Ages 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 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 interference. And that history is captivating.
From Mayan and Incan ruins, from the mounds left in the central and southern parts of what’s currently the U.S. we have learned plenty. It’s a tale of beautiful arts and crafts and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed highly advanced buildings 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 dispatched the first vessels in our direction, the objective was to explore new resources – however the quality of climate and the bounty of everything from timber to wildlife subsequently changed their tune. As those leaders learned from their explorers, the drive to colonize spread like wildfire.
The English, French and Spanish rushed to carve up the “New World” by sending over poorly prepared colonists as fast as possible. At first, they skirmished with the surprised Indians of America’s eastern seaboard. But that ultimately gave way to trade, since the Europeans who came ashore here knew their survival was doubtful without native help.
Thus followed years of relative peace as the settlers got themselves established on American land. But the pressure to push inland followed soon after. Kings and queens from thousands of miles away were anxious to find additional resources, and some colonists came for independence 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 payments, barter, and notoriously, treaties which were almost consistently ignored after the Indians were forced off 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 territories occupied by these Native American tribes. By the 1850s almost all Native American tribes, roughly 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 located in contemporary Oklahoma, while the Kiowa and Comanche Native American tribes shared the territory of the Southern Plains.
The Sioux, Crows and Blackfeet dominated the Northern Plains. These Native American groups met adversity as the constant stream of European immigrants into northeastern American cities pushed a stream of immigrants into the western lands already populated 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 along with the authority over Oregon country, Texas and California; America’s expansion did not end there. Between 1830 and 1860 the United States practically doubled the amount of territory within its control.
These territorial gains coincided with the arrival of troves of European and Asian immigrants who wanted to join the surge of American settlers heading west. This, partnered with the discovery of gold in 1849, presented alluring possibilities for those ready to make the long journey 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 areas of the Native American group-inhabited West.
Native American Tribes
Native American Policy can be defined as the laws and regulations and procedures established and adapted in the United States to outline the relationship between Native American tribes and the federal government. When the United States initially became a sovereign country, it implemented the European policies towards these indigenous peoples, but over the course of two centuries the U.S. tailored its own widely varying policies regarding the evolving 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 agency inside 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 different cultural identities; however, at other times the government attempted to compel the Native American tribes to give up their cultural identity, let go of their land and assimilate into the American customs.
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With the steady flow of settlers into Indian “” land, Eastern newspapers printed sensationalized stories of savage 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 generally helped settlers cross the Plains. Not only did the American Indians sell wild game and other supplies 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 risk of an attack.
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To calm these fears, 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 roadways and forts in this territory and agreed to never 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 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 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 did not stand long. After hearing tales of fertile land and great 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 area. 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 offer more land for the non-Indian settlers.
In a series of new treaties the U.S. government made 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 tools. These reservations were created in an attempt to pave the way for increasing U.S. growth and administration in the West, as well as to keep the Native Americans isolated from the whites in order to lower the potential for friction.
History of the Plains Indians
These deals had many complications. Most importantly many of the native people did not altogether grasp the document that they were confirming or the conditions within it; furthermore, the treaties did not consider the cultural norms of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government agencies accountable for applying these policies were overwhelmed with awful management and corruption. In fact many treaty provisions were never carried out.
The U.S. government almost never held up their side of the deals even when the Native Americans moved quietly to their reservations. Shady bureau agents sometimes sold off the supplies that were meant for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Additionally, as settlers demanded more territory in the West, the federal government constantly decreased the size of Indian reservations. By this time, most of the Native American people were dissatisfied with the treaties and angered by settlers’ endless hunger for territory.
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Angered by the government’s deceitful and unfair policies, several Native American tribes, including bands of Cheyennes, Arapahos, Comanches and Sioux, fought back. As they struggled 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 attempt to make Native Americans onto the reservations and to end the violence, the U.S. government reacted to these incursions with significant military campaigns. Clearly the U.S. government’s Indian regulations were in need of a change.
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Native American policy shifted radically after the Civil War. Reformers felt that the policy of forcing Native Americans into reservations was too harsh even though industrialists, who were concerned about their land and resources, looked at assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” to be the lone permanent means of assuring Native American survival. In 1871 the government approved a critical law stating that the United States would not deal with Native American tribes as independent nations.
This legislation signaled a drastic shift in the government’s working relationship with the native peoples – Congress now viewed the Native Americans, not as nations outside of its jurisdiction, but as wards of the government. By making Native Americans wards of the U.S. government, Congress believed that it would be easier to make the policy of assimilation a widely accepted part of the cultural mainstream of America.
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Many U.S. government representatives viewed assimilation as the most effective solution to 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 move out of their traditional dwellings, move into wooden buildings and turn into farmers.
The federal government handed down laws that pressed Native Americans to reject their traditional appearance and way of life. Some laws outlawed customary religious practices while others instructed Indian men to cut their long hair. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations founded tribunals to implement federal regulations that often restricted traditional cultural and religious practices.
To hasten the assimilation process, the government established Indian facilities that attempted to quickly and vigorously Americanize Indian youth. According to the founder of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, the schools were designed to “kill the Indian and save the man.” In order to achieve this objective, the schools compelled students to speak only English, wear proper American fashion and to switch their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new regulations helped bring Native Americans closer to the conclusion of their classic tribal identity and the start of their existence as citizens under the absolute control of the U.S. government.
Native American Treaties with the United States
In 1887, Congress handed down the General Allotment Act, the most significant component of the U.S. government’s assimilation program, which was designed to “civilize” American Indians by educating them to become farmers. In order to accomplish this, Congress wanted to establish private ownership of Indian property by dividing reservations, which were collectively held, and issuing each family their own plot of land.
In addition to this, by pushing the Native Americans onto limited plots, western developers and settlers could purchase the left over land. The General Allotment Act, better known as 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 residual acreage was to be sold. Congress expected that the Dawes Act would split up Indian tribes and inspire individual enterprise, while lowering the cost of Indian supervision and producing prime land to be sold to white settlers.
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The Dawes Act proved to be disastrous for the American Indians; over the next generations they existed under policies that outlawed their traditional way of life yet failed to provide the vital resources to support their businesses and households. Dividing the reservations into smaller parcels of land brought about the significant decrease of Indian-owned land. Inside thirty years, 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.
Frequently, Native Americans were cheated out of their allotments or were forced to sell their land in order to pay bills and feed their families. Consequently, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were routinely not able to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, as the makers of the policy had desired. Aside from that it generated anger among Indians for the U.S. government, as the allotment method often ruined land that was the spiritual and cultural focus of their lives.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed dramatically. 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 ended up defrauded out of their land, food and lifestyle, as the “” government’s Indian policies coerced them onto reservations and attempted to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands didn’t endure relocation, assimilation and military defeat; by 1890 the Native American population was lowered to less than 250,000 persons. Thanks to generations of discriminatory and ruthless policies instituted by the United States government between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was altered permanently.
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