Far before the terms Native American or Indian were necessary, 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 culture and heritage without disturbance. And that history is captivating.
From Mayan and Incan ruins, from the mounds left in the central and southern regions of what’s today the U.S. we have learned much. It’s a story of beautiful craft work and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed highly elaborate structures and public works.
While there was inescapable tribal conflict, that was just a slight blemish in the history of our forebears. They were at peace with this beautiful continent and deeply connected to nature.
The European Settler Arrives
When European leaders sent the first vessels in this direction, the aim was to discover new resources – but 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 slice up the “New World” by sending over poorly prepared colonists as fast as they could. At the outset, 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 that their survival was doubtful without native help.
Thus followed years of comparative peace as the settlers got themselves established on American soil. But the pressure to push inland followed soon after. Kings and queens from thousands of miles away were impatient to find additional resources, and some colonists came for independence and opportunity.
They wanted more space. And so began the process of forcing the American Indian out of the way.
It took the shape of cash arrangements, barter, and notoriously, treaties that were nearly uniformly ignored after the Indians were forced away from the land 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 territories occupied by these Native American tribes. By the 1850s almost 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 territory of the Southern Plains.
The Sioux, Crows and Blackfeet dominated the Northern Plains. These Native American groups experienced hardship as the constant stream of European immigrants into northeastern American cities delivered 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 in addition to the authority over Oregon country, Texas and California; America’s expansion wouldn’t 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 hordes of European and Asian immigrants who wished to join the surge of American settlers heading west. This, partnered with the discovery of gold in 1849, presented alluring possibilities for those prepared make the long journey westward. Consequently, with the military’s protection and the U.S. government’s assistance, many settlers began building their homesteads in the Great Plains and other parts of the Native American group-inhabited West.
Native American Tribes
Native American Policy can be defined as the laws and operations developed and adapted in the United States to summarize 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 two centuries the U.S. adapted its own widely varying regulations regarding the changing perspectives and necessities of Native American oversight.
In 1824, in order to administrate 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 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 force the Native American tribes to abandon their cultural identity, give up their land and assimilate into the American culture.
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With the steady flow of settlers into Indian “” land, Eastern newspapers circulated sensationalized reports of cruel native tribes committing massive 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 repeatedly helped settlers cross the Plains. Not only did the American Indians peddle wild game and other necessities to travelers, but they served as guides and messengers between wagon trains as well. Despite the good natures of the American Indians, settlers still anticipated the possibility 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. Within this treaty, each Native American tribe accepted a bounded territory, allowed the government to construct tracks 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 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 signed 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 agreement between the U.S. government and the Native American tribes didn’t last very long. After hearing tales of fertile land and tremendous mineral wealth in the West, the government soon broke their promises established in the Treat of Fort Laramie by allowing thousands of non-Indians to flood into the area. With so many newcomers moving west, the federal government established a policy of restricting Native Americans to reservations, small swaths of land within a group’s territory that was set aside exclusively for their use, to be able to provide more property for “” non-Indian settlers.
In a series of new treaties the U.S. government forced Native Americans to abandon their land and migrate to reservations in exchange for protection from attacks by white settlers. In addition, the Indians were offered a yearly payment that would include cash in addition to foodstuffs, animals, household goods and farming equipment. These reservations were established in an attempt to pave the way for heightened U.S. expansion and administration in the West, as well as to keep the Native Americans separate from the whites in order to decrease the chance for conflict.
History of the Plains Indians
These agreements had many problems. Most significantly 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 respect the cultural norms of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government departments responsible for applying these policies were plagued with poor management and corruption. In fact most treaty provisions were never accomplished.
The U.S. government rarely held up their side of the deals even when the Native Americans went quietly to their reservations. Shady bureau agents repeatedly sold the supplies that were intended for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Additionally, as settlers needed more territory in the West, the federal government frequently reduced the size of Indian reservations. By this time, most of the Native American people were unhappy with the treaties and angered by the settlers’ constant hunger for territory.
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Angered by the government’s dishonest and unjust policies, some Native American tribes, including bands of Cheyennes, Arapahos, Comanches and Sioux, fought back. As they struggled 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 force Native Americans onto the reservations and to end the violence, the U.S. government reacted to these conflicts with costly military operations. Obviously the U.S. government’s Indian regulations were in need an adjustment.
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Native American policy shifted dramatically after the Civil War. Reformers felt that the policy of pushing Native Americans on to reservations was far too severe even while industrialists, who were worried about their land and resources, viewed assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” as the lone permanent means of ensuring Native American survival. In 1871 the government passed a pivotal law stating that the United States would no longer deal with Native American tribes as sovereign entities.
This law signaled a drastic change in the government’s working relationship with the native peoples – Congress now deemed the Native Americans, not as countries outside of its jurisdiction, but as wards of the government. By making Native Americans wards of the “” government, Congress concluded that it would be better to make the policy of assimilation a widely 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 deemed “the Indian problem,” and the sole lasting strategy for insuring U.S. interests in the West and the survival of the American Indians. In order to accomplish this, the government pushed Native Americans to move out of their established dwellings, move into wooden houses and grow into farmers.
The federal government handed down laws that forced Native Americans to quit their traditional appearance and lifestyle. Some laws banned common spiritual practices while others required Indian males to cut their long locks. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations established tribunals to implement federal regulations that often prohibited traditional ethnic and religious practices.
To speed up the assimilation operation, the government set up 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 required pupils to speak only English, wear proper American attire and to substitute their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new policies helped bring Native Americans nearer to the conclusion of their classic tribal identity and the beginning of their existence as citizens under the full control of the U.S. authorities.
Native American Treaties with the United States
In 1887, Congress passed the General Allotment Act, the most important component of the U.S. government’s assimilation platform, which was written to “civilize” American Indians by teaching them to become farmers. In order to make this happen, Congress needed to create private ownership of Indian property by splitting up reservations, which were collectively owned, and giving 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 territory. The General Allotment Act, better known as the Dawes Act, required that the Indian lands be surveyed and every family be provided with an allotment of between 80 and 160 acres, while unmarried adults received between 40 to 80 acres; the residual land was to be sold. Congress expected that the Dawes Act would break up Indian tribes and increase individual enterprise, while trimming the cost of Indian supervision and providing prime land to be purchased by white settlers.
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The Dawes Act proved to be catastrophic for the American Indians; over the next generations they existed under regulations that outlawed their traditional way of life but failed to offer the critical resources to support their businesses and households. Dividing the reservations into smaller parcels of land triggered the significant decrease 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 passed in 1887; the majority of the remaining land was purchased by white settlers.
Usually, Native Americans were duped out of their allotments or were forced to sell off their property in order 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, as the creators of the policy had anticipated. This also created resentment among Indians toward the U.S. government, as the allotment process sometimes destroyed land that was the spiritual and societal center of their lives.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed drastically. Due to U.S. government regulations, American Indians were forced from their living spaces as their native lands were parceled out. The Plains, which they had previously roamed without limits, were now filling with white settlers.
The Upshot of the Indian Wars
Over all these years the Indians have been cheated out of their property, food and way of life, as the federal government’s Indian policies shoved them inside reservations and attempted to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands would not endure relocation, cultural destruction and military loss; by 1890 the Native American population was decreased to less than 250,000 persons. Due to generations 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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