Ages before the terms Native American or Indian were created, the tribes were spread throughout the Americas. Before any white man set foot on this territory, it was settled by the forefathers of bands we now call Sioux, or Cherokee, or Iroquois.
For centuries, the American Indian grew its culture 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 is currently the U.S. we have learned quite a bit. It’s a story of beautiful art and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed highly elaborate buildings and public works.
While there was inevitable tribal conflict, that was nothing more than a slight blemish in the narrative of our forebears. They were at peace with this beautiful continent and intensely connected to nature.
The European Settler Arrives
When European leaders sent the first vessels in our direction, the goal was to discover new resources – but the quality of climate and the bounty of everything from wood 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 inadequately prepared colonists as fast as they could. At first, they skirmished with the surprised Indians of America’s eastern seaboard. But that soon gave way to trade, since the Europeans who arrived here knew that their survival was doubtful without Indian help.
Thus followed years of relative peace as the settlers got themselves established on American soil. But the pressure to push inland followed soon after. Kings and queens from thousands of miles away were restless to locate even more resources, and some colonists came for freedom and opportunity.
They needed more space. And so began the process of driving the American Indian out of the way.
It took the shape of cash arrangements, barter, and famously, treaties which were nearly uniformly ignored after the Indians were pushed 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 occupied by these Native American tribes. By the 1850s nearly 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 located in present day 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 constant flow of European immigrants into northeastern American cities pushed a stream of immigrants into the western lands already occupied 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 did not end there. Between 1830 and 1860 the United States pretty much doubled the amount of land within 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 attractive possibilities for those ready to make the huge 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 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 first became a sovereign country, it adopted the European policies towards these local peoples, but over two centuries the U.S. designed its very own widely varying policies regarding the evolving perspectives and requirements of Native American oversight.
In 1824, in order to execute the U.S. government’s Native American policies, Congress made 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 numerous cultural identities; however, at other times the government attempted to force the Native American tribes to give up 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 controlled land, Eastern newspapers circulated sensationalized reports of savage 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 often 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 friendly natures of the American Indians, settlers still anticipated the risk of an attack.
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To quiet these concerns, in 1851 the U.S. government presented 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 agreed to not 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 quietly 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 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 did not hold very long. After hearing stories of fertile acreage and tremendous 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 heading west, the federal government established a plan of limiting Native Americans to reservations, modest areas of land within a group’s territory that was reserved exclusively for Indian use, to be able to provide more land for “” non-Indian settlers.
In a series of new treaties the U.S. government compelled Native Americans to abandon their land and move to reservations in exchange for protection from attacks by white settlers. In addition, the Indians were allocated a yearly stipend that would include cash in addition to food, animals, household goods and agricultural equipment. These reservations were created in an effort to clear the way for increasing U.S. growth and involvement in the West, as well as to keep the Native Americans divided from the whites in order to reduce the chance for friction.
History of the Plains Indians
These accords had many complications. Most importantly many of the native people did not entirely grasp the document that they were confirming or the conditions within it; furthermore, the treaties did not consider the cultural norms of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government departments accountable for applying these policies were weighed down with awful management and corruption. In fact most treaty provisions were never implemented.
The U.S. government rarely fulfilled their side of the accords even when the Native Americans went quietly to their reservations. Dishonest bureau agents sometimes sold the supplies that were meant for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Moreover, as settlers needed more territory in the West, the federal government frequently decreased the size of reservation lands. By this time, many of the Native American people were unhappy with the treaties and angered by settlers’ constant demands for territory.
A Look at Native American Symbols
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 protect their lands and their tribes’ survival, more than one thousand skirmishes and battles broke out in the West between 1861 and 1891. In an attempt to push Native Americans onto the reservations and to end the violence, the U.S. government reacted to these skirmishes with significant military campaigns. Clearly the U.S. government’s Indian regulations required an adjustment.
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Native American policy changed drastically following the Civil War. Reformers believed that the policy of driving Native Americans into reservations was far too harsh while industrialists, who were concerned about their property and resources, thought of assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” as the singular long-term means of assuring Native American survival. In 1871 the government approved a critical law stating that the United States would no longer deal with Native American tribes as sovereign entities.
This law signaled a significant shift in the government’s relationship with the native peoples – Congress now deemed the Native Americans, not as nations outside of its jurisdictional control, but as wards of the government. By making Native Americans wards of the “” government, Congress believed that it would be better to make the policy of assimilation a broadly accepted part of the cultural mainstream of America.
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Many U.S. government officials perceived assimilation as the most practical answer to what they deemed “the Indian problem,” and the sole long-term method of guaranteeing 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 traditional dwellings, move into wooden dwellings and turn into farmers.
The federal government enacted laws that forced Native Americans to abandon their established appearance and lifestyle. Some laws outlawed traditional religious practices while others required Indian males to cut their long hair. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations established courts to enforce federal polices that often restricted traditional ethnic and religious practices.
To speed the assimilation course, the government started Indian schools that tried to quickly and vigorously 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.” To be able to achieve this goal, the schools forced enrollees to speak only English, dress in proper American attire and to replace their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new regulations helped bring Native Americans nearer to the conclusion of their traditional 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 element of the U.S. government’s assimilation program, which was designed to “civilize” American Indians by educating them to be farmers. In order to achieve this, Congress needed to create private title 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 forcing the Native Americans onto limited plots of land, western developers and settlers could purchase the left over land. 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 received between 40 to 80 acres; the rest of the acreage was to be sold. Congress thought that the Dawes Act would break up Indian tribes and increase individual enterprise, while lowering the cost of Indian supervision and producing 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 decades they lived under regulations that outlawed their traditional way of living yet did not offer the necessary resources to support their businesses and families. Splitting the reservations into smaller parcels of land brought about the significant decrease of Indian-owned property. Within thirty years, the people had lost over two-thirds of the acreage that they had controlled before the Dawes Act was enacted in 1887; the majority of the remaining land was sold to white settlers.
Commonly, Native Americans were cheated out of their allotments or were required to sell their property 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 creators of the Act had desired. Aside from that it produced animosity among Indians for the U.S. government, as the allotment operation often destroyed land that was the spiritual and cultural hub of their activities.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed radically. Due to 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 alone, were now filling with white settlers.
The Upshot of the Indian Wars
Over all these years the Indians had been cheated out of their property, food and lifestyle, as the “” government’s Indian policies shoved them inside 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 reduced to under 250,000 persons. As a result of decades 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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