Ages 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 developed its culture 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 is now the U.S. we have learned much. It’s a narrative of beautiful art and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed remarkably advanced buildings 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 intensely connected to nature.
The European Settler Arrives
When European leaders sent the first ships in our direction, the plan was to discover new resources – but the quality of climate and the bounty of everything from wood to wildlife soon changed their tune. As those leaders heard back from their explorers, the motivation to colonize spread like wildfire.
The English, French and Spanish rushed to slice up the “New World” by shipping over inadequately prepared colonists as fast as possible. At the outset, they skirmished with the alarmed Indians of America’s eastern seaboard. But that shortly gave way to trade, since the Europeans who landed here understood that their survival was doubtful with no native help.
Thus followed years of comparative peace as the settlers got themselves established on American land. But the pressure to push inland followed soon after. Kings and queens from thousands of miles away were impatient to locate additional resources, and some colonists came for independence and adventure.
They needed more space. And so began the process of forcing the American Indian out of the way.
It took the form of cash arrangements, barter, and famously, treaties which were almost uniformly neglected after 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 determined by the desire to expand westward into areas inhabited by these Native American tribes. By the 1850s almost 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 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 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 in addition to the authority over Oregon country, Texas and California; America’s expansion did not end there. Between 1830 and 1860 the United States practically doubled the amount of territory 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, combined with the discovery of gold in 1849, presented alluring opportunities for those prepared make the long journey westward. Therefore, 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 parts of the Native American group-inhabited West.
Native American Tribes
Native American Policy can be defined as the laws and regulations and procedures made 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 nation, it adopted the European policies towards these local peoples, but over the course of two centuries the U.S. designed its own widely varying regulations 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 made 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, separate political communities with numerous cultural identities; however, at other times the government attempted to force 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 in to Indian “” land, Eastern newspapers published sensationalized stories of savage native tribes carrying out widespread massacres of hundreds of white travelers. Although some settlers lost their lives to American Indian attacks, this was not the norm; in fact, Native American tribes repeatedly 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 good natures of the American Indians, settlers still presumed the likelihood of an attack.
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To soothe these fears, in 1851 the U.S. government presented a conference with several local Indian tribes and established the Treaty of Fort Laramie. Under this treaty, each Native American tribe consented to a bounded territory, allowed the government to construct roads and forts in this territory and agreed not to ever assault 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 quietly to the treaty; in fact the Cheyenne, Sioux, Crow, Arapaho, Assinibione, Mandan, Gros Ventre and Arikara tribes, who signed the treaty, even agreed to end the hostilities between 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 hold long. After hearing tales of fertile land and tremendous mineral wealth in the West, the government soon broke their pledge 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, limited areas of acreage within a group’s territory “” reserved exclusively for Indian use, to be able to provide more property 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 allocated a yearly payment that would include cash in addition to food, animals, household goods and farming tools. These reservations were established in an attempt to pave the way for increased U.S. growth and involvement in the West, as well as to keep the Native Americans isolated from the whites in order to decrease the potential for friction.
History of the Plains Indians
These deals had many complications. Most importantly many of the native peoples did not properly understand the document that they were finalizing or the conditions within it; furthermore, the treaties did not acknowledge the cultural practices of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government agencies responsible for administering these policies were weighed down with poor management and corruption. In fact most treaty conditions were never accomplished.
The U.S. government rarely fulfilled their side of the agreements even when the Native Americans relocated quietly to their reservations. Dishonest bureau agents repeatedly sold off the supplies that were meant for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Additionally, as settlers needed more land in the West, the government continually reduced the size of the reservations. By this time, many of the Native American peoples were dissatisfied with the treaties and angered by the settlers’ persistent hunger for territory.
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Angered by the government’s dishonest and unfair policies, some Native American tribes, including bands of Cheyennes, Arapahos, Comanches and Sioux, fought back. As they fought 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 effort to coerce Native Americans onto the reservations and to end the violence, the U.S. government responded to these skirmishes with significant military campaigns. Clearly the U.S. government’s Indian policies required of a change.
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Native American policy shifted considerably following the Civil War. Reformers believed that the scheme of pushing Native Americans onto reservations was far too harsh even though industrialists, who were concerned with their property and resources, regarded assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” as the single permanent strategy for guaranteeing Native American survival. In 1871 the government passed a pivotal law proclaiming that the United States would not deal with Native American tribes as independent nations.
This law signaled a major shift 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 “” government, Congress presumed that it was better to make the policy of assimilation a broadly accepted part of the cultural mainstream of America.
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Many U.S. government administrators looked at assimilation as the most effective answer to what they deemed “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 relocate out of their traditional dwellings, move into wooden homes and turn into farmers.
The federal government passed laws that forced Native Americans to quit their usual appearance and way of life. Some laws banned customary spiritual practices while others required Indian males to cut their long hair. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations established tribunals to enforce federal regulations that often banned traditional cultural and religious practices.
To boost the assimilation process, the government set up Indian schools that attempted to quickly and forcefully Americanize Indian kids. According to the founder of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, the schools were designed to “kill the Indian and save the man.” To be able to achieve this goal, the schools forced enrollees to speak only English, wear proper American clothing and to replace their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new regulations brought Native Americans closer to the end of their established tribal identity and the beginning of their daily life as citizens under the full control of the U.S. administration.
Native American Treaties with the United States
In 1887, Congress approved the General Allotment Act, the most significant part of the U.S. government’s assimilation program, which was designed to “civilize” American Indians by teaching them to be farmers. In order to accomplish this, Congress needed to increase non-public ownership of Indian land by dividing reservations, which were collectively owned, and issuing each family their own parcel of land.
In addition to this, by pushing the Native Americans onto limited plots, western developers and settlers could purchase the remaining land. The General Allotment Act, also referred to as 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 were given between 40 to 80 acres; the residual acreage was to be sold. Congress wished that the Dawes Act would split up Indian tribes and increase individual enterprise, while cutting down the expense of Indian administration and providing prime property 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 regulations that outlawed their traditional lifestyle and yet did not provide the critical resources to support their businesses and families. Splitting the reservations into smaller parcels of land led to the significant reduction of Indian-owned land. Within thirty years, the people had lost in excess of two-thirds of the region that they had controlled before the Dawes Act was passed in 1887; the majority of the remaining land was purchased by white settlers.
Frequently, Native Americans were cheated out of their allotments or were forced to sell their property in order to pay bills and provide for their families. As a result, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were routinely unable to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, like the creators of the policy had desired. This also created animosity among Indians toward the U.S. government, as the allotment process often ruined land that was the spiritual and social focus of their days.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed dramatically. Due to 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 alone, were now filled with white settlers.
The Upshot of the Indian Wars
Over the years the Indians had been defrauded out of their land, food and approach to life, as the federal government’s Indian plans forced them into reservations and attempted to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands would not make it through relocation, assimilation and military defeat; by 1890 the Native American population was reduced to less than 250,000 people. As a result of decades of discriminatory and corrupt policies instituted by the United States authorities between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was changed forever.
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