Centuries 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 thousands of years, the American Indian developed its customs and heritage without interference. And that history is fascinating.
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 plenty. It’s a tale of beautiful art and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed highly advanced structures and public works.
While there was inescapable tribal conflict, that was simply a slight blemish in the experience of our forebears. They were at peace with this beautiful continent and intensely connected to nature.
The European Settler Arrives
When European leaders dispatched the first vessels in this direction, the goal was to explore new resources – however the quality of climate and the bounty of everything from timber to wildlife subsequently changed their tune. As those leaders learned from their explorers, the drive to colonize spread like wildfire.
The English, French and Spanish rushed to slice up the “New World” by shipping over poorly prepared colonists as fast as they could. In the beginning, they skirmished with the surprised Indians of America’s eastern seaboard. But that shortly gave way to trade, because the Europeans who landed here understood that their survival was doubtful without 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 anxious to locate 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 form of cash payments, barter, and notoriously, treaties which were nearly uniformly ignored after 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 determined 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, 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 experienced hardship as the steady flow of European immigrants into northeastern American cities delivered a stream of immigrants into the western lands already inhabited 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 along with the authority over Oregon country, Texas and California; America’s expansion did not end there. Between 1830 and 1860 the United States nearly doubled the amount of territory under its control.
These territorial gains coincided with the arrival of hordes 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 extended quest westward. As a result, with the military’s protection and the U.S. government’s assistance, many settlers set about 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 operations developed 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 adopted the European policies towards the local peoples, but over the course of two centuries the U.S. designed its very own widely varying regulations regarding the changing perspectives and necessities of Native American oversight.
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 closely with the U.S. Army to enforce their policies. At times the federal government recognized the Indians as self-governing, distinct political communities with varying cultural identities; however, at other times the government attempted to compel the Native American tribes to abandon their cultural identity, let go of their land and assimilate into the American customs.
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With the steady flow of settlers into Indian “” land, Eastern newspapers published sensationalized reports of cruel native tribes committing massive massacres of hundreds of white travelers. Although some settlers lost their lives to American Indian attacks, this was far from the norm; in fact, Native American tribes often helped settlers cross 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 presumed the likelihood of an attack.
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To soothe these fears, in 1851 the U.S. government placed 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 roads and forts in this territory and pledged to never go after 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 entered into 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 accord between the U.S. government and the Native American tribes did not stand very long. After hearing testimonies of fertile land and great mineral wealth in the West, the government soon broke their promises 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 plan of limiting Native Americans to reservations, small areas of acreage within a group’s territory that was earmarked exclusively for their use, in order to provide more land for the non-Indian settlers.
In a series of new treaties the U.S. government made 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 allocated a yearly payment 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 heightened U.S. expansion and administration in the West, as well as to keep the Native Americans separate from the whites in order to lower the potential for conflict.
History of the Plains Indians
These agreements had many complications. Most significantly many of the native peoples didn’t completely grasp the document that they were finalizing or the conditions within it; further, the treaties did not respect the cultural norms of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government agencies responsible for administering these policies were weighed down with awful management and corruption. In fact many treaty conditions were never accomplished.
The U.S. government almost never held up their side of the agreements even when the Native Americans went quietly to their reservations. Shady bureau agents repeatedly sold off 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 the reservations. By this time, many of the Native American people were dissatisfied with the treaties and angered by the settlers’ constant hunger for territory.
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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 lands and their tribes’ survival, over a thousand skirmishes and battles broke out in the West between 1861 and 1891. In an effort to make Native Americans onto the reservations and to end the violence, the U.S. government reacted to these conflicts with costly military operations. Clearly the U.S. government’s Indian regulations required an adjustment.
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Native American policy shifted radically after the Civil War. Reformers believed that the scheme of driving Native Americans inside reservations was far too severe even though industrialists, who were concerned with their land and resources, looked at assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” as the sole permanent strategy for guaranteeing Native American survival. In 1871 the federal government enacted a critical law stating that the United States would not deal with Native American tribes as sovereign nations.
This law signaled a drastic shift in the government’s 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 U.S. government, Congress concluded that it was better to make the policy of assimilation a widely acknowledged part of the cultural mainstream of America.
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Many U.S. government administrators perceived assimilation as the most practical solution to what they deemed “the Indian problem,” and the sole 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 pressed Native Americans to move out of their established dwellings, move into wooden homes and grow into farmers.
The federal government handed down laws that required Native Americans to abandon their traditional appearance and way of life. Some laws outlawed common spiritual practices while others required Indian men to cut their long hair. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations founded courts to enforce federal regulations that often prohibited traditional ethnic and spiritual practices.
To hasten the assimilation operation, the government started Indian training centers that tried to quickly and forcefully Americanize Indian kids. As per the director of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, the schools were designed to “kill the Indian and save the man.” To be able to make this happen objective, the schools compelled students to speak only English, dress in proper American fashion and to replace their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new regulations helped bring Native Americans closer to the end of their traditional tribal identity and the start of their life as citizens under the complete 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 platform, which was written to “civilize” American Indians by teaching them to be farmers. In order to make this happen, Congress planned to establish non-public ownership of Indian property by splitting up reservations, which were collectively held, and allowing each family their own parcel of land.
In addition to this, by pushing the Native Americans onto small plots of land, western developers and settlers could purchase the remaining land. The General Allotment Act, often called 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 received between 40 to 80 acres; the remaining territory was to be sold. Congress hoped that the Dawes Act would split up Indian tribes and encourage individual enterprise, while trimming the cost of Indian supervision and providing 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 generations they lived under regulations that outlawed their traditional lifestyle yet did not provide the crucial resources to support their businesses and families. Dividing the reservations into smaller parcels of land caused the significant decrease of Indian-owned property. Inside thirty years, the people had lost more than 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 duped out of their allotments or were forced to sell their land in order to pay bills and provide for their own families. Because of that, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were often not able to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, like the creators of the Act had wished. This also produced animosity among Indians for the U.S. government, as the allotment process sometimes ruined land that was the spiritual and societal hub 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 housing as their native lands were parceled out. The Plains, which they had previously roamed without restriction, were now filled with white settlers.
The Upshot of the Indian Wars
Over these years the Indians ended up defrauded out of their territory, food and approach to life, as the federal government’s Indian plans coerced them onto reservations and tried to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands would not make it through relocation, assimilation and military loss; by 1890 the Native American population was lowered to fewer than 250,000 people. Thanks to generations of discriminatory and dodgy policies instituted by the United States authorities between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was changed permanently.
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