Long 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 customs and heritage without interference. And that history is captivating.
From Mayan and Incan ruins, from the mounds left in the central and southern parts of what’s today the U.S. we have learned much. It’s a tale of beautiful craft work and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed highly advanced buildings and public works.
While there was inescapable tribal conflict, that was just a slight blemish in the account of our ancestors. They were at peace with this beautiful continent and deeply plugged into nature.
The European Settler Arrives
When European leaders sent the first ships in our direction, the plan was to discover new resources – but the quality of environment and the bounty of everything from timber 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 rushed to carve up the “New World” by transporting over poorly prepared colonists as fast as possible. At first, they skirmished with the alarmed Indians of America’s eastern seaboard. But that ultimately gave way to trade, because the Europeans who came ashore here learned that their survival was doubtful with no Indian help.
Thus followed years of comparative 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 anxious to locate even more resources, and some colonists came for freedom and opportunity.
They required more space. And so began the process of driving the American Indian out of the way.
It took the form of cash payments, barter, and notoriously, treaties that were almost consistently 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 determined 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 experienced hardship as the steady flow of European immigrants into northeastern American cities pushed a stream of immigrants into the western lands already populated by these diverse groups of Indians.
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The early nineteenth century in the United States was marked by its steady 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 wouldn’t end there. Between 1830 and 1860 the U.S. pretty much 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, partnered with the discovery of gold in 1849, presented attractive opportunities for those ready to make the long journey westward. Therefore, with the military’s protection and the U.S. government’s assistance, many settlers began establishing 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 procedures made and adapted in the United States to summarize the relationship between Native American tribes and the federal government. When the United States initially became an independent country, it implemented the European policies towards these native peoples, but over 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 created a new bureau within the War Department called the 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 different cultural identities; however, at other times the government attempted to compel the Native American tribes to abandon their cultural identity, give up their land and assimilate into the American customs.
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With the steady stream of settlers in to Indian “” land, Eastern newspapers published 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 in no way the norm; in fact, Native American tribes repeatedly helped settlers cross the Plains. Not only did the American Indians sell wild game and other supplies 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 risk 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. Within this treaty, each Native American tribe consented to a bounded territory, allowed the government to construct roads 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 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 between 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 did not last very long. After hearing testimonies of fertile land and tremendous mineral wealth in the West, the government soon broke their pledge 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 plan of restricting Native Americans to reservations, limited swaths of land within a group’s territory that was reserved exclusively for Indian use, in order to give more land for the 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 stipend that would include cash in addition to foodstuffs, livestock, household goods and farming tools. These reservations were created 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 isolated from the whites in order to lower the chance for friction.
History of the Plains Indians
These agreements had many challenges. Most of all many of the native peoples didn’t properly understand 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 agencies responsible for administering these policies were plagued with awful management and corruption. In fact most treaty provisions were never accomplished.
The U.S. government rarely fulfilled their side of the accords even when the Native Americans went quietly to their reservations. Unethical bureau agents sometimes sold the supplies that were meant for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Additionally, as settlers demanded more land in the West, the 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 settlers’ persistent demands for land.
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Angered by the government’s dishonorable and unjust policies, some Native American tribes, including bands of Cheyennes, Arapahos, Comanches and Sioux, battled back. As they struggled to maintain their territories and their tribes’ survival, more than one thousand skirmishes and battles broke out in the West between 1861 and 1891. In an attempt to make Native Americans onto the reservations and to end the violence, the U.S. government responded to these incursions with significant military campaigns. Clearly the U.S. government’s Indian regulations were in need of a change.
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Native American policy shifted radically after the Civil War. Reformers felt that the scheme of pushing Native Americans inside reservations was far too harsh even while industrialists, who were worried about their property and resources, looked at assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” to be the only long-term means of assuring Native American survival. In 1871 the government passed a critical law proclaiming that the United States would not treat Native American tribes as autonomous nations.
This legislation signaled a drastic change in the government’s working 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 U.S. government, Congress imagined that it was better to make the policy of assimilation a broadly recognised part of the cultural mainstream of America.
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Many U.S. government representatives considered assimilation as the most effective remedy for what they viewed as “the Indian problem,” and the only long-term 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 customary dwellings, move into wooden dwellings and become farmers.
The federal government passed laws that forced Native Americans to abandon their established appearance and way of living. Some laws outlawed traditional religious practices while others instructed Indian men to cut their long hair. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations established courts to implement federal polices that often banned traditional cultural and spiritual practices.
To speed up the assimilation process, the government set up Indian training centers that attempted to quickly and forcefully Americanize Indian youth. As per 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, wear proper American fashion and to substitute their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new policies brought Native Americans nearer to the end of their established tribal identity and the start of their life as citizens under the full control of the U.S. government.
Native American Treaties with the United States
In 1887, Congress enacted the General Allotment Act, the most significant element of the U.S. government’s assimilation platform, which was intended to “civilize” American Indians by teaching them to become farmers. In order to achieve this, Congress needed to increase private ownership of Indian property by dividing reservations, which were collectively owned, and providing each family their own parcel of land.
In addition to this, by forcing the Native Americans onto small plots of land, western developers and settlers could purchase the left over territory. The General Allotment Act, often called the Dawes Act, required that the Indian lands be surveyed and each family be provided with an allotment of between 80 and 160 acres, while unmarried adults were given between 40 to 80 acres; the residual acreage was to be sold. Congress hoped that the Dawes Act would breakup Indian tribes and increase individual enterprise, while reducing 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 lived under policies that outlawed their traditional lifestyle and yet failed to supply the necessary resources to support their businesses and households. Dividing the reservations into small parcels of land caused the significant reduction of Indian-owned property. Inside three decades, the tribes had lost over two-thirds of the region 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 cheated out of their allotments or were forced to sell off their land in order to pay bills and take care of their own families. As a result, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were generally not able to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, as the makers of the policy had desired. This also developed animosity among Indians for the U.S. government, as the allotment method sometimes destroyed land that was the spiritual and social center of their activities.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed drastically. Through U.S. government regulations, American Indians were forced from their living spaces because their native lands were parceled out. The Plains, which they had previously roamed without limits, were now filled with white settlers.
The Upshot of the Indian Wars
Over the years the Indians have been cheated out of their territory, food and way of living, as the federal government’s Indian policies coerced them into reservations and attempted to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands could not make it through relocation, cultural destruction and military defeat; by 1890 the Native American population was lowered to fewer than 250,000 people. Due to generations of discriminatory and dodgy policies instituted by the United States government between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was altered permanently.
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