Long before the terms Native American or Indian were considered, 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 thousands of years, the American Indian grew its culture 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’s today the U.S. we have learned quite a bit. It’s a narrative of beautiful arts and crafts and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed highly advanced structures and public works.
While there was inevitable tribal conflict, that was nothing more than a slight blemish in the tale of our forebears. They were at peace with this beautiful continent and intensely connected to nature.
The European Settler Arrives
When European leaders sent the first vessels in this direction, the objective was to discover new resources – but the quality of environment and the bounty of everything from wood to wildlife subsequently changed their tune. As those leaders learned from their explorers, the motivation 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, because the Europeans who arrived here learned that their survival was doubtful with no 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 impatient to find 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 nearly consistently neglected once 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 inhabited 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 located 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 experienced hardship as the steady 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 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 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 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, combined with the discovery of gold in 1849, presented alluring possibilities for those prepared make the long journey westward. Therefore, with the military’s protection and the U.S. government’s assistance, many settlers started establishing 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 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 an independent nation, it implemented the European policies towards the indigenous peoples, but throughout two centuries the U.S. tailored its very own widely varying regulations regarding the evolving perspectives and necessities of Native American supervision.
In 1824, in order to execute the U.S. government’s Native American policies, Congress created a new agency 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 compel the Native American tribes to give up their cultural identity, hand over their land and assimilate into the American traditions.
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With the steady stream of settlers into Indian “” land, Eastern newspapers circulated sensationalized stories of cruel native tribes carrying out widespread massacres of hundreds of white travelers. Although some settlers lost their lives to American Indian attacks, this was far from 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 served as guides and messengers between wagon trains as well. Despite the friendly 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 placed 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 roads 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 quietly to the treaty; in fact the Cheyenne, Sioux, Crow, Arapaho, Assinibione, Mandan, Gros Ventre and Arikara tribes, who signed the treaty, even consented to end the hostilities amidst their tribes to be able 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 hold long. After hearing tales of fertile land and tremendous mineral wealth in the West, the government soon broke their promises established in the Treat of Fort Laramie by permitting thousands of non-Indians to flood into the region. With so many newcomers heading west, the federal government established a policy of restricting Native Americans to reservations, limited areas of acreage within a group’s territory that was reserved exclusively for Indian use, to be able to grant more land for the non-Indian settlers.
In a series of new treaties the U.S. government commanded 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 allocated a yearly payment that would include cash in addition to foodstuffs, livestock, household goods and agricultural equipment. These reservations were created in an effort to clear the way for heightened U.S. expansion and involvement in the West, as well as to keep the Native Americans separate from the whites in order to lessen the chance for friction.
History of the Plains Indians
These deals had many complications. Most importantly many of the native peoples didn’t altogether grasp the document that they were finalizing or the conditions within it; further, the treaties did not consider the cultural norms of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government bureaus accountable for administering these policies were weighed down with poor management and corruption. In fact many treaty provisions were never executed.
The U.S. government almost never honored their side of the deals even when the Native Americans moved quietly to their reservations. Dishonest bureau agents often sold off the supplies that were intended for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Moreover, as settlers demanded more property in the West, the federal government continually reduced the size of reservation lands. By this time, most of the Native American people were dissatisfied with the treaties and angered by settlers’ persistent hunger for land.
A Look at Native American Symbols
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 fought to protect their lands and their tribes’ survival, over a thousand skirmishes and battles broke out in the West between 1861 and 1891. In an attempt to force Native Americans onto the reservations and to end the violence, the U.S. government reacted to these incursions with significant military operations. Obviously the U.S. government’s Indian regulations required an adjustment.
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Native American policy changed radically following the Civil War. Reformers felt that the policy of driving Native Americans on to reservations was too strict while industrialists, who were concerned about their land and resources, thought of assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” to be the singular long-term means of assuring Native American survival. In 1871 the federal government approved a critical law stating that the United States would no longer treat Native American tribes as independent nations.
This legislation signaled a drastic change in the government’s 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 believed that it was better to make the policy of assimilation a broadly acknowledged part of the cultural mainstream of America.
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Many U.S. government officials considered assimilation as the most effective solution to what they viewed as “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 pressed Native Americans to move out of their traditional dwellings, move into wooden houses and become farmers.
The federal government handed down laws that pressed Native Americans to abandon their traditional appearance and lifestyle. Some laws outlawed customary spiritual practices while others required Indian men to cut their long locks. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations set up courts to impose federal regulations that often banned traditional ethnic and religious practices.
To speed up the assimilation course, the government established Indian training centers that tried to quickly and forcefully 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.” To be able to make this happen goal, the schools compelled students to speak only English, put on proper American clothing and to substitute their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new regulations brought Native Americans closer to the end of their classic tribal identity and the beginning of their life as citizens under the absolute control of the U.S. government.
Native American Treaties with the United States
In 1887, Congress approved the General Allotment Act, the most important part of the U.S. government’s assimilation program, which was created to “civilize” American Indians by teaching them to be farmers. In order to achieve this, Congress wanted to increase private title of Indian land by dividing reservations, which were collectively held, and offering each family their own block of land.
Additionally, by pushing the Native Americans onto limited plots, western developers and settlers could purchase the remaining acreage. The General Allotment Act, also 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 were given between 40 to 80 acres; the residual acreage was to be sold. Congress wished that the Dawes Act would break up Indian tribes and inspire individual enterprise, while cutting down the expense of Indian administration and producing prime property 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 generations they lived under regulations that outlawed their traditional approach to life but did not provide the crucial resources to support their businesses and families. Splitting the reservations into smaller parcels of land triggered the significant reduction of Indian-owned land. Inside thirty years, the tribes had lost more than two-thirds of the territory 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 their property in order pay bills and feed their families. As a result, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were often unable to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, as the creators of the policy had wished. It also developed animosity among Indians toward the U.S. government, as the allotment practice sometimes ruined land that was the spiritual and cultural center of their activities.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed substantially. Due to U.S. government policies, American Indians were forced from their housing as their native lands were parceled out. The Plains, which they had previously roamed without limits, were now inhabited with white settlers.
The Upshot of the Indian Wars
Over the years the Indians ended up defrauded out of their territory, food and way of living, as the federal government’s Indian plans shoved them inside reservations and attempted to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands didn’t endure relocation, cultural destruction and military loss; by 1890 the Native American population was reduced to less than 250,000 people. As a result of generations of discriminatory and corrupt policies implemented by the United States government between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was changed forever.
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