into farmers.
The federal government enacted laws that forced Native Americans to abandon their traditional appearance and way of life. Some laws outlawed common religious practices while others instructed Indian men to cut their long hair. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations set up courts to implement federal polices that often prohibited traditional ethnic and religious practices.
To speed the assimilation process, the government set up Indian facilities that attempted to quickly and vigorously Americanize Indian youth. According to the founder of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, the schools were created to “kill the Indian and save the man.” To be able to accomplish this goal, the schools required students to speak only English, wear proper American clothing and to substitute their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new regulations brought Native Americans nearer to the conclusion of their established tribal identity and the start of their life as citizens under the full control of the U.S. government.
Native American Treaties with the United States
In 1887, Congress handed down the General Allotment Act, the most significant element of the U.S. government’s assimilation platform, which was written to “civilize” American Indians by educating them to become farmers. In order to accomplish this, Congress needed to establish non-public title of Indian property by splitting up reservations, which were collectively held, and providing each family their own plot of land.
Additionally, by pushing the Native Americans onto small plots, western developers and settlers could purchase the remaining territory. The General Allotment Act, referred to as the Dawes Act, required that the Indian lands be surveyed and every family be awarded an allotment of between 80 and 160 acres, while unmarried adults were given between 40 to 80 acres; the rest of the acreage was to be sold. Congress hoped that the Dawes Act would divide Indian tribes and inspire 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 lived under policies that outlawed their traditional lifestyle and yet didn’t supply the necessary resources to support their businesses and families. Dividing the reservations into smaller parcels of land led to the significant reduction of Indian-owned property. Within thirty years, the tribes had lost in excess of two-thirds of the region that they had controlled before the Dawes Act was enacted in 1887; the majority of the remaining land was sold to white settlers.
Commonly, Native Americans were cheated out of their allotments or were forced to sell their land in order to pay bills and feed their families. As a result, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were often not able to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, as the creators of the Act had intended. Aside from that it developed animosity among Indians toward the U.S. government, as the allotment operation sometimes destroyed land that was the spiritual and social location of their days.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed significantly. Through U.S. government regulations, American Indians were forced from their living spaces 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 had been cheated out of their territory, food and way of life, as the federal government’s Indian regulations coerced them inside reservations and attempted to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands didn’t make it through relocation, cultural destruction and military loss; by 1890 the Native American population was decreased to less than 250,000 people. Thanks to generations of discriminatory and dodgy policies instituted by the United States authorities between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was altered forever.
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