Ages 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 land, it was settled by the forefathers of bands we now call Sioux, or Cherokee, or Iroquois.
For centuries, the American Indian grew its traditions 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’s now the U.S. we have learned plenty. It’s a narrative of beautiful arts and crafts and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed remarkably elaborate buildings and public works.
While there was inevitable tribal conflict, that was just a slight blemish in the narrative of our ancestors. They were at peace with this beautiful continent and deeply plugged into nature.
The European Settler Arrives
When European leaders sent the first ships in this direction, the goal was to discover new resources – however 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 motivation to colonize spread like wildfire.
The English, French and Spanish raced to carve up the “New World” by transporting over poorly prepared colonists as fast as they could. Initially, they skirmished with the alarmed Indians of America’s eastern seaboard. But that shortly gave way to trade, because the Europeans who arrived here learned that their survival was doubtful with no native help.
Thus followed years of relative 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 impatient to find even more resources, and some colonists came for freedom and opportunity.
They wanted more space. And so began the process of pushing the American Indian out of the way.
It took the shape of cash arrangements, barter, and famously, treaties which were almost uniformly ignored after the Indians were moved off the territory in question.
The U.S. government’s policies towards Native Americans in the second half of the nineteenth century were motivated by the desire to expand westward into territories inhabited by these Native American tribes. By the 1850s nearly 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 area of the Southern Plains.
The Sioux, Crows and Blackfeet dominated the Northern Plains. These Native American groups experienced misfortune as the steady stream of European immigrants into northeastern American cities delivered a stream of immigrants into the western lands already populated by these diverse 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. roughly doubled the amount of territory under 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, combined with the discovery of gold in 1849, presented alluring opportunities for those ready to make the extended quest westward. Consequently, 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 group-inhabited West.
Native American Tribes
Native American Policy can be defined as the regulations and operations 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 country, it adopted the European policies towards these native peoples, but throughout two centuries the U.S. adapted its own widely varying regulations regarding the evolving perspectives and requirements of Native American supervision.
In 1824, in order to apply the U.S. government’s Native American policies, Congress created a new bureau 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 varying 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 into Indian “” 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 generally helped settlers get across the Plains. Not only did the American Indians sell 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 presumed the risk of an attack.
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To quiet these anxieties, in 1851 the U.S. government kept a conference with several local Indian tribes and established the Treaty of Fort Laramie. Within this treaty, each Native American tribe consented to a bounded territory, allowed the government to construct tracks 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 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 consented to end the hostilities amongst their tribes to be able 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 stories of fertile acreage and tremendous 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 region. With so many newcomers moving west, the federal government established a policy of confining Native Americans to reservations, limited swaths of acreage within a group’s territory “” earmarked exclusively for their use, in order to grant more property for “” non-Indian settlers.
In a series of new treaties the U.S. government compelled Native Americans to abandon their land and move to reservations in exchange for protection from attacks by white settlers. In addition, the Indians were given a yearly stipend that would include money in addition to food, animals, household goods and farming tools. These reservations were established 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 divided from the whites in order to lower the chance for conflict.
History of the Plains Indians
These deals had many complications. Most significantly many of the native people didn’t completely grasp the document that they were finalizing or the conditions within it; moreover, the treaties did not respect the cultural practices of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government institutions responsible for applying these policies were weighed down with poor management and corruption. In fact many treaty terms were never executed.
The U.S. government almost never fulfilled their side of the accords even when the Native Americans went 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 demanded more land in the West, the government constantly decreased the size of the reservations. By this time, many of the Native American peoples were dissatisfied with the treaties and angered by settlers’ persistent hunger for territory.
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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 protect their lands and their tribes’ survival, more than one thousand skirmishes and battles broke out in the West between 1861 and 1891. In an attempt to force Native Americans onto the reservations and to end the violence, the U.S. government reacted to these incursions with significant military campaigns. Obviously the U.S. government’s Indian policies required of a change.
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Native American policy shifted dramatically after the Civil War. Reformers felt that the policy of pushing Native Americans onto reservations was far too harsh even while industrialists, who were concerned with their property and resources, thought of assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” as the single long-term means of assuring Native American survival. In 1871 the federal government enacted a pivotal law proclaiming that the United States would not treat Native American tribes as sovereign nations.
This law signaled a major shift in the government’s working relationship with the native peoples – Congress now deemed 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 concluded that it would be better to make the policy of assimilation a widely acknowledged part of the cultural mainstream of America.
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Many U.S. government representatives looked at assimilation as the most practical remedy for what they viewed as “the Indian problem,” and the single 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 move out of their customary dwellings, move into wooden homes and become farmers.
The federal government passed laws that pressed Native Americans to abandon their usual appearance and way of living. Some laws outlawed customary spiritual practices while others required Indian men to cut their long locks. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations established tribunals to enforce federal regulations that often restricted traditional ethnic and religious practices.
To speed up the assimilation operation, the government established Indian schools that attempted to quickly and forcefully Americanize Indian youth. As per 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 required pupils to speak only English, put on proper American fashion and to replace their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new regulations helped bring Native Americans closer to the conclusion of their original tribal identity and the beginning of their life as citizens under the complete control of the U.S. government.
Native American Treaties with the United States
In 1887, Congress passed the General Allotment Act, the most significant element of the U.S. government’s assimilation program, which was created to “civilize” American Indians by teaching them to become farmers. In order to make this happen, Congress needed to create non-public title of Indian land by splitting up reservations, which were collectively held, and providing each family their own stretch of land.
In addition to this, by pushing the Native Americans onto limited plots, western developers and settlers could purchase the remaining acreage. The General Allotment Act, better known 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 received between 40 to 80 acres; the rest of the territory was to be sold. Congress expected that the Dawes Act would breakup Indian tribes and increase individual enterprise, while reducing the expense of Indian supervision and providing 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 and yet did not supply the necessary resources to support their businesses and families. Splitting the reservations into small parcels of land led to the significant decrease of Indian-owned land. Within thirty years, 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.
Frequently, 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. As a result, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were generally unable to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, as the creators of the Act had expected. Further, it created animosity among Indians toward the U.S. government, as the allotment practice often ruined land that was the spiritual and cultural hub of their days.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed substantially. Due to U.S. administration policies, 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 all these years the Indians had been defrauded out of their property, food and approach to life, as the federal government’s Indian policies shoved them on to reservations and attempted to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands could not make it through relocation, cultural destruction and military defeat; by 1890 the Native American population was decreased to under 250,000 people. Thanks to decades of discriminatory and ruthless policies instituted by the United States government between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was altered forever.
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