Far before the terms Native American or Indian were considered, the tribes were spread all over 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 grew its traditions and legacy without disturbance. 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 much. It’s a tale of beautiful arts and crafts and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed highly elaborate buildings and public works.
While there was inevitable tribal conflict, that was nothing more than a slight blemish in the experience of our forebears. They were at peace with this beautiful continent and deeply plugged into nature.
The European Settler Arrives
When European leaders dispatched the first ships in our direction, the goal was to discover new resources – but the quality of climate and the bounty of everything from wood to wildlife subsequently changed their tune. As those leaders heard back from their explorers, the drive to colonize spread like wildfire.
The English, French and Spanish rushed to slice up the “New World” by sending 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 ultimately gave way to trade, because the Europeans who came ashore here learned that their survival was doubtful with no Indian help.
Thus followed years of comparative 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 locate additional resources, and some colonists came for freedom and opportunity.
They wanted more space. And so began the process of forcing the American Indian out of the way.
It took the form of cash arrangements, barter, and notoriously, treaties which were almost uniformly neglected after the Indians were forced from the territory 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, approximately 360,000 in number, were living 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 territory of the Southern Plains.
The Sioux, Crows and Blackfeet dominated the Northern Plains. These Native American groups experienced adversity as the continuous flow of European immigrants into northeastern American cities delivered a stream of immigrants into the western lands already populated by these diverse 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 in addition to the authority over Oregon country, Texas and California; America’s expansion did not end there. Between 1830 and 1860 the United States roughly 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, partnered with the discovery of gold in 1849, presented captivating possibilities for those prepared make the long journey westward. As a result, 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 group-inhabited West.
Native American Tribes
Native American Policy can be defined as the regulations and operations made 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 nation, it adopted the European policies towards the native peoples, but throughout two centuries the U.S. tailored its very own widely varying regulations regarding the changing perspectives and necessities of Native American regulation.
In 1824, in order to administrate 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, independent political communities with numerous cultural identities; however, at other times the government attempted to force the Native American tribes to abandon their cultural identity, surrender their land and assimilate into the American traditions.
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With the steady flow of settlers into Indian “” land, Eastern newspapers printed sensationalized reports 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 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 likelihood of an attack.
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To soothe these anxieties, in 1851 the U.S. government held 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 agreed not to ever go after settlers; in return the federal government agreed to honor the boundaries of each tribe’s territory and make total 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 between their tribes in order to accept the terms of the treaty.
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This peaceful accord between the U.S. government and the Native American tribes did not last very long. After hearing testimonies of fertile land and tremendous mineral wealth in the West, the government soon broke their pledge established in the Treat of Fort Laramie by permitting thousands of non-Indians to flood into the region. With so many newcomers moving west, the federal government established a plan of restricting Native Americans to reservations, modest areas of land within a group’s territory “” reserved exclusively for Indian use, to be able to offer more land for “” non-Indian settlers.
In a series of new treaties the U.S. government forced Native Americans to surrender their land and move 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, animals, household goods and farming tools. These reservations were established in an attempt to clear the way for increased U.S. growth and involvement in the West, as well as to keep the Native Americans divided from the whites in order to decrease the chance for conflict.
History of the Plains Indians
These deals had many complications. Most importantly many of the native peoples did not properly understand the document that they were finalizing or the conditions within it; moreover, the treaties did not consider the cultural practices of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government institutions responsible for applying these policies were weighed down with poor management and corruption. In fact most treaty provisions were never executed.
The U.S. government almost never honored their side of the deals even when the Native Americans relocated quietly to their reservations. Unethical bureau agents repeatedly sold off the supplies that were intended for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Moreover, as settlers demanded more land in the West, the federal government frequently cut the size of reservation lands. By this time, most of the Native American people were dissatisfied with the treaties and angered by settlers’ endless hunger 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, battled back. As they struggled 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 effort to make Native Americans onto the reservations and to end the violence, the U.S. government reacted to these skirmishes with costly military operations. Clearly the U.S. government’s Indian regulations required an adjustment.
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Native American policy shifted drastically after the Civil War. Reformers felt that the policy of forcing Native Americans inside reservations was far too strict while industrialists, who were concerned about their land and resources, regarded assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” as the sole long-term method of guaranteeing Native American survival. In 1871 the government passed a critical law stating that the United States would no longer treat Native American tribes as sovereign nations.
This legislation signaled a major shift in the government’s relationship with the native peoples – Congress now deemed the Native Americans, not as countries outside of its jurisdiction, but as wards of the government. By making Native Americans wards of the U.S. government, Congress believed that it would be better to make the policy of assimilation a broadly recognized part of the cultural mainstream of America.
More On American Indian History
Many U.S. government representatives considered assimilation as the most practical remedy for what they viewed as “the Indian problem,” and the single long-term means of protecting U.S. interests in the West and the survival of the American Indians. In order to accomplish this, the government urged Native Americans to relocate out of their established dwellings, move into wooden buildings and grow into farmers.
The federal government handed down laws that pressed Native Americans to quit their usual appearance and way of living. Some laws outlawed traditional religious practices while others instructed Indian males to cut their long hair. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations established courts to implement federal polices that often prohibited traditional ethnic and spiritual practices.
To speed up the assimilation process, the government set up Indian training centers that tried to quickly and forcefully Americanize Indian children. According to the founder of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, the schools were designed to “kill the Indian and save the man.” In order to accomplish this objective, the schools required pupils to speak only English, wear proper American attire and to replace their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new regulations helped bring Native Americans closer to the end of their traditional tribal identity and the beginning 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 important part of the U.S. government’s assimilation program, which was designed to “civilize” American Indians by educating them to become farmers. In order to accomplish this, Congress needed to create non-public ownership of Indian land by dividing reservations, which were collectively owned, and issuing each family their own stretch of land.
In addition to this, by pushing the Native Americans onto small plots of land, western developers and settlers could purchase the left over land. The General Allotment Act, referred to as the Dawes Act, required that the Indian lands be surveyed and every family be awarded an allotment of between 80 and 160 acres, while unmarried adults received between 40 to 80 acres; the rest of the acreage was to be sold. Congress hoped that the Dawes Act would split up Indian tribes and inspire individual enterprise, while trimming the expense of Indian administration and providing prime land to be sold to white settlers.
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The Dawes Act turned out to be disastrous for the American Indians; over the next decades they lived under policies that outlawed their traditional way of living but failed to provide the vital resources to support their businesses and households. Dividing the reservations into smaller parcels of land led to the significant reduction of Indian-owned land. Inside three decades, the people had lost more than two-thirds of the acreage that they had controlled before the Dawes Act was passed in 1887; the majority of the remaining land was sold to white settlers.
Commonly, Native Americans were cheated out of their allotments or were forced to sell off their property in order pay bills and provide for their families. Consequently, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were often unable to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, as the creators of the Act had expected. It also generated animosity among Indians for the U.S. government, as the allotment method often ruined land that was the spiritual and societal center of their activities.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed radically. Through U.S. government policies, American Indians were forced from their places of residence because 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 way of living, as the federal government’s Indian policies coerced them into reservations and attempted to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands could not make it through relocation, assimilation and military loss; by 1890 the Native American population was reduced to under 250,000 people. Due to generations of discriminatory and corrupt policies implemented by the United States authorities between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was changed permanently.
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