Centuries before the terms Native American or Indian were necessary, 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 thousands of years, the American Indian grew its customs and heritage 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 today the U.S. we have learned much. It’s a narrative of beautiful arts and crafts and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed highly advanced buildings and public works.
While there was inescapable 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 vessels in this direction, the intention was to explore new resources – but the quality of weather and the bounty of everything from timber to wildlife soon changed their tune. As those leaders learned 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 poorly prepared colonists as fast as they could. At the beginning, they skirmished with the surprised Indians of America’s eastern seaboard. But that soon gave way to trade, since the Europeans who arrived here knew 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 restless to find additional resources, and some colonists came for freedom and adventure.
They wanted more space. And so began the process of pushing the American Indian out of the way.
It took the form of cash payments, barter, and famously, treaties which were nearly consistently ignored after the Indians were pushed off the land 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 territories occupied by these Native American tribes. By the 1850s nearly 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 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 misfortune as the steady stream 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 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 along with 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 territory under its control.
These territorial gains coincided with the arrival of hordes 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 captivating possibilities for those ready to make the huge trip 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 tribe-inhabited West.
Native American Tribes
Native American Policy can be defined as the regulations and operations made and adapted in the United States to summarize the relationship between Native American tribes and the federal government. When the United States initially became a sovereign country, it adopted the European policies towards these local peoples, but over the course of two centuries the U.S. designed its very own widely varying policies regarding the evolving perspectives and requirements of Native American oversight.
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 compel the Native American tribes to abandon their cultural identity, let go of their land and assimilate into the American culture.
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With the steady flow of settlers into Indian controlled land, Eastern newspapers published sensationalized reports of cruel 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 frequently helped settlers get across the Plains. Not only did the American Indians peddle wild game and other supplies to travelers, but they served 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 soothe these fears, in 1851 the U.S. government held 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 pledged not to attack 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 entered into the treaty, even agreed to end the hostilities amidst 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 long. After hearing reports of fertile terrain and tremendous 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 heading west, the federal government established a plan of confining Native Americans to reservations, small areas of land within a group’s territory “” reserved exclusively for their use, in order to give more property for the non-Indian settlers.
In a series of new treaties the U.S. government compelled Native Americans to give up 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 money in addition to food, animals, household goods and farming equipment. 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 decrease the chance for friction.
History of the Plains Indians
These accords had many challenges. Most significantly many of the native people did not properly grasp the document that they were signing or the conditions within it; furthermore, the treaties did not consider the cultural practices of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government agencies accountable for applying these policies were overwhelmed with poor management and corruption. In fact most treaty provisions were never executed.
The U.S. government rarely held up their side of the accords even when the Native Americans migrated quietly to their reservations. Shady bureau agents repeatedly sold the supplies that were intended for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Moreover, as settlers demanded more territory in the West, the federal government frequently cut the size of reservation lands. By this time, most of the Native American peoples were dissatisfied with the treaties and angered by settlers’ persistent hunger for land.
A Look at Native American Symbols
Angered by the government’s dishonest and unfair policies, several Native American tribes, including bands of Cheyennes, Arapahos, Comanches and Sioux, battled back. As they struggled 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 attempt to compel Native Americans onto the reservations and to end the violence, the U.S. government responded to these conflicts with costly military campaigns. Clearly the U.S. government’s Indian policies required an adjustment.
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Native American policy changed radically following the Civil War. Reformers believed that the policy of forcing Native Americans inside reservations was too strict even while industrialists, who were worried about their property and resources, viewed assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” as the single permanent means of ensuring Native American survival. In 1871 the government enacted a pivotal law stating that the United States would not treat Native American tribes as sovereign entities.
This legislation signaled a drastic change 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 U.S. government, Congress imagined that it was easier to make the policy of assimilation a widely recognized part of the cultural mainstream of America.
More On American Indian History
Many U.S. government officials perceived assimilation as the most effective remedy for what they viewed as “the Indian problem,” and the only lasting 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 established dwellings, move into wooden homes and become farmers.
The federal government passed laws that forced Native Americans to reject their traditional appearance and way of living. Some laws outlawed common spiritual practices while others required Indian men to cut their long hair. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations set up tribunals to implement federal polices that often restricted traditional cultural and religious practices.
To accelerate the assimilation course, the government established Indian training centers that tried to quickly and forcefully Americanize Indian youth. As per 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 accomplish this goal, the schools forced students to speak only English, dress in proper American fashion and to replace their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new policies helped bring Native Americans nearer to the end of their classic tribal identity and the beginning of their life as citizens under the absolute control of the U.S. government.
Native American Treaties with the United States
In 1887, Congress approved the General Allotment Act, the most significant component of the U.S. government’s assimilation program, which was intended to “civilize” American Indians by educating them to be farmers. In order to achieve this, Congress wanted to create non-public ownership of Indian land by splitting up reservations, which were collectively held, and giving each family their own block of land.
Additionally, by pushing the Native Americans onto limited plots of land, western developers and settlers could purchase the left over territory. The General Allotment Act, also known 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 remaining territory was to be sold. Congress hoped that the Dawes Act would divide Indian tribes and encourage individual enterprise, while reducing the expense of Indian supervision and providing prime land to be sold to white settlers.
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The Dawes Act turned out to be disastrous for the American Indians; over the next decades they existed under regulations that outlawed their traditional way of life yet failed to provide the necessary resources to support their businesses and families. Splitting the reservations into smaller parcels of land triggered the significant decrease of Indian-owned land. Within three decades, the people had lost more than two-thirds of the acreage that they had controlled before the Dawes Act was passed in 1887; the majority of the remaining land was sold to white settlers.
Regularly, Native Americans were cheated out of their allotments or were forced to sell off their land in order to pay bills and provide for their families. Consequently, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were often unable to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, as the creators of the policy had anticipated. Further, it produced anger among Indians for the U.S. government, as the allotment process often destroyed land that was the spiritual and societal centre of their lives.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed tremendously. 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 alone, were now filling with white settlers.
The Upshot of the Indian Wars
Over all these years the Indians had been cheated out of their property, food and way of living, as the federal government’s Indian plans coerced them on to reservations and attempted to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands didn’t endure relocation, assimilation and military loss; by 1890 the Native American population was lowered to fewer 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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