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 thousands of years, the American Indian grew its customs 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 is today the U.S. we have learned plenty. It’s a narrative of beautiful arts and crafts and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed remarkably elaborate structures and public works.
While there was inevitable tribal conflict, that was simply a slight blemish in the narrative of our ancestors. They were at peace with this beautiful continent and intensely plugged into nature.
The European Settler Arrives
When European leaders sent the first ships in this direction, the objective 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 learned from their explorers, the drive 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 they could. At first, they skirmished with the surprised Indians of America’s eastern seaboard. But that ultimately gave way to trade, because the Europeans who landed here understood that their survival was doubtful with no Indian help.
Thus followed decades of comparative 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 opportunity.
They wanted more space. And so began the process of pushing the American Indian out of the way.
It took the form of cash payments, barter, and notoriously, treaties that were almost consistently ignored once the Indians were pushed off 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 regions inhabited by these Native American tribes. By the 1850s nearly 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 situated 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 met adversity as the constant 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 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 would not end there. Between 1830 and 1860 the U.S. practically doubled the amount of land 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 attractive 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 started establishing 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 regulations and procedures 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 an independent nation, it implemented the European policies towards the native peoples, but throughout two centuries the U.S. tailored its very own widely varying regulations regarding the evolving perspectives and necessities of Native American regulation.
In 1824, in order to execute the U.S. government’s Native American policies, Congress created a new agency 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, separate political communities with varying 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 culture.
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With the steady flow of settlers in to Indian controlled land, Eastern newspapers published sensationalized stories 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 not the norm; in fact, Native American tribes generally helped settlers cross over the Plains. Not only did the American Indians peddle wild game and other supplies to travelers, but they served as guides and messengers between wagon trains as well. Despite the good natures of the American Indians, settlers still presumed the possibility of an attack.
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To calm these anxieties, 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 consented to a bounded territory, allowed the government to construct tracks and forts in this territory and pledged not to ever assault 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 amongst their tribes in order 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 stand long. After hearing tales 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 region. With so many newcomers moving west, the federal government established a policy of confining Native Americans to reservations, modest areas of acreage within a group’s territory “” reserved exclusively for Indian use, in order to offer more property for “” non-Indian settlers.
In a series of new treaties the U.S. government forced Native Americans to surrender their land and migrate to reservations in exchange for protection from attacks by white settlers. In addition, the Indians were allocated a yearly stipend that would include money in addition to food, animals, household goods and agricultural equipment. These reservations were established in an attempt to clear the way for increased U.S. expansion and involvement in the West, as well as to keep the Native Americans separate from the whites in order to lower the chance for conflict.
History of the Plains Indians
These agreements had many challenges. Most importantly many of the native peoples did not entirely understand the document that they were finalizing or the conditions within it; further, the treaties did not consider the cultural practices of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government departments accountable for applying these policies were plagued with awful management and corruption. In fact many treaty terms were never executed.
The U.S. government rarely held up their side of the agreements even when the Native Americans migrated 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 property in the West, the government constantly cut the size of reservation lands. By this time, most of the Native American people were unhappy with the treaties and angered by settlers’ constant hunger for territory.
A Look at Native American Symbols
Angered by the government’s dishonorable and unjust policies, several Native American tribes, including bands of Cheyennes, Arapahos, Comanches and Sioux, fought back. As they fought 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 coerce Native Americans onto the reservations and to end the violence, the U.S. government responded to these hostilities with significant military operations. Obviously the U.S. government’s Indian regulations required an adjustment.
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Native American policy changed radically following the Civil War. Reformers believed that the policy of driving Native Americans inside reservations was too harsh while industrialists, who were concerned about their property and resources, viewed assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” as the single permanent method of ensuring Native American survival. In 1871 the government approved a critical law stating that the United States would not treat Native American tribes as autonomous nations.
This law signaled a major shift 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 believed that it was easier to make the policy of assimilation a broadly recognized part of the cultural mainstream of America.
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Many U.S. government representatives viewed assimilation as the most practical answer to what they deemed “the Indian problem,” and the sole permanent method of 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 dwellings and become farmers.
The federal government handed down laws that required Native Americans to quit their usual appearance and way of living. Some laws banned traditional spiritual practices while others instructed Indian men to cut their long locks. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations organized courts to impose federal regulations that often restricted traditional ethnic and spiritual practices.
To accelerate the assimilation process, the government set up Indian training centers that attempted to quickly and forcefully Americanize Indian children. According to the director of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, the schools were designed to “kill the Indian and save the man.” In order to accomplish this objective, the schools required enrollees to speak only English, wear proper American fashion and to substitute their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new policies helped bring Native Americans nearer to the end of their traditional tribal identity and the start of their existence as citizens under the full control of the U.S. government.
Native American Treaties with the United States
In 1887, Congress approved the General Allotment Act, the most important part of the U.S. government’s assimilation program, which was intended to “civilize” American Indians by teaching them to become farmers. In order to make this happen, Congress planned to increase non-public ownership of Indian land by dividing reservations, which were collectively held, and issuing each family their own block of land.
Additionally, by forcing the Native Americans onto limited plots, western developers and settlers could purchase the remaining acreage. The General Allotment Act, better known as the Dawes Act, required that the Indian lands be surveyed and every family be awarded an allotment of between 80 and 160 acres, while unmarried adults were given between 40 to 80 acres; the rest of the territory was to be sold. Congress was hoping that the Dawes Act would split up Indian tribes and encourage individual enterprise, while reducing the expense of Indian supervision and providing prime land to be purchased by white settlers.
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The Dawes Act turned out to be disastrous for the American Indians; over the next generations they lived under regulations that outlawed their traditional lifestyle but failed to provide the necessary resources to support their businesses and families. Dividing the reservations into smaller parcels of land led to the significant reduction of Indian-owned property. Within thirty years, the people had lost more than two-thirds of the territory that they had controlled before the Dawes Act was enacted in 1887; the majority of the remaining land was purchased by white settlers.
Commonly, Native Americans were cheated out of their allotments or were forced to sell their land in order pay bills and provide for their families. Consequently, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were often unable to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, like the makers of the policy had expected. Aside from that it produced anger among Indians for the U.S. government, as the allotment operation sometimes destroyed land that was the spiritual and societal focus of their days.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed substantially. Through U.S. government policies, American Indians were forced from their living spaces because 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 the years the Indians ended up cheated out of their territory, food and way of living, as the “” government’s Indian regulations shoved them on to reservations and attempted to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands would not endure relocation, assimilation and military defeat; by 1890 the Native American population was reduced to under 250,000 persons. As a result of generations of discriminatory and ruthless policies implemented by the United States government between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was altered forever.
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