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 land, it was settled by the forefathers of bands we now call Sioux, or Cherokee, or Iroquois.
For thousands of years, the American Indian grew its customs and heritage without interference. And that history is fascinating.
From Mayan and Incan ruins, from the mounds left in the central and southern regions of what is today the U.S. we have learned much. It’s a narrative of beautiful arts and crafts and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed highly elaborate buildings and public works.
While there was inescapable tribal conflict, that was just a slight blemish in the experience 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 intention 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 drive to colonize spread like wildfire.
The English, French and Spanish raced to slice up the “New World” by shipping over inadequately prepared colonists as fast as they could. At the beginning, they skirmished with the surprised Indians of America’s eastern seaboard. But that shortly gave way to trade, because the Europeans who arrived here understood their survival was doubtful without Indian 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 restless to find additional resources, and some colonists came for independence and opportunity.
They required more space. And so began the process of driving the American Indian out of the way.
It took the form of cash arrangements, barter, and famously, treaties which 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 occupied by these Native American tribes. By the 1850s virtually 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 situated in present day 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 hardship as the constant flow 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 of 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. roughly doubled the amount of acreage under 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, partnered with the discovery of gold in 1849, presented alluring possibilities for those ready to 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 areas of the Native American tribe-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 initially became a sovereign nation, it adopted the European policies towards the indigenous peoples, but throughout two centuries the U.S. adapted its own widely varying regulations regarding the changing perspectives and requirements of Native American supervision.
In 1824, in order to administrate the U.S. government’s Native American policies, Congress created a new bureau inside the War Department referred to as 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, let go of their land and assimilate into the American traditions.
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With the steady stream of settlers in to Indian controlled land, Eastern newspapers circulated sensationalized stories of savage native tribes committing massive 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 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 anticipated the possibility of an attack.
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To soothe these fears, in 1851 the U.S. government presented 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 roads and forts in this territory and pledged to never 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 peacefully to the treaty; in fact the Cheyenne, Sioux, Crow, Arapaho, Assinibione, Mandan, Gros Ventre and Arikara tribes, who entered into the treaty, even agreed to end the hostilities between their tribes to be able to accept the terms of the treaty.
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This peaceful agreement 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 pledge established in the Treat of Fort Laramie by permitting thousands of non-Indians to flood into the region. With so many newcomers moving west, the federal government established a plan of limiting Native Americans to reservations, limited areas of land within a group’s territory “” reserved exclusively for Indian use, to be able to grant more land for the non-Indian settlers.
In a series of new treaties the U.S. government made Native Americans to give up their land and migrate to reservations in exchange for protection from attacks by white settlers. In addition, the Indians were allocated a yearly payment that would include cash in addition to foodstuffs, animals, household goods and agricultural equipment. These reservations were established in an effort to clear the way for increased U.S. growth and administration in the West, as well as to keep the Native Americans separate from the whites in order to reduce the chance for conflict.
History of the Plains Indians
These agreements had many problems. Most significantly many of the native peoples did not properly understand the document that they were finalizing or the conditions within it; further, the treaties did not consider the cultural norms of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government bureaus accountable for applying these policies were overwhelmed with awful management and corruption. In fact many treaty terms were never carried out.
The U.S. government almost never held up their side of the deals even when the Native Americans migrated quietly to their reservations. Shady bureau agents repeatedly sold off the supplies that were intended for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Additionally, as settlers required more territory in the West, the federal government continually cut the size of reservation lands. By this time, most of the Native American peoples were dissatisfied with the treaties and angered by settlers’ endless appetite for territory.
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Angered by the government’s dishonorable and unfair policies, several Native American tribes, including bands of Cheyennes, Arapahos, Comanches and Sioux, fought back. As they fought to defend 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 compel Native Americans onto the reservations and to end the violence, the U.S. government reacted to these conflicts with costly military campaigns. Obviously the U.S. government’s Indian policies were in need an adjustment.
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Native American policy changed radically following the Civil War. Reformers felt that the scheme of driving Native Americans onto reservations was far too strict while industrialists, who were concerned with their property and resources, thought of assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” as the single permanent means of assuring Native American survival. In 1871 the government passed a critical law proclaiming that the United States would no longer treat Native American tribes as independent entities.
This law signaled a significant change in the government’s relationship with the native peoples – Congress now considered 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 was 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 administrators viewed assimilation as the most practical solution to what they viewed as “the Indian problem,” and the sole lasting 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 move out of their established dwellings, move into wooden homes and grow into farmers.
The federal government handed down laws that pressed Native Americans to quit their traditional appearance and way of life. Some laws outlawed traditional religious practices while others instructed Indian males to cut their long locks. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations founded courts to enforce federal polices that often banned traditional ethnic and spiritual practices.
To accelerate the assimilation operation, the government set up Indian facilities that tried to quickly and vigorously Americanize Indian children. According to the director of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, the schools were designed to “kill the Indian and save the man.” In order to make this happen objective, the schools required enrollees to speak only English, wear proper American clothing and to substitute their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new regulations helped bring Native Americans closer to the conclusion of their traditional tribal identity and the start of their daily life as citizens under the full control of the U.S. administration.
Native American Treaties with the United States
In 1887, Congress handed down the General Allotment Act, the most significant element of the U.S. government’s assimilation platform, which was intended to “civilize” American Indians by teaching them to become farmers. In order to accomplish this, Congress wanted to create non-public ownership of Indian land by splitting up reservations, which were collectively held, and offering each family their own block of land.
In addition to this, by pushing the Native Americans onto small plots, western developers and settlers could purchase the remaining territory. The General Allotment Act, often called 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 rest of the territory was to be sold. Congress expected that the Dawes Act would break-up Indian tribes and increase individual enterprise, while lowering the cost of Indian supervision and producing 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 generations they lived under regulations that outlawed their traditional way of living and yet didn’t offer the necessary resources to support their businesses and families. Dividing the reservations into smaller parcels of land triggered the significant reduction of Indian-owned property. Inside three decades, the tribes 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 purchased by white settlers.
Commonly, Native Americans were duped out of their allotments or were required 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 routinely unable to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, like the makers of the policy had desired. It also generated anger among Indians toward the U.S. government, as the allotment process sometimes ruined land that was the spiritual and social location of their activities.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed radically. Due to U.S. government policies, American Indians were forced from their housing as their native lands were parceled out. The Plains, which they had previously roamed without limits, were now filled with white settlers.
The Upshot of the Indian Wars
Over all these years the Indians ended up cheated out of their property, food and lifestyle, as the federal government’s Indian plans forced them into reservations and attempted to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands didn’t make it through relocation, assimilation and military defeat; by 1890 the Native American population was decreased to less than 250,000 persons. Due to decades of discriminatory and corrupt policies implemented by the United States government between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was altered forever.
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