Way before the terms Native American or Indian were considered, 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 centuries, the American Indian developed its customs and legacy 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 today the U.S. we have learned plenty. It’s a narrative of beautiful craft work and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed highly advanced buildings and public works.
While there was unavoidable tribal conflict, that was nothing more than a slight blemish in the tale 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 our direction, the objective was to explore new resources – however the quality of environment 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 transporting over poorly prepared colonists as fast as they could. At first, they skirmished with the surprised Indians of America’s eastern seaboard. But that shortly gave way to trade, because the Europeans who landed here learned that their survival was doubtful without native help.
Thus followed decades of relative peace as the settlers got themselves established on American land. But the drive to push inland came soon after. Kings and queens from thousands of miles away were impatient to locate additional resources, and some colonists came for freedom and opportunity.
They required more space. And so began the process of pushing the American Indian out of the way.
It took the shape of cash payments, barter, and famously, treaties which were nearly uniformly neglected after the Indians were moved away from the territory 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 territories inhabited by these Native American tribes. By the 1850s almost all Native American tribes, roughly 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 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 stream of European immigrants into northeastern American cities delivered a stream of immigrants into the western lands already inhabited by these diverse 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 wouldn’t end there. Between 1830 and 1860 the U.S. roughly doubled the amount of acreage within its control.
These territorial gains coincided with the arrival of troves of European and Asian immigrants who wanted to join the surge of American settlers heading west. This, combined with the discovery of gold in 1849, presented alluring possibilities for those willing to make the extended quest westward. As a result, with the military’s protection and the U.S. government’s assistance, many settlers started 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 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 first became an independent country, it implemented the European policies towards these indigenous peoples, but over the course of two centuries the U.S. adapted its very own widely varying regulations regarding the changing perspectives and requirements of Native American supervision.
In 1824, in order to apply the U.S. government’s Native American policies, Congress made a new agency within the War Department referred to as 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 flow of settlers into Indian “” land, Eastern newspapers printed sensationalized reports of savage native tribes carrying out widespread 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 generally helped settlers get across 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 good natures of the American Indians, settlers still anticipated the risk of an attack.
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To calm 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 accepted a bounded territory, allowed the government to construct tracks and forts in this territory and pledged never to go after 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 didn’t stand very long. After hearing testimonies of fertile acreage and great mineral wealth in the West, the government soon broke their assurances established in the Treat of Fort Laramie by permitting thousands of non-Indians to flood into the area. With so many newcomers moving west, the federal government established a plan of limiting Native Americans to reservations, limited areas of acreage within a group’s territory that was set aside exclusively for Indian use, to be able to provide more property for the non-Indian settlers.
In a series of new treaties the U.S. government forced 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 increasing U.S. growth and administration in the West, as well as to keep the Native Americans isolated from the whites in order to reduce the potential for conflict.
History of the Plains Indians
These agreements had many problems. Most of all many of the native people didn’t completely grasp the document that they were finalizing or the conditions within it; moreover, the treaties did not acknowledge the cultural practices of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government agencies responsible for applying these policies were overwhelmed with awful management and corruption. In fact most treaty provisions were never carried out.
The U.S. government almost never fulfilled their side of the agreements even when the Native Americans went quietly to their reservations. Unethical bureau agents frequently sold off the supplies that were meant for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Moreover, as settlers required more property in the West, the government continually decreased the size of the reservations. By this time, most of the Native American people 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 unjust policies, some 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 attempt to coerce Native Americans onto the reservations and to end the violence, the U.S. government reacted to these hostilities 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 drastically after the Civil War. Reformers believed that the policy of driving Native Americans inside reservations was too severe even while industrialists, who were concerned with their land and resources, looked at assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” as the singular long-term strategy for ensuring Native American survival. In 1871 the federal government approved a pivotal law proclaiming that the United States would no longer deal with Native American tribes as sovereign entities.
This law signaled a major change in the government’s working relationship with the native peoples – Congress now considered the Native Americans, not as countries outside of its jurisdiction, but as wards of the government. By making Native Americans wards of the U.S. government, Congress presumed that it would be 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 administrators considered assimilation as the most practical answer to what they deemed “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 urged Native Americans to move out of their traditional dwellings, move into wooden buildings and turn into farmers.
The federal government handed down laws that forced Native Americans to reject their usual appearance and lifestyle. Some laws outlawed customary spiritual practices while others required Indian men to cut their long locks. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations set up courts to enforce federal polices that often prohibited traditional cultural and religious practices.
To hasten the assimilation operation, the government set up Indian schools that attempted to quickly and forcefully Americanize Indian youth. According to 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 required pupils to speak only English, wear proper American fashion and to switch their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new policies helped bring Native Americans closer to the conclusion of their classic tribal identity and the beginning of their existence as citizens under the absolute control of the U.S. authorities.
Native American Treaties with the United States
In 1887, Congress approved the General Allotment Act, the most important element of the U.S. government’s assimilation program, which was intended to “civilize” American Indians by educating them to become farmers. In order to achieve this, Congress wanted to increase private ownership of Indian land by dividing reservations, which were collectively owned, and giving each family their own block of land.
In addition to this, by pushing the Native Americans onto limited plots of land, western developers and settlers could purchase the left over acreage. The General Allotment Act, also known as 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 received between 40 to 80 acres; the residual acreage was to be sold. Congress hoped that the Dawes Act would break up Indian tribes and inspire individual enterprise, while cutting down the expense of Indian administration and providing prime land to be sold to white settlers.
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The Dawes Act proved to be disastrous for the American Indians; over the next decades they lived under regulations that outlawed their traditional lifestyle and yet didn’t provide the vital resources to support their businesses and families. Splitting the reservations into small parcels of land led to the significant reduction of Indian-owned property. Inside thirty years, the people had lost over 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 cheated out of their allotments or were forced to sell off their land in order pay bills and provide for their families. Because of that, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were routinely not able to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, as the makers of the Act had expected. This also produced anger among Indians toward the U.S. government, as the allotment process often destroyed land that was the spiritual and cultural center of their days.
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 living spaces as their native lands were parceled out. The Plains, which they had previously roamed without limits, were now filling with white settlers.
The Upshot of the Indian Wars
Over all these years the Indians had been defrauded out of their territory, food and way of life, as the federal government’s Indian regulations coerced them into reservations and attempted to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands didn’t make it through relocation, cultural destruction and military loss; by 1890 the Native American population was lowered to fewer than 250,000 persons. Thanks to decades of discriminatory and dodgy policies instituted by the United States government between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was changed permanently.
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