Centuries before the terms Native American or Indian were considered, 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 developed its customs and legacy without disturbance. And that history is fascinating.
From Mayan and Incan ruins, from the mounds left in the central and southern regions of what is today the U.S. we have learned much. 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 just a slight blemish in the history of our forebears. They were at peace with this beautiful continent and deeply connected to nature.
The European Settler Arrives
When European leaders dispatched the first ships in our direction, the intention was to explore new resources – however the quality of weather 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 rushed to slice up the “New World” by transporting over poorly prepared colonists as fast as they could. In the beginning, they skirmished with the alarmed Indians of America’s eastern seaboard. But that ultimately gave way to trade, because the Europeans who landed here learned their survival was doubtful with no Indian help.
Thus followed years of comparative 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 anxious to locate even more 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 arrangements, barter, and notoriously, treaties which were almost consistently ignored once the Indians were pushed from the territory 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 areas occupied by these Native American tribes. By the 1850s almost 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 hardship as the steady stream 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 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 as well as the authority over Oregon country, Texas and California; America’s expansion did not end there. Between 1830 and 1860 the U.S. roughly doubled the amount of territory 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 alluring opportunities for those prepared make the extended quest westward. Therefore, 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 areas 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 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 native peoples, but over two centuries the U.S. designed its own widely varying policies 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 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, separate political communities with numerous 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 customs.
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With the steady flow of settlers into Indian controlled land, Eastern newspapers published sensationalized stories 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 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 friendly natures of the American Indians, settlers still feared the possibility of an attack.
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To calm these fears, 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 tracks and forts in this territory and pledged to never attack settlers; in return the federal government agreed to honor the boundaries of each tribe’s territory and make annual 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 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 didn’t stand long. After hearing testimonies of fertile land 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 moving west, the federal government established a policy of limiting Native Americans to reservations, modest swaths of acreage within a group’s territory that was set aside exclusively for their use, in order to offer 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 migrate to reservations in exchange for protection from attacks by white settlers. In addition, the Indians were offered a yearly payment that would include money in addition to foodstuffs, livestock, household goods and agricultural equipment. These reservations were created in an attempt to pave the way for increased 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 importantly many of the native people didn’t completely understand the document that they were confirming or the conditions within it; further, the treaties did not consider the cultural practices of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government agencies responsible for applying these policies were weighed down with poor management and corruption. In fact most treaty terms were never accomplished.
The U.S. government almost never fulfilled their side of the agreements even when the Native Americans relocated quietly to their reservations. Dishonest bureau agents frequently sold the supplies that were intended for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Additionally, as settlers demanded more territory in the West, the 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 the settlers’ endless hunger 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, battled back. As they fought 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 effort to push Native Americans onto the reservations and to end the violence, the U.S. government responded to these hostilities with significant military operations. Obviously the U.S. government’s Indian policies required of a change.
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Native American policy changed drastically following the Civil War. Reformers felt that the policy of forcing Native Americans into reservations was far too harsh while industrialists, who were concerned with their land and resources, considered assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” as the singular long-term strategy for guaranteeing Native American survival. In 1871 the federal government enacted a critical law proclaiming that the United States would no longer deal with Native American tribes as sovereign nations.
This legislation signaled a major change in the government’s working relationship with the native peoples – Congress now deemed 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 concluded that it would be better to make the policy of assimilation a broadly recognised part of the cultural mainstream of America.
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Many U.S. government administrators viewed assimilation as the most practical remedy for what they deemed “the Indian problem,” and the single 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 established dwellings, move into wooden homes and grow into farmers.
The federal government handed down laws that required Native Americans to abandon their established appearance and lifestyle. Some laws outlawed common religious practices while others instructed Indian males to cut their long locks. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations organized courts to implement federal polices that often banned traditional ethnic and spiritual practices.
To accelerate the assimilation process, the government started Indian schools that tried to quickly and forcefully Americanize Indian youth. As per the director of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, the schools were created to “kill the Indian and save the man.” In order to accomplish this goal, the schools compelled students to speak only English, dress in proper American clothing and to substitute their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new policies brought Native Americans closer to the conclusion of their traditional tribal identity and the start of their existence as citizens under the full control of the U.S. government.
Native American Treaties with the United States
In 1887, Congress enacted the General Allotment Act, the most important component of the U.S. government’s assimilation program, which was developed to “civilize” American Indians by educating them to be farmers. In order to achieve this, Congress needed to create non-public ownership of Indian property by splitting up reservations, which were collectively owned, and providing each family their own parcel of land.
Additionally, by pushing the Native Americans onto small plots, western developers and settlers could purchase the remaining land. The General Allotment Act, also known 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 residual territory was to be sold. Congress thought that the Dawes Act would divide Indian tribes and encourage individual enterprise, while reducing the cost of Indian administration and serving up prime land to be purchased by white settlers.
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The Dawes Act turned out to be catastrophic for the American Indians; over the next decades they existed under regulations that outlawed their traditional approach to life but didn’t offer the crucial resources to support their businesses and households. Dividing the reservations into smaller parcels of land led to the significant reduction of Indian-owned property. Inside three decades, the tribes 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 purchased by white settlers.
Commonly, Native Americans were duped out of their allotments or were required to sell off their property in order to pay bills and provide for their families. Because of that, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were generally not able to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, like the makers of the Act had wished. It also produced resentment among Indians for the U.S. government, as the allotment method sometimes destroyed land that was the spiritual and social location of their activities.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed drastically. Due to U.S. administration policies, 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 these years the Indians had been cheated out of their territory, food and way of living, as the federal government’s Indian regulations shoved them onto reservations and tried to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands would not make it through relocation, assimilation and military defeat; by 1890 the Native American population was reduced to fewer than 250,000 persons. Thanks to generations of discriminatory and corrupt policies implemented by the United States government between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was changed permanently.
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