Ages before the terms Native American or Indian were considered, the tribes were spread throughout 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 thousands of years, the American Indian developed its customs and legacy without disturbance. 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 art and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed highly advanced structures and public works.
While there was unavoidable tribal conflict, that was nothing more than a slight blemish in the narrative 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 vessels in this direction, the objective was to explore 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 carve up the “New World” by shipping over poorly prepared colonists as fast as they could. At the outset, they skirmished with the alarmed Indians of America’s eastern seaboard. But that ultimately gave way to trade, because the Europeans who landed here learned their survival was doubtful with no native help.
Thus followed decades of relative 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 locate even more resources, and some colonists came for freedom and opportunity.
They needed more space. And so began the process of pushing the American Indian out of the way.
It took the shape of cash arrangements, barter, and notoriously, treaties that were nearly consistently neglected once the Indians were pushed 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 inhabited by these Native American tribes. By the 1850s virtually all Native American tribes, roughly 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 land of the Southern Plains.
The Sioux, Crows and Blackfeet dominated the Northern Plains. These Native American groups encountered misfortune as the continuous 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 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 pretty much doubled the amount of territory within its control.
These territorial gains coincided with the arrival of hordes of European and Asian immigrants who wished to join the surge of American settlers heading west. This, combined with the discovery of gold in 1849, presented captivating opportunities for those willing to make the extended 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 group-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 nation, it adopted the European policies towards these native peoples, but throughout two centuries the U.S. designed its own widely varying regulations regarding the changing perspectives and requirements 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 referred to as 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 numerous cultural identities; however, at other times the government attempted to force the Native American tribes to give up their cultural identity, let go of their land and assimilate into the American traditions.
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With the steady flow of settlers in to Indian “” land, Eastern newspapers published 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 far from the norm; in fact, Native American tribes routinely helped settlers cross over the Plains. Not only did the American Indians sell wild game and other necessities to travelers, but they served as guides and messengers between wagon trains as well. Despite the genial natures of the American Indians, settlers still anticipated the possibility of an attack.
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To calm these anxieties, in 1851 the U.S. government kept a conference with several local Indian tribes and established the Treaty of Fort Laramie. Under this treaty, each Native American tribe consented to a bounded territory, allowed the government to construct tracks and forts in this territory and agreed not to attack settlers; in return the federal government agreed to honor the boundaries of each tribe’s territory and make gross 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 amidst their tribes to be able to accept the conditions of the treaty.
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This peaceful accord between the U.S. government and the Native American tribes didn’t last long. After hearing testimonies of fertile land and great mineral wealth in the West, the government soon broke their promises established in the Treat of Fort Laramie by allowing thousands of non-Indians to flood into the region. With so many newcomers moving west, the federal government established a policy of confining Native Americans to reservations, limited areas of land within a group’s territory “” earmarked exclusively for their use, to be able to give more property for the 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 stipend that would include cash in addition to food, animals, household goods and farming tools. These reservations were established in an attempt to pave the way for increased U.S. growth and involvement in the West, as well as to keep the Native Americans separate from the whites in order to reduce the potential for conflict.
History of the Plains Indians
These agreements had many complications. Most importantly many of the native people didn’t properly understand the document that they were finalizing or the conditions within it; further, the treaties did not respect the cultural norms of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government departments responsible for applying these policies were overwhelmed with poor management and corruption. In fact most treaty terms were never executed.
The U.S. government almost never honored their side of the accords even when the Native Americans relocated quietly to their reservations. Unethical bureau agents often sold the supplies that were intended for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Additionally, as settlers demanded more territory in the West, the federal government continually cut the size of the reservations. By this time, many of the Native American peoples were dissatisfied with the treaties and angered by settlers’ persistent hunger 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, fought 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 attempt to force Native Americans onto the reservations and to end the violence, the U.S. government reacted to these skirmishes with significant military campaigns. Obviously the U.S. government’s Indian policies were in need an adjustment.
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Native American policy shifted radically following the Civil War. Reformers felt that the policy of pushing Native Americans on to reservations was too harsh while industrialists, who were concerned about their land and resources, looked at assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” as the single long-term strategy for assuring Native American survival. In 1871 the government enacted a pivotal law stating that the United States would no longer treat Native American tribes as autonomous nations.
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 “” government, Congress imagined that it was better to make the policy of assimilation a broadly recognized 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 permanent strategy for 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 move out of their customary dwellings, move into wooden dwellings and become farmers.
The federal government enacted laws that forced Native Americans to reject their usual appearance and way of living. Some laws outlawed customary spiritual practices while others instructed Indian males to cut their long locks. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations set up tribunals to implement federal regulations that often prohibited traditional cultural and religious practices.
To speed up the assimilation operation, the government set up Indian schools that attempted to quickly and forcefully Americanize Indian youth. According to the director of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, the schools were created to “kill the Indian and save the man.” In order to accomplish this goal, the schools required pupils to speak only English, put on proper American fashion and to replace their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new policies brought Native Americans closer to the end of their classic tribal identity and the beginning of their life as citizens under the full control of the U.S. administration.
Native American Treaties with the United States
In 1887, Congress approved the General Allotment Act, the most significant element of the U.S. government’s assimilation platform, which was written to “civilize” American Indians by teaching them to become farmers. In order to accomplish this, Congress wanted to increase non-public ownership of Indian land by dividing reservations, which were collectively owned, and offering each family their own plot 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 acreage. The General Allotment Act, better known as the Dawes Act, required that the Indian lands be surveyed and each family be awarded an allotment of between 80 and 160 acres, while unmarried adults received between 40 to 80 acres; the rest of the territory was to be sold. Congress thought that the Dawes Act would divide Indian tribes and stimulate individual enterprise, while reducing the cost of Indian supervision and producing prime property to be purchased by white settlers.
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The Dawes Act turned out to be disastrous for the American Indians; over the next generations they lived under regulations that outlawed their traditional way of living yet did not supply the necessary resources to support their businesses and households. Dividing the reservations into small parcels of land caused the significant reduction of Indian-owned land. Within thirty years, the tribes had lost over two-thirds of the region that they had controlled before the Dawes Act was passed in 1887; the majority of the remaining land was sold to white settlers.
Usually, Native Americans were cheated out of their allotments or were forced to sell off their land in order to pay bills and feed their own families. Because of that, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were often unable to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, as the makers of the policy had wished. Aside from that it generated resentment among Indians for the U.S. government, as the allotment practice sometimes destroyed land that was the spiritual and social focus of their days.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed tremendously. Through U.S. government regulations, American Indians were forced from their homes as their native lands were parceled out. The Plains, which they had previously roamed alone, were now filling with white settlers.
The Upshot of the Indian Wars
Over all these years the Indians had been defrauded out of their property, food and way of living, as the “” government’s Indian regulations forced them on to reservations and tried to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands did not make it through relocation, cultural destruction and military defeat; by 1890 the Native American population was lowered to fewer than 250,000 people. Due to generations of discriminatory and ruthless policies implemented by the United States government between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was changed permanently.
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