Far 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 centuries, the American Indian grew its culture and legacy without disturbance. And that history is fascinating.
From Mayan and Incan ruins, from the mounds left in the central and southern parts of what’s now the U.S. we have learned plenty. It’s a story of beautiful art and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed highly elaborate buildings and public works.
While there was unavoidable tribal conflict, that was simply a slight blemish in the history of our ancestors. They were at peace with this beautiful continent and intensely connected to nature.
The European Settler Arrives
When European leaders sent the first ships in this direction, the goal was to explore new resources – however the quality of environment and the bounty of everything from timber to wildlife subsequently changed their tune. As those leaders learned from their explorers, the motivation to colonize spread like wildfire.
The English, French and Spanish rushed to slice up the “New World” by transporting over poorly prepared colonists as fast as possible. At the outset, they skirmished with the alarmed Indians of America’s eastern seaboard. But that ultimately gave way to trade, since the Europeans who arrived here learned that their survival was doubtful without native help.
Thus followed years of relative peace as the settlers got themselves established on American soil. But the pressure to push inland came soon after. Kings and queens from thousands of miles away were impatient to locate even more resources, and some colonists came for freedom and opportunity.
They wanted 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 uniformly neglected once the Indians were pushed off 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 regions 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 situated 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 steady flow of European immigrants into northeastern American cities delivered a stream of immigrants into the western lands already occupied by these diverse 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 would not end there. Between 1830 and 1860 the U.S. practically doubled the amount of acreage within 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 alluring opportunities for those ready to make the huge trip westward. Therefore, 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 tribe-inhabited West.
Native American Tribes
Native American Policy can be defined as the laws and procedures 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 implemented the European policies towards the local peoples, but over the course of two centuries the U.S. tailored its very own widely varying policies regarding the changing perspectives and requirements of Native American regulation.
In 1824, in order to apply the U.S. government’s Native American policies, Congress created a new bureau within 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 varying cultural identities; however, at other times the government attempted to compel the Native American tribes to give up their cultural identity, surrender their land and assimilate into the American customs.
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With the steady stream of settlers into Indian “” land, Eastern newspapers printed sensationalized reports of cruel native tribes carrying out massive massacres of hundreds of white travelers. Although some settlers lost their lives to American Indian attacks, this was in no way the norm; in fact, Native American tribes frequently helped settlers get across the Plains. Not only did the American Indians peddle wild game and other supplies to travelers, but they acted 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 concerns, 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 not attack settlers; in return the federal government agreed to honor the boundaries of each tribe’s territory and make gross 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 signed the treaty, even agreed to end the hostilities amidst 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 long. After hearing testimonies of fertile terrain and tremendous mineral wealth in the West, the government soon broke their assurances 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, modest swaths of acreage within a group’s territory “” earmarked exclusively for Indian use, in order to offer more territory 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 given a yearly payment that would include cash in addition to food, livestock, household goods and agricultural tools. These reservations were created in an effort to clear the way for increased U.S. growth and involvement in the West, as well as to keep the Native Americans divided from the whites in order to reduce the potential for conflict.
History of the Plains Indians
These accords had many challenges. Most of all many of the native people did not properly understand the document that they were signing or the conditions within it; furthermore, the treaties did not acknowledge the cultural norms of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government departments responsible for applying these policies were overwhelmed with poor management and corruption. In fact many treaty terms were never executed.
The U.S. government almost never honored their side of the deals even when the Native Americans migrated quietly to their reservations. Dishonest bureau agents sometimes sold the supplies that were meant for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Additionally, as settlers required more property in the West, the federal government continually decreased the size of Indian reservations. By this time, many of the Native American people were unhappy with the treaties and angered by settlers’ endless hunger for land.
A Look at Native American Symbols
Angered by the government’s deceitful and unfair policies, some Native American tribes, including bands of Cheyennes, Arapahos, Comanches and Sioux, fought back. As they struggled to maintain their lands and their tribes’ survival, over a thousand skirmishes and battles broke out in the West between 1861 and 1891. In an attempt to force 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 of a change.
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Native American policy changed radically after the Civil War. Reformers believed that the policy of pushing Native Americans into reservations was too harsh while industrialists, who were worried about their property and resources, viewed assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” to be the single permanent means of assuring Native American survival. In 1871 the government approved a pivotal law stating that the United States would no longer treat Native American tribes as sovereign nations.
This legislation signaled a major shift in the government’s working 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 “” government, Congress presumed that it would be easier to make the policy of assimilation a widely recognized part of the cultural mainstream of America.
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Many U.S. government representatives looked at assimilation as the most effective remedy for what they viewed as “the Indian problem,” and the only long-term method of protecting U.S. interests in the West and the survival of the American Indians. In order to accomplish this, the government pushed Native Americans to relocate out of their customary dwellings, move into wooden homes and grow into farmers.
The federal government enacted laws that required Native Americans to abandon their established appearance and way of life. Some laws outlawed traditional spiritual practices while others ordered Indian males to cut their long locks. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations founded tribunals to enforce federal polices that often banned traditional cultural and spiritual practices.
To speed the assimilation process, the government set up Indian schools that tried to quickly and vigorously Americanize Indian kids. According to the founder of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, the schools were created to “kill the Indian and save the man.” To be able to accomplish this objective, the schools forced pupils to speak only English, dress in proper American fashion and to switch their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new regulations brought Native Americans closer to the conclusion of their traditional tribal identity and the beginning of their existence as citizens under the absolute control of the U.S. administration.
Native American Treaties with the United States
In 1887, Congress passed the General Allotment Act, the most significant element of the U.S. government’s assimilation platform, which was written to “civilize” American Indians by teaching them to become farmers. In order to achieve this, Congress planned to create private ownership of Indian property by splitting up reservations, which were collectively owned, and allowing each family their own parcel of land.
In addition to this, by forcing the Native Americans onto small plots, western developers and settlers could purchase the left over land. The General Allotment Act, also referred to as 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 rest of the land was to be sold. Congress thought that the Dawes Act would break up Indian tribes and stimulate individual enterprise, while reducing the cost of Indian administration and providing prime property to be sold to white settlers.
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The Dawes Act turned out to be disastrous for the American Indians; over the next generations they existed under regulations that outlawed their traditional lifestyle and yet failed to provide the critical resources to support their businesses and families. Splitting the reservations into smaller parcels of land brought about the significant decrease of Indian-owned property. Inside three decades, 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 sold to white settlers.
Regularly, Native Americans were duped out of their allotments or were required to sell their property in order pay bills and provide for their own families. Because of that, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were often unable to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, as the makers of the policy had wished. Aside from that it generated animosity among Indians toward the U.S. government, as the allotment practice sometimes destroyed land that was the spiritual and cultural centre of their lives.
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 homes as their native lands were parceled out. The Plains, which they had previously roamed without restriction, were now inhabited with white settlers.
The Upshot of the Indian Wars
Over all these years the Indians ended up cheated out of their land, food and way of living, as the “” government’s Indian policies forced them into reservations and attempted to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands could not endure relocation, assimilation and military loss; by 1890 the Native American population was reduced to less than 250,000 persons. As a result of decades of discriminatory and ruthless policies implemented by the United States authorities between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was altered permanently.
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