Ages before the terms Native American or Indian were necessary, the tribes were spread throughout 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 disturbance. And that history is fascinating.
From Mayan and Incan ruins, from the mounds left in the central and southern regions of what’s today the U.S. we have learned quite a bit. It’s a narrative of beautiful artwork and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed remarkably advanced buildings and public works.
While there was inescapable tribal conflict, that was nothing more than a slight blemish in the experience 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 goal was to discover new resources – however the quality of environment and the bounty of everything from wood to wildlife subsequently 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 transporting over inadequately prepared colonists as fast as possible. In the beginning, they skirmished with the surprised Indians of America’s eastern seaboard. But that soon gave way to trade, since the Europeans who landed here understood their survival was doubtful with no Indian help.
Thus followed years of relative 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 locate even more resources, and some colonists came for independence and adventure.
They needed more space. And so began the process of pushing the American Indian out of the way.
It took the shape of cash payments, barter, and notoriously, treaties which were nearly uniformly neglected after the Indians were forced from the land 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 areas inhabited by these Native American tribes. By the 1850s virtually 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 territory of the Southern Plains.
The Sioux, Crows and Blackfeet dominated the Northern Plains. These Native American groups experienced adversity as the steady flow of European immigrants into northeastern American cities delivered a stream of immigrants into the western lands already populated 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 United States nearly doubled the amount of acreage 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, combined with the discovery of gold in 1849, presented attractive opportunities for those willing to make the extended journey westward. Therefore, with the military’s protection and the U.S. government’s assistance, many settlers set about building their homesteads in the Great Plains and other areas of the Native American tribe-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 initially became an independent country, it adopted the European policies towards these local peoples, but over two centuries the U.S. designed its own widely varying policies regarding the evolving perspectives and requirements of Native American oversight.
In 1824, in order to apply the U.S. government’s Native American policies, Congress made a new bureau inside 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, distinct political communities with numerous cultural identities; however, at other times the government attempted to compel the Native American tribes to abandon their cultural identity, let go of their land and assimilate into the American traditions.
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With the steady flow of settlers into Indian controlled land, Eastern newspapers printed 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 certainly not the norm; in fact, Native American tribes repeatedly helped settlers get across the Plains. Not only did the American Indians offer 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 anticipated the likelihood of an attack.
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To soothe these fears, in 1851 the U.S. government organised a conference with several local Indian tribes and established the Treaty of Fort Laramie. Within this treaty, each Native American tribe accepted a bounded territory, allowed the government to construct tracks and forts in this territory and agreed to never go after 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 quietly 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 terms of the treaty.
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This peaceful agreement between the U.S. government and the Native American tribes didn’t stand very long. After hearing reports of fertile terrain and great 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 restricting Native Americans to reservations, modest swaths of land within a group’s territory that was set aside exclusively for their use, in order to give more territory for “” 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 offered a yearly stipend that would include cash in addition to foodstuffs, livestock, household goods and agricultural equipment. These reservations were established in an effort to clear the way for heightened U.S. expansion and administration in the West, as well as to keep the Native Americans isolated from the whites in order to lower the potential for conflict.
History of the Plains Indians
These accords had many challenges. Most importantly many of the native people didn’t completely grasp the document that they were confirming or the conditions within it; further, the treaties did not respect the cultural norms of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government departments accountable for administering these policies were plagued with awful management and corruption. In fact many treaty provisions were never executed.
The U.S. government rarely honored their side of the agreements even when the Native Americans relocated quietly to their reservations. Dishonest bureau agents repeatedly sold the supplies that were meant for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Additionally, as settlers needed more territory in the West, the federal government frequently reduced the size of Indian reservations. By this time, most of the Native American people were dissatisfied with the treaties and angered by the settlers’ constant hunger for territory.
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Angered by the government’s dishonest and unfair policies, several Native American tribes, including bands of Cheyennes, Arapahos, Comanches and Sioux, fought back. As they struggled to preserve their lands and their tribes’ survival, more than one thousand skirmishes and battles broke out in the West between 1861 and 1891. In an attempt to push Native Americans onto the reservations and to end the violence, the U.S. government reacted to these hostilities with significant military operations. Obviously the U.S. government’s Indian policies were in need of a change.
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Native American policy shifted dramatically following the Civil War. Reformers felt that the scheme of driving Native Americans onto reservations was far too harsh even though industrialists, who were concerned about their property and resources, thought of assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” as the single long-term means of ensuring Native American survival. In 1871 the federal government enacted a critical law stating that the United States would not treat Native American tribes as independent entities.
This law signaled a significant change in the government’s relationship with the native peoples – Congress now considered the Native Americans, not as nations 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 better to make the policy of assimilation a widely acknowledged part of the cultural mainstream of America.
More On American Indian History
Many U.S. government administrators perceived assimilation as the most practical answer to what they deemed “the Indian problem,” and the only permanent means 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 dwellings and grow into farmers.
The federal government handed down laws that forced Native Americans to reject their traditional appearance and way of living. Some laws outlawed customary spiritual practices while others ordered Indian men to cut their long hair. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations established courts to impose federal regulations that often banned traditional cultural and religious practices.
To accelerate the assimilation process, the government set up Indian schools that tried to quickly and forcefully Americanize Indian kids. According to the founder 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 enrollees to speak only English, dress in proper American clothing and to substitute their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new regulations helped bring Native Americans closer to the end of their original tribal identity and the beginning of their life as citizens under the absolute control of the U.S. authorities.
Native American Treaties with the United States
In 1887, Congress enacted the General Allotment Act, the most significant element of the U.S. government’s assimilation platform, which was designed to “civilize” American Indians by educating them to become farmers. In order to make this happen, Congress needed to increase non-public ownership of Indian land by splitting up reservations, which were collectively held, and issuing each family their own block of land.
Additionally, by pushing the Native Americans onto limited plots, western developers and settlers could purchase the left over acreage. The General Allotment Act, referred to as the Dawes Act, required that the Indian lands be surveyed and each family be awarded an allotment of between 80 and 160 acres, while unmarried adults received between 40 to 80 acres; the rest of the land was to be sold. Congress wished that the Dawes Act would break up Indian tribes and inspire individual enterprise, while reducing the expense of Indian supervision and providing 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 lived under policies that outlawed their traditional way of life yet did not provide the vital resources to support their businesses and households. Dividing the reservations into small parcels of land triggered the significant decrease of Indian-owned land. Within thirty years, the people had lost in excess of 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 forced to sell off their property in order pay bills and provide for their own families. As a result, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were generally not able to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, as the makers of the policy had intended. It also developed animosity among Indians for the U.S. government, as the allotment practice often ruined land that was the spiritual and societal location of their lives.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed substantially. Through U.S. administration regulations, American Indians were forced from their places of residence because their native lands were parceled out. The Plains, which they had previously roamed without limits, 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 life, as the federal government’s Indian regulations shoved them onto reservations and attempted to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands would not survive relocation, cultural destruction and military defeat; by 1890 the Native American population was reduced to less than 250,000 persons. Thanks to decades of discriminatory and ruthless policies implemented by the United States government between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was altered permanently.
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