Way 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 traditions and heritage without interference. And that history is captivating.
From Mayan and Incan ruins, from the mounds left in the central and southern regions of what is currently the U.S. we have learned quite a bit. It’s a narrative of beautiful art and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed highly elaborate buildings and public works.
While there was unavoidable tribal conflict, that was just a slight blemish in the account of our forebears. They were at peace with this beautiful continent and intensely plugged into nature.
The European Settler Arrives
When European leaders dispatched the first vessels in this direction, the aim was to discover new resources – but the quality of environment and the bounty of everything from wood to wildlife subsequently changed their tune. As those leaders heard back 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 poorly prepared colonists as fast as they could. At first, they skirmished with the alarmed Indians of America’s eastern seaboard. But that soon gave way to trade, since the Europeans who landed here learned their survival was doubtful without Indian help.
Thus followed decades of comparative peace as the settlers got themselves established on American soil. But the drive to push inland came soon after. Kings and queens from thousands of miles away were anxious to locate additional resources, and some colonists came for independence and opportunity.
They needed 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 notoriously, treaties that were nearly consistently neglected after the Indians were pushed off the territory 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 areas occupied by these Native American tribes. By the 1850s almost 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 located 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 continuous 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 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 as well as the authority over Oregon country, Texas and California; America’s expansion would not end there. Between 1830 and 1860 the United States practically doubled the amount of land within its control.
These territorial gains coincided with the arrival of troves of European and Asian immigrants who wished to join the surge of American settlers heading west. This, partnered with the discovery of gold in 1849, presented attractive opportunities for those prepared make the huge quest westward. Consequently, with the military’s protection and the U.S. government’s assistance, many settlers began 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 laws and procedures developed 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 implemented the European policies towards these local peoples, but over two centuries the U.S. tailored its very own widely varying regulations regarding the evolving perspectives and necessities of Native American oversight.
In 1824, in order to administer the U.S. government’s Native American policies, Congress formed a new bureau inside the War Department called the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which worked directly with the U.S. Army to enforce their policies. At times the federal government recognized the Indians as self-governing, distinct political communities with varying cultural identities; however, at other times the government attempted to compel the Native American tribes to give up their cultural identity, hand over 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 reports of savage 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 served as guides and messengers between wagon trains as well. Despite the genial natures of the American Indians, settlers still presumed the possibility of an attack.
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To soothe these concerns, in 1851 the U.S. government presented 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 roadways and forts in this territory and agreed not to ever 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 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 conditions of the treaty.
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This peaceful accord between the U.S. government and the Native American tribes didn’t last very long. After hearing testimonies of fertile land and tremendous mineral wealth in the West, the government soon broke their promises 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 plan of limiting Native Americans to reservations, small swaths of acreage within a group’s territory that was reserved exclusively for Indian use, in order to offer more territory 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 stipend that would include cash in addition to food, livestock, household goods and agricultural tools. These reservations were established in an attempt to clear the way for heightened U.S. growth and involvement in the West, as well as to keep the Native Americans separate from the whites in order to lower the potential for conflict.
History of the Plains Indians
These agreements had many complications. Most importantly many of the native peoples didn’t entirely understand the document that they were signing or the conditions within it; further, the treaties did not acknowledge the cultural norms of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government departments accountable for administering these policies were plagued with poor management and corruption. In fact many treaty conditions were never carried out.
The U.S. government almost never fulfilled their side of the agreements even when the Native Americans migrated quietly to their reservations. Dishonest bureau agents often sold the supplies that were meant for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Moreover, as settlers required more property in the West, the government frequently reduced the size of reservation lands. By this time, most of the Native American peoples were unhappy with the treaties and angered by settlers’ persistent demands 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, fought back. As they fought to protect their territories 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 responded to these skirmishes with significant military operations. Clearly the U.S. government’s Indian regulations were in need of a change.
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Native American policy shifted dramatically following the Civil War. Reformers felt that the policy of driving Native Americans onto reservations was too strict even though industrialists, who were worried about their land and resources, looked at assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” to be the single long-term strategy for assuring Native American survival. In 1871 the federal government approved a pivotal law proclaiming that the United States would not treat Native American tribes as autonomous entities.
This legislation signaled a drastic change in the government’s working 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 “” government, Congress presumed that it would be easier to make the policy of assimilation a widely acknowledged part of the cultural mainstream of America.
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Many U.S. government representatives considered assimilation as the most practical remedy for what they deemed “the Indian problem,” and the sole permanent method of protecting 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 become farmers.
The federal government handed down laws that forced Native Americans to reject their traditional appearance and way of living. Some laws outlawed common spiritual 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 regulations that often banned traditional ethnic and spiritual practices.
To hasten the assimilation process, the government set up Indian schools that attempted 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.” To be able to achieve this objective, the schools forced pupils to speak only English, put on proper American attire and to switch their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new policies brought Native Americans nearer to the end of their established tribal identity and the start of their daily life as citizens under the complete control of the U.S. authorities.
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 written to “civilize” American Indians by educating them to be farmers. In order to achieve this, Congress wanted to establish non-public ownership of Indian land by splitting up reservations, which were collectively held, and allowing each family their own plot of land.
In addition to this, by pushing the Native Americans onto limited plots of land, western developers and settlers could purchase the left over territory. The General Allotment Act, also known 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 residual land was to be sold. Congress wished that the Dawes Act would breakup Indian tribes and stimulate individual enterprise, while reducing the expense of Indian administration and providing prime property to be sold to white settlers.
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The Dawes Act proved to be disastrous for the American Indians; over the next decades they lived under regulations that outlawed their traditional way of living yet didn’t provide the critical resources to support their businesses and households. Dividing the reservations into small parcels of land triggered the significant reduction of Indian-owned land. Within three decades, 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 purchased by white settlers.
Commonly, Native Americans were duped out of their allotments or were forced to sell off their property in order to pay bills and provide for their families. Because of that, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were routinely not able to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, like the makers of the Act had expected. This also developed resentment among Indians for the U.S. government, as the allotment operation often destroyed land that was the spiritual and social centre of their lives.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed drastically. Through U.S. administration regulations, American Indians were forced from their housing as their native lands were parceled out. The Plains, which they had previously roamed alone, were now filled with white settlers.
The Upshot of the Indian Wars
Over these years the Indians have been defrauded out of their territory, food and lifestyle, as the “” government’s Indian regulations forced them on to reservations and tried to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands did not survive relocation, cultural destruction and military defeat; by 1890 the Native American population was decreased to under 250,000 persons. Thanks to decades of discriminatory and corrupt policies implemented by the United States government between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was changed forever.
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