Centuries before the terms Native American or Indian were necessary, 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 thousands of years, the American Indian grew 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 parts of what’s currently the U.S. we have learned much. It’s a story of beautiful artwork and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed remarkably elaborate structures and public works.
While there was inescapable tribal conflict, that was just a slight blemish in the account of our ancestors. They were at peace with this beautiful continent and intensely plugged into nature.
The European Settler Arrives
When European leaders dispatched the first vessels in our direction, the plan was to explore new resources – but the quality of weather and the bounty of everything from timber to wildlife subsequently 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 carve up the “New World” by shipping over inadequately prepared colonists as fast as possible. At the beginning, they skirmished with the alarmed Indians of America’s eastern seaboard. But that ultimately gave way to trade, because the Europeans who came ashore here understood their survival was doubtful without Indian help.
Thus followed years of relative peace as the settlers got themselves established on American soil. But the drive to push inland came soon after. Kings and queens from thousands of miles away were impatient to find even more 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 shape of cash payments, barter, and notoriously, treaties that were nearly consistently neglected once the Indians were moved off 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 territories inhabited 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 situated 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 experienced misfortune as the steady flow of European immigrants into northeastern American cities delivered a stream of immigrants into the western lands already occupied by these diverse groups of Indians.
Video: American 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 would not end there. Between 1830 and 1860 the U.S. roughly doubled the amount of acreage 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, partnered with the discovery of gold in 1849, presented attractive opportunities for those willing to make the long journey westward. As a result, with the military’s protection and the U.S. government’s assistance, many settlers set about 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 operations established and adapted in the United States to define 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 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 apply the U.S. government’s Native American policies, Congress made a new bureau within 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, independent political communities with varying cultural identities; however, at other times the government attempted to force the Native American tribes to give up 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 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 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 good natures of the American Indians, settlers still feared the risk of an attack.
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To calm these anxieties, 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 consented to a bounded territory, allowed the government to construct roadways and forts in this territory and agreed 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 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 in order to accept the terms of the treaty.
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This peaceful agreement between the U.S. government and the Native American tribes did not last very long. After hearing testimonies 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 area. With so many newcomers moving west, the federal government established a policy of restricting Native Americans to reservations, modest swaths of acreage within a group’s territory that was reserved exclusively for Indian use, to be able to provide more property for the non-Indian settlers.
In a series of new treaties the U.S. government forced 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 offered a yearly stipend that would include money in addition to foodstuffs, livestock, household goods and agricultural tools. These reservations were created in an effort to clear the way for heightened U.S. growth and involvement in the West, as well as to keep the Native Americans isolated from the whites in order to reduce the chance for conflict.
History of the Plains Indians
These agreements had many problems. Most significantly many of the native peoples did not entirely grasp the document that they were finalizing or the conditions within it; moreover, the treaties did not consider the cultural norms of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government institutions accountable for applying these policies were plagued with poor management and corruption. In fact most treaty conditions were never executed.
The U.S. government almost never held up their side of the agreements even when the Native Americans moved quietly to their reservations. Unethical bureau agents repeatedly sold the supplies that were meant for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Moreover, as settlers demanded more land in the West, the government constantly decreased the size of the reservations. By this time, many of the Native American peoples were unhappy with the treaties and angered by settlers’ endless hunger for territory.
A Look at Native American Symbols
Angered by the government’s dishonorable and unfair policies, several Native American tribes, including bands of Cheyennes, Arapahos, Comanches and Sioux, battled back. As they struggled to maintain their territories and their tribes’ survival, more than one thousand skirmishes and battles broke out in the West between 1861 and 1891. In an attempt to push Native Americans onto the reservations and to end the violence, the U.S. government responded to these skirmishes with significant military campaigns. Obviously the U.S. government’s Indian regulations were in need an adjustment.
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Native American policy changed dramatically after the Civil War. Reformers felt that the policy of forcing Native Americans into reservations was far too harsh while industrialists, who were concerned about their land and resources, viewed assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” as the singular permanent strategy for assuring Native American survival. In 1871 the federal government enacted a critical law proclaiming that the United States would not deal with Native American tribes as sovereign entities.
This legislation signaled a major shift in the government’s relationship with the native peoples – Congress now deemed the Native Americans, not as countries outside of its jurisdiction, but as wards of the government. By making Native Americans wards of the “” government, Congress believed that it would be better to make the policy of assimilation a broadly acknowledged part of the cultural mainstream of America.
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Many U.S. government administrators perceived assimilation as the most practical answer to what they deemed “the Indian problem,” and the sole 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 pushed Native Americans to move out of their customary dwellings, move into wooden homes and grow into farmers.
The federal government handed down laws that required Native Americans to reject their established appearance and way of life. Some laws banned customary religious 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 polices that often banned traditional ethnic and spiritual practices.
To speed up the assimilation process, the government established Indian training centers that tried to quickly and vigorously Americanize Indian youth. 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 achieve this objective, the schools forced students to speak only English, wear proper American attire and to replace 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 complete control of the U.S. government.
Native American Treaties with the United States
In 1887, Congress enacted the General Allotment Act, the most significant element of the U.S. government’s assimilation platform, which was written to “civilize” American Indians by teaching them to be farmers. In order to achieve this, Congress needed to create non-public title of Indian property by splitting up reservations, which were collectively held, and offering each family their own parcel of land.
In addition to this, by forcing the Native Americans onto limited plots, western developers and settlers could purchase the remaining land. The General Allotment Act, referred to as the Dawes Act, required that the Indian lands be surveyed and each family be awarded an allotment of between 80 and 160 acres, while unmarried adults received between 40 to 80 acres; the residual land was to be sold. Congress was hoping that the Dawes Act would break-up Indian tribes and stimulate individual enterprise, while lowering the cost of Indian administration and providing prime land to be sold to white settlers.
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The Dawes Act turned out to be catastrophic for the American Indians; over the next generations they lived under policies that outlawed their traditional way of living and yet did not supply the critical resources to support their businesses and families. Dividing the reservations into small parcels of land caused the significant decrease of Indian-owned land. Within three decades, the tribes had lost over two-thirds of the territory that they had controlled before the Dawes Act was passed in 1887; the majority of the remaining land was sold to white settlers.
Usually, Native Americans were cheated out of their allotments or were required to sell off their land in order pay bills and take care of their own families. As a result, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were often not able to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, as the creators of the policy had desired. This also produced animosity among Indians toward the U.S. government, as the allotment practice often destroyed land that was the spiritual and societal center of their activities.
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 housing 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 cheated out of their land, food and way of life, as the “” government’s Indian regulations shoved them inside reservations and attempted to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands could not survive relocation, assimilation and military loss; by 1890 the Native American population was decreased to less than 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 changed permanently.
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