Ages before the terms Native American or Indian were considered, 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 developed 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 tale of beautiful art and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed remarkably advanced structures and public works.
While there was unavoidable 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 intensely connected to nature.
The European Settler Arrives
When European leaders dispatched the first ships in our direction, the plan was to explore 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 drive to colonize spread like wildfire.
The English, French and Spanish rushed to carve up the “New World” by sending over inadequately prepared colonists as fast as possible. At the outset, they skirmished with the surprised Indians of America’s eastern seaboard. But that shortly gave way to trade, since the Europeans who landed here understood their survival was doubtful without Indian help.
Thus followed decades 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 independence and opportunity.
They required more space. And so began the process of driving the American Indian out of the way.
It took the shape of cash payments, barter, and famously, treaties which were nearly consistently ignored after the Indians were forced off the territory 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 occupied by these Native American tribes. By the 1850s almost all Native American tribes, roughly 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 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 met adversity as the constant stream of European immigrants into northeastern American cities pushed 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 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 in addition to the authority over Oregon country, Texas and California; America’s expansion wouldn’t end there. Between 1830 and 1860 the U.S. roughly doubled the amount of land under its control.
These territorial gains coincided with the arrival of troves of European and Asian immigrants who wished to join the surge of American settlers heading west. This, combined with the discovery of gold in 1849, presented alluring possibilities for those ready to make the extended quest westward. Consequently, with the military’s protection and the U.S. government’s assistance, many settlers set about 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 established 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 country, it adopted the European policies towards these local peoples, but throughout two centuries the U.S. adapted its own widely varying regulations regarding the evolving perspectives and necessities of Native American regulation.
In 1824, in order to administer the U.S. government’s Native American policies, Congress made a new agency inside the War Department referred to as 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 numerous cultural identities; however, at other times the government attempted to force the Native American tribes to abandon their cultural identity, hand over their land and assimilate into the American customs.
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With the steady flow of settlers in to Indian “” land, Eastern newspapers published sensationalized reports of savage native tribes carrying out massive massacres of hundreds of white travelers. Although some settlers lost their lives to American Indian attacks, this was certainly not the norm; in fact, Native American tribes routinely helped settlers get across the Plains. Not only did the American Indians sell 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 risk of an attack.
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To calm these worries, 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 accepted a bounded territory, allowed the government to construct roads and forts in this territory and pledged to never attack 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 quietly to the treaty; in fact the Cheyenne, Sioux, Crow, Arapaho, Assinibione, Mandan, Gros Ventre and Arikara tribes, who signed the treaty, even consented to end the hostilities amidst their tribes to be able to accept the terms of the treaty.
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This peaceful accord between the U.S. government and the Native American tribes did not stand very long. After hearing tales of fertile land and tremendous mineral wealth in the West, the government soon broke their assurances 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 restricting Native Americans to reservations, small swaths of acreage within a group’s territory “” earmarked exclusively for Indian use, to be able to offer more territory for “” non-Indian settlers.
In a series of new treaties the U.S. government forced Native Americans to abandon 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 food, animals, household goods and agricultural tools. These reservations were created in an attempt to pave 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 reduce the potential for conflict.
History of the Plains Indians
These agreements had many problems. Most significantly many of the native people did not altogether understand the document that they were confirming or the conditions within it; further, the treaties did not acknowledge the cultural practices of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government departments accountable for administering these policies were overwhelmed with awful management and corruption. In fact most treaty terms were never carried out.
The U.S. government almost never held up their side of the agreements even when the Native Americans relocated quietly to their reservations. Unethical bureau agents sometimes sold off the supplies that were meant for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Moreover, as settlers needed more territory in the West, the government frequently reduced the size of Indian reservations. By this time, many of the Native American people were dissatisfied with the treaties and angered by the settlers’ persistent appetite for land.
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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, fought back. As they fought 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 force 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 policies were in need of a change.
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Native American policy changed drastically following the Civil War. Reformers believed that the scheme of driving Native Americans on to reservations was far too severe even while industrialists, who were concerned about their property and resources, thought of assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” to be the lone long-term means of assuring Native American survival. In 1871 the federal government enacted a critical law stating that the United States would not treat Native American tribes as autonomous nations.
This law signaled a major change in the government’s relationship with the native peoples – Congress now considered 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 broadly acknowledged part of the cultural mainstream of America.
More On American Indian History
Many U.S. government administrators perceived assimilation as the most effective solution to what they viewed as “the Indian problem,” and the only permanent method 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 move out of their traditional dwellings, move into wooden houses and become farmers.
The federal government handed down laws that forced Native Americans to abandon their usual appearance and way of living. Some laws outlawed customary religious practices while others instructed Indian males to cut their long locks. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations organized courts to impose federal polices that often banned traditional cultural and religious practices.
To boost the assimilation process, the government started Indian training centers that tried to quickly and forcefully Americanize Indian children. As per the director of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, the schools were developed to “kill the Indian and save the man.” In order to make this happen objective, the schools forced enrollees to speak only English, dress in proper American clothing and to substitute their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new regulations brought Native Americans closer to the end of their original tribal identity and the beginning of their daily life as citizens under the full control of the U.S. authorities.
Native American Treaties with the United States
In 1887, Congress passed the General Allotment Act, the most important part of the U.S. government’s assimilation program, which was written to “civilize” American Indians by teaching them to be farmers. In order to make this happen, Congress needed to establish private title of Indian property by splitting up reservations, which were collectively owned, and allowing each family their own block of land.
Additionally, by forcing the Native Americans onto small plots, western developers and settlers could purchase the left over acreage. The General Allotment Act, better known as the Dawes Act, required that the Indian lands be surveyed and every family be given an allotment of between 80 and 160 acres, while unmarried adults received between 40 to 80 acres; the remaining territory was to be sold. Congress was hoping that the Dawes Act would break up Indian tribes and increase individual enterprise, while reducing the cost of Indian administration and serving up 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 generations they lived under regulations that outlawed their traditional way of life but did not provide the necessary resources to support their businesses and households. Dividing the reservations into small parcels of land caused the significant decrease of Indian-owned land. Inside thirty years, the tribes had lost more than two-thirds of the territory that they had controlled before the Dawes Act was enacted in 1887; the majority of the remaining land was sold to white settlers.
Frequently, Native Americans were cheated out of their allotments or were required to sell off their property in order to pay bills and provide for their families. Because of that, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were routinely not able to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, like the makers of the policy had desired. It also developed resentment among Indians toward the U.S. government, as the allotment method often destroyed land that was the spiritual and societal focus of their lives.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed substantially. Through U.S. government regulations, American Indians were forced from their homes because their native lands were parceled out. The Plains, which they had previously roamed without restriction, were now filled up with white settlers.
The Upshot of the Indian Wars
Over the years the Indians have been cheated out of their land, food and way of life, as the federal government’s Indian policies forced them on to reservations and tried to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands would not endure relocation, assimilation and military loss; by 1890 the Native American population was decreased to less than 250,000 people. Due to generations of discriminatory and corrupt policies instituted by the United States authorities between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was altered forever.
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