Far 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 centuries, the American Indian developed its traditions and legacy without interference. And that history is fascinating.
From Mayan and Incan ruins, from the mounds left in the central and southern parts of what is currently the U.S. we have learned plenty. It’s a narrative of beautiful arts and crafts and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed remarkably advanced structures and public works.
While there was unavoidable tribal conflict, that was just a slight blemish in the account of our ancestors. 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 goal was to discover new resources – but the quality of climate and the bounty of everything from timber to wildlife soon changed their tune. As those leaders heard back from their explorers, the drive to colonize spread like wildfire.
The English, French and Spanish rushed to carve up the “New World” by transporting over poorly prepared colonists as fast as they could. At the beginning, they skirmished with the surprised Indians of America’s eastern seaboard. But that shortly gave way to trade, since the Europeans who landed here learned that their survival was doubtful with no 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 locate additional resources, and some colonists came for freedom and adventure.
They required more space. And so began the process of driving the American Indian out of the way.
It took the shape of cash payments, barter, and famously, treaties which were almost consistently neglected after the Indians were moved away from the territory 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 inhabited by these Native American tribes. By the 1850s nearly 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 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 encountered hardship as the constant stream of European immigrants into northeastern American cities pushed a stream of immigrants into the western lands already occupied by these diverse 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 would not end there. Between 1830 and 1860 the U.S. pretty much doubled the amount of territory within 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 attractive opportunities for those prepared make the long trip westward. Consequently, with the military’s protection and the U.S. government’s assistance, many settlers began 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 made 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 country, it adopted the European policies towards the local peoples, but over the course of two centuries the U.S. designed its own widely varying policies regarding the changing perspectives and requirements of Native American regulation.
In 1824, in order to apply 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, separate political communities with varying cultural identities; however, at other times the government attempted to force the Native American tribes to abandon their cultural identity, give up their land and assimilate into the American customs.
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With the steady stream of settlers in to Indian “” land, Eastern newspapers published sensationalized reports of savage native tribes committing 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 frequently helped settlers cross over the Plains. Not only did the American Indians sell 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 risk of an attack.
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To calm these worries, in 1851 the U.S. government presented 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 agreed to not 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 agreed to end the hostilities amidst their tribes to be able 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 stand long. After hearing stories of fertile terrain and tremendous 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 region. With so many newcomers heading west, the federal government established a plan of limiting Native Americans to reservations, small swaths of acreage within a group’s territory “” set aside exclusively for their use, in order to give more land for “” 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 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 increased U.S. expansion and involvement in the West, as well as to keep the Native Americans divided from the whites in order to lower the chance for friction.
History of the Plains Indians
These accords had many problems. Most significantly many of the native people did not entirely understand the document that they were signing or the conditions within it; moreover, the treaties did not acknowledge the cultural practices of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government bureaus accountable for administering these policies were weighed down with awful management and corruption. In fact many treaty provisions were never accomplished.
The U.S. government rarely fulfilled their side of the deals even when the Native Americans moved quietly to their reservations. Unethical bureau agents often sold off the supplies that were meant for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Additionally, as settlers needed more property in the West, the federal government frequently decreased the size of the reservations. By this time, many of the Native American peoples were dissatisfied with the treaties and angered by settlers’ persistent hunger for territory.
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Angered by the government’s dishonorable and unjust policies, several Native American tribes, including bands of Cheyennes, Arapahos, Comanches and Sioux, battled 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 attempt to compel 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 radically after the Civil War. Reformers felt that the policy of driving Native Americans onto reservations was far too severe even though industrialists, who were worried about their land and resources, regarded assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” to be the singular long-term means of guaranteeing Native American survival. In 1871 the federal government approved a pivotal law proclaiming that the United States would not deal with Native American tribes as sovereign nations.
This law signaled a significant shift in the government’s relationship with the native peoples – Congress now deemed the Native Americans, not as countries outside of its jurisdictional control, but as wards of the government. By making Native Americans wards of the “” government, Congress presumed that it would be easier to make the policy of assimilation a widely accepted part of the cultural mainstream of America.
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Many U.S. government representatives looked at assimilation as the most practical solution to what they deemed “the Indian problem,” and the only lasting method of 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 relocate out of their customary dwellings, move into wooden houses and turn into farmers.
The federal government handed down laws that forced Native Americans to quit their usual appearance and way of life. Some laws outlawed customary religious practices while others instructed Indian males to cut their long hair. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations established courts to implement federal regulations that often restricted traditional ethnic and spiritual practices.
To speed the assimilation course, the government set up Indian training centers that attempted to quickly and vigorously Americanize Indian kids. As per the director of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, the schools were developed to “kill the Indian and save the man.” In order to make this happen objective, the schools required students to speak only English, wear proper American fashion and to replace their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new regulations helped bring Native Americans closer to the conclusion of their classic tribal identity and the start of their life as citizens under the complete control of the U.S. government.
Native American Treaties with the United States
In 1887, Congress approved the General Allotment Act, the most important component of the U.S. government’s assimilation program, which was intended to “civilize” American Indians by teaching them to be farmers. In order to make this happen, Congress wanted to create private ownership of Indian property by splitting up reservations, which were collectively held, and giving each family their own block of land.
In addition to this, by forcing the Native Americans onto small plots, western developers and settlers could purchase the left over territory. The General Allotment Act, referred to as the Dawes Act, required that the Indian lands be surveyed and each family be given an allotment of between 80 and 160 acres, while unmarried adults were given between 40 to 80 acres; the residual territory was to be sold. Congress was hoping that the Dawes Act would breakup Indian tribes and encourage individual enterprise, while lowering the cost of Indian administration and serving up prime land to be purchased by white settlers.
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The Dawes Act proved to be disastrous for the American Indians; over the next generations they existed under regulations that outlawed their traditional way of life but failed to supply the critical resources to support their businesses and households. Splitting the reservations into smaller parcels of land brought about the significant decrease of Indian-owned land. Within thirty years, 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 purchased by white settlers.
Regularly, Native Americans were cheated out of their allotments or were required to sell off their property in order to pay bills and take care of their own families. Because of that, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were often not able to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, like the makers of the policy had wished. This also generated anger among Indians toward the U.S. government, as the allotment process sometimes destroyed land that was the spiritual and societal hub of their days.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed radically. Due to U.S. government 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 had been cheated out of their land, food and way of life, as the federal government’s Indian policies shoved them into reservations and attempted to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands didn’t survive 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 altered permanently.
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