Ages 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 thousands of years, 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 parts of what is today the U.S. we have learned much. 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 nothing more than a slight blemish in the history of our forebears. They were at peace with this beautiful continent and deeply connected to nature.
The European Settler Arrives
When European leaders dispatched the first vessels in this direction, the objective was to explore new resources – but the quality of weather and the bounty of everything from wood to wildlife subsequently changed their tune. As those leaders learned 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 poorly prepared colonists as fast as possible. At the outset, they skirmished with the alarmed Indians of America’s eastern seaboard. But that soon gave way to trade, since the Europeans who landed here knew that their survival was doubtful without Indian help.
Thus followed years of relative peace as the settlers got themselves established on American land. But the pressure to push inland came soon after. Kings and queens from thousands of miles away were restless to locate even more resources, and some colonists came for independence and opportunity.
They required 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 almost uniformly ignored 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 influenced by the desire to expand westward into areas inhabited by these Native American tribes. By the 1850s almost 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 land of the Southern Plains.
The Sioux, Crows and Blackfeet dominated the Northern Plains. These Native American groups encountered adversity as the continuous stream of European immigrants into northeastern American cities delivered a stream of immigrants into the western lands already populated by these various 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 as well as the authority over Oregon country, Texas and California; America’s expansion did not end there. Between 1830 and 1860 the U.S. pretty much doubled the amount of land under 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, partnered with the discovery of gold in 1849, presented alluring opportunities for those ready to make the extended trip westward. As a result, with the military’s protection and the U.S. government’s assistance, many settlers began establishing 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 procedures made and adapted in the United States to outline the relationship between Native American tribes and the federal government. When the United States first became a sovereign country, it implemented the European policies towards the local peoples, but over two centuries the U.S. tailored its own widely varying regulations regarding the evolving perspectives and requirements of Native American regulation.
In 1824, in order to administrate the U.S. government’s Native American policies, Congress created 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, separate political communities with different cultural identities; however, at other times the government attempted to compel the Native American tribes to give up their cultural identity, hand over 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 stories of cruel native tribes committing widespread 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 repeatedly helped settlers cross the Plains. Not only did the American Indians offer 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 feared the likelihood of an attack.
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To calm these fears, in 1851 the U.S. government presented 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 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 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 consented to end the hostilities amongst their tribes in order 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 hold very long. After hearing reports of fertile terrain and tremendous 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 region. With so many newcomers moving west, the federal government established a policy of restricting Native Americans to reservations, small areas of acreage within a group’s territory “” set aside exclusively for Indian use, in order to offer more territory for the non-Indian settlers.
In a series of new treaties the U.S. government made Native Americans to abandon 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 foodstuffs, livestock, household goods and farming tools. These reservations were established in an attempt to pave the way for increasing U.S. expansion and involvement in the West, as well as to keep the Native Americans separate from the whites in order to lessen the potential for conflict.
History of the Plains Indians
These deals had many challenges. Most of all many of the native people did not properly grasp the document that they were signing 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 administering these policies were overwhelmed with poor management and corruption. In fact most treaty conditions were never executed.
The U.S. government rarely fulfilled their side of the accords even when the Native Americans relocated 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 needed more territory in the West, the government frequently reduced the size of the reservations. By this time, many of the Native American peoples were unhappy with the treaties and angered by the settlers’ constant demands for land.
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Angered by the government’s dishonest and unfair policies, several Native American tribes, including bands of Cheyennes, Arapahos, Comanches and Sioux, fought back. As they fought to preserve 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 compel Native Americans onto the reservations and to end the violence, the U.S. government reacted to these conflicts with significant military campaigns. Obviously the U.S. government’s Indian policies required of a change.
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Native American policy shifted radically following the Civil War. Reformers felt that the scheme of driving Native Americans on to reservations was far too strict even while industrialists, who were worried about their land and resources, viewed assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” to be the single permanent method of assuring Native American survival. In 1871 the federal government enacted a critical law proclaiming that the United States would not treat Native American tribes as independent entities.
This legislation signaled a drastic change in the government’s working relationship with the native peoples – Congress now deemed 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 concluded that it would be easier to make the policy of assimilation a broadly recognised part of the cultural mainstream of America.
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Many U.S. government officials perceived assimilation as the most effective remedy for what they viewed as “the Indian problem,” and the only lasting method of insuring 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 customary dwellings, move into wooden homes and turn into farmers.
The federal government handed down laws that required Native Americans to reject their usual appearance and lifestyle. Some laws banned customary religious practices while others required Indian males 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 religious practices.
To boost the assimilation operation, the government set up Indian schools that attempted to quickly and vigorously Americanize Indian children. As per 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 goal, the schools required students to speak only English, dress in proper American fashion and to switch their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new regulations brought Native Americans nearer to the end of their established tribal identity and the start of their daily life as citizens under the absolute control of the U.S. administration.
Native American Treaties with the United States
In 1887, Congress handed down the General Allotment Act, the most important component of the U.S. government’s assimilation platform, which was written to “civilize” American Indians by teaching them to be farmers. In order to achieve this, Congress wanted to create non-public title of Indian land by splitting up reservations, which were collectively owned, and giving each family their own plot of land.
Additionally, by pushing the Native Americans onto limited plots, western developers and settlers could purchase the remaining land. The General Allotment Act, also known 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 land was to be sold. Congress hoped that the Dawes Act would divide Indian tribes and stimulate individual enterprise, while cutting down the expense of Indian supervision and providing prime land to be sold to white settlers.
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The Dawes Act turned out to be disastrous for the American Indians; over the next generations they existed under policies that outlawed their traditional approach to life yet didn’t offer the necessary resources to support their businesses and families. Dividing the reservations into smaller parcels of land brought about the significant decrease of Indian-owned property. Within three decades, the people had lost in excess of two-thirds of the acreage that they had controlled before the Dawes Act was passed in 1887; the majority of the remaining land was purchased by white settlers.
Usually, Native Americans were cheated out of their allotments or were forced to sell off their land in order to pay bills and feed their own families. Because of that, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were often unable to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, as the makers of the policy had expected. Further, it created resentment among Indians toward the U.S. government, as the allotment process often ruined land that was the spiritual and social location of their activities.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed drastically. 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 without limits, were now filled up with white settlers.
The Upshot of the Indian Wars
Over all these years the Indians had been defrauded out of their property, food and way of life, as the “” government’s Indian plans forced them inside reservations and tried to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands would not survive relocation, cultural destruction and military loss; by 1890 the Native American population was lowered to under 250,000 persons. Due to generations of discriminatory and corrupt policies implemented by the United States authorities between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was changed permanently.
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