Far before the terms Native American or Indian were created, the tribes were spread throughout 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 traditions and heritage 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 quite a bit. It’s a tale of beautiful arts and crafts and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed highly advanced structures and public works.
While there was inevitable tribal conflict, that was simply a slight blemish in the experience of our ancestors. They were at peace with this beautiful continent and deeply plugged into nature.
The European Settler Arrives
When European leaders dispatched the first ships in our direction, the objective was to explore 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 shipping over inadequately prepared colonists as fast as they could. At the outset, they skirmished with the surprised Indians of America’s eastern seaboard. But that ultimately gave way to trade, because the Europeans who landed here learned that their survival was doubtful without Indian help.
Thus followed years of comparative peace as the settlers got themselves established on American soil. But the drive 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 independence 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 arrangements, barter, and famously, treaties that were nearly uniformly ignored after 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 occupied by these Native American tribes. By the 1850s virtually all Native American tribes, approximately 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 land of the Southern Plains.
The Sioux, Crows and Blackfeet dominated the Northern Plains. These Native American groups experienced hardship as the constant flow of European immigrants into northeastern American cities pushed a stream of immigrants into the western lands already populated by these diverse groups of Indians.
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The early nineteenth century in 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 along with the authority over Oregon country, Texas and California; America’s expansion did not end there. Between 1830 and 1860 the U.S. nearly doubled the amount of territory within its control.
These territorial gains coincided with the arrival of hordes of European and Asian immigrants who wanted to join the surge of American settlers heading west. This, partnered with the discovery of gold in 1849, presented alluring possibilities for those ready to make the huge journey westward. As a result, 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 laws and operations developed and adapted in the United States to define the relationship between Native American tribes and the federal government. When the United States initially became a sovereign nation, it implemented the European policies towards these local peoples, but over the course of two centuries the U.S. adapted its very own widely varying policies regarding the evolving perspectives and necessities of Native American oversight.
In 1824, in order to administer the U.S. government’s Native American policies, Congress formed 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, independent political communities with different cultural identities; however, at other times the government attempted to force the Native American tribes to abandon their cultural identity, surrender their land and assimilate into the American traditions.
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With the steady stream of settlers in to Indian controlled land, Eastern newspapers published sensationalized stories of savage native tribes committing 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 often helped settlers cross over 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 anticipated the possibility of an attack.
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To soothe these concerns, in 1851 the U.S. government held a conference with several local Indian tribes and established the Treaty of Fort Laramie. Under this treaty, each Native American tribe accepted a bounded territory, allowed the government to construct tracks and forts in this territory and pledged not to go after settlers; in return the federal government agreed to honor the boundaries of each tribe’s territory and make gross payments to the Indians. The Native American tribes responded peacefully to the treaty; in fact the Cheyenne, Sioux, Crow, Arapaho, Assinibione, Mandan, Gros Ventre and Arikara tribes, who entered into the treaty, even consented to end the hostilities amongst 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 didn’t hold long. After hearing reports of fertile acreage 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 heading west, the federal government established a policy of restricting Native Americans to reservations, modest areas of acreage within a group’s territory that was reserved exclusively for their use, in order to grant more land for “” 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 farming tools. These reservations were created in an attempt 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 reduce the chance for conflict.
History of the Plains Indians
These agreements had many complications. Most of all many of the native people did not completely understand the document that they were confirming or the conditions within it; furthermore, the treaties did not consider the cultural norms of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government agencies responsible for applying these policies were plagued with poor management and corruption. In fact many treaty conditions were never accomplished.
The U.S. government almost never fulfilled their side of the deals even when the Native Americans went quietly to their reservations. Unethical bureau agents repeatedly sold the supplies that were intended for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Additionally, as settlers needed more property in the West, the government constantly cut the size of the reservations. By this time, many of the Native American peoples were dissatisfied with the treaties and angered by settlers’ endless appetite for territory.
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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, over a 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 reacted to these hostilities with significant military operations. Obviously the U.S. government’s Indian regulations required an adjustment.
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Native American policy changed radically after the Civil War. Reformers felt that the policy of forcing Native Americans onto reservations was too strict even though industrialists, who were worried about their land and resources, considered 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 government enacted a pivotal law stating that the United States would not treat Native American tribes as independent entities.
This law signaled a major shift in the government’s relationship with the native peoples – Congress now viewed the Native Americans, not as nations outside of its jurisdictional control, but as wards of the government. By making Native Americans wards of the U.S. government, Congress presumed that it was better to make the policy of assimilation a broadly recognized part of the cultural mainstream of America.
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Many U.S. government officials looked at assimilation as the most practical answer to what they deemed “the Indian problem,” and the only long-term means of protecting U.S. interests in the West and the survival of the American Indians. In order to accomplish this, the government pushed Native Americans to relocate out of their customary dwellings, move into wooden dwellings and turn into farmers.
The federal government passed laws that required Native Americans to abandon their established appearance and lifestyle. Some laws banned customary religious practices while others instructed Indian men to cut their long hair. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations set up courts to implement federal regulations that often banned traditional cultural and religious practices.
To accelerate the assimilation course, the government set up Indian training centers that attempted to quickly and vigorously Americanize Indian youth. According to the founder of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, the schools were developed to “kill the Indian and save the man.” To be able to make this happen objective, the schools forced pupils to speak only English, put on proper American attire and to switch their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new policies brought Native Americans closer to the end of their original tribal identity and the beginning of their existence as citizens under the absolute control of the U.S. administration.
Native American Treaties with the United States
In 1887, Congress approved the General Allotment Act, the most significant element of the U.S. government’s assimilation platform, which was created to “civilize” American Indians by teaching them to become farmers. In order to make this happen, Congress needed to increase private title of Indian land by splitting up reservations, which were collectively owned, and offering each family their own parcel of land.
Additionally, by forcing the Native Americans onto small plots of land, western developers and settlers could purchase the left over territory. The General Allotment Act, also referred to 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 were given between 40 to 80 acres; the remaining acreage was to be sold. Congress expected that the Dawes Act would breakup Indian tribes and inspire individual enterprise, while lowering the cost of Indian supervision and serving up prime property to be sold to white settlers.
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The Dawes Act proved to be disastrous for the American Indians; over the next generations they lived under policies that outlawed their traditional lifestyle yet did not offer the crucial resources to support their businesses and households. Splitting the reservations into smaller parcels of land triggered the significant reduction of Indian-owned property. Within thirty years, the tribes had lost over two-thirds of the region that they had controlled before the Dawes Act was enacted in 1887; the majority of the remaining land was sold to white settlers.
Usually, Native Americans were duped out of their allotments or were required to sell their land in order to pay bills and provide for their own families. Because of that, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were often unable to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, like the makers of the policy had intended. Aside from that it generated animosity among Indians for the U.S. government, as the allotment operation often ruined land that was the spiritual and cultural focus of their days.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed radically. Through 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 up with white settlers.
The Upshot of the Indian Wars
Over these years the Indians have been cheated out of their property, food and way of life, as the federal government’s Indian plans forced them on to reservations and attempted to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands did not make it through relocation, cultural destruction and military loss; by 1890 the Native American population was decreased to fewer than 250,000 persons. Due to decades of discriminatory and corrupt policies implemented by the United States authorities between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was changed forever.
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