Long 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 territory, it was settled by the forefathers of bands we now call Sioux, or Cherokee, or Iroquois.
For centuries, the American Indian developed its customs and legacy without disturbance. And that history is captivating.
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 much. It’s a story of beautiful artwork and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed highly elaborate buildings and public works.
While there was inescapable tribal conflict, that was nothing more than a slight blemish in the experience of our forebears. They were at peace with this beautiful continent and deeply plugged into nature.
The European Settler Arrives
When European leaders sent the first ships in this direction, the plan 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 drive to colonize spread like wildfire.
The English, French and Spanish raced to carve up the “New World” by sending 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 soon gave way to trade, because the Europeans who landed here understood their survival was doubtful without native 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 find even more resources, and some colonists came for independence and adventure.
They needed more space. And so began the process of forcing the American Indian out of the way.
It took the form of cash payments, barter, and notoriously, treaties which were almost consistently ignored after 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 motivated by the desire to expand westward into territories occupied 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 land of the Southern Plains.
The Sioux, Crows and Blackfeet dominated the Northern Plains. These Native American groups encountered hardship as the steady flow of European immigrants into northeastern American cities delivered a stream of immigrants into the western lands already occupied by these diverse groups of Indians.
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The early nineteenth century in 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 as well as the authority over Oregon country, Texas and California; America’s expansion would not end there. Between 1830 and 1860 the U.S. pretty much 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, combined with the discovery of gold in 1849, presented attractive opportunities for those prepared make the extended quest westward. Consequently, with the military’s protection and the U.S. government’s assistance, many settlers started establishing their homesteads in the Great Plains and other parts of the Native American tribe-inhabited West.
Native American Tribes
Native American Policy can be defined as the laws and operations established and adapted in the United States to outline the relationship between Native American tribes and the federal government. When the United States initially became an independent nation, it adopted the European policies towards these indigenous peoples, but over the course of two centuries the U.S. adapted its own widely varying policies 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 within 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, independent 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 “” land, Eastern newspapers published 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 often 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 friendly natures of the American Indians, settlers still feared the likelihood of an attack.
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To quiet these anxieties, 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 tracks and forts in this territory and pledged not to ever go after settlers; in return the federal government agreed to honor the boundaries of each tribe’s territory and make gross annual 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 consented to end the hostilities amidst 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 did not last very long. After hearing reports of fertile acreage and tremendous mineral wealth in the West, the government soon broke their assurances established in the Treat of Fort Laramie by allowing thousands of non-Indians to flood into the area. With so many newcomers moving west, the federal government established a policy of confining Native Americans to reservations, small areas of land within a group’s territory “” set aside exclusively for their use, to be able to offer more land for the non-Indian settlers.
In a series of new treaties the U.S. government compelled Native Americans to abandon 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 cash in addition to foodstuffs, animals, household goods and farming equipment. These reservations were established in an effort to clear the way for increased U.S. growth and involvement in the West, as well as to keep the Native Americans isolated from the whites in order to reduce the chance for friction.
History of the Plains Indians
These deals had many challenges. Most importantly many of the native people didn’t completely grasp the document that they were signing or the conditions within it; further, the treaties did not respect 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 most treaty terms were never executed.
The U.S. government almost never honored their side of the agreements even when the Native Americans moved quietly to their reservations. Shady bureau agents frequently sold off the supplies that were meant for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Moreover, as settlers demanded more land in the West, the federal government constantly 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 appetite for territory.
A Look at Native American Symbols
Angered by the government’s dishonorable and unfair policies, some Native American tribes, including bands of Cheyennes, Arapahos, Comanches and Sioux, fought back. As they fought to preserve their lands and their tribes’ survival, over a thousand skirmishes and battles broke out in the West between 1861 and 1891. In an effort to force Native Americans onto the reservations and to end the violence, the U.S. government reacted to these skirmishes with costly military campaigns. Clearly the U.S. government’s Indian regulations required an adjustment.
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Native American policy shifted dramatically following the Civil War. Reformers believed that the policy of driving Native Americans on to reservations was far too strict even while industrialists, who were concerned about their land and resources, considered assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” as the sole long-term strategy for assuring Native American survival. In 1871 the government passed a pivotal law stating that the United States would no longer deal with Native American tribes as sovereign nations.
This legislation signaled a significant change in the government’s relationship with the native peoples – Congress now viewed the Native Americans, not as nations outside of its jurisdictional control, 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 broadly accepted part of the cultural mainstream of America.
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Many U.S. government representatives looked at assimilation as the most effective answer to what they deemed “the Indian problem,” and the only permanent strategy for 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 dwellings and grow into farmers.
The federal government enacted laws that required Native Americans to abandon their usual appearance and way of life. Some laws outlawed customary spiritual practices while others instructed Indian men to cut their long locks. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations established tribunals to enforce federal regulations that often restricted traditional ethnic and religious practices.
To accelerate the assimilation process, the government established Indian facilities that tried to quickly and vigorously Americanize Indian youth. As per the founder of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, the schools were developed to “kill the Indian and save the man.” To be able to accomplish this goal, the schools forced pupils to speak only English, dress in proper American fashion and to switch their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new policies helped bring Native Americans closer to the conclusion of their original tribal identity and the beginning of their daily life as citizens under the complete control of the U.S. authorities.
Native American Treaties with the United States
In 1887, Congress approved the General Allotment Act, the most important element of the U.S. government’s assimilation program, which was created to “civilize” American Indians by educating them to become farmers. In order to make this happen, Congress wanted to create non-public title of Indian land by dividing reservations, which were collectively owned, and allowing each family their own stretch of land.
In addition to this, by pushing the Native Americans onto small plots of land, western developers and settlers could purchase the remaining territory. 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 received between 40 to 80 acres; the residual acreage was to be sold. Congress expected that the Dawes Act would breakup Indian tribes and encourage individual enterprise, while trimming the expense of Indian supervision and providing prime land 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 way of life but did not offer the vital resources to support their businesses and families. Splitting the reservations into small parcels of land led to the significant decrease of Indian-owned land. Inside thirty years, the tribes had lost more than two-thirds of the region that they had controlled before the Dawes Act was enacted in 1887; the majority of the remaining land was purchased by white settlers.
Commonly, Native Americans were duped out of their allotments or were forced to sell their property in order to pay bills and take care of their families. As a result, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were generally not able to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, like the creators of the Act had expected. Further, it produced anger among Indians toward the U.S. government, as the allotment operation sometimes destroyed land that was the spiritual and social hub 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 living spaces because their native lands were parceled out. The Plains, which they had previously roamed without restriction, were now filling with white settlers.
The Upshot of the Indian Wars
Over all these years the Indians ended up cheated out of their property, food and approach to life, as the “” government’s Indian plans coerced them inside reservations and tried to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands did not survive relocation, cultural destruction and military loss; by 1890 the Native American population was lowered to fewer than 250,000 persons. As a result of 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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