Long 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 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 traditions and legacy without disturbance. And that history is fascinating.
From Mayan and Incan ruins, from the mounds left in the central and southern regions of what’s today the U.S. we have learned quite a bit. It’s a tale of beautiful craft work 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 experience of our forebears. They were at peace with this beautiful continent and intensely connected to nature.
The European Settler Arrives
When European leaders dispatched the first vessels in this direction, the aim was to explore new resources – but 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 carve up the “New World” by transporting over inadequately prepared colonists as fast as possible. At the outset, they skirmished with the surprised Indians of America’s eastern seaboard. But that soon gave way to trade, because the Europeans who came ashore here knew their survival was doubtful with no Indian help.
Thus followed years 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 restless to find even more resources, and some colonists came for independence and opportunity.
They needed more space. And so began the process of driving the American Indian out of the way.
It took the shape of cash arrangements, barter, and notoriously, treaties which were almost uniformly ignored 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 influenced by the desire to expand westward into areas 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 present day 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 encountered misfortune as the constant stream of European immigrants into northeastern American cities pushed a stream of immigrants into the western lands already populated by these diverse groups of Indians.
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The early nineteenth century of 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 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. nearly doubled the amount of territory 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, partnered with the discovery of gold in 1849, presented captivating opportunities for those ready to make the long trip westward. Therefore, with the military’s protection and the U.S. government’s assistance, many settlers started building their homesteads in the Great Plains and other parts of the Native American tribe-inhabited West.
Native American Tribes
Native American Policy can be defined as the regulations and operations developed and adapted in the United States to outline the relationship between Native American tribes and the federal government. When the United States initially became a sovereign nation, it implemented the European policies towards the indigenous peoples, but over two centuries the U.S. adapted its very own widely varying policies regarding the evolving perspectives and necessities of Native American oversight.
In 1824, in order to apply the U.S. government’s Native American policies, Congress created a new bureau within 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, distinct political communities with different cultural identities; however, at other times the government attempted to compel the Native American tribes to abandon their cultural identity, surrender their land and assimilate into the American culture.
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With the steady stream of settlers in to Indian controlled land, Eastern newspapers published sensationalized reports of savage 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 often 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 genial natures of the American Indians, settlers still anticipated the possibility of an attack.
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To calm these concerns, in 1851 the U.S. government placed 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 tracks and forts in this territory and pledged not to ever go after settlers; in return the federal government agreed to honor the boundaries of each tribe’s territory and make total 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 between their tribes in order to accept the conditions of the treaty.
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This peaceful accord between the U.S. government and the Native American tribes didn’t last very long. After hearing reports of fertile land and tremendous 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 area. With so many newcomers heading west, the federal government established a plan of confining Native Americans to reservations, small areas of land within a group’s territory that was set aside exclusively for their use, to be able to grant more land for the non-Indian settlers.
In a series of new treaties the U.S. government compelled 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 offered a yearly stipend that would include cash in addition to foodstuffs, animals, household goods and farming tools. These reservations were created in an attempt to clear the way for increased U.S. expansion and involvement in the West, as well as to keep the Native Americans isolated from the whites in order to reduce the potential for friction.
History of the Plains Indians
These agreements had many complications. Most of all many of the native people did not properly grasp the document that they were signing or the conditions within it; furthermore, the treaties did not acknowledge the cultural norms of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government agencies accountable for applying these policies were plagued with awful management and corruption. In fact many treaty terms were never accomplished.
The U.S. government almost never held up their side of the deals even when the Native Americans went quietly to their reservations. Dishonest bureau agents sometimes sold the supplies that were meant for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Additionally, as settlers required more land in the West, the government constantly reduced the size of Indian reservations. By this time, most of the Native American people were dissatisfied with the treaties and angered by the settlers’ endless hunger for land.
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Angered by the government’s deceitful and unfair policies, some Native American tribes, including bands of Cheyennes, Arapahos, Comanches and Sioux, fought back. As they fought to protect 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 force Native Americans onto the reservations and to end the violence, the U.S. government reacted to these hostilities with significant military campaigns. Obviously the U.S. government’s Indian regulations required an adjustment.
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Native American policy shifted radically following the Civil War. Reformers felt that the scheme of forcing Native Americans on to reservations was far too strict even while industrialists, who were concerned about their property and resources, viewed assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” to be the sole long-term means of guaranteeing Native American survival. In 1871 the federal government enacted a critical law proclaiming that the United States would no longer treat Native American tribes as sovereign entities.
This law signaled a major shift in the government’s relationship with the native peoples – Congress now regarded the Native Americans, not as nations outside of its jurisdictional control, but as wards of the government. By making Native Americans wards of the “” government, Congress believed that it would be better to make the policy of assimilation a widely recognized part of the cultural mainstream of America.
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Many U.S. government administrators viewed assimilation as the most practical solution to what they deemed “the Indian problem,” and the sole lasting method of insuring 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 established dwellings, move into wooden buildings and grow into farmers.
The federal government handed down laws that pressed Native Americans to quit their traditional appearance and way of life. Some laws outlawed customary spiritual practices while others ordered Indian men to cut their long hair. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations established tribunals to enforce federal polices that often prohibited traditional cultural and spiritual practices.
To hasten the assimilation process, the government set up Indian facilities that tried to quickly and forcefully Americanize Indian children. As per the founder of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, the schools were developed to “kill the Indian and save the man.” To be able to achieve this objective, the schools forced enrollees to speak only English, dress in proper American attire and to replace 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 enacted 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 make this happen, Congress planned to increase private ownership of Indian property by dividing reservations, which were collectively owned, and providing each family their own parcel of land.
In addition to this, by forcing the Native Americans onto limited plots, western developers and settlers could purchase the left over territory. The General Allotment Act, also referred to 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 residual territory was to be sold. Congress wished that the Dawes Act would breakup Indian tribes and inspire individual enterprise, while cutting down the cost of Indian administration and providing prime property to be sold to white settlers.
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The Dawes Act proved to be disastrous for the American Indians; over the next decades they lived under policies that outlawed their traditional way of living and yet didn’t supply the vital resources to support their businesses and families. Dividing the reservations into smaller parcels of land triggered the significant decrease of Indian-owned property. Within three decades, the tribes 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 sold to white settlers.
Regularly, Native Americans were duped out of their allotments or were forced to sell their land in order to pay bills and provide for their own families. Because of that, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were routinely unable to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, as the creators of the Act had wished. Aside from that it generated animosity among Indians for the U.S. government, as the allotment operation often ruined land that was the spiritual and societal hub of their activities.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed substantially. Through U.S. government policies, American Indians were forced from their housing because their native lands were parceled out. The Plains, which they had previously roamed alone, were now filled up with white settlers.
The Upshot of the Indian Wars
Over all these years the Indians have been cheated out of their land, food and approach to life, as the “” government’s Indian regulations coerced them on to reservations and attempted to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands could not survive relocation, cultural destruction and military loss; by 1890 the Native American population was decreased to fewer than 250,000 persons. As a result of generations of discriminatory and ruthless policies implemented by the United States authorities between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was altered permanently.
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