Centuries 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 land, it was settled by the forefathers of bands we now call Sioux, or Cherokee, or Iroquois.
For thousands of years, the American Indian developed 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 currently the U.S. we have learned plenty. It’s a narrative of beautiful craft work 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 history of our forebears. They were at peace with this beautiful continent and deeply plugged into nature.
The European Settler Arrives
When European leaders sent the first vessels in our direction, the intention was to explore new resources – however the quality of environment and the bounty of everything from wood 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 raced to slice up the “New World” by shipping over inadequately prepared colonists as fast as they could. Initially, they skirmished with the surprised Indians of America’s eastern seaboard. But that ultimately gave way to trade, since the Europeans who came ashore here understood 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 came soon after. Kings and queens from thousands of miles away were impatient to find additional resources, and some colonists came for freedom and opportunity.
They required 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 that were almost consistently neglected once the Indians were forced away from the land 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 regions occupied 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 contemporary 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 adversity as the continuous flow of European immigrants into northeastern American cities pushed 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 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. pretty much 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, partnered with the discovery of gold in 1849, presented attractive opportunities for those prepared make the extended trip westward. As a result, with the military’s protection and the U.S. government’s assistance, many settlers began building 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 define the relationship between Native American tribes and the federal government. When the United States initially became a sovereign nation, it adopted the European policies towards these local peoples, but over the course of two centuries the U.S. designed its very own widely varying regulations regarding the evolving perspectives and necessities of Native American supervision.
In 1824, in order to administer the U.S. government’s Native American policies, Congress made a new bureau inside 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, distinct political communities with varying cultural identities; however, at other times the government attempted to compel the Native American tribes to abandon their cultural identity, give up their land and assimilate into the American customs.
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With the steady flow of settlers into 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 generally helped settlers cross over 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 friendly natures of the American Indians, settlers still anticipated the risk of an attack.
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To quiet these concerns, 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 accepted a bounded territory, allowed the government to construct roadways and forts in this territory and pledged to not attack settlers; in return the federal government agreed to honor the boundaries of each tribe’s territory and make total 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 agreed to end the hostilities amongst their tribes to be able to accept the conditions of the treaty.
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This peaceful agreement between the U.S. government and the Native American tribes didn’t hold 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 allowing thousands of non-Indians to flood into the area. With so many newcomers heading west, the federal government established a policy of confining Native Americans to reservations, small swaths of acreage within a group’s territory “” set aside exclusively for Indian use, to be able to give more property for the non-Indian settlers.
In a series of new treaties the U.S. government made Native Americans to give up their land and move to reservations in exchange for protection from attacks by white settlers. In addition, the Indians were allocated a yearly stipend that would include money in addition to food, livestock, household goods and agricultural tools. These reservations were created in an effort 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 friction.
History of the Plains Indians
These accords had many problems. Most significantly many of the native people didn’t properly grasp the document that they were finalizing or the conditions within it; furthermore, the treaties did not consider the cultural norms of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government bureaus responsible for administering these policies were overwhelmed with poor management and corruption. In fact most treaty terms were never executed.
The U.S. government rarely held up their side of the accords even when the Native Americans moved quietly to their reservations. Unethical bureau agents sometimes sold off the supplies that were meant for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Additionally, as settlers needed more territory in the West, the federal government constantly reduced the size of reservation lands. By this time, most of the Native American people were unhappy with the treaties and angered by settlers’ persistent appetite for territory.
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Angered by the government’s dishonest and unjust policies, several Native American tribes, including bands of Cheyennes, Arapahos, Comanches and Sioux, battled back. As they fought to defend 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 make Native Americans onto the reservations and to end the violence, the U.S. government responded to these incursions with significant military campaigns. Clearly the U.S. government’s Indian regulations required an adjustment.
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Native American policy changed considerably following the Civil War. Reformers felt that the policy of driving Native Americans on to reservations was too strict even though industrialists, who were concerned with their land and resources, thought of assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” as the singular long-term method of ensuring Native American survival. In 1871 the federal government passed a pivotal law proclaiming that the United States would no longer deal with Native American tribes as autonomous nations.
This law signaled a drastic change in the government’s 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 presumed that it would be better to make the policy of assimilation a widely recognised part of the cultural mainstream of America.
More On American Indian History
Many U.S. government administrators considered assimilation as the most practical answer to what they viewed as “the Indian problem,” and the only permanent means of guaranteeing U.S. interests in the West and the survival of the American Indians. In order to accomplish this, the government pushed Native Americans to relocate out of their established dwellings, move into wooden homes and grow into farmers.
The federal government enacted laws that pressed Native Americans to reject their usual appearance and way of living. Some laws banned common spiritual practices while others ordered Indian men to cut their long locks. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations founded tribunals to implement federal polices that often prohibited traditional cultural and spiritual practices.
To boost the assimilation process, the government started Indian facilities that tried to quickly and vigorously Americanize Indian youth. According to the director of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, the schools were created to “kill the Indian and save the man.” To be able to achieve this goal, the schools required students to speak only English, put on proper American clothing and to replace their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new regulations helped bring Native Americans nearer to the conclusion of their established tribal identity and the start 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 handed down the General Allotment Act, the most important component of the U.S. government’s assimilation platform, which was created to “civilize” American Indians by educating them to be farmers. In order to achieve this, Congress wanted to create private ownership of Indian property by splitting up reservations, which were collectively held, and issuing each family their own plot of land.
In addition to this, by pushing the Native Americans onto small plots of land, western developers and settlers could purchase the remaining land. The General Allotment Act, often called the Dawes Act, required that the Indian lands be surveyed and each family be provided with an allotment of between 80 and 160 acres, while unmarried adults received between 40 to 80 acres; the residual acreage was to be sold. Congress wished that the Dawes Act would break-up Indian tribes and encourage individual enterprise, while lowering the cost of Indian supervision and producing prime property to be purchased by white settlers.
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The Dawes Act proved to be catastrophic for the American Indians; over the next decades they lived under regulations that outlawed their traditional way of life and yet failed to provide the vital resources to support their businesses and households. Dividing the reservations into smaller parcels of land triggered the significant reduction of Indian-owned land. Within three decades, the people had lost more than 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.
Usually, Native Americans were duped out of their allotments or were required to sell their property in order to pay bills and provide for their families. As a result, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were often unable to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, like the makers of the policy had wished. Further, it generated resentment among Indians for the U.S. government, as the allotment process often ruined land that was the spiritual and social focus of their lives.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed tremendously. Due to U.S. government policies, American Indians were forced from their housing as their native lands were parceled out. The Plains, which they had previously roamed without limits, were now filled up with white settlers.
The Upshot of the Indian Wars
Over these years the Indians have been cheated out of their territory, food and lifestyle, as the federal government’s Indian regulations coerced them into 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 reduced to less than 250,000 people. Due to decades of discriminatory and ruthless policies implemented by the United States government between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was changed forever.
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