Long before the terms Native American or Indian were considered, 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 developed its culture and legacy without interference. And that history is fascinating.
From Mayan and Incan ruins, from the mounds left in the central and southern regions of what’s currently the U.S. we have learned plenty. It’s a narrative of beautiful artwork and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed remarkably elaborate structures and public works.
While there was inevitable tribal conflict, that was simply a slight blemish in the tale 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 ships in this direction, the goal was to explore new resources – but the quality of climate and the bounty of everything from wood 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 raced to slice up the “New World” by sending over inadequately prepared colonists as fast as possible. At first, they skirmished with the alarmed Indians of America’s eastern seaboard. But that ultimately gave way to trade, because the Europeans who landed here understood their survival was doubtful without native help.
Thus followed years of relative 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 opportunity.
They wanted more space. And so began the process of forcing the American Indian out of the way.
It took the shape of cash payments, barter, and notoriously, treaties which were nearly consistently ignored after the Indians were pushed 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 occupied by these Native American tribes. By the 1850s virtually 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 located in present day 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 hardship as the continuous stream of European immigrants into northeastern American cities pushed a stream of immigrants into the western lands already populated by these various groups of Indians.
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The early nineteenth century in 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 as well as the authority over Oregon country, Texas and California; America’s expansion wouldn’t end there. Between 1830 and 1860 the United States roughly doubled the amount of land 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 opportunities for those ready to make the extended 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 regulations and operations established 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 the indigenous peoples, but throughout two centuries the U.S. designed its own widely varying regulations regarding the evolving perspectives and requirements of Native American regulation.
In 1824, in order to execute the U.S. government’s Native American policies, Congress formed a new bureau inside the War Department referred to as 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, distinct political communities with different 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 into Indian controlled land, Eastern newspapers printed sensationalized reports 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 not the norm; in fact, Native American tribes routinely helped settlers cross over the Plains. Not only did the American Indians sell wild game and other supplies to travelers, but they served as guides and messengers between wagon trains as well. Despite the genial natures of the American Indians, settlers still feared the risk of an attack.
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To quiet these worries, in 1851 the U.S. government presented a conference with several local Indian tribes and established the Treaty of Fort Laramie. Within this treaty, each Native American tribe accepted a bounded territory, allowed the government to construct roads and forts in this territory and pledged not to ever attack 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 signed the treaty, even agreed to end the hostilities amidst 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 did not hold long. After hearing stories of fertile terrain and great 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 heading west, the federal government established a policy of restricting Native Americans to reservations, small swaths of land within a group’s territory that was reserved exclusively for their use, in order to offer more territory for the non-Indian settlers.
In a series of new treaties the U.S. government made 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, livestock, household goods and agricultural tools. These reservations were established in an attempt to pave the way for heightened U.S. expansion and administration in the West, as well as to keep the Native Americans isolated from the whites in order to lessen the chance for friction.
History of the Plains Indians
These deals had many challenges. Most of all many of the native peoples did not altogether understand the document that they were finalizing or the conditions within it; moreover, the treaties did not respect the cultural practices of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government bureaus accountable for administering these policies were weighed down with poor management and corruption. In fact many treaty terms were never implemented.
The U.S. government almost never held up their side of the agreements even when the Native Americans relocated quietly to their reservations. Dishonest bureau agents frequently sold off the supplies that were intended for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Moreover, as settlers required more land in the West, the government constantly reduced the size of reservation lands. By this time, many of the Native American people were unhappy with the treaties and angered by the settlers’ constant demands for land.
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Angered by the government’s dishonorable and unfair policies, some Native American tribes, including bands of Cheyennes, Arapahos, Comanches and Sioux, battled back. As they fought to protect their territories and their tribes’ survival, more than one thousand skirmishes and battles broke out in the West between 1861 and 1891. In an effort to make Native Americans onto the reservations and to end the violence, the U.S. government responded to these hostilities with significant military operations. Clearly the U.S. government’s Indian regulations were in need an adjustment.
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Native American policy changed drastically after the Civil War. Reformers felt that the policy of pushing Native Americans inside reservations was too strict even though industrialists, who were concerned with their property and resources, viewed assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” as the singular permanent strategy for guaranteeing Native American survival. In 1871 the federal government enacted a critical law proclaiming that the United States would not treat Native American tribes as sovereign nations.
This law signaled a significant change in the government’s working relationship with the native peoples – Congress now considered the Native Americans, not as nations outside of its jurisdiction, but as wards of the government. By making Native Americans wards of the U.S. government, Congress imagined that it would be easier to make the policy of assimilation a widely accepted part of the cultural mainstream of America.
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Many U.S. government officials considered assimilation as the most effective answer to what they deemed “the Indian problem,” and the only permanent means of 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 buildings and turn into farmers.
The federal government handed down laws that pressed Native Americans to reject their traditional appearance and way of life. Some laws banned common religious practices while others instructed Indian men to cut their long hair. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations founded courts to implement federal regulations that often prohibited traditional cultural and religious practices.
To speed up the assimilation operation, the government set up Indian schools that attempted to quickly and forcefully Americanize Indian children. As per the director 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 required enrollees to speak only English, put on proper American clothing and to substitute their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new regulations brought Native Americans closer to the conclusion of their established 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 passed the General Allotment Act, the most important part of the U.S. government’s assimilation program, which was developed to “civilize” American Indians by educating them to be farmers. In order to accomplish this, Congress needed to establish non-public title of Indian property by dividing reservations, which were collectively owned, and issuing each family their own stretch of land.
In addition to this, by forcing the Native Americans onto small plots, western developers and settlers could purchase the remaining acreage. The General Allotment Act, often called 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 were given between 40 to 80 acres; the remaining territory was to be sold. Congress expected that the Dawes Act would break-up Indian tribes and inspire individual enterprise, while reducing the expense of Indian administration and producing prime property to be purchased by 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 way of life but failed to provide the crucial resources to support their businesses and families. Dividing the reservations into smaller parcels of land brought about the significant decrease of Indian-owned land. Within thirty years, the people 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 purchased by white settlers.
Commonly, Native Americans were cheated out of their allotments or were required to sell their land in order pay bills and provide for their own families. Because of that, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were generally not able to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, as the creators of the policy had expected. It also created anger among Indians toward the U.S. government, as the allotment method sometimes ruined land that was the spiritual and social location of their activities.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed dramatically. Through U.S. administration regulations, American Indians were forced from their homes as their native lands were parceled out. The Plains, which they had previously roamed without restriction, were now inhabited with white settlers.
The Upshot of the Indian Wars
Over these years the Indians have been cheated out of their land, food and approach to life, as the “” government’s Indian regulations forced them into reservations and tried to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands didn’t survive relocation, cultural destruction and military defeat; by 1890 the Native American population was decreased to under 250,000 people. Thanks to decades of discriminatory and dodgy policies implemented by the United States government between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was altered permanently.
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