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 centuries, the American Indian developed its culture 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 currently the U.S. we have learned much. It’s a story of beautiful arts and crafts and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed remarkably elaborate structures and public works.
While there was inescapable tribal conflict, that was simply a slight blemish in the tale 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 discover new resources – however the quality of environment and the bounty of everything from timber 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 rushed to carve up the “New World” by transporting over inadequately prepared colonists as fast as possible. At the beginning, they skirmished with the alarmed Indians of America’s eastern seaboard. But that shortly gave way to trade, because the Europeans who arrived here learned their survival was doubtful without native help.
Thus followed years of relative peace as the settlers got themselves established on American soil. But the pressure to push inland came soon after. Kings and queens from thousands of miles away were restless to find even more resources, and some colonists came for freedom and adventure.
They wanted more space. And so began the process of pushing the American Indian out of the way.
It took the form of cash arrangements, barter, and notoriously, treaties that were nearly uniformly ignored once 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 influenced by the desire to expand westward into territories occupied by these Native American tribes. By the 1850s nearly 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 situated in present day 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 met hardship as the continuous stream of European immigrants into northeastern American cities delivered a stream of immigrants into the western lands already inhabited 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 along with 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 acreage under 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, combined with the discovery of gold in 1849, presented captivating opportunities for those prepared make the long quest westward. As a result, with the military’s protection and the U.S. government’s assistance, many settlers started 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 laws and regulations and procedures 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 the indigenous peoples, but over two centuries the U.S. adapted its own widely varying regulations regarding the evolving perspectives and necessities of Native American supervision.
In 1824, in order to administer the U.S. government’s Native American policies, Congress formed a new bureau within the War Department referred to as 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 numerous cultural identities; however, at other times the government attempted to force the Native American tribes to give up their cultural identity, give up their land and assimilate into the American customs.
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With the steady flow of settlers into Indian “” land, Eastern newspapers published sensationalized reports of savage 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 repeatedly helped settlers cross the Plains. Not only did the American Indians peddle wild game and other necessities to travelers, but they served as guides and messengers between wagon trains as well. Despite the good natures of the American Indians, settlers still presumed the possibility of an attack.
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To calm these concerns, in 1851 the U.S. government kept a conference with several local Indian tribes and established the Treaty of Fort Laramie. Under this treaty, each Native American tribe consented to a bounded territory, allowed the government to construct roads and forts in this territory and agreed not to ever go after settlers; in return the federal government agreed to honor the boundaries of each tribe’s territory and make total 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 amongst 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 hold very long. After hearing testimonies of fertile land and great mineral wealth in the West, the government soon broke their pledge 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 confining Native Americans to reservations, modest swaths of acreage within a group’s territory that was set aside exclusively for their use, in order to grant more territory for the non-Indian settlers.
In a series of new treaties the U.S. government commanded 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 created in an effort to clear the way for increased U.S. growth and administration in the West, as well as to keep the Native Americans separate from the whites in order to reduce the potential for conflict.
History of the Plains Indians
These agreements had many complications. Most significantly many of the native people did not altogether grasp the document that they were signing or the conditions within it; further, the treaties did not acknowledge the cultural practices of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government departments responsible for administering these policies were plagued with poor management and corruption. In fact many treaty conditions were never executed.
The U.S. government almost never fulfilled their side of the accords even when the Native Americans went quietly to their reservations. Shady bureau agents frequently sold off the supplies that were intended for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Moreover, as settlers required more territory in the West, the government constantly decreased the size of reservation lands. By this time, most of the Native American people were dissatisfied with the treaties and angered by settlers’ persistent appetite for land.
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Angered by the government’s dishonorable and unjust 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 coerce Native Americans onto the reservations and to end the violence, the U.S. government reacted to these hostilities with costly military campaigns. Obviously the U.S. government’s Indian policies were in need an adjustment.
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Native American policy shifted drastically after the Civil War. Reformers felt that the scheme of forcing Native Americans onto reservations was too severe even though industrialists, who were concerned about their property and resources, viewed assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” as the only permanent strategy for guaranteeing Native American survival. In 1871 the government approved a critical law stating that the United States would not deal with Native American tribes as independent entities.
This law signaled a drastic shift in the government’s working relationship with the native peoples – Congress now regarded 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 concluded that it was better to make the policy of assimilation a widely accepted 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 only permanent method of protecting U.S. interests in the West and the survival of the American Indians. In order to accomplish this, the government pressed Native Americans to relocate out of their customary dwellings, move into wooden homes and become farmers.
The federal government enacted laws that forced Native Americans to abandon their established appearance and way of living. Some laws outlawed customary religious practices while others ordered Indian men to cut their long locks. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations organized courts to enforce federal regulations that often banned traditional cultural and spiritual practices.
To speed the assimilation process, the government established Indian facilities that tried to quickly and vigorously Americanize Indian children. 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 achieve this objective, the schools required enrollees to speak only English, wear proper American fashion and to substitute their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new policies brought Native Americans closer to the conclusion of their established tribal identity and the beginning of their existence as citizens under the full control of the U.S. government.
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 platform, which was written to “civilize” American Indians by teaching them to become farmers. In order to accomplish this, Congress needed to create non-public ownership of Indian land by dividing reservations, which were collectively owned, and giving each family their own stretch of land.
Additionally, by pushing the Native Americans onto limited plots of land, western developers and settlers could purchase the left over 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 remaining territory was to be sold. Congress expected that the Dawes Act would break up Indian tribes and encourage individual enterprise, while lowering the cost of Indian administration and producing prime property to be purchased by white settlers.
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The Dawes Act turned out to be disastrous for the American Indians; over the next decades they lived under regulations that outlawed their traditional lifestyle but didn’t offer the vital resources to support their businesses and families. Dividing the reservations into smaller parcels of land triggered the significant reduction of Indian-owned property. Inside three decades, the tribes had lost over two-thirds of the acreage that they had controlled before the Dawes Act was passed in 1887; the majority of the remaining land was sold to white settlers.
Usually, Native Americans were cheated out of their allotments or were forced to sell their property in order pay bills and feed their own families. As a result, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were generally unable to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, like the makers of the policy had anticipated. This also generated anger among Indians for the U.S. government, as the allotment practice sometimes ruined land that was the spiritual and cultural location of their lives.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed dramatically. 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 alone, were now filling with white settlers.
The Upshot of the Indian Wars
Over all these years the Indians have been cheated out of their property, food and way of living, as the “” government’s Indian regulations forced them inside reservations and tried to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands could not survive relocation, assimilation and military loss; by 1890 the Native American population was lowered to under 250,000 persons. Thanks to generations of discriminatory and ruthless policies implemented by the United States authorities between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was altered forever.
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