Long 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 traditions and legacy without interference. And that history is captivating.
From Mayan and Incan ruins, from the mounds left in the central and southern parts of what’s now the U.S. we have learned plenty. It’s a narrative of beautiful craft work and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed remarkably elaborate structures and public works.
While there was inescapable tribal conflict, that was nothing more than a slight blemish in the account of our forebears. They were at peace with this beautiful continent and intensely plugged into nature.
The European Settler Arrives
When European leaders sent the first vessels in our direction, the goal was to discover new resources – but the quality of environment and the bounty of everything from timber to wildlife subsequently 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 sending over poorly prepared colonists as fast as possible. Initially, they skirmished with the surprised Indians of America’s eastern seaboard. But that shortly gave way to trade, since the Europeans who arrived here knew that their survival was doubtful without native help.
Thus followed years of comparative peace as the settlers got themselves established on American land. But the pressure to push inland came soon after. Kings and queens from thousands of miles away were anxious to find even more resources, and some colonists came for freedom and opportunity.
They needed more space. And so began the process of driving the American Indian out of the way.
It took the form of cash payments, barter, and notoriously, treaties which were nearly uniformly ignored once the Indians were moved away 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 inhabited by these Native American tribes. By the 1850s virtually 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 situated in contemporary 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 experienced misfortune as the constant 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 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 United States roughly doubled the amount of land 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, partnered with the discovery of gold in 1849, presented captivating opportunities for those prepared make the long quest westward. Consequently, with the military’s protection and the U.S. government’s assistance, many settlers began 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 regulations 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 first became a sovereign nation, it implemented the European policies towards these indigenous peoples, but over two centuries the U.S. tailored its own widely varying policies regarding the changing perspectives and necessities of Native American oversight.
In 1824, in order to apply the U.S. government’s Native American policies, Congress formed a new agency 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 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 traditions.
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With the steady stream of settlers in to Indian controlled land, Eastern newspapers circulated 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 not the norm; in fact, Native American tribes often helped settlers cross 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 good natures of the American Indians, settlers still anticipated the risk of an attack.
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To soothe these anxieties, in 1851 the U.S. government placed 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 agreed not to 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 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 amongst their tribes in order 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 tales of fertile land and tremendous mineral wealth in the West, the government soon broke their promises 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 restricting Native Americans to reservations, small areas of land within a group’s territory that was set aside exclusively for Indian use, in order to provide more territory for “” non-Indian settlers.
In a series of new treaties the U.S. government compelled 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 stipend that would include money in addition to food, animals, household goods and farming equipment. These reservations were established in an attempt to pave 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 lower the chance for friction.
History of the Plains Indians
These agreements had many challenges. Most of all many of the native people didn’t properly understand the document that they were confirming or the conditions within it; moreover, the treaties did not consider the cultural practices of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government institutions responsible for applying these policies were weighed down with awful management and corruption. In fact many treaty terms were never implemented.
The U.S. government rarely held up their side of the agreements even when the Native Americans moved quietly to their reservations. Unethical bureau agents repeatedly sold off the supplies that were meant for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Moreover, as settlers required more property in the West, the government continually reduced the size of the reservations. By this time, most of the Native American peoples were unhappy with the treaties and angered by the settlers’ endless hunger for territory.
A Look at Native American Symbols
Angered by the government’s deceitful and unjust policies, several Native American tribes, including bands of Cheyennes, Arapahos, Comanches and Sioux, battled back. As they fought to defend 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 coerce Native Americans onto the reservations and to end the violence, the U.S. government reacted to these incursions with costly military campaigns. Obviously the U.S. government’s Indian regulations were in need an adjustment.
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Native American policy changed considerably following the Civil War. Reformers believed that the scheme of driving Native Americans into reservations was far too harsh even while industrialists, who were concerned about their land and resources, looked at assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” as the only long-term strategy for assuring Native American survival. In 1871 the federal government enacted a pivotal law stating that the United States would no longer deal with Native American tribes as sovereign nations.
This law signaled a drastic change in the government’s relationship with the native peoples – Congress now viewed 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 imagined that it would be easier to make the policy of assimilation a broadly acknowledged part of the cultural mainstream of America.
More On American Indian History
Many U.S. government administrators viewed assimilation as the most effective remedy for what they deemed “the Indian problem,” and the single permanent method of guaranteeing U.S. interests in the West and the survival of the American Indians. In order to accomplish this, the government pressed 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 life. Some laws outlawed common spiritual practices while others instructed Indian males to cut their long hair. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations set up courts to enforce federal polices that often banned traditional cultural and spiritual practices.
To hasten the assimilation process, the government set up Indian training centers that attempted to quickly and forcefully Americanize Indian kids. According to the director of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, the schools were created to “kill the Indian and save the man.” In order to achieve this goal, the schools compelled enrollees to speak only English, dress in proper American clothing and to switch their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new regulations brought Native Americans nearer to the end of their traditional tribal identity and the beginning of their life as citizens under the full control of the U.S. administration.
Native American Treaties with the United States
In 1887, Congress handed down the General Allotment Act, the most important part of the U.S. government’s assimilation program, which was intended to “civilize” American Indians by educating them to become farmers. In order to make this happen, Congress wanted to increase non-public ownership of Indian property by dividing reservations, which were collectively owned, and issuing each family their own plot of land.
In addition to this, by pushing the Native Americans onto small plots of land, western developers and settlers could purchase the left over acreage. The General Allotment Act, better 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 were given between 40 to 80 acres; the residual land was to be sold. Congress thought that the Dawes Act would divide Indian tribes and stimulate individual enterprise, while trimming the expense of Indian administration and providing 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 decades they existed under policies that outlawed their traditional way of living but didn’t provide the vital resources to support their businesses and families. Splitting the reservations into smaller parcels of land led to the significant decrease 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 enacted in 1887; the majority of the remaining land was sold to white settlers.
Regularly, Native Americans were cheated out of their allotments or were required to sell off their property in order pay bills and provide for their families. As a result, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were often not able to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, like the creators of the Act had intended. It also generated anger among Indians for the U.S. government, as the allotment operation sometimes destroyed land that was the spiritual and societal focus of their activities.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed radically. Due to U.S. administration policies, American Indians were forced from their homes because their native lands were parceled out. The Plains, which they had previously roamed without restriction, were now filled with white settlers.
The Upshot of the Indian Wars
Over all these years the Indians ended up cheated out of their territory, food and approach to life, as the federal government’s Indian regulations forced them on to reservations and tried to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands didn’t endure relocation, assimilation and military defeat; by 1890 the Native American population was reduced to less than 250,000 people. As a result of decades 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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