Ages 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 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 culture and heritage 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 quite a bit. It’s a story of beautiful art and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed highly elaborate structures and public works.
While there was inevitable tribal conflict, that was just a slight blemish in the experience of our forebears. They were at peace with this beautiful continent and deeply connected to nature.
The European Settler Arrives
When European leaders dispatched the first vessels in this direction, the objective was to discover new resources – but 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 transporting over inadequately prepared colonists as fast as possible. At the beginning, they skirmished with the surprised Indians of America’s eastern seaboard. But that ultimately gave way to trade, because the Europeans who landed here knew that their survival was doubtful with no Indian help.
Thus followed decades of comparative 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 locate additional resources, and some colonists came for freedom 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 notoriously, treaties which were almost consistently neglected once the Indians were moved away from 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 inhabited by these Native American tribes. By the 1850s virtually 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 misfortune as the constant 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 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 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 nearly doubled the amount of territory under 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, combined with the discovery of gold in 1849, presented attractive opportunities for those ready to make the extended quest westward. As a result, with the military’s protection and the U.S. government’s assistance, many settlers set about building 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 made 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 adopted the European policies towards these indigenous peoples, but throughout two centuries the U.S. adapted 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 formed a new bureau within the War Department called the 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, distinct political communities with numerous cultural identities; however, at other times the government attempted to compel the Native American tribes to abandon their cultural identity, let go of their land and assimilate into the American culture.
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With the steady stream of settlers in to Indian “” land, Eastern newspapers circulated sensationalized reports of cruel native tribes committing 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 frequently helped settlers get across 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 quiet these worries, in 1851 the U.S. government placed 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 never to attack settlers; in return the federal government agreed to honor the boundaries of each tribe’s territory and make total 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 amongst their tribes in order to accept the conditions of the treaty.
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This peaceful agreement between the U.S. government and the Native American tribes did not hold 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 region. With so many newcomers heading west, the federal government established a policy of restricting Native Americans to reservations, limited areas of land within a group’s territory “” set aside exclusively for Indian use, to be able to grant more land for “” non-Indian settlers.
In a series of new treaties the U.S. government compelled Native Americans to surrender their land and move to reservations in exchange for protection from attacks by white settlers. In addition, the Indians were offered a yearly payment that would include money in addition to foodstuffs, animals, household goods and agricultural tools. These reservations were created in an attempt to pave the way for increasing U.S. expansion and involvement in the West, as well as to keep the Native Americans divided from the whites in order to decrease the chance for conflict.
History of the Plains Indians
These accords had many problems. Most importantly many of the native peoples did not completely understand the document that they were signing or the conditions within it; moreover, the treaties did not consider the cultural practices of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government agencies responsible for applying these policies were overwhelmed with awful management and corruption. In fact many treaty conditions were never implemented.
The U.S. government rarely fulfilled their side of the accords even when the Native Americans migrated quietly to their reservations. Unethical bureau agents repeatedly sold off the supplies that were meant for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Moreover, as settlers demanded 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 settlers’ constant hunger for land.
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Angered by the government’s deceitful and unjust policies, several Native American tribes, including bands of Cheyennes, Arapahos, Comanches and Sioux, battled back. As they struggled to defend their lands 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 reacted to these incursions with costly military operations. Clearly the U.S. government’s Indian policies were in need an adjustment.
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Native American policy shifted considerably following the Civil War. Reformers believed that the policy of driving Native Americans onto reservations was far too harsh even while industrialists, who were concerned about their property and resources, looked at assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” to be the single permanent strategy for ensuring Native American survival. In 1871 the government approved a pivotal law proclaiming that the United States would no longer treat Native American tribes as autonomous entities.
This law signaled a significant change in the government’s relationship with the native peoples – Congress now viewed 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 presumed that it would be easier 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 remedy for what they viewed as “the Indian problem,” and the sole lasting means of insuring U.S. interests in the West and the survival of the American Indians. In order to accomplish this, the government urged Native Americans to relocate out of their traditional dwellings, move into wooden houses and become farmers.
The federal government enacted laws that forced Native Americans to abandon their traditional appearance and way of life. Some laws outlawed customary spiritual practices while others ordered Indian men to cut their long locks. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations set up tribunals to impose federal polices that often prohibited traditional ethnic and spiritual practices.
To hasten the assimilation process, the government started Indian facilities that tried to quickly and forcefully Americanize Indian children. According to the director of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, the schools were created to “kill the Indian and save the man.” To be able to achieve this goal, the schools required enrollees to speak only English, put on proper American clothing and to switch their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new regulations brought Native Americans nearer to the end of their original 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 enacted the General Allotment Act, the most significant component of the U.S. government’s assimilation platform, which was written to “civilize” American Indians by teaching them to be farmers. In order to achieve this, Congress planned to increase non-public title of Indian land by splitting up reservations, which were collectively owned, and providing each family their own plot of land.
In addition to this, by forcing the Native Americans onto small plots, western developers and settlers could purchase the left over acreage. The General Allotment Act, often called 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 remaining acreage was to be sold. Congress expected that the Dawes Act would divide Indian tribes and increase individual enterprise, while reducing the cost of Indian administration and serving up prime property to be purchased by white settlers.
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The Dawes Act turned out to be catastrophic for the American Indians; over the next generations they lived under policies that outlawed their traditional way of living and yet failed to offer the vital resources to support their businesses and families. Dividing the reservations into small parcels of land caused the significant reduction of Indian-owned land. Inside thirty years, the tribes had lost more than two-thirds of the region that they had controlled before the Dawes Act was enacted in 1887; the majority of the remaining land was purchased by white settlers.
Usually, Native Americans were cheated out of their allotments or were required to sell their property in order to pay bills and provide for 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 Act had wished. This also generated animosity among Indians toward the U.S. government, as the allotment operation sometimes destroyed land that was the spiritual and cultural focus of their lives.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed substantially. Due to U.S. administration policies, American Indians were forced from their living spaces because 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 had been defrauded out of their land, food and lifestyle, as the federal government’s Indian policies coerced them on to reservations and tried to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands did not endure relocation, cultural destruction and military loss; by 1890 the Native American population was lowered to less than 250,000 persons. Due to decades of discriminatory and dodgy policies implemented by the United States authorities between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was altered forever.
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