Long before the terms Native American or Indian were created, 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 centuries, the American Indian grew its traditions and legacy without interference. And that history is captivating.
From Mayan and Incan ruins, from the mounds left in the central and southern parts of what’s currently the U.S. we have learned plenty. It’s a tale of beautiful art and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed remarkably elaborate structures and public works.
While there was unavoidable tribal conflict, that was simply a slight blemish in the experience of our forebears. They were at peace with this beautiful continent and deeply connected to nature.
The European Settler Arrives
When European leaders dispatched the first ships in our direction, the aim was to discover new resources – however the quality of climate and the bounty of everything from timber to wildlife soon 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 sending over poorly prepared colonists as fast as they could. Initially, they skirmished with the surprised Indians of America’s eastern seaboard. But that shortly gave way to trade, since the Europeans who came ashore here learned their survival was doubtful with no native help.
Thus followed years of comparative 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 anxious to find even more resources, and some colonists came for freedom 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 famously, treaties which were nearly uniformly ignored once the Indians were forced from 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 territories occupied by these Native American tribes. By the 1850s virtually 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 met misfortune as the steady flow of European immigrants into northeastern American cities delivered a stream of immigrants into the western lands already inhabited by these diverse groups of Indians.
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The early nineteenth century of 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 along with 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 land 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 attractive opportunities for those prepared make the huge trip westward. Therefore, with the military’s protection and the U.S. government’s assistance, many settlers began building 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 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 first became a sovereign country, it implemented the European policies towards these local peoples, but throughout two centuries the U.S. tailored its own widely varying policies regarding the changing perspectives and requirements of Native American regulation.
In 1824, in order to execute the U.S. government’s Native American policies, Congress formed a new bureau within the War Department referred to as 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 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 frequently helped settlers cross the Plains. Not only did the American Indians sell wild game and other necessities to travelers, but they served as guides and messengers between wagon trains as well. Despite the friendly 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 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 roads and forts in this territory and pledged never to assault 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 between 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 last long. After hearing tales of fertile terrain 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 heading west, the federal government established a plan of restricting Native Americans to reservations, limited swaths of acreage within a group’s territory that was set aside exclusively for Indian use, to be able to grant more territory for the non-Indian settlers.
In a series of new treaties the U.S. government forced Native Americans to surrender their land and migrate to reservations in exchange for protection from attacks by white settlers. In addition, the Indians were given a yearly stipend that would include cash in addition to food, livestock, household goods and farming tools. These reservations were created in an attempt to clear the way for increasing U.S. growth and administration in the West, as well as to keep the Native Americans isolated from the whites in order to lessen the potential for friction.
History of the Plains Indians
These accords had many problems. Most significantly many of the native people didn’t altogether understand the document that they were confirming or the conditions within it; furthermore, the treaties did not respect the cultural norms of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government institutions responsible for administering these policies were overwhelmed with awful management and corruption. In fact most treaty conditions were never executed.
The U.S. government rarely fulfilled their side of the accords even when the Native Americans migrated quietly to their reservations. Unethical bureau agents repeatedly sold the supplies that were meant for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Moreover, as settlers demanded more land in the West, the federal government frequently reduced the size of reservation lands. By this time, most of the Native American peoples were unhappy with the treaties and angered by the settlers’ constant appetite 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 struggled 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 push Native Americans onto the reservations and to end the violence, the U.S. government responded to these incursions with costly military campaigns. Clearly the U.S. government’s Indian policies were in need of a change.
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Native American policy changed considerably following the Civil War. Reformers felt that the policy of pushing Native Americans onto reservations was too harsh even while industrialists, who were concerned about their property and resources, considered assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” as the sole permanent method of ensuring Native American survival. In 1871 the federal government approved a critical law proclaiming that the United States would not treat Native American tribes as independent nations.
This law signaled a major change 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 U.S. government, Congress imagined that it was better to make the policy of assimilation a broadly accepted part of the cultural mainstream of America.
More On American Indian History
Many U.S. government representatives viewed assimilation as the most practical remedy for what they deemed “the Indian problem,” and the sole long-term strategy for 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 established dwellings, move into wooden dwellings and turn into farmers.
The federal government handed down laws that required Native Americans to abandon their traditional appearance and lifestyle. Some laws outlawed common religious practices while others required Indian men to cut their long hair. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations founded courts to implement federal regulations that often prohibited traditional ethnic and religious practices.
To hasten the assimilation operation, the government set up Indian schools that attempted to quickly and forcefully Americanize Indian youth. According to the director of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, the schools were designed to “kill the Indian and save the man.” In order to make this happen objective, the schools required pupils 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 closer to the end of their established tribal identity and the beginning of their daily life as citizens under the complete control of the U.S. administration.
Native American Treaties with the United States
In 1887, Congress passed the General Allotment Act, the most important element of the U.S. government’s assimilation platform, which was written to “civilize” American Indians by teaching them to be farmers. In order to achieve this, Congress planned to increase private title of Indian land by dividing reservations, which were collectively held, and allowing each family their own stretch of land.
Additionally, by pushing the Native Americans onto limited plots, western developers and settlers could purchase the remaining land. The General Allotment Act, also 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 were given between 40 to 80 acres; the remaining acreage was to be sold. Congress expected that the Dawes Act would breakup Indian tribes and increase individual enterprise, while reducing the cost of Indian administration and serving up prime land to be sold to white settlers.
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The Dawes Act proved to be catastrophic for the American Indians; over the next decades they lived under policies that outlawed their traditional way of life and yet did not offer the crucial resources to support their businesses and households. Dividing the reservations into smaller parcels of land led to the significant reduction of Indian-owned property. Inside three decades, the people had lost in excess of 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 cheated out of their allotments or were forced to sell off their property in order pay bills and provide for their own families. Because of that, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were often unable to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, like the creators of the Act had desired. It also created animosity among Indians toward the U.S. government, as the allotment method sometimes ruined land that was the spiritual and societal location of their activities.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed dramatically. Due to U.S. government policies, American Indians were forced from their living spaces 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 have been defrauded out of their territory, food and approach to life, as the federal government’s Indian regulations forced them into reservations and attempted to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands could not make it through relocation, assimilation and military defeat; by 1890 the Native American population was decreased to less than 250,000 persons. Due to generations of discriminatory and corrupt policies instituted by the United States government between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was changed forever.
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