Long before the terms Native American or Indian were created, 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 culture and legacy without disturbance. And that history is captivating.
From Mayan and Incan ruins, from the mounds left in the central and southern parts of what is currently the U.S. we have learned quite a bit. It’s a narrative of beautiful artwork and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed highly elaborate structures and public works.
While there was unavoidable tribal conflict, that was just a slight blemish in the history of our forebears. They were at peace with this beautiful continent and intensely connected to nature.
The European Settler Arrives
When European leaders dispatched the first vessels in our direction, the aim 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 motivation to colonize spread like wildfire.
The English, French and Spanish raced to carve up the “New World” by transporting over inadequately prepared colonists as fast as possible. Initially, they skirmished with the alarmed Indians of America’s eastern seaboard. But that ultimately gave way to trade, since the Europeans who landed here learned 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 impatient to find even more resources, and some colonists came for independence and adventure.
They wanted 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 nearly uniformly ignored after 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 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 continuous stream of European immigrants into northeastern American cities pushed a stream of immigrants into the western lands already occupied by these various 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 along with the authority over Oregon country, Texas and California; America’s expansion did not end there. Between 1830 and 1860 the United States pretty much doubled the amount of acreage under 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 captivating possibilities for those prepared make the extended journey westward. Consequently, 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 areas of the Native American group-inhabited West.
Native American Tribes
Native American Policy can be defined as the regulations and operations established 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 nation, it adopted the European policies towards these indigenous peoples, but throughout two centuries the U.S. designed its own widely varying policies regarding the changing perspectives and necessities of Native American supervision.
In 1824, in order to apply the U.S. government’s Native American policies, Congress formed 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, independent political communities with numerous cultural identities; however, at other times the government attempted to compel the Native American tribes to abandon their cultural identity, surrender their land and assimilate into the American culture.
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With the steady stream of settlers in to Indian controlled land, Eastern newspapers circulated sensationalized stories of cruel 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 routinely 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 presumed the likelihood of an attack.
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To soothe these concerns, in 1851 the U.S. government organised a conference with several local Indian tribes and established the Treaty of Fort Laramie. Within this treaty, each Native American tribe consented to a bounded territory, allowed the government to construct roadways and forts in this territory and pledged 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 peacefully 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 in order 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 stand long. After hearing reports of fertile terrain and great 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 policy of confining Native Americans to reservations, limited swaths of acreage within a group’s territory that was reserved exclusively for Indian use, to be able to grant more property for the non-Indian settlers.
In a series of new treaties the U.S. government forced 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 offered a yearly stipend that would include cash in addition to food, animals, household goods and agricultural tools. These reservations were established in an effort to clear the way for increased U.S. expansion and administration in the West, as well as to keep the Native Americans divided from the whites in order to lessen the chance for friction.
History of the Plains Indians
These agreements had many challenges. Most of all many of the native people did not entirely grasp the document that they were signing or the conditions within it; further, the treaties did not acknowledge the cultural practices of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government bureaus accountable for administering these policies were weighed down with poor management and corruption. In fact most treaty conditions were never accomplished.
The U.S. government rarely honored their side of the agreements even when the Native Americans moved quietly to their reservations. Dishonest bureau agents sometimes sold off the supplies that were intended for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Additionally, as settlers needed more land in the West, the federal government frequently decreased the size of Indian reservations. By this time, most of the Native American people were unhappy with the treaties and angered by the settlers’ persistent demands for land.
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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 preserve 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 reacted to these hostilities with costly military operations. Obviously the U.S. government’s Indian regulations were in need an adjustment.
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Native American policy changed drastically after the Civil War. Reformers believed that the policy of driving Native Americans onto reservations was far too harsh even though industrialists, who were worried about their land and resources, viewed assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” to be the singular long-term strategy for ensuring Native American survival. In 1871 the federal government approved a critical law proclaiming that the United States would not treat Native American tribes as autonomous entities.
This law signaled a drastic shift in the government’s relationship with the native peoples – Congress now viewed the Native Americans, not as countries outside of its jurisdictional control, but as wards of the government. By making Native Americans wards of the “” government, Congress imagined that it would be better to make the policy of assimilation a broadly acknowledged part of the cultural mainstream of America.
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Many U.S. government administrators viewed assimilation as the most practical remedy for what they viewed as “the Indian problem,” and the sole long-term 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 houses and grow into farmers.
The federal government passed laws that required Native Americans to quit their traditional appearance and way of life. 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 polices that often restricted traditional cultural and religious practices.
To speed the assimilation course, the government set up Indian training centers that attempted to quickly and forcefully Americanize Indian youth. 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 make this happen objective, the schools forced students to speak only English, wear proper American fashion and to replace their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new regulations brought Native Americans closer to the conclusion of their traditional 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 important component of the U.S. government’s assimilation program, which was intended to “civilize” American Indians by teaching them to be farmers. In order to accomplish this, Congress planned to create non-public title of Indian property by splitting up reservations, which were collectively held, and providing each family their own block of land.
In addition to this, by forcing the Native Americans onto small plots of land, western developers and settlers could purchase the remaining land. The General Allotment Act, often called the Dawes Act, required that the Indian lands be surveyed and each family be given an allotment of between 80 and 160 acres, while unmarried adults were given between 40 to 80 acres; the residual territory was to be sold. Congress hoped that the Dawes Act would break-up Indian tribes and increase individual enterprise, while cutting down the expense of Indian supervision and serving up prime land to be sold to white settlers.
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The Dawes Act proved to be catastrophic for the American Indians; over the next decades they existed under regulations that outlawed their traditional approach to life but didn’t provide the necessary resources to support their businesses and households. Splitting the reservations into smaller parcels of land led to the significant reduction of Indian-owned property. Inside thirty years, the tribes had lost over 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.
Frequently, Native Americans were cheated out of their allotments or were required to sell off their property in order pay bills and feed their families. As a result, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were routinely not able to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, like the makers of the policy had desired. It also developed resentment among Indians for the U.S. government, as the allotment practice often destroyed land that was the spiritual and societal center of their lives.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed significantly. Through U.S. government policies, American Indians were forced from their living spaces 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 had been cheated out of their territory, food and approach to life, as the federal government’s Indian plans forced them onto reservations and tried to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands could not endure relocation, cultural destruction and military defeat; by 1890 the Native American population was reduced to less than 250,000 people. As a result of 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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