Centuries before the terms Native American or Indian were necessary, 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 thousands of years, the American Indian grew its customs 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 currently the U.S. we have learned quite a bit. It’s a story of beautiful artwork and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed highly elaborate structures and public works.
While there was unavoidable tribal conflict, that was just a slight blemish in the history of our ancestors. They were at peace with this beautiful continent and deeply connected to nature.
The European Settler Arrives
When European leaders sent the first vessels in our direction, the objective was to explore new resources – but the quality of environment and the bounty of everything from timber to wildlife subsequently changed their tune. As those leaders learned from their explorers, the drive to colonize spread like wildfire.
The English, French and Spanish rushed to carve up the “New World” by sending over poorly prepared colonists as fast as they could. At the outset, they skirmished with the alarmed Indians of America’s eastern seaboard. But that shortly gave way to trade, because the Europeans who landed here knew that their survival was doubtful with no native help.
Thus followed decades of comparative peace as the settlers got themselves established on American land. But the drive to push inland followed soon after. Kings and queens from thousands of miles away were anxious to find additional resources, and some colonists came for independence and opportunity.
They needed more space. And so began the process of pushing the American Indian out of the way.
It took the form of cash payments, barter, and notoriously, treaties which were almost uniformly neglected once the Indians were moved away from the territory 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 territories occupied 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 situated 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 encountered adversity as the steady stream of European immigrants into northeastern American cities pushed 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 as well as the authority over Oregon country, Texas and California; America’s expansion would not end there. Between 1830 and 1860 the U.S. practically 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 alluring possibilities for those willing to make the long journey westward. As a result, with the military’s protection and the U.S. government’s assistance, many settlers started building their homesteads in the Great Plains and other areas of the Native American group-inhabited West.
Native American Tribes
Native American Policy can be defined as the laws and operations established and adapted in the United States to summarize the relationship between Native American tribes and the federal government. When the United States first became an independent country, it implemented the European policies towards these native peoples, but over the course of two centuries the U.S. adapted its own widely varying policies regarding the changing perspectives and necessities of Native American supervision.
In 1824, in order to administrate 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 directly 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 compel 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 printed 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 in no way the norm; in fact, Native American tribes repeatedly helped settlers cross 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 anticipated the possibility of an attack.
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To soothe these fears, 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 roadways 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 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 signed the treaty, even agreed to end the hostilities amongst their tribes to be able to accept the terms of the treaty.
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This peaceful agreement between the U.S. government and the Native American tribes didn’t hold very long. After hearing stories of fertile acreage and great mineral wealth in the West, the government soon broke their pledge established in the Treat of Fort Laramie by permitting thousands of non-Indians to flood into the region. With so many newcomers moving west, the federal government established a policy of limiting Native Americans to reservations, modest areas of acreage within a group’s territory “” earmarked exclusively for their use, in order to offer more territory for the non-Indian settlers.
In a series of new treaties the U.S. government compelled Native Americans to abandon 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 money in addition to food, animals, household goods and agricultural tools. These reservations were created in an attempt to pave the way for increasing U.S. expansion and involvement in the West, as well as to keep the Native Americans separate from the whites in order to lessen the chance for friction.
History of the Plains Indians
These agreements had many complications. Most of all many of the native peoples did not properly 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 institutions accountable for administering these policies were overwhelmed with poor management and corruption. In fact most treaty terms were never carried out.
The U.S. government rarely honored 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 meant for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Moreover, as settlers required more territory in the West, the government frequently cut the size of the reservations. By this time, many of the Native American peoples were dissatisfied with the treaties and angered by the settlers’ persistent hunger for territory.
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Angered by the government’s deceitful and unfair policies, several Native American tribes, including bands of Cheyennes, Arapahos, Comanches and Sioux, battled back. As they fought to defend 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 reacted to these skirmishes with costly military operations. Clearly the U.S. government’s Indian regulations required of a change.
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Native American policy shifted considerably following the Civil War. Reformers believed that the scheme of driving Native Americans on to reservations was far too strict even while industrialists, who were worried about their land and resources, looked at assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” as the only long-term strategy for ensuring Native American survival. In 1871 the government enacted a critical law stating that the United States would not deal with Native American tribes as sovereign nations.
This law signaled a major change in the government’s relationship with the native peoples – Congress now regarded 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 presumed that it was easier 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 viewed assimilation as the most effective remedy for what they viewed as “the Indian problem,” and the sole lasting method 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 established dwellings, move into wooden homes and grow into farmers.
The federal government passed laws that required Native Americans to reject their traditional appearance and lifestyle. Some laws outlawed customary spiritual practices while others instructed Indian men to cut their long hair. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations founded courts to impose federal regulations that often banned traditional cultural and spiritual practices.
To accelerate the assimilation course, the government started Indian facilities that attempted to quickly and forcefully Americanize Indian kids. According to the founder of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, the schools were created to “kill the Indian and save the man.” In order to achieve this objective, the schools compelled students to speak only English, dress in proper American clothing and to replace their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new regulations brought Native Americans nearer to the end of their original tribal identity and the start of their daily life as citizens under the complete control of the U.S. government.
Native American Treaties with the United States
In 1887, Congress enacted the General Allotment Act, the most important element of the U.S. government’s assimilation program, which was developed to “civilize” American Indians by educating them to become farmers. In order to make this happen, Congress planned to create non-public ownership of Indian property by dividing reservations, which were collectively held, and issuing each family their own stretch 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, often called the Dawes Act, required that the Indian lands be surveyed and each family be given an allotment of between 80 and 160 acres, while unmarried adults received between 40 to 80 acres; the remaining land was to be sold. Congress expected that the Dawes Act would breakup Indian tribes and increase individual enterprise, while lowering the expense of Indian administration and serving up prime land to be sold to white settlers.
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The Dawes Act turned out to be catastrophic for the American Indians; over the next generations they lived under policies that outlawed their traditional approach to life but failed to provide the crucial resources to support their businesses and households. Splitting the reservations into smaller parcels of land triggered the significant decrease of Indian-owned property. Within three decades, the people had lost in excess of 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 cheated out of their allotments or were required to sell their land in order pay bills and take care of their own families. As a result, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were generally not able to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, as the makers of the Act had wished. This also produced resentment among Indians toward the U.S. government, as the allotment practice often destroyed land that was the spiritual and social focus of their activities.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed tremendously. 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 these years the Indians ended up cheated out of their property, food and approach to life, as the “” government’s Indian regulations shoved them into reservations and attempted to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands could not survive relocation, assimilation and military defeat; by 1890 the Native American population was decreased to fewer than 250,000 people. Thanks to generations of discriminatory and corrupt policies instituted by the United States government between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was altered permanently.
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