Far before the terms Native American or Indian were created, 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 disturbance. And that history is captivating.
From Mayan and Incan ruins, from the mounds left in the central and southern parts of what’s today the U.S. we have learned plenty. It’s a narrative of beautiful arts and crafts and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed highly elaborate buildings and public works.
While there was unavoidable tribal conflict, that was simply a slight blemish in the tale of our forebears. They were at peace with this beautiful continent and deeply connected to nature.
The European Settler Arrives
When European leaders dispatched the first ships in this direction, the intention was to discover new resources – but the quality of climate and the bounty of everything from timber to wildlife subsequently changed their tune. As those leaders learned from their explorers, the drive to colonize spread like wildfire.
The English, French and Spanish raced to carve up the “New World” by transporting over inadequately prepared colonists as fast as possible. At the beginning, they skirmished with the surprised Indians of America’s eastern seaboard. But that ultimately gave way to trade, since the Europeans who came ashore here knew their survival was doubtful without Indian help.
Thus followed decades of relative 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 locate additional 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 shape of cash payments, barter, and notoriously, treaties which were almost consistently ignored after 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 inhabited by these Native American tribes. By the 1850s almost 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 contemporary Oklahoma, while the Kiowa and Comanche Native American tribes shared the territory of the Southern Plains.
The Sioux, Crows and Blackfeet dominated the Northern Plains. These Native American groups met hardship as the constant stream of European immigrants into northeastern American cities pushed a stream of immigrants into the western lands already inhabited by these various 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 did not end there. Between 1830 and 1860 the U.S. practically 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 alluring opportunities for those ready to make the extended quest westward. Therefore, with the military’s protection and the U.S. government’s assistance, many settlers set about 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 procedures established and adapted in the United States to outline the relationship between Native American tribes and the federal government. When the United States first became an independent country, it implemented the European policies towards the indigenous peoples, but over two centuries the U.S. adapted its own widely varying policies regarding the changing perspectives and requirements of Native American regulation.
In 1824, in order to administrate 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 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 stream of settlers in to Indian “” land, Eastern newspapers printed 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 certainly not the norm; in fact, Native American tribes often helped settlers cross over the Plains. Not only did the American Indians offer wild game and other necessities to travelers, but they acted as guides and messengers between wagon trains as well. Despite the genial natures of the American Indians, settlers still anticipated the risk of an attack.
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To soothe these fears, 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 roadways and forts in this territory and pledged not to 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 conditions of the treaty.
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This peaceful accord between the U.S. government and the Native American tribes didn’t stand very long. After hearing reports of fertile land and great mineral wealth in the West, the government soon broke their promises 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 plan of limiting Native Americans to reservations, modest areas of land within a group’s territory “” earmarked exclusively for their use, to be able to provide more land for “” non-Indian settlers.
In a series of new treaties the U.S. government forced Native Americans to give up their land and move to reservations in exchange for protection from attacks by white settlers. In addition, the Indians were given a yearly payment that would include money in addition to food, animals, household goods and agricultural equipment. These reservations were created in an effort to pave the way for heightened U.S. expansion and involvement 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 accords had many challenges. Most importantly many of the native peoples didn’t altogether grasp the document that they were signing or the conditions within it; further, the treaties did not consider the cultural norms of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government agencies responsible for applying these policies were plagued with awful management and corruption. In fact many treaty provisions were never executed.
The U.S. government almost never held up their side of the accords even when the Native Americans migrated 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 demanded more property in the West, the government frequently decreased the size of Indian reservations. By this time, many of the Native American people were unhappy with the treaties and angered by the settlers’ constant appetite for land.
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Angered by the government’s deceitful and unjust policies, some Native American tribes, including bands of Cheyennes, Arapahos, Comanches and Sioux, fought back. As they fought 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 coerce Native Americans onto the reservations and to end the violence, the U.S. government responded to these skirmishes with costly military operations. Obviously the U.S. government’s Indian policies required an adjustment.
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Native American policy shifted drastically following the Civil War. Reformers felt that the policy of forcing Native Americans inside reservations was far too severe while industrialists, who were worried about their land and resources, looked at assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” as the single long-term means of guaranteeing Native American survival. In 1871 the government approved a pivotal law proclaiming that the United States would no longer deal with Native American tribes as independent nations.
This law signaled a drastic change in the government’s working relationship with the native peoples – Congress now viewed the Native Americans, not as countries 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 was better to make the policy of assimilation a broadly recognized part of the cultural mainstream of America.
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Many U.S. government officials considered assimilation as the most practical remedy for what they deemed “the Indian problem,” and the sole permanent method of insuring 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 established dwellings, move into wooden dwellings and turn into farmers.
The federal government enacted laws that pressed Native Americans to quit their established appearance and way of life. Some laws banned customary religious practices while others ordered Indian men to cut their long locks. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations founded courts to implement federal polices that often banned traditional ethnic and spiritual practices.
To speed the assimilation course, the government set up Indian training centers that attempted to quickly and forcefully Americanize Indian children. According to the founder 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, put on proper American attire and to switch their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new policies helped bring Native Americans nearer to the conclusion of their traditional tribal identity and the start of their existence as citizens under the absolute control of the U.S. administration.
Native American Treaties with the United States
In 1887, Congress passed the General Allotment Act, the most significant component of the U.S. government’s assimilation platform, which was written to “civilize” American Indians by educating them to be farmers. In order to make this happen, Congress wanted to establish non-public ownership of Indian land by dividing reservations, which were collectively owned, and allowing each family their own stretch of land.
In addition to this, by forcing the Native Americans onto limited plots, western developers and settlers could purchase the remaining 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 acreage was to be sold. Congress thought that the Dawes Act would break up Indian tribes and inspire individual enterprise, while cutting down the cost of Indian supervision and providing prime property to be sold to 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 lifestyle yet failed to supply the vital resources to support their businesses and families. Splitting the reservations into small parcels of land brought about the significant reduction of Indian-owned property. Within three decades, the tribes had lost over two-thirds of the territory that they had controlled before the Dawes Act was enacted in 1887; the majority of the remaining land was purchased by white settlers.
Frequently, Native Americans were duped out of their allotments or were required to sell off their property in order pay bills and take care of their families. As a result, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were routinely unable to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, like the makers of the Act had desired. Further, it generated animosity among Indians for the U.S. government, as the allotment practice often ruined land that was the spiritual and social hub of their days.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed dramatically. Through U.S. government policies, American Indians were forced from their living spaces because their native lands were parceled out. The Plains, which they had previously roamed alone, were now inhabited with white settlers.
The Upshot of the Indian Wars
Over all these years the Indians have been defrauded out of their land, food and approach to life, as the federal government’s Indian regulations forced them onto reservations and attempted to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands did not survive relocation, cultural destruction and military loss; by 1890 the Native American population was decreased to fewer 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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