Centuries before the terms Native American or Indian were considered, the tribes were spread all over 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’s currently the U.S. we have learned much. It’s a story of beautiful arts and crafts and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed remarkably advanced structures and public works.
While there was inevitable tribal conflict, that was simply a slight blemish in the experience of our forebears. They were at peace with this beautiful continent and intensely plugged into nature.
The European Settler Arrives
When European leaders sent the first vessels in this direction, the plan was to explore new resources – however the quality of climate and the bounty of everything from wood to wildlife soon changed their tune. As those leaders heard back from their explorers, the motivation to colonize spread like wildfire.
The English, French and Spanish rushed to slice up the “New World” by sending over poorly prepared colonists as fast as possible. Initially, they skirmished with the surprised Indians of America’s eastern seaboard. But that soon gave way to trade, since the Europeans who arrived here learned their survival was doubtful with no native help.
Thus followed years 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 impatient to locate even more resources, and some colonists came for independence and adventure.
They needed more space. And so began the process of pushing the American Indian out of the way.
It took the shape of cash payments, barter, and famously, treaties which were nearly consistently ignored after the Indians were forced off the territory 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 areas occupied by these Native American tribes. By the 1850s nearly 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 located 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 hardship as the steady stream of European immigrants into northeastern American cities delivered 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 would not end there. Between 1830 and 1860 the U.S. nearly doubled the amount of acreage 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 attractive possibilities for those prepared make the huge quest westward. As a result, with the military’s protection and the U.S. government’s assistance, many settlers set about establishing their homesteads in the Great Plains and other parts of the Native American tribe-inhabited West.
Native American Tribes
Native American Policy can be defined as the regulations and procedures developed and adapted in the United States to outline the relationship between Native American tribes and the federal government. When the United States first became a sovereign nation, it implemented the European policies towards these local peoples, but over two centuries the U.S. tailored its own widely varying policies regarding the evolving 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 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, independent political communities with different cultural identities; however, at other times the government attempted to compel the Native American tribes to give up their cultural identity, give up their land and assimilate into the American customs.
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With the steady flow of settlers in to Indian “” land, Eastern newspapers circulated 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 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 feared the likelihood of an attack.
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To quiet these anxieties, in 1851 the U.S. government placed 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 roadways and forts in this territory and agreed not to assault settlers; in return the federal government agreed to honor the boundaries of each tribe’s territory and make 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 consented 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 hold very long. After hearing reports of fertile land and great mineral wealth in the West, the government soon broke their assurances 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, limited swaths of acreage within a group’s territory “” set aside exclusively for Indian use, to be able to offer more property for the non-Indian settlers.
In a series of new treaties the U.S. government commanded Native Americans to surrender their land and migrate to reservations in exchange for protection from attacks by white settlers. In addition, the Indians were given a yearly payment that would include cash in addition to foodstuffs, livestock, household goods and agricultural equipment. These reservations were created in an effort to pave 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 lessen the potential for friction.
History of the Plains Indians
These deals had many challenges. Most importantly many of the native people did not altogether understand the document that they were signing or the conditions within it; furthermore, 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 most treaty terms were never executed.
The U.S. government rarely honored their side of the agreements even when the Native Americans migrated 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 required more land in the West, the federal government constantly cut the size of reservation lands. By this time, most of the Native American peoples were dissatisfied with the treaties and angered by the settlers’ constant demands for land.
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Angered by the government’s dishonest and unjust policies, several Native American tribes, including bands of Cheyennes, Arapahos, Comanches and Sioux, battled back. As they fought to defend their territories and their tribes’ survival, over a thousand skirmishes and battles broke out in the West between 1861 and 1891. In an attempt to compel Native Americans onto the reservations and to end the violence, the U.S. government responded to these incursions with costly military operations. Clearly the U.S. government’s Indian policies required of a change.
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Native American policy changed dramatically following the Civil War. Reformers felt that the policy of pushing Native Americans inside reservations was too strict even though industrialists, who were worried about their property and resources, viewed assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” as the lone long-term method of ensuring Native American survival. In 1871 the government passed a critical law proclaiming that the United States would not treat Native American tribes as sovereign nations.
This law signaled a drastic change in the government’s working relationship with the native peoples – Congress now deemed 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 widely recognized part of the cultural mainstream of America.
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Many U.S. government officials viewed assimilation as the most practical remedy for what they deemed “the Indian problem,” and the only permanent 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 established dwellings, move into wooden dwellings and turn into farmers.
The federal government enacted laws that required Native Americans to reject their established appearance and way of life. Some laws outlawed customary religious practices while others instructed Indian males to cut their long hair. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations set up courts to enforce federal regulations that often prohibited traditional ethnic and religious practices.
To accelerate the assimilation operation, the government established Indian facilities that attempted to quickly and forcefully Americanize Indian children. As per 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 goal, the schools required pupils to speak only English, dress in proper American attire and to substitute their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new policies helped bring Native Americans closer to the conclusion of their classic tribal identity and the start of their life as citizens under the full control of the U.S. administration.
Native American Treaties with the United States
In 1887, Congress passed the General Allotment Act, the most important part of the U.S. government’s assimilation platform, which was written to “civilize” American Indians by educating them to become farmers. In order to make this happen, Congress needed to establish private title of Indian property by dividing reservations, which were collectively held, and offering each family their own parcel of land.
In addition to this, by pushing the Native Americans onto limited plots, western developers and settlers could purchase the remaining acreage. 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 were given between 40 to 80 acres; the remaining land was to be sold. Congress was hoping that the Dawes Act would divide Indian tribes and stimulate individual enterprise, while lowering the cost of Indian supervision and providing 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 decades they existed under policies that outlawed their traditional way of living but failed to supply the necessary resources to support their businesses and families. Splitting the reservations into small parcels of land led to the significant reduction of Indian-owned property. Within three decades, the people had lost more than two-thirds of the territory that they had controlled before the Dawes Act was passed in 1887; the majority of the remaining land was sold to white settlers.
Regularly, Native Americans were duped out of their allotments or were forced to sell their property in order to pay bills and feed their own families. Because of that, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were routinely unable to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, like the makers of the policy had anticipated. This also developed anger among Indians toward the U.S. government, as the allotment process sometimes ruined land that was the spiritual and cultural centre of their days.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed significantly. Through U.S. administration regulations, American Indians were forced from their living spaces because their native lands were parceled out. The Plains, which they had previously roamed without limits, were now filled up with white settlers.
The Upshot of the Indian Wars
Over the years the Indians have been defrauded out of their property, food and lifestyle, as the federal government’s Indian policies shoved them on to reservations and tried to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands could not survive relocation, assimilation and military defeat; by 1890 the Native American population was reduced to under 250,000 people. Due to generations of discriminatory and ruthless policies instituted by the United States government between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was changed permanently.
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