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 territory, it was settled by the forefathers of bands we now call Sioux, or Cherokee, or Iroquois.
For centuries, the American Indian grew its culture and legacy without disturbance. 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 quite a bit. It’s a story of beautiful artwork and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed highly advanced structures and public works.
While there was inescapable tribal conflict, that was simply a slight blemish in the tale 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 this direction, the intention was to discover new resources – but the quality of environment 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 raced to carve up the “New World” by transporting over poorly prepared colonists as fast as possible. At first, 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 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 came soon after. Kings and queens from thousands of miles away were restless to find additional resources, and some colonists came for freedom and adventure.
They wanted more space. And so began the process of forcing the American Indian out of the way.
It took the form of cash payments, barter, and notoriously, treaties which were almost consistently ignored once the Indians were moved from the territory 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 occupied by these Native American tribes. By the 1850s virtually 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 present day 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 adversity as the continuous flow of European immigrants into northeastern American cities delivered a stream of immigrants into the western lands already occupied 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 in addition to the authority over Oregon country, Texas and California; America’s expansion would not end there. Between 1830 and 1860 the U.S. nearly doubled the amount of land within 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, partnered with the discovery of gold in 1849, presented captivating possibilities for those willing to make the long trip westward. Consequently, with the military’s protection and the U.S. government’s assistance, many settlers started 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 made and adapted in the United States to outline the relationship between Native American tribes and the federal government. When the United States initially became an independent country, it implemented the European policies towards these local peoples, but over two centuries the U.S. tailored its own widely varying policies regarding the changing perspectives and necessities of Native American regulation.
In 1824, in order to administer the U.S. government’s Native American policies, Congress created a new agency inside the War Department called the 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, independent political communities with different cultural identities; however, at other times the government attempted to compel the Native American tribes to abandon their cultural identity, let go of their land and assimilate into the American customs.
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With the steady flow of settlers in to Indian controlled land, Eastern newspapers circulated 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 far from the norm; in fact, Native American tribes routinely helped settlers cross the Plains. Not only did the American Indians sell wild game and other necessities to travelers, but they acted as guides and messengers between wagon trains as well. Despite the genial natures of the American Indians, settlers still presumed the possibility of an attack.
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To quiet these concerns, 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 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 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 between 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 didn’t last very long. After hearing stories of fertile terrain and tremendous mineral wealth in the West, the government soon broke their promises established in the Treat of Fort Laramie by allowing thousands of non-Indians to flood into the area. With so many newcomers moving west, the federal government established a policy of limiting Native Americans to reservations, limited swaths of acreage within a group’s territory that was set aside exclusively for Indian use, in order to offer more land for the non-Indian settlers.
In a series of new treaties the U.S. government made Native Americans to surrender 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, animals, household goods and agricultural equipment. These reservations were created in an effort to clear 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 lessen the chance for conflict.
History of the Plains Indians
These accords had many complications. Most importantly many of the native peoples did not properly understand the document that they were confirming or the conditions within it; further, the treaties did not respect the cultural practices of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government agencies responsible for administering these policies were overwhelmed with poor management and corruption. In fact most treaty conditions were never carried out.
The U.S. government rarely honored their side of the accords even when the Native Americans migrated quietly to their reservations. Dishonest bureau agents sometimes sold the supplies that were intended for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Moreover, as settlers required more territory in the West, the government constantly 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 hunger for territory.
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Angered by the government’s dishonorable and unfair policies, several Native American tribes, including bands of Cheyennes, Arapahos, Comanches and Sioux, fought back. As they struggled to maintain their lands and their tribes’ survival, over a 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 responded to these conflicts 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 felt that the scheme of driving Native Americans into reservations was far too severe even while industrialists, who were worried about their land and resources, viewed assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” as the only permanent strategy for assuring Native American survival. In 1871 the government approved a critical law proclaiming that the United States would not deal with Native American tribes as sovereign nations.
This law signaled a drastic change in the government’s relationship with the native peoples – Congress now regarded the Native Americans, not as countries outside of its jurisdiction, but as wards of the government. By making Native Americans wards of the U.S. government, Congress concluded that it would be easier 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 considered assimilation as the most effective remedy for what they viewed as “the Indian problem,” and the sole lasting strategy for insuring 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 established dwellings, move into wooden buildings and turn into farmers.
The federal government passed laws that forced Native Americans to abandon their established appearance and lifestyle. Some laws outlawed traditional spiritual practices while others instructed Indian males to cut their long locks. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations organized tribunals to enforce federal regulations that often restricted traditional ethnic and religious practices.
To accelerate the assimilation course, the government started Indian facilities that tried to quickly and vigorously Americanize Indian children. 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 make this happen objective, the schools required students to speak only English, dress in proper American attire and to switch their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new policies helped bring Native Americans closer to the conclusion of their original tribal identity and the start of their life as citizens under the full 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 developed to “civilize” American Indians by teaching them to become farmers. In order to make this happen, Congress wanted to create non-public title of Indian property by dividing reservations, which were collectively owned, and giving each family their own plot of land.
Additionally, by pushing the Native Americans onto small plots of land, western developers and settlers could purchase the left over land. The General Allotment Act, referred to as the Dawes Act, required that the Indian lands be surveyed and every family be awarded an allotment of between 80 and 160 acres, while unmarried adults received between 40 to 80 acres; the rest of the acreage was to be sold. Congress thought that the Dawes Act would breakup Indian tribes and stimulate individual enterprise, while trimming the expense of Indian administration and serving up prime land to be sold to white settlers.
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The Dawes Act proved to be disastrous for the American Indians; over the next decades they lived under regulations that outlawed their traditional way of living but did not supply the necessary resources to support their businesses and households. Dividing the reservations into small parcels of land triggered the significant decrease of Indian-owned land. Within three decades, the tribes had lost over two-thirds of the region that they had controlled before the Dawes Act was passed in 1887; the majority of the remaining land was sold to white settlers.
Frequently, Native Americans were cheated out of their allotments or were forced to sell off their property in order to pay bills and take care of their own families. Because of that, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were generally unable to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, like the creators of the policy had intended. This also produced resentment among Indians for the U.S. government, as the allotment process sometimes destroyed land that was the spiritual and societal location of their days.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed radically. Due to U.S. administration regulations, American Indians were forced from their places of residence 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 all these years the Indians had been cheated out of their territory, food and lifestyle, as the federal government’s Indian plans forced them inside reservations and attempted to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands would not make it through relocation, cultural destruction and military defeat; by 1890 the Native American population was lowered to under 250,000 people. As a result of generations of discriminatory and corrupt policies instituted by the United States government between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was altered forever.
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