Ages before the terms Native American or Indian were created, 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 heritage without disturbance. And that history is fascinating.
From Mayan and Incan ruins, from the mounds left in the central and southern parts of what is today the U.S. we have learned quite a bit. It’s a story of beautiful artwork and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed remarkably advanced buildings and public works.
While there was inevitable tribal conflict, that was just a slight blemish in the account 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 vessels in this direction, the objective was to discover new resources – but the quality of climate and the bounty of everything from wood 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 raced to slice up the “New World” by sending over inadequately prepared colonists as fast as possible. In the beginning, they skirmished with the surprised Indians of America’s eastern seaboard. But that soon gave way to trade, because the Europeans who landed here knew 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 followed soon after. Kings and queens from thousands of miles away were impatient to locate additional resources, and some colonists came for freedom and adventure.
They wanted 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 nearly consistently neglected once the Indians were forced 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 areas occupied 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 situated in present day 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 experienced misfortune as the continuous stream of European immigrants into northeastern American cities delivered a stream of immigrants into the western lands already occupied by these diverse 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 wouldn’t end there. Between 1830 and 1860 the United States practically doubled the amount of land within its control.
These territorial gains coincided with the arrival of hordes of European and Asian immigrants who wanted to join the surge of American settlers heading west. This, partnered with the discovery of gold in 1849, presented attractive possibilities for those ready to make the long quest westward. As a result, with the military’s protection and the U.S. government’s assistance, many settlers began 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 regulations and operations made 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 native peoples, but over two centuries the U.S. designed its own widely varying regulations regarding the evolving perspectives and necessities of Native American oversight.
In 1824, in order to administer the U.S. government’s Native American policies, Congress made 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, independent political communities with numerous 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 traditions.
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With the steady stream of settlers into Indian “” land, Eastern newspapers circulated sensationalized stories of cruel 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 often helped settlers cross the Plains. Not only did the American Indians peddle 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 presumed the likelihood of an attack.
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To quiet these fears, in 1851 the U.S. government placed a conference with several local Indian tribes and established the Treaty of Fort Laramie. Under this treaty, each Native American tribe consented to a bounded territory, allowed the government to construct roadways 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 gross annual payments to the Indians. The Native American tribes responded quietly 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 between 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 stand very long. After hearing stories of fertile acreage and great mineral wealth in the West, the government soon broke their promises established in the Treat of Fort Laramie by allowing thousands of non-Indians to flood into the region. With so many newcomers heading west, the federal government established a policy of confining Native Americans to reservations, modest swaths of land within a group’s territory “” set aside exclusively for their use, to be able to grant more land for “” 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 stipend that would include money in addition to foodstuffs, livestock, household goods and farming equipment. These reservations were established in an attempt to clear the way for increasing U.S. growth and involvement in the West, as well as to keep the Native Americans divided from the whites in order to lessen the potential for conflict.
History of the Plains Indians
These deals had many complications. Most significantly many of the native peoples did not completely understand the document that they were signing or the conditions within it; further, the treaties did not acknowledge the cultural norms of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government departments responsible for applying these policies were plagued with awful management and corruption. In fact many treaty terms were never executed.
The U.S. government rarely held up their side of the accords even when the Native Americans migrated quietly to their reservations. Shady bureau agents often 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 federal government constantly reduced the size of Indian reservations. By this time, many of the Native American peoples were unhappy with the treaties and angered by the settlers’ constant hunger for land.
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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 territories and their tribes’ survival, more than one 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 conflicts with costly military campaigns. Obviously the U.S. government’s Indian policies were in need of a change.
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Native American policy shifted considerably after the Civil War. Reformers felt that the policy of forcing Native Americans on to reservations was far too strict while industrialists, who were worried about their property and resources, thought of assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” as the single permanent means of ensuring Native American survival. In 1871 the federal government approved a critical law proclaiming that the United States would no longer deal with Native American tribes as independent nations.
This law signaled a significant change in the government’s working relationship with the native peoples – Congress now regarded the Native Americans, not as nations outside of its jurisdiction, but as wards of the government. By making Native Americans wards of the U.S. government, Congress concluded that it would be better to make the policy of assimilation a widely acknowledged part of the cultural mainstream of America.
More On American Indian History
Many U.S. government representatives looked at assimilation as the most practical answer to what they deemed “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 pressed Native Americans to move out of their traditional dwellings, move into wooden buildings and turn into farmers.
The federal government passed laws that required Native Americans to reject their usual appearance and lifestyle. Some laws banned common spiritual practices while others instructed Indian males to cut their long hair. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations organized courts to enforce federal regulations that often restricted traditional cultural and spiritual practices.
To hasten the assimilation operation, the government set up Indian training centers that tried to quickly and forcefully 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 objective, the schools required students to speak only English, wear proper American attire and to switch their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new regulations helped bring Native Americans nearer to the end of their original tribal identity and the beginning 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 handed down the General Allotment Act, the most important element of the U.S. government’s assimilation platform, which was developed to “civilize” American Indians by teaching them to be farmers. In order to accomplish this, Congress needed to create private title of Indian property by splitting up reservations, which were collectively owned, and giving each family their own plot of land.
Additionally, by pushing the Native Americans onto small plots, western developers and settlers could purchase the remaining acreage. The General Allotment Act, referred to as 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 were given between 40 to 80 acres; the rest of the land was to be sold. Congress wished that the Dawes Act would divide Indian tribes and stimulate individual enterprise, while cutting down the expense of Indian supervision and serving up prime property to be sold to white settlers.
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The Dawes Act turned out to be disastrous for the American Indians; over the next generations they lived under policies that outlawed their traditional approach to life but did not provide the critical resources to support their businesses and families. Dividing the reservations into smaller parcels of land brought about the significant decrease of Indian-owned land. Within three decades, the people had lost over two-thirds of the acreage that they had controlled before the Dawes Act was passed in 1887; the majority of the remaining land was purchased by white settlers.
Frequently, Native Americans were cheated out of their allotments or were forced to sell off their land in order pay bills and take care of their families. Because of that, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were often unable to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, like the makers of the policy had desired. Aside from that it developed anger among Indians toward the U.S. government, as the allotment method often destroyed land that was the spiritual and cultural center of their days.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed substantially. Due to U.S. government regulations, American Indians were forced from their places of residence because their native lands were parceled out. The Plains, which they had previously roamed without restriction, were now filled up with white settlers.
The Upshot of the Indian Wars
Over all these years the Indians had been defrauded out of their land, food and approach to life, as the federal government’s Indian plans forced them into reservations and tried to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands didn’t make it through relocation, assimilation and military defeat; by 1890 the Native American population was decreased to less than 250,000 persons. Thanks to decades of discriminatory and ruthless policies instituted by the United States government between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was changed permanently.
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