Essay 1, Unit I


Discuss the changes in the federal government's policy toward Native Americans from 1850 to 1890 and note the impact of those policies on the Indians.

    Until about 1850 the federal government looked upon all the land beyond the Mississippi river to the West Coast as "Indian country," and made no concerted effort to dislodge the groups of western Indians from their traditional tribal lands. This was because white settlers viewed the land as the "great American desert," and had no desire to move into such an "unihabitable" area. This misconception had been pretty well dispelled by 1850, however, and American settlers were ready once again to displace the Native Americans from tribal lands.

    Most of the tribes the western settlers would have to deal with presented no great difficulty for them. The Pueblos of the desert Southwest, for example, were peaceful corn-cultivators with no great military organization to contend with. The Indian tribes of the Pacific Northwest were peaceful fishermen, and the California coastal tribes were primitive root-and-berry gatherers who posed no threat to white encroachment. Lacking a tradition of agressiveness and hostility, and with little organized military, these three regional groupings of tribes were not a prime concern for the federal government

    This was not the case with the Plains Indians tribes (like the Crow, Sioux, Cheyenne, Arapahoe, and Comanches), however, who were both nomadic and fiercely aggressive. As nomadic buffalo-hunters this regional complex of different tribes, cultures, and languages (who shared a common cultural practice of assigning work on the basis of gender)were extremely resistant and hostile to any white attempts to take their tribal lands and hunting grounds. Given their historical war-like tendencies, their practice of intertribal warfare, and their skill as horsemen (agile, mobile, hostile) these Plains Indians did constitute a serious problem for settlers and hence for the federal gov ernment.

    Initially the policy of the federal government was to try to fix tribal boundaries for each tribe and to sign treaties promising to respect Indian tribal claims to these defined areas. The basic flaw in this policy, as with almost all subsequent federal Indian policies, was the lack of understanding and insight into Native American cultures. It is obvious, in hindsight, that nomadic buffalo hunters can not be expected to dwell within precise boundaries - they must follow the buffalo. This plan of reducing the land areas available to the Plains Indians tribes was known as concentration. It eventually reached the point where the government tried to force all the Plains tribes onto two small reservations - one in the Dakotas and one in Indian territory (what subsequently became Oklahoma.)


    Disturbed both by the loss of life and by the tremendous expense of fighting the Indian wars (one government economist estimated that it cost the government $1 million for each Indian killed by the Army in that twenty year period) a demand for a new federal policy gained in strength. By the mid-1880s the government abandoned its attempts to isolate the Indians on small reservation areas and sought instead to assimilate Indians into American society. This policy of assimilation, of trying to "mainstream" Indians into American culture, took a number to forms -from legislation to education. It looked toward imposing all aspects of white American culture on the Indians.

    The legislative expression of this new policy of assimilation was the Dawes Severalty Act of 1887. Like all federal government actions this act opposed or ignored tribal organizations and forced Indians to abandon their custom of communal "ownership" of land. For all Native American tribes the land was a gift to the tribes from the "Great Spirit" and therefore there was no concept of individual ownership of land. As early as 1871 the government had tried to oppose tribal organization by refusing to make any more treaties with the tribes. The overall goal of assimilation through imposition of white culture involving destruction of tribal organization and abandonment of communal land ownership was embodied in the Dawes Act.

    The Dawes Act provided for the dissolution of Indian tribes as legal entities and the division of tribal lands among individual members (160 acres for each head of family, and 80 acres to each adult single person).These grants of land were to be used for farming - the white settlers dominant economic life-style. These stipulations ignored the fact that Indians had no concept of individual land ownership and that Plains Indian men did not farm. If Indians agreed to accept land grants under the Dawes Act they were also granted American citizenship and the right to vote in federal elections - both of which were also meaningless political concepts to Indians. While perhaps well-intentioned the Dawes Act led to the further erosion of Indian culture.

    Nor was the government satisfied with these attempt to erode Indian culture. A whole new system of Indian education was established by the federal government. It involved eradicating Indian culture and values by forcing the white man's education upon them. Through a combination of Indian day schools, on-reservation boarding schools, and off-reservation boarding schools the government tried to indoctrinate Indian children with white man's ways. Indian children were not allowed to speak their own languages, and were forced to dress, walk, eat and act like whites. As another aspect of the assimilation Christian churches were encouraged to establish missions among the Indians to convert them to the gospel according to white preachers.

    A final blow to Plains Indians' culture was the intentional, systematic, slaughter of the buffalo herds. Millions of these Plains animals were destroyed ruthlessly and their carcasses left to rot. There were few attempts to even use the meat or buffalo skins since the purpose was to force Indians into farming. This combination of legislation, education, missionizing, and destruction of traditional food supplies led to erosion of all aspects of Plains Indians culture - their tribal organization, land base, value system, and life-style. The result was a deterioration of Indian life and conditions of despair.

    Desperation and despair gave rise to a new Indian religion which swept the Plains tribes during the 1880s. This new revival movement, commonly known as the Ghost Dance, was started by a Paiute Indian in Nevada by the name of Wovoka (called Jack Wilson by the white men). Wovoka preached a very straightforward message that if Indians would return to their traditions and culture and give up the ways of the white man then the white man would disappear and the buffalo would reappear. Initially a peaceful message, the Ghost Dance took on a more aggressive, militant strain when it reached tribes like the Sioux. The Sioux became persuaded that it they did the Ghost Dance and wore Ghost Shirts the white man's bullets could not kill them. The massacre of the Sioux village of Wounded Knee in 1890 dispelled that belief.

(End of Essay 1. You may continue by returning to Contents to select another essay, take a practice quiz by clicking Test, or quit the tutorial by clicking on Quit.)