Centuries before the terms Native American or Indian were created, 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 customs and heritage without disturbance. And that history is fascinating.
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 much. It’s a narrative of beautiful art and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed remarkably advanced structures and public works.
While there was unavoidable tribal conflict, that was nothing more than a slight blemish in the account of our ancestors. They were at peace with this beautiful continent and intensely plugged into nature.
The European Settler Arrives
When European leaders dispatched 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 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 sending over inadequately prepared colonists as fast as possible. At the outset, they skirmished with the alarmed Indians of America’s eastern seaboard. But that soon gave way to trade, because the Europeans who came ashore here understood that their survival was doubtful without native help.
Thus followed decades of comparative peace as the settlers got themselves established on American soil. But the drive to push inland came soon after. Kings and queens from thousands of miles away were restless to find even more resources, and some colonists came for independence and opportunity.
They required 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 which were nearly consistently ignored once the Indians were pushed from the territory in question.
The U.S. government’s policies towards Native Americans in the second half of the nineteenth century were determined by the desire to expand westward into areas inhabited by these Native American tribes. By the 1850s almost all Native American tribes, approximately 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 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 encountered hardship as the steady stream 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 United States roughly 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 alluring opportunities for those ready to make the long quest 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 areas of the Native American tribe-inhabited West.
Native American Tribes
Native American Policy can be defined as the laws and regulations and operations made and adapted in the United States to summarize 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 these indigenous peoples, but throughout two centuries the U.S. adapted its own widely varying regulations regarding the evolving perspectives and requirements of Native American oversight.
In 1824, in order to administer the U.S. government’s Native American policies, Congress created a new agency 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 numerous cultural identities; however, at other times the government attempted to force the Native American tribes to give up their cultural identity, let go of their land and assimilate into the American customs.
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With the steady flow of settlers in to Indian controlled land, Eastern newspapers printed sensationalized stories of cruel native tribes carrying out widespread massacres of hundreds of white travelers. Although some settlers lost their lives to American Indian attacks, this was certainly not the norm; in fact, Native American tribes frequently helped settlers cross 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 genial natures of the American Indians, settlers still presumed the likelihood 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 accepted a bounded territory, allowed the government to construct roads and forts in this territory and pledged to not 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 quietly 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 to be able to accept the conditions of the treaty.
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This peaceful accord between the U.S. government and the Native American tribes didn’t hold very long. After hearing stories of fertile terrain and great mineral wealth in the West, the government soon broke their pledge 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 plan of limiting Native Americans to reservations, limited swaths of land within a group’s territory “” earmarked exclusively for Indian use, in order 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 cash in addition to food, animals, household goods and farming equipment. These reservations were established in an attempt to clear the way for heightened U.S. expansion and administration in the West, as well as to keep the Native Americans divided from the whites in order to decrease the chance for friction.
History of the Plains Indians
These accords had many problems. Most importantly many of the native peoples didn’t properly understand the document that they were signing or the conditions within it; furthermore, the treaties did not consider the cultural practices of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government institutions responsible for administering these policies were weighed down with poor management and corruption. In fact most treaty terms were never accomplished.
The U.S. government almost never fulfilled their side of the deals even when the Native Americans relocated quietly to their reservations. Unethical bureau agents often 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 government continually reduced the size of the reservations. By this time, many of the Native American people were dissatisfied with the treaties and angered by settlers’ persistent hunger for territory.
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Angered by the government’s dishonorable and unjust policies, several Native American tribes, including bands of Cheyennes, Arapahos, Comanches and Sioux, battled back. As they struggled to protect 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 campaigns. Clearly the U.S. government’s Indian regulations were in need an adjustment.
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Native American policy changed considerably following the Civil War. Reformers felt that the scheme of forcing Native Americans on to reservations was far too strict even while industrialists, who were concerned with their property and resources, regarded assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” as the singular permanent method of ensuring Native American survival. In 1871 the federal government enacted a critical law stating that the United States would no longer deal with Native American tribes as sovereign nations.
This legislation signaled a drastic shift in the government’s 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 U.S. government, Congress presumed 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 representatives viewed assimilation as the most effective remedy for what they deemed “the Indian problem,” and the only permanent strategy for 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 move out of their traditional dwellings, move into wooden dwellings and become farmers.
The federal government handed down laws that forced Native Americans to reject their traditional appearance and way of living. Some laws banned customary spiritual practices while others ordered Indian males to cut their long hair. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations organized courts to impose federal polices that often banned traditional cultural and religious practices.
To boost the assimilation operation, the government started Indian training centers that attempted to quickly and forcefully Americanize Indian kids. According to the director of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, the schools were created to “kill the Indian and save the man.” In order to achieve this objective, the schools compelled enrollees to speak only English, put on proper American fashion 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 full control of the U.S. government.
Native American Treaties with the United States
In 1887, Congress passed the General Allotment Act, the most significant component of the U.S. government’s assimilation platform, which was designed to “civilize” American Indians by educating them to become farmers. In order to achieve this, Congress needed to establish 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 pushing the Native Americans onto limited plots, western developers and settlers could purchase the remaining acreage. The General Allotment Act, also known as 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 rest of the land was to be sold. Congress thought that the Dawes Act would divide Indian tribes and stimulate individual enterprise, while cutting down the expense of Indian administration and producing prime land 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 decades they lived under regulations that outlawed their traditional lifestyle yet failed to provide the necessary resources to support their businesses and families. Dividing the reservations into smaller parcels of land brought about 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 sold to white settlers.
Regularly, Native Americans were cheated out of their allotments or were required to sell their land in order pay bills and feed their families. As a result, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were generally unable to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, like the makers of the Act had wished. It also developed resentment among Indians toward the U.S. government, as the allotment operation often destroyed land that was the spiritual and social location of their days.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed substantially. Through U.S. administration policies, American Indians were forced from their places of residence as their native lands were parceled out. The Plains, which they had previously roamed alone, were now inhabited with white settlers.
The Upshot of the Indian Wars
Over these years the Indians had been cheated out of their property, food and lifestyle, as the federal government’s Indian policies coerced them onto reservations and tried to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands didn’t survive relocation, assimilation and military defeat; by 1890 the Native American population was decreased to under 250,000 people. As a result of decades of discriminatory and ruthless policies implemented by the United States government between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was altered permanently.
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