Way before the terms Native American or Indian were considered, 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 disturbance. And that history is captivating.
From Mayan and Incan ruins, from the mounds left in the central and southern regions of what is today the U.S. we have learned quite a bit. It’s a narrative of beautiful art and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed remarkably elaborate structures and public works.
While there was inevitable tribal conflict, that was nothing more than a slight blemish in the experience of our ancestors. They were at peace with this beautiful continent and deeply connected to nature.
The European Settler Arrives
When European leaders dispatched the first vessels in our direction, the plan 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 drive 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 first, they skirmished with the alarmed Indians of America’s eastern seaboard. But that soon gave way to trade, since the Europeans who came ashore here learned their survival was doubtful with no Indian help.
Thus followed years of comparative peace as the settlers got themselves established on American soil. But the pressure to push inland came soon after. Kings and queens from thousands of miles away were restless to find additional resources, and some colonists came for freedom and opportunity.
They needed more space. And so began the process of forcing the American Indian out of the way.
It took the shape of cash payments, barter, and famously, treaties which were nearly consistently ignored 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 determined by the desire to expand westward into regions occupied by these Native American tribes. By the 1850s virtually all Native American tribes, approximately 360,000 in number, were living 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 met 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 various 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 wouldn’t end there. Between 1830 and 1860 the United States pretty much doubled the amount of land 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 captivating possibilities for those willing to make the long journey westward. Therefore, 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 procedures developed and adapted in the United States to summarize the relationship between Native American tribes and the federal government. When the United States first became a sovereign nation, it implemented the European policies towards these native peoples, but over the course of two centuries the U.S. adapted its own widely varying policies regarding the changing perspectives and necessities of Native American supervision.
In 1824, in order to apply the U.S. government’s Native American policies, Congress formed 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 different cultural identities; however, at other times the government attempted to force the Native American tribes to give up their cultural identity, hand over their land and assimilate into the American culture.
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With the steady flow of settlers into Indian “” land, Eastern newspapers circulated sensationalized stories of cruel native tribes carrying out widespread massacres of hundreds of white travelers. Although some settlers lost their lives to American Indian attacks, this was far from 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 supplies to travelers, but they acted as guides and messengers between wagon trains as well. Despite the friendly natures of the American Indians, settlers still presumed the possibility of an attack.
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To calm these fears, in 1851 the U.S. government held 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 roads and forts in this territory and pledged never to 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 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 amidst 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 hold long. After hearing tales of fertile terrain 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 region. With so many newcomers moving west, the federal government established a policy of restricting Native Americans to reservations, limited areas of land within a group’s territory that was set aside exclusively for their use, in order to offer more territory for “” non-Indian settlers.
In a series of new treaties the U.S. government commanded 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, animals, household goods and agricultural equipment. These reservations were established in an attempt to clear the way for increased U.S. growth and administration 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 accords had many challenges. Most significantly many of the native peoples did not entirely understand the document that they were confirming or the conditions within it; furthermore, the treaties did not consider the cultural norms of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government agencies accountable for administering these policies were weighed down with poor management and corruption. In fact most treaty provisions were never executed.
The U.S. government almost never fulfilled their side of the deals even when the Native Americans went quietly to their reservations. Shady bureau agents sometimes sold the supplies that were meant for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Moreover, as settlers needed more property in the West, the federal government continually reduced the size of Indian reservations. By this time, many of the Native American people were dissatisfied with the treaties and angered by settlers’ endless hunger for territory.
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Angered by the government’s dishonest and unjust 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 compel Native Americans onto the reservations and to end the violence, the U.S. government reacted to these hostilities with costly military operations. Obviously the U.S. government’s Indian regulations required an adjustment.
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Native American policy changed radically after the Civil War. Reformers felt that the policy of driving Native Americans onto reservations was far too strict while industrialists, who were concerned with their property and resources, viewed assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” to be the singular long-term means of guaranteeing Native American survival. In 1871 the federal government passed a critical law stating that the United States would no longer deal with Native American tribes as autonomous entities.
This law signaled a major change in the government’s relationship with the native peoples – Congress now considered the Native Americans, not as nations outside of its jurisdiction, but as wards of the government. By making Native Americans wards of the “” government, Congress presumed that it was easier to make the policy of assimilation a widely accepted part of the cultural mainstream of America.
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Many U.S. government officials looked at assimilation as the most effective answer to what they deemed “the Indian problem,” and the single 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 relocate out of their customary dwellings, move into wooden buildings and turn into farmers.
The federal government handed down laws that forced Native Americans to reject their traditional appearance and way of living. Some laws outlawed common religious practices while others ordered Indian males to cut their long locks. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations set up courts to enforce federal regulations that often restricted traditional cultural and spiritual practices.
To hasten the assimilation course, the government established Indian schools that tried to quickly and vigorously Americanize Indian kids. According to the founder of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, the schools were developed to “kill the Indian and save the man.” In order to accomplish this goal, the schools required pupils to speak only English, wear proper American attire and to substitute their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new policies brought Native Americans closer to the conclusion of their established tribal identity and the beginning of their existence as citizens under the full control of the U.S. government.
Native American Treaties with the United States
In 1887, Congress enacted the General Allotment Act, the most important part of the U.S. government’s assimilation program, which was created to “civilize” American Indians by teaching them to become farmers. In order to accomplish this, Congress wanted to increase non-public ownership of Indian land by splitting up reservations, which were collectively held, and giving each family their own parcel of land.
Additionally, by forcing the Native Americans onto small 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 each family be given 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 hoped that the Dawes Act would break up Indian tribes and inspire individual enterprise, while cutting down the cost of Indian administration and serving up prime land to be purchased by white settlers.
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The Dawes Act proved to be disastrous for the American Indians; over the next generations they lived under regulations that outlawed their traditional lifestyle and yet didn’t supply the critical resources to support their businesses and households. Splitting the reservations into smaller parcels of land caused the significant reduction of Indian-owned land. Within thirty years, the tribes had lost in excess of two-thirds of the territory that they had controlled before the Dawes Act was passed in 1887; the majority of the remaining land was purchased by white settlers.
Regularly, Native Americans were cheated out of their allotments or were required to sell their property in order pay bills and take care of their own families. Because of that, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were generally not able to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, as the creators of the Act had wished. This also created resentment among Indians toward the U.S. government, as the allotment practice sometimes ruined land that was the spiritual and societal hub of their activities.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed dramatically. 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 without restriction, were now filling with white settlers.
The Upshot of the Indian Wars
Over all these years the Indians had been defrauded out of their territory, food and way of life, as the federal government’s Indian regulations coerced them on to reservations and attempted to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands would not survive relocation, cultural destruction and military defeat; by 1890 the Native American population was decreased to under 250,000 people. Due to generations of discriminatory and dodgy policies instituted by the United States government between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was altered forever.
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