Centuries before the terms Native American or Indian were considered, 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 heritage without disturbance. 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 quite a bit. It’s a narrative of beautiful arts and crafts and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed remarkably advanced structures and public works.
While there was inevitable tribal conflict, that was simply a slight blemish in the tale of our forebears. They were at peace with this beautiful continent and deeply connected to nature.
The European Settler Arrives
When European leaders sent the first vessels in this direction, the plan was to discover new resources – however the quality of climate and the bounty of everything from wood to wildlife subsequently changed their tune. As those leaders learned from their explorers, the drive to colonize spread like wildfire.
The English, French and Spanish raced to slice up the “New World” by transporting over inadequately 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 landed here knew that their survival was doubtful with no Indian help.
Thus followed decades of relative peace as the settlers got themselves established on American soil. But the pressure to push inland followed soon after. Kings and queens from thousands of miles away were anxious to locate additional 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 form of cash payments, barter, and famously, treaties that were almost consistently neglected after the Indians were forced 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 almost all Native American tribes, approximately 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 contemporary 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 encountered adversity as the constant flow of European immigrants into northeastern American cities pushed a stream of immigrants into the western lands already inhabited by these various groups of 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 along with the authority over Oregon country, Texas and California; America’s expansion did not end there. Between 1830 and 1860 the United States pretty much doubled the amount of land under its control.
These territorial gains coincided with the arrival of troves 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 captivating possibilities for those ready to make the long quest 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 tribe-inhabited West.
Native American Tribes
Native American Policy can be defined as the regulations and procedures 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 implemented the European policies towards the indigenous peoples, but throughout two centuries the U.S. tailored its own widely varying policies regarding the evolving perspectives and necessities of Native American oversight.
In 1824, in order to administrate the U.S. government’s Native American policies, Congress made a new bureau 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 varying cultural identities; however, at other times the government attempted to compel 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 “” land, Eastern newspapers printed sensationalized stories of cruel native tribes committing widespread massacres of hundreds of white travelers. Although some settlers lost their lives to American Indian attacks, this was in no way the norm; in fact, Native American tribes routinely helped settlers get across the Plains. Not only did the American Indians offer wild game and other supplies to travelers, but they served 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 fears, 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 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 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 entered into the treaty, even agreed to end the hostilities between their tribes in order to accept the conditions 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 reports of fertile land and great 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 area. With so many newcomers heading west, the federal government established a plan of confining Native Americans to reservations, modest areas of acreage within a group’s territory that was earmarked exclusively for Indian use, in order to provide more land for the non-Indian settlers.
In a series of new treaties the U.S. government made Native Americans to surrender their land and move 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 food, livestock, household goods and farming tools. These reservations were established in an attempt to clear the way for heightened U.S. growth and involvement in the West, as well as to keep the Native Americans separate from the whites in order to reduce the potential for friction.
History of the Plains Indians
These accords had many challenges. Most of all many of the native people didn’t completely grasp the document that they were finalizing or the conditions within it; moreover, the treaties did not respect the cultural norms of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government institutions responsible for administering these policies were plagued with awful management and corruption. In fact most treaty provisions were never accomplished.
The U.S. government rarely fulfilled their side of the agreements even when the Native Americans relocated quietly to their reservations. Shady bureau agents often sold the supplies that were intended for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Moreover, as settlers needed more territory in the West, the federal government continually decreased the size of reservation lands. By this time, many of the Native American peoples were dissatisfied with the treaties and angered by settlers’ persistent demands 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 preserve their territories and their tribes’ survival, over a 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 reacted to these conflicts with significant military campaigns. Obviously the U.S. government’s Indian regulations were in need of a change.
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Native American policy changed dramatically following the Civil War. Reformers felt that the policy of driving Native Americans onto reservations was far too strict even though industrialists, who were worried about their land and resources, thought of assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” as the single permanent method of assuring Native American survival. In 1871 the government passed a critical law stating that the United States would no longer treat Native American tribes as independent entities.
This legislation signaled a major shift in the government’s working relationship with the native peoples – Congress now considered 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 easier to make the policy of assimilation a broadly 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 viewed as “the Indian problem,” and the sole long-term strategy for insuring 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 become farmers.
The federal government handed down laws that pressed Native Americans to reject their usual appearance and lifestyle. Some laws banned common religious practices while others required Indian males to cut their long locks. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations established tribunals to implement federal polices that often restricted traditional ethnic and spiritual practices.
To speed the assimilation process, the government started Indian schools that attempted to quickly and forcefully Americanize Indian kids. According to the founder of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, the schools were designed to “kill the Indian and save the man.” In order to make this happen objective, the schools compelled pupils to speak only English, dress in proper American clothing and to replace their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new policies brought Native Americans nearer to the conclusion of their classic tribal identity and the start of their daily life 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 element of the U.S. government’s assimilation program, which was written to “civilize” American Indians by educating them to be farmers. In order to achieve this, Congress wanted to establish private title of Indian land by splitting up reservations, which were collectively owned, and issuing each family their own stretch of land.
Additionally, by pushing the Native Americans onto limited plots, western developers and settlers could purchase the remaining acreage. The General Allotment Act, also referred to as the Dawes Act, required that the Indian lands be surveyed and every family be provided with an allotment of between 80 and 160 acres, while unmarried adults were given between 40 to 80 acres; the residual acreage was to be sold. Congress thought that the Dawes Act would divide Indian tribes and increase individual enterprise, while trimming the cost of Indian supervision and producing prime land to be purchased by white settlers.
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The Dawes Act proved to be catastrophic for the American Indians; over the next generations they existed under policies that outlawed their traditional lifestyle but didn’t provide the necessary resources to support their businesses and households. Splitting the reservations into small parcels of land led to the significant decrease of Indian-owned property. Inside three decades, 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.
Frequently, Native Americans were cheated out of their allotments or were forced to sell their property in order to pay bills and take care of their families. Because of that, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were generally unable to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, as the creators of the policy had anticipated. Further, it produced resentment among Indians toward the U.S. government, as the allotment practice sometimes ruined land that was the spiritual and social hub of their days.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed dramatically. 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 filling with white settlers.
The Upshot of the Indian Wars
Over all these years the Indians ended up cheated out of their land, food and lifestyle, as the federal government’s Indian regulations shoved them onto reservations and tried to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands could not endure relocation, assimilation and military loss; by 1890 the Native American population was reduced to fewer than 250,000 persons. Due to decades of discriminatory and corrupt policies instituted by the United States authorities between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was changed forever.
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