Way before the terms Native American or Indian were necessary, 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 developed 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 regions of what’s now the U.S. we have learned quite a bit. It’s a story of beautiful art and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed remarkably elaborate buildings and public works.
While there was unavoidable tribal conflict, that was just a slight blemish in the history of our forebears. They were at peace with this beautiful continent and deeply plugged into nature.
The European Settler Arrives
When European leaders sent the first vessels in our direction, the intention was to discover new resources – however the quality of environment and the bounty of everything from wood to wildlife subsequently changed their tune. As those leaders heard back from their explorers, the drive to colonize spread like wildfire.
The English, French and Spanish rushed to carve up the “New World” by transporting over inadequately prepared colonists as fast as they could. Initially, they skirmished with the alarmed Indians of America’s eastern seaboard. But that shortly gave way to trade, because the Europeans who arrived here learned their survival was doubtful without native help.
Thus followed decades of relative 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 additional resources, and some colonists came for independence and opportunity.
They needed more space. And so began the process of pushing the American Indian out of the way.
It took the shape of cash arrangements, barter, and famously, treaties which were almost uniformly ignored once the Indians were moved 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 virtually 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 located in present day Oklahoma, while the Kiowa and Comanche Native American tribes shared the area of the Southern Plains.
The Sioux, Crows and Blackfeet dominated the Northern Plains. These Native American groups experienced adversity as the continuous stream 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 of 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 in addition to the authority over Oregon country, Texas and California; America’s expansion did not end there. Between 1830 and 1860 the U.S. roughly doubled the amount of territory 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, partnered with the discovery of gold in 1849, presented attractive opportunities for those ready to 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 tribe-inhabited West.
Native American Tribes
Native American Policy can be defined as the laws and regulations and operations established and adapted in the United States to define the relationship between Native American tribes and the federal government. When the United States initially became a sovereign nation, it implemented the European policies towards these local 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 administer the U.S. government’s Native American policies, Congress made a new bureau inside 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 force the Native American tribes to give up their cultural identity, surrender their land and assimilate into the American traditions.
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With the steady stream of settlers into Indian controlled land, Eastern newspapers printed sensationalized stories 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 routinely 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 good natures of the American Indians, settlers still anticipated the likelihood of an attack.
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To quiet these concerns, 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 pledged not to 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 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 did not last very long. After hearing testimonies of fertile land and great 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 policy of restricting Native Americans to reservations, limited areas of land within a group’s territory that was set aside 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 compelled Native Americans to give up 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 money in addition to food, animals, household goods and agricultural tools. These reservations were created in an attempt to clear the way for increasing U.S. expansion and administration in the West, as well as to keep the Native Americans isolated from the whites in order to lessen the chance for conflict.
History of the Plains Indians
These accords had many complications. Most importantly many of the native peoples did not completely grasp the document that they were signing or the conditions within it; moreover, 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 many treaty provisions were never executed.
The U.S. government almost never fulfilled their side of the deals even when the Native Americans migrated quietly to their reservations. Unethical bureau agents often sold off the supplies that were intended for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Additionally, as settlers required more territory in the West, the federal government continually decreased the size of Indian reservations. By this time, many of the Native American peoples were unhappy with the treaties and angered by the settlers’ constant hunger for land.
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Angered by the government’s deceitful and unfair policies, several Native American tribes, including bands of Cheyennes, Arapahos, Comanches and Sioux, fought back. As they fought to maintain 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 coerce Native Americans onto the reservations and to end the violence, the U.S. government reacted to these skirmishes with costly military campaigns. Obviously the U.S. government’s Indian regulations were in need of a change.
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Native American policy changed considerably following the Civil War. Reformers believed that the policy of pushing Native Americans inside reservations was far too severe even while industrialists, who were concerned about their land and resources, regarded assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” as the sole long-term method of guaranteeing Native American survival. In 1871 the government enacted a critical law stating that the United States would not deal with Native American tribes as independent nations.
This legislation signaled a major change in the government’s working relationship with the native peoples – Congress now deemed 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 concluded that it would be better to make the policy of assimilation a widely recognized part of the cultural mainstream of America.
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Many U.S. government officials looked at assimilation as the most practical answer to what they viewed as “the Indian problem,” and the single permanent method of guaranteeing 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 houses and grow into farmers.
The federal government handed down laws that pressed Native Americans to reject their established appearance and way of life. Some laws outlawed customary spiritual practices while others instructed Indian men to cut their long hair. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations set up courts to implement federal polices that often banned traditional cultural and spiritual practices.
To speed up the assimilation course, the government established Indian facilities that tried to quickly and forcefully Americanize Indian kids. According to the director of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, the schools were developed to “kill the Indian and save the man.” To be able to achieve this goal, the schools required students to speak only English, wear proper American clothing and to substitute 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 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 important part of the U.S. government’s assimilation program, which was intended to “civilize” American Indians by teaching them to be farmers. In order to achieve this, Congress planned to create private ownership of Indian land by splitting up reservations, which were collectively owned, and issuing each family their own plot of land.
Additionally, by pushing the Native Americans onto small plots, western developers and settlers could purchase the remaining land. The General Allotment Act, referred to 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 were given between 40 to 80 acres; the remaining acreage was to be sold. Congress wished that the Dawes Act would split up Indian tribes and encourage individual enterprise, while trimming the cost of Indian supervision and providing prime property to be purchased by white settlers.
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The Dawes Act proved to be disastrous for the American Indians; over the next generations they lived under policies that outlawed their traditional lifestyle yet did not offer the necessary resources to support their businesses and households. Splitting the reservations into smaller parcels of land triggered the significant reduction of Indian-owned property. Inside thirty years, the tribes 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 sold to white settlers.
Frequently, Native Americans were duped out of their allotments or were required to sell their land in order to pay bills and take care of their own families. Consequently, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were routinely not able to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, like the creators of the Act had expected. This also produced resentment among Indians for the U.S. government, as the allotment process often ruined land that was the spiritual and cultural hub of their lives.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed substantially. Due to U.S. government policies, American Indians were forced from their homes because their native lands were parceled out. The Plains, which they had previously roamed alone, were now filled with white settlers.
The Upshot of the Indian Wars
Over all these years the Indians had been cheated out of their property, food and approach to life, as the federal government’s Indian policies forced them onto reservations and attempted to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands did not endure relocation, assimilation and military loss; by 1890 the Native American population was lowered to fewer than 250,000 people. Due to decades of discriminatory and corrupt policies instituted by the United States government between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was altered permanently.
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