Way before the terms Native American or Indian were created, 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 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 is currently the U.S. we have learned much. It’s a story of beautiful craft work and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed highly advanced structures and public works.
While there was inevitable tribal conflict, that was just a slight blemish in the tale of our ancestors. They were at peace with this beautiful continent and deeply connected to nature.
The European Settler Arrives
When European leaders dispatched the first vessels in this direction, the objective was to explore new resources – but the quality of climate and the bounty of everything from wood to wildlife soon 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 shipping over poorly prepared colonists as fast as possible. At the outset, they skirmished with the alarmed Indians of America’s eastern seaboard. But that shortly gave way to trade, since the Europeans who came ashore here learned their survival was doubtful without native help.
Thus followed decades of comparative peace as the settlers got themselves established on American land. But the pressure to push inland followed soon after. Kings and queens from thousands of miles away were anxious to find even more resources, and some colonists came for independence and opportunity.
They wanted more space. And so began the process of forcing the American Indian out of the way.
It took the shape of cash arrangements, barter, and famously, treaties that were almost consistently ignored after the Indians were pushed off 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 areas 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 encountered adversity as the steady 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 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 would not end there. Between 1830 and 1860 the U.S. practically doubled the amount of acreage within 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, combined with the discovery of gold in 1849, presented alluring possibilities for those prepared make the long trip westward. Therefore, with the military’s protection and the U.S. government’s assistance, many settlers began establishing their homesteads in the Great Plains and other parts 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 country, it adopted the European policies towards these 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 administer the U.S. government’s Native American policies, Congress created 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, separate political communities with varying cultural identities; however, at other times the government attempted to force the Native American tribes to give up their cultural identity, hand over their land and assimilate into the American customs.
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With the steady flow of settlers into Indian controlled land, Eastern newspapers published sensationalized stories 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 get across the Plains. Not only did the American Indians offer wild game and other supplies to travelers, but they acted as guides and messengers between wagon trains as well. Despite the friendly natures of the American Indians, settlers still presumed the likelihood of an attack.
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To soothe 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 tracks 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 gross 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 consented to end the hostilities amidst their tribes in order to accept the conditions of the treaty.
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This peaceful accord between the U.S. government and the Native American tribes didn’t hold long. After hearing tales of fertile acreage 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 region. With so many newcomers heading west, the federal government established a plan of restricting Native Americans to reservations, limited areas of land within a group’s territory that was earmarked exclusively for their use, in order to grant more property for “” non-Indian settlers.
In a series of new treaties the U.S. government forced Native Americans to give up 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, livestock, household goods and agricultural tools. These reservations were created in an attempt to pave the way for heightened U.S. growth and administration in the West, as well as to keep the Native Americans isolated from the whites in order to decrease the potential for conflict.
History of the Plains Indians
These deals had many problems. Most significantly many of the native people did not altogether grasp the document that they were finalizing or the conditions within it; further, the treaties did not consider the cultural practices of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government agencies accountable for applying these policies were weighed down with poor management and corruption. In fact most treaty conditions were never carried out.
The U.S. government almost never fulfilled their side of the accords even when the Native Americans migrated quietly to their reservations. Shady bureau agents repeatedly sold the supplies that were intended for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Additionally, as settlers required more property in the West, the government constantly reduced the size of reservation lands. By this time, many of the Native American people were unhappy with the treaties and angered by the settlers’ endless appetite for territory.
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Angered by the government’s dishonest and unjust policies, some Native American tribes, including bands of Cheyennes, Arapahos, Comanches and Sioux, fought back. As they struggled to maintain 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 incursions with significant military campaigns. Obviously the U.S. government’s Indian policies were in need of a change.
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Native American policy changed drastically after the Civil War. Reformers believed that the policy of forcing Native Americans into reservations was far too harsh while industrialists, who were concerned with their land and resources, looked at assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” as the lone long-term method of assuring Native American survival. In 1871 the federal government approved a critical law stating that the United States would no longer deal with Native American tribes as sovereign entities.
This law signaled a drastic change in the government’s relationship with the native peoples – Congress now viewed the Native Americans, not as nations 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 viewed assimilation as the most practical solution to what they deemed “the Indian problem,” and the sole lasting means 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 traditional dwellings, move into wooden houses and turn into farmers.
The federal government enacted laws that required Native Americans to abandon their traditional appearance and way of life. Some laws outlawed traditional spiritual practices while others required Indian men to cut their long hair. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations set up courts to impose federal polices that often restricted traditional ethnic and religious practices.
To hasten the assimilation operation, the government started Indian schools that attempted to quickly and forcefully Americanize Indian kids. According to the director of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, the schools were designed to “kill the Indian and save the man.” To be able to accomplish this goal, the schools compelled students to speak only English, dress in proper American fashion and to substitute their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new regulations helped bring Native Americans nearer to the conclusion of their original tribal identity and the start of their existence as citizens under the complete control of the U.S. administration.
Native American Treaties with the United States
In 1887, Congress enacted the General Allotment Act, the most significant component of the U.S. government’s assimilation program, which was intended to “civilize” American Indians by teaching them to become farmers. In order to achieve this, Congress wanted to create non-public title of Indian property by dividing reservations, which were collectively owned, and providing each family their own stretch of land.
Additionally, by pushing the Native Americans onto small plots, western developers and settlers could purchase the remaining land. The General Allotment Act, referred to as the Dawes Act, required that the Indian lands be surveyed and each family be provided with an allotment of between 80 and 160 acres, while unmarried adults received between 40 to 80 acres; the rest of the territory was to be sold. Congress hoped that the Dawes Act would breakup Indian tribes and encourage individual enterprise, while lowering the cost of Indian supervision and serving up prime property 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 approach to life but did not provide the vital resources to support their businesses and families. Splitting the reservations into smaller parcels of land caused the significant decrease of Indian-owned land. Within three decades, the tribes had lost over two-thirds of the territory 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 duped out of their allotments or were forced to sell their land in order to pay bills and take care of their families. Because of that, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were routinely unable to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, like the makers of the Act had desired. This also produced resentment among Indians for the U.S. government, as the allotment process sometimes destroyed land that was the spiritual and cultural focus of their days.
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 housing as their native lands were parceled out. The Plains, which they had previously roamed alone, were now filled up with white settlers.
The Upshot of the Indian Wars
Over all these years the Indians ended up defrauded out of their land, food and approach to life, as the federal government’s Indian regulations shoved them inside reservations and attempted to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands would not endure relocation, assimilation and military loss; by 1890 the Native American population was lowered to fewer than 250,000 persons. Due to generations of discriminatory and ruthless policies instituted by the United States government between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was altered permanently.
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