Ages before the terms Native American or Indian were created, the tribes were spread all over 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.
[ssad ssadblk=”Book choice”]For centuries, the American Indian developed its customs and legacy without interference. 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 story of beautiful craft work and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed highly elaborate buildings and public works.
While there was unavoidable tribal conflict, that was simply a slight blemish in the history 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 intention 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 learned from their explorers, the motivation to colonize spread like wildfire.
The English, French and Spanish rushed to carve up the “New World” by transporting over poorly prepared colonists as fast as possible. At the outset, they skirmished with the surprised Indians of America’s eastern seaboard. But that ultimately gave way to trade, since the Europeans who arrived here learned that their survival was doubtful with no Indian help.
Thus followed decades 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 restless to find even more resources, and some colonists came for freedom and adventure.
They required more space. And so began the process of driving 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 pushed off 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 nearly 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 located 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 experienced hardship as the constant stream of European immigrants into northeastern American cities delivered 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 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 U.S. 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 wished to join the surge of American settlers heading west. This, partnered with the discovery of gold in 1849, presented captivating opportunities for those ready to make the long quest 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 parts of the Native American group-inhabited West.
Native American Tribes
Native American Policy can be defined as the laws and procedures developed and adapted in the United States to define the relationship between Native American tribes and the federal government. When the United States initially became an independent nation, it implemented the European policies towards the native peoples, but over the course of 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 execute the U.S. government’s Native American policies, Congress created a new agency inside the War Department called the 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, let go of their land and assimilate into the American traditions.
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With the steady flow of settlers into Indian controlled land, Eastern newspapers circulated sensationalized stories of savage native tribes committing massive 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 repeatedly 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 friendly natures of the American Indians, settlers still feared the risk of an attack.
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To soothe these anxieties, 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 roadways 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 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 agreed to end the hostilities amidst 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 didn’t hold long. After hearing tales 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, limited areas of land within a group’s territory “” set aside exclusively for their use, in order to give more land for the non-Indian settlers.
In a series of new treaties the U.S. government commanded Native Americans to surrender their land and migrate to reservations in exchange for protection from attacks by white settlers. In addition, the Indians were offered a yearly payment that would include cash in addition to food, animals, household goods and farming tools. These reservations were created in an attempt to clear the way for heightened U.S. expansion and administration in the West, as well as to keep the Native Americans divided from the whites in order to reduce the potential for friction.
History of the Plains Indians
These deals had many problems. Most importantly many of the native people did not completely understand the document that they were confirming or the conditions within it; moreover, the treaties did not acknowledge the cultural norms of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government agencies responsible for applying these policies were overwhelmed with poor management and corruption. In fact many treaty conditions were never carried out.
The U.S. government almost never fulfilled their side of the accords even when the Native Americans relocated quietly to their reservations. Shady bureau agents frequently sold the supplies that were intended for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Moreover, as settlers required more territory in the West, the government continually cut the size of reservation lands. By this time, many of the Native American people were unhappy with the treaties and angered by settlers’ endless appetite for land.
A Look at Native American Symbols
Angered by the government’s dishonest and unfair policies, several Native American tribes, including bands of Cheyennes, Arapahos, Comanches and Sioux, battled back. As they struggled to maintain 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 compel Native Americans onto the reservations and to end the violence, the U.S. government responded to these conflicts with costly military campaigns. Obviously the U.S. government’s Indian regulations were in need of a change.
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Native American policy shifted dramatically after the Civil War. Reformers believed that the scheme of forcing Native Americans onto reservations was far too strict even while industrialists, who were worried about their property and resources, considered assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” to be the only permanent strategy for guaranteeing Native American survival. In 1871 the government approved a pivotal law stating that the United States would not deal with Native American tribes as autonomous entities.
This legislation signaled a major shift in the government’s relationship with the native peoples – Congress now considered the Native Americans, not as countries outside of its jurisdictional control, but as wards of the government. By making Native Americans wards of the U.S. government, Congress believed that it was better to make the policy of assimilation a widely accepted part of the cultural mainstream of America.
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Many U.S. government administrators considered assimilation as the most effective answer to what they viewed as “the Indian problem,” and the single lasting strategy for protecting U.S. interests in the West and the survival of the American Indians. In order to accomplish this, the government pressed Native Americans to relocate out of their established dwellings, move into wooden dwellings and grow into farmers.
The federal government enacted laws that pressed Native Americans to quit their usual appearance and way of life. Some laws banned common spiritual practices while others instructed Indian men to cut their long locks. 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 hasten the assimilation process, the government set up Indian facilities that tried to quickly and forcefully Americanize Indian kids. According to the founder of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, the schools were developed to “kill the Indian and save the man.” In order to achieve this objective, the schools compelled enrollees to speak only English, wear proper American attire and to replace their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new regulations brought Native Americans closer to the end of their traditional tribal identity and the beginning of their daily life as citizens under the full control of the U.S. authorities.
Native American Treaties with the United States
In 1887, Congress approved the General Allotment Act, the most important part of the U.S. government’s assimilation program, which was created to “civilize” American Indians by educating them to be farmers. In order to achieve this, Congress needed to increase non-public ownership of Indian land by splitting up reservations, which were collectively owned, and allowing 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 remaining land. The General Allotment Act, better 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 remaining acreage was to be sold. Congress was hoping that the Dawes Act would break up Indian tribes and encourage individual enterprise, while reducing the expense of Indian administration and serving up prime land to be purchased by white settlers.
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The Dawes Act proved to be disastrous for the American Indians; over the next generations they lived under regulations that outlawed their traditional lifestyle yet failed to offer the vital resources to support their businesses and families. Dividing the reservations into smaller parcels of land triggered the significant reduction of Indian-owned property. Within three decades, the people 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 sold to white settlers.
Regularly, Native Americans were cheated out of their allotments or were required to sell off their property in order pay bills and provide for their own families. Consequently, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were generally not able to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, as the creators of the policy had desired. Further, it created anger among Indians toward the U.S. government, as the allotment process often ruined land that was the spiritual and cultural center of their lives.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed tremendously. Due to U.S. administration 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 limits, were now inhabited with white settlers.
The Upshot of the Indian Wars
Over these years the Indians had been cheated out of their territory, food and approach to life, as the federal government’s Indian regulations shoved them inside reservations and attempted to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands didn’t survive relocation, assimilation and military defeat; by 1890 the Native American population was reduced to under 250,000 people. As a result of generations of discriminatory and corrupt policies implemented by the United States authorities between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was altered forever.