Way before the terms Native American or Indian were necessary, 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 thousands of years, the American Indian developed its culture and heritage without interference. And that history is captivating.
From Mayan and Incan ruins, from the mounds left in the central and southern parts of what is now the U.S. we have learned plenty. It’s a narrative of beautiful arts and crafts and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed remarkably elaborate structures and public works.
While there was unavoidable 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 ships in this direction, the plan was to discover new resources – but the quality of environment and the bounty of everything from wood 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 transporting over inadequately prepared colonists as fast as they could. Initially, they skirmished with the alarmed Indians of America’s eastern seaboard. But that soon gave way to trade, since the Europeans who arrived here learned their survival was doubtful without native help.
Thus followed decades of relative peace as the settlers got themselves established on American soil. But the drive to push inland followed soon after. Kings and queens from thousands of miles away were anxious to find additional resources, and some colonists came for independence and adventure.
They wanted more space. And so began the process of pushing the American Indian out of the way.
It took the form of cash arrangements, barter, and famously, treaties which were nearly uniformly ignored once 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 motivated by the desire to expand westward into territories occupied 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 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 encountered misfortune as the steady flow 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 in 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 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. nearly doubled the amount of acreage under its control.
These territorial gains coincided with the arrival of troves 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 alluring opportunities for those willing to make the huge quest westward. As a result, with the military’s protection and the U.S. government’s assistance, many settlers began 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 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 first became a sovereign country, it adopted the European policies towards the native peoples, but over two centuries the U.S. tailored its own widely varying regulations regarding the changing perspectives and necessities of Native American oversight.
In 1824, in order to apply the U.S. government’s Native American policies, Congress made a new agency 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, separate political communities with varying cultural identities; however, at other times the government attempted to force the Native American tribes to give up their cultural identity, surrender their land and assimilate into the American culture.
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With the steady stream of settlers in to Indian “” land, Eastern newspapers printed sensationalized stories of cruel native tribes committing widespread 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 generally helped settlers cross over the Plains. Not only did the American Indians peddle 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 feared the risk of an attack.
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To quiet these worries, 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 tracks and forts in this territory and pledged never to assault 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 entered into the treaty, even agreed to end the hostilities amidst 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 hold long. After hearing reports of fertile terrain and great 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 area. With so many newcomers heading west, the federal government established a policy of confining Native Americans to reservations, small swaths of land within a group’s territory that was set aside exclusively for their use, to be able to offer more property for the non-Indian settlers.
In a series of new treaties the U.S. government compelled Native Americans to surrender their land and migrate to reservations in exchange for protection from attacks by white settlers. In addition, the Indians were offered a yearly payment that would include cash in addition to food, animals, household goods and farming tools. These reservations were created in an effort to clear the way for increasing U.S. expansion and involvement in the West, as well as to keep the Native Americans divided from the whites in order to decrease the chance for friction.
History of the Plains Indians
These deals had many problems. Most of all many of the native peoples didn’t completely understand the document that they were signing or the conditions within it; furthermore, the treaties did not acknowledge the cultural practices of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government institutions responsible for administering these policies were plagued with awful management and corruption. In fact most treaty provisions were never executed.
The U.S. government rarely held up their side of the deals even when the Native Americans relocated quietly to their reservations. Unethical bureau agents frequently sold the supplies that were meant for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Moreover, as settlers needed more territory in the West, the federal government continually cut the size of the reservations. By this time, many of the Native American people were dissatisfied with the treaties and angered by settlers’ constant hunger for land.
A Look at Native American Symbols
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 fought to defend 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 force Native Americans onto the reservations and to end the violence, the U.S. government responded to these hostilities with costly military campaigns. Obviously the U.S. government’s Indian policies were in need of a change.
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Native American policy shifted considerably after the Civil War. Reformers felt that the policy of forcing Native Americans inside reservations was too harsh even while industrialists, who were concerned about their land and resources, regarded assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” to be the only permanent strategy for ensuring Native American survival. In 1871 the federal government enacted a pivotal law proclaiming that the United States would not treat Native American tribes as autonomous nations.
This legislation signaled a drastic shift in the government’s relationship with the native peoples – Congress now deemed the Native Americans, not as nations outside of its jurisdiction, but as wards of the government. By making Native Americans wards of the “” government, Congress concluded that it would be better 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 viewed assimilation as the most practical remedy for what they deemed “the Indian problem,” and the only permanent strategy for insuring 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 customary dwellings, move into wooden dwellings and become farmers.
The federal government handed down laws that pressed Native Americans to quit their established appearance and way of life. Some laws outlawed traditional spiritual practices while others required Indian men to cut their long hair. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations founded courts to implement federal regulations that often banned traditional ethnic and spiritual practices.
To speed the assimilation process, the government set up Indian facilities that attempted to quickly and vigorously Americanize Indian kids. According to the founder of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, the schools were developed to “kill the Indian and save the man.” To be able to accomplish this goal, the schools forced enrollees to speak only English, wear proper American fashion and to switch their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new policies brought Native Americans closer to the conclusion of their established tribal identity and the start of their life as citizens under the absolute control of the U.S. government.
Native American Treaties with the United States
In 1887, Congress passed the General Allotment Act, the most important element of the U.S. government’s assimilation program, which was created to “civilize” American Indians by educating them to become farmers. In order to achieve this, Congress wanted to create private ownership of Indian land by splitting up reservations, which were collectively held, and giving each family their own plot of land.
In addition to this, by forcing the Native Americans onto limited plots of land, western developers and settlers could purchase the remaining land. The General Allotment Act, better known as the Dawes Act, required that the Indian lands be surveyed and every family be given an allotment of between 80 and 160 acres, while unmarried adults received between 40 to 80 acres; the remaining acreage was to be sold. Congress was hoping that the Dawes Act would break-up Indian tribes and increase individual enterprise, while cutting down the expense of Indian supervision and providing 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 generations they lived under policies that outlawed their traditional lifestyle and yet didn’t provide the critical resources to support their businesses and families. Dividing the reservations into smaller parcels of land triggered the significant reduction of Indian-owned property. Inside thirty years, the tribes 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.
Frequently, Native Americans were cheated out of their allotments or were forced 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 generally not able to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, like the makers of the Act had wished. Aside from that it created resentment among Indians for the U.S. government, as the allotment process sometimes ruined land that was the spiritual and societal hub of their activities.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed tremendously. Through 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 restriction, were now filling with white settlers.
The Upshot of the Indian Wars
Over the years the Indians ended up defrauded out of their land, food and lifestyle, as the federal government’s Indian regulations coerced them into reservations and tried to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands did not make it through relocation, assimilation and military defeat; by 1890 the Native American population was decreased to less than 250,000 people. Due to generations of discriminatory and dodgy policies implemented by the United States government between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was changed forever.
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