There are about 310 individual reservations in the United States today, most of which are owned by Native Americans. These Indian reservations were established through different periods of colonial westward expansion, often starting off as large blocks and fragmenting or being forcibly moved from one location to another.
A look at the history of the American Indian people will show that the treaties that were drawn up to create these reservations were often ignored or broken to suit the whims of the U.S. government. Reservations have been used as a means to control Native Americans while at the same time offering them some semblance of respect to their sovereignty.
The Westward Expansion
As colonial Americans settled along the eastern half of the United States in the late 1700s, there was becoming less and less room available for the natives. Often, whenever white men would settle somewhere close to the natives, skirmishes would break out. These would be over land, possessions, hunting grounds and rights to gold. Essentially, it boiled down to the Native Americans wanting to keep what they had while the white settlers wanted what the natives had. Both sides believed they had a right to the land, and it became difficult for them to reconcile these beliefs.
The government stepped in from time to time and unswervingly settled matters on the side of the white settlers. This often forced the natives to move farther West, to get away from the encroaching settlers. Also, anytime gold was discovered, the U.S. Government was quick to step in and take over, ensuring that the Native Americans did not interfere with the collection of this valuable substance. Even on lands that had previously been assigned to the Native Americans to settle on, once gold was discovered there, it was quickly taken over by white settlers and appropriated by the U.S. Government. Repeated violations such as these over promises made and treaties signed caused greater and greater tensions between the two sides.
That often meant forcing the Indians to move, and at some point, the government decided that somewhere west of the Mississippi River would be a suitable new home.
The Indian Removal Act
In 1830, the forced relocation of American Indians became an official government edict. Under the Indian Removal Act, many tribes were made to move to the western half of the country. They weren’t always told exactly where to settle, and they certainly were not provided with ample resources to ensure their continued survival, but instead were pushed out of the way. Many times, this push was a violent one, and in the 1850s, the Trail of Tears saw the forced relocation of thousands of Native Americans to appointed lands in Oklahoma. Countless numbers of American Indians died in this and other forced relocations, either from starvation, executions without fair trials, and a deprivation of resources.
This was where relations between the Native Americans and U.S. Government reached their breaking point. Both sides lashed out at one another, while some of the native tribes simply resigned themselves to living in a new place and making the best of it. Still, the tribes placed on government lands did not have much in the way of rights. They were seen as pariahs and second class citizens, if that. Something had to be done to establish their ability to self-govern themselves and to ensure that they would not be bothered by settlers or the government, so that they could propagate their culture and live in peace.
The First Reservations
Under the Dawes Act of 1887, Native Americans were to be allotted 154 million acres on the western side of the Mississippi. These were typically in areas of the country that were considered undesirable for white settlers, away from where gold was being discovered and far from major waterways, where industrial towns might be built later. Many of these reservations were established on the same lands that the Native Americans had been forcibly removed to. This granted the tribes more power and sovereignty, but it wasn’t to last.
With the allotted reservations, the Native Americans were also given a choice to become naturalized citizens by essentially giving up their heritage and being schooled at boarding facilities that would teach them the ways of the white men. The reservations and the promise of naturalization were all part of a greater goal to set the Native Americans who would not conform apart from the rest of the country and to turn those could be assimilated into something resembling white people. The creation of the reservations, which seemed like a concession to American Indian sovereignty, was being coupled with an outright attack on their culture.
The Changing Role of Reservations
At first, reservations were used as a way to give the Native Americans what they wanted without sacrificing what the U.S. Government wanted to hold onto for its own people. It was an imperfect resolution that would soon become an opportunity for government abuse of power.
In the following decades, the allotted land for reservations was cut nearly in half, as the U.S. Government reneged on its promises to the Indian tribes and attempted to force assimilation of their people. The sovereignty that was promised to them in these lands was something the U.S. Government went back and forth on. Because the government saw the native tribes as its wards, the government often went from protecting and providing to attempting to force a specific set of changes. At times, the government would work to reconcile with the tribes, while at others, it would be at odds with them and renege on as many of its promises as it could get away with.
Today, relations between the U.S. Government and Native Americans living on reservations has certainly improved. However, Indian reservations still stand as a reminder of both of the sovereignty of the Indian tribes as well as the terrible ordeals these people have undergone in their fight to be treated fairly.