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 legacy without interference. And that history is fascinating.
From Mayan and Incan ruins, from the mounds left in the central and southern regions of what is now the U.S. we have learned much. It’s a narrative of beautiful arts and crafts and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed highly advanced buildings and public works.
While there was inescapable tribal conflict, that was just a slight blemish in the experience 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 vessels in this direction, the intention was to explore new resources – however the quality of weather and the bounty of everything from timber to wildlife soon changed their tune. As those leaders learned from their explorers, the motivation to colonize spread like wildfire.
The English, French and Spanish raced to slice up the “New World” by shipping over inadequately prepared colonists as fast as they could. 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 came ashore here knew their survival was doubtful with no native help.
Thus followed years of comparative peace as the settlers got themselves established on American land. But the drive to push inland followed soon after. Kings and queens from thousands of miles away were restless to find additional resources, and some colonists came for independence and adventure.
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 notoriously, treaties which were nearly uniformly ignored after the Indians were forced away 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 regions occupied 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 located in present day Oklahoma, while the Kiowa and Comanche Native American tribes shared the area of the Southern Plains.
The Sioux, Crows and Blackfeet dominated the Northern Plains. These Native American groups encountered adversity as the continuous stream of European immigrants into northeastern American cities pushed a stream of immigrants into the western lands already populated 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 along with the authority over Oregon country, Texas and California; America’s expansion would not end there. Between 1830 and 1860 the United States roughly doubled the amount of land under its control.
These territorial gains coincided with the arrival of troves 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 captivating opportunities for those willing to make the long quest westward. Consequently, 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 procedures developed and adapted in the United States to summarize 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 these native peoples, but over the course of two centuries the U.S. tailored its very own widely varying policies regarding the evolving perspectives and requirements of Native American supervision.
In 1824, in order to administer the U.S. government’s Native American policies, Congress made 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, distinct 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 into Indian “” land, Eastern newspapers published sensationalized stories of cruel 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 repeatedly helped settlers cross 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 feared the possibility 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. Within this treaty, each Native American tribe consented to a bounded territory, allowed the government to construct roads and forts in this territory and pledged to never attack settlers; in return the federal government agreed to honor the boundaries of each tribe’s territory and make gross 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 entered into 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 agreement between the U.S. government and the Native American tribes didn’t stand long. After hearing stories of fertile acreage and tremendous 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 region. With so many newcomers heading west, the federal government established a policy of limiting Native Americans to reservations, limited areas of land within a group’s territory that was set aside exclusively for Indian use, to be able to provide more property for the non-Indian settlers.
In a series of new treaties the U.S. government compelled 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 given a yearly payment that would include money in addition to food, animals, household goods and agricultural equipment. These reservations were established in an effort to pave the way for increased U.S. growth and involvement in the West, as well as to keep the Native Americans isolated from the whites in order to reduce the potential for friction.
History of the Plains Indians
These accords had many challenges. Most of all many of the native peoples did not properly understand the document that they were signing or the conditions within it; further, the treaties did not respect the cultural practices of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government departments responsible for applying these policies were plagued with awful management and corruption. In fact most treaty conditions were never carried out.
The U.S. government rarely honored their side of the deals even when the Native Americans went quietly to their reservations. Unethical bureau agents repeatedly sold off the supplies that were meant for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Additionally, as settlers required more territory in the West, the federal government constantly reduced the size of reservation lands. By this time, most of the Native American peoples were dissatisfied with the treaties and angered by the settlers’ endless demands 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 defend their lands and their tribes’ survival, more than one 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 responded to these conflicts with costly military operations. Obviously the U.S. government’s Indian regulations were in need an adjustment.
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Native American policy changed considerably following the Civil War. Reformers felt that the scheme of pushing Native Americans into reservations was too severe even though industrialists, who were worried about their property and resources, regarded assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” to be the single long-term means of guaranteeing Native American survival. In 1871 the federal government enacted a pivotal law stating that the United States would not deal with Native American tribes as autonomous nations.
This law signaled a drastic change 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 concluded that it was 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 perceived assimilation as the most practical solution to what they viewed as “the Indian problem,” and the only long-term strategy for insuring U.S. interests in the West and the survival of the American Indians. In order to accomplish this, the government pressed Native Americans to relocate out of their customary dwellings, move into wooden houses and grow into farmers.
The federal government enacted laws that forced Native Americans to reject their traditional appearance and way of life. Some laws outlawed customary religious practices while others ordered Indian males to cut their long locks. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations established courts to implement federal regulations that often banned traditional ethnic and spiritual practices.
To speed up the assimilation operation, the government established Indian schools that tried to quickly and forcefully Americanize Indian youth. 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 achieve this objective, the schools required pupils to speak only English, dress in proper American attire and to replace their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new regulations helped bring Native Americans nearer to the end of their original 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 enacted the General Allotment Act, the most important part of the U.S. government’s assimilation program, which was written to “civilize” American Indians by educating them to become farmers. In order to accomplish this, Congress wanted to create private ownership of Indian land by dividing reservations, which were collectively owned, and issuing each family their own block 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 every family be provided with an allotment of between 80 and 160 acres, while unmarried adults were given between 40 to 80 acres; the rest of the territory was to be sold. Congress hoped that the Dawes Act would break up Indian tribes and encourage individual enterprise, while trimming the expense of Indian administration and producing prime land to be purchased by white settlers.
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The Dawes Act turned out to be catastrophic for the American Indians; over the next decades they lived under regulations that outlawed their traditional way of life but didn’t offer the critical resources to support their businesses and families. Splitting the reservations into smaller parcels of land triggered the significant decrease of Indian-owned property. Within three decades, the people had lost over two-thirds of the region that they had controlled before the Dawes Act was enacted in 1887; the majority of the remaining land was sold to white settlers.
Commonly, Native Americans were cheated out of their allotments or were required to sell off their property in order pay bills and provide for their families. As a result, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were routinely not able to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, as the creators of the policy had intended. It also created resentment among Indians toward the U.S. government, as the allotment process often destroyed land that was the spiritual and cultural center of their activities.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed drastically. Through U.S. government policies, American Indians were forced from their living spaces as 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 the years the Indians had been cheated out of their territory, food and approach to life, as the federal government’s Indian regulations coerced them on to reservations and tried to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands could not make it through relocation, assimilation and military defeat; by 1890 the Native American population was lowered to less than 250,000 persons. Thanks to decades of discriminatory and ruthless policies implemented by the United States authorities between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was altered forever.
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