Centuries 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 land, it was settled by the forefathers of bands we now call Sioux, or Cherokee, or Iroquois.
For centuries, the American Indian grew its customs and legacy without interference. And that history is captivating.
From Mayan and Incan ruins, from the mounds left in the central and southern parts of what’s now the U.S. we have learned much. It’s a tale of beautiful art and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed highly advanced buildings and public works.
While there was inescapable tribal conflict, that was nothing more than a slight blemish in the history 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 ships in our direction, the aim was to discover new resources – however the quality of weather and the bounty of everything from wood to wildlife soon 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 transporting over poorly 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 landed here knew that their survival was doubtful without native 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 restless to find additional resources, and some colonists came for freedom and opportunity.
They required 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 famously, treaties that were almost uniformly ignored once the Indians were pushed off the land in question.
The U.S. government’s policies towards Native Americans in the second half of the nineteenth century were determined by the desire to expand westward into areas inhabited by these Native American tribes. By the 1850s nearly 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 situated in contemporary 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 constant stream of European immigrants into northeastern American cities delivered a stream of immigrants into the western lands already occupied by these various 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 along with the authority over Oregon country, Texas and California; America’s expansion did not end there. Between 1830 and 1860 the U.S. practically 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, combined with the discovery of gold in 1849, presented alluring opportunities for those willing to make the long quest westward. As a result, 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 group-inhabited West.
Native American Tribes
Native American Policy can be defined as the laws and procedures established and adapted in the United States to summarize 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. adapted its own widely varying regulations regarding the changing perspectives and requirements of Native American regulation.
In 1824, in order to execute the U.S. government’s Native American policies, Congress created 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 varying cultural identities; however, at other times the government attempted to force the Native American tribes to abandon their cultural identity, let go of their land and assimilate into the American culture.
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With the steady flow of settlers into Indian “” land, Eastern newspapers printed 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 in no way the norm; in fact, Native American tribes frequently helped settlers get across the Plains. Not only did the American Indians peddle wild game and other necessities to travelers, but they acted as guides and messengers between wagon trains as well. Despite the good natures of the American Indians, settlers still anticipated the likelihood of an attack.
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To soothe these concerns, in 1851 the U.S. government placed a conference with several local Indian tribes and established the Treaty of Fort Laramie. Under this treaty, each Native American tribe accepted a bounded territory, allowed the government to construct roads and forts in this territory and agreed to not assault 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 peacefully 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 amongst 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 didn’t stand long. After hearing tales of fertile land and tremendous mineral wealth in the West, the government soon broke their pledge 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 plan of limiting Native Americans to reservations, small areas of land within a group’s territory “” reserved exclusively for their use, to be able to provide more property for “” non-Indian settlers.
In a series of new treaties the U.S. government forced 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 offered a yearly payment that would include cash in addition to food, livestock, household goods and farming tools. 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 divided from the whites in order to lessen the potential for conflict.
History of the Plains Indians
These accords had many problems. Most of all many of the native peoples didn’t altogether understand the document that they were confirming or the conditions within it; moreover, the treaties did not respect the cultural norms of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government bureaus responsible for administering these policies were weighed down with poor management and corruption. In fact most treaty conditions were never accomplished.
The U.S. government almost never fulfilled their side of the deals even when the Native Americans went quietly to their reservations. Shady bureau agents sometimes sold the supplies that were intended for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Additionally, as settlers needed more property in the West, the federal government continually decreased the size of the reservations. By this time, most of the Native American people were unhappy with the treaties and angered by settlers’ constant hunger for territory.
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Angered by the government’s dishonest and unfair policies, some Native American tribes, including bands of Cheyennes, Arapahos, Comanches and Sioux, battled back. As they struggled to preserve 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 reacted to these conflicts with significant military campaigns. Clearly the U.S. government’s Indian policies were in need of a change.
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Native American policy shifted dramatically following the Civil War. Reformers felt that the scheme of driving Native Americans onto reservations was too strict while industrialists, who were worried about their land and resources, considered assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” as the sole permanent means of assuring Native American survival. In 1871 the government passed a critical law stating that the United States would no longer treat Native American tribes as autonomous entities.
This law signaled a major shift in the government’s relationship with the native peoples – Congress now considered the Native Americans, not as nations outside of its jurisdictional control, but as wards of the government. By making Native Americans wards of the U.S. government, Congress concluded that it would be better to make the policy of assimilation a broadly accepted part of the cultural mainstream of America.
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Many U.S. government officials perceived assimilation as the most practical answer to what they deemed “the Indian problem,” and the sole long-term method 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 relocate out of their traditional dwellings, move into wooden buildings and turn into farmers.
The federal government handed down laws that pressed Native Americans to abandon their usual appearance and lifestyle. Some laws banned common religious practices while others ordered Indian males to cut their long hair. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations established tribunals to enforce federal polices that often restricted traditional ethnic and spiritual practices.
To accelerate the assimilation operation, the government set up Indian training centers 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 required enrollees to speak only English, wear proper American attire and to replace their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new policies brought Native Americans nearer to the end of their original tribal identity and the start of their daily life as citizens under the full control of the U.S. government.
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 intended to “civilize” American Indians by educating them to become farmers. In order to make this happen, Congress needed to create private title of Indian property by dividing reservations, which were collectively held, and issuing each family their own parcel of land.
In addition to this, by pushing the Native Americans onto small plots, western developers and settlers could purchase the remaining land. The General Allotment Act, often called 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 were given between 40 to 80 acres; the rest of the acreage was to be sold. Congress hoped that the Dawes Act would breakup Indian tribes and encourage individual enterprise, while lowering the expense of Indian supervision and serving up prime property 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 existed under policies that outlawed their traditional lifestyle and yet didn’t provide the necessary resources to support their businesses and households. Dividing the reservations into small parcels of land brought about the significant reduction of Indian-owned property. Inside three decades, the people had lost in excess of two-thirds of the acreage that they had controlled before the Dawes Act was enacted in 1887; the majority of the remaining land was sold to white settlers.
Usually, Native Americans were duped out of their allotments or were forced to sell their land in order pay bills and provide for their own families. Consequently, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were generally unable to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, like the creators of the Act had desired. Further, it produced anger 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 radically. Through U.S. administration regulations, American Indians were forced from their homes because 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 all these years the Indians had been cheated out of their land, food and way of life, as the federal government’s Indian regulations coerced them into reservations and tried to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands could not endure relocation, assimilation and military defeat; by 1890 the Native American population was decreased to less than 250,000 persons. As a result of generations of discriminatory and dodgy policies implemented by the United States authorities between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was altered permanently.
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