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United States and Native American Relations

by Robert Hamilton

What were the significant treaties, policies, and events that defined US Government and Native American Relations?  How did the Native American respond to these treaties, polices, and events historically?  How did these treaties, policies, and events affect the subsistence, religion, political, and social structures of the Native American people?  I will answer these questions through the examination of  two centuries of US history in  six time periods that define clear changes in the relationship between the Native American and the US Government.  

Formative period  1780 -1825 
One of the critical tasks that faced the new nation of the United States was establishing a healthy relationship with the Native Americans (Indians). “The most serious obstacle to peaceful relations between the United States and the Indians was the steady encroachment of white settlers on the Indian lands. The Continental Congress, following [George] Washington’s suggestion, issued a proclamation prohibiting unauthorized settlement or purchase of Indian land.” (Prucha, 3)  Many of the Indian tribes had entered into treaties with the French and British and still posed a military threat to the new nation.

The new US Government was careful not to antagonize the Indians and sought to treat them with mutual respect.  This is evidenced in early treaties where the term “Red Brothers” was used to convey this sentiment of equality.   By 1800 interaction between the Indian and white settlers had become quite common through trade.  Many Indians traded for household goods, traps and tools.  The US became concerned about the cultural differences and sought to improve the Indian station in life by providing education.  The United States no longer feared the Indian but rather took a paternal position toward the Indians and the treaty language reflected this when the Indian was referred to as “Our Red Children.” 

The US Constitution via Article I section viii (the Commerce Clause) gives the Federal Government dominant power over states in policy making, “The congress shall have the power to . . . regulate commerce with foreign nations and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes.”  The Constitution further enumerates these powers denied to the states in Article I section x.  The state of  Georgia challenged the federal government’s power over states rights, a precursor to the Civil War, when it challenged the trust relationship and the autonomy of the Cherokee.  Supreme Court Justice John Marshall in three decisions (Marshall Trilogy) upheld the United States’ federal power, defined the responsibility of the doctrine of federal trust, and clarified the sovereignty of Indian nations: Johnson v McIntosh 1823, Cherokee v Georgia 1831, Worcester v Georgia 1832.  

The new government wanted to keep peace with the Indians and used trade as its device.  It was hoped that the interaction between the white settlers and Indians would create a dependence of the Indian for white goods and soothe the tensions of the white settlers through familiarity via social interaction.   President George Washington proposed government regulated and operated trading houses.  The Government Trading Act of April 18, 1796 was established for “carrying on a liberal trade with the several Indian nations, within the limits of the United States.” (Prucha, 16)   This act restricted trade exclusively through government agents; anyone else was subject to fines.  It was hoped independent and illegal trade with the Indians would be unprofitable and a deterrent to independent and foreign white traders as the Government Trading Houses were very competitive.  The new government placed Indian affairs under the jurisdiction of the War Department.  In this way the government could police, protect, and regulate trade and commerce with the Indian tribes. 

The treaties, doctrines, and Congressional acts affected the lives of Indian tribes within the limits of the United States.   Many of the Cherokee in Georgia  assimilated to the white man’s way of life.  Chief William McIntosh, an extreme example, was a slave holding plantation owner who lived in a two story Federalist style mansion.  The trading houses allowed many Indians such as the Cherokee and Seminole Creek  to acquire such things as colorful cloth that was permanently incorporated into their dress.  Household cooking utensils, hunting rifles, along with the technology for logging and agriculture was attractive to many Indians and they soon settled into log cabins and communities that mirrored many white settlements.  Other Indians preferred to remain hunters and gathers and fur trade became their means of  barter.  The new country was difficult to police and fraud prospered.  Both government and non-government trading houses started the illegal trade in liquor.  The interaction between the white man and Indian introduced new words and technologies into each others culture.  The white man absorbed the snowshoe, canoe, tobacco, and corn whereas the Indian absorbed the rifle, the kettle, and many household items into their culture.  Some Indians adopted Christianity.  The Civilization Fund Act (March 3, 1819)  was enacted when “The United States government became increasingly concerned with the education of the Indian tribes in contact with white settlements and encourage activities of benevolent societies in providing schools for the Indians ... and authorized an annual ‘civilization fund’ to stimulate and promote this work.”  (Prucha 33)  With many Indians assimilating into the white culture a change in white attitude toward the Indian heralded a new era of Indian relations.

Removal,  Real Estate, and Reservation period  1825  - 1870
As a result of the War of 1812 the government trading houses suffered economically and private trading interests succeeded in bringing about the abolition of this institution via an act of Congress May 6, 1822.  Trade by unscrupulous individuals flourished though the US Government enacted several regulation measures.  Pressure of immigrants wanting to settle on Indian land increased and Indian tribes sought resolution on title and real estate issues with the Supreme Court based on their status as a foreign nation.  The Marshall Trilogy Decisions clarified the status of the Indian nations in respect to the United States.  With increased litigation and policy in Indian affairs Secretary of War John C Calhoun  created the Bureau of Indian Affairs within the War Department  March 11, 1824.  

The issue of Indian Removal increased as Georgia pressed the federal government to hold to its promise of April 24, 1802, “in which the United States had agreed to extinguish the Indian land titles in the state as soon as it could be done peaceably and on reasonable terms in exchange for the state’s western land claims.” (Prucha 39)  President James Monroe believed that the land belonged to the Indians by  binding treaties.  He personally did not agree with Georgia’s claim but did propose a voluntary removal policy as the best solution in a letter to Congress January 27, 1825.   The issue did not go away;  the rich farm lands of the Cherokee and gold in the Georgia hills fueled the removal movement.  President Andrew Jackson, an infamous Indian fighter, in his First Annual Address to Congress in December of 1829 let it be known that he was firmly committed to the removal of the eastern tribes to a region west of the Mississippi River.  On May 28, 1830 The Indian Removal Act  was passed by Congress after months of bitter debate not only in Congress but in the press.  This act “did not authorize enforced removal of any Indians, but merely gave the President power to initiate land exchanges with Indian nations residing within the states or territories.” (Josephy 222)   However the Indians chose not to move and force was necessary.  The Cherokee population numbered in the thousands and a gradual removal was planned; but when gold was discovered on Cherokee land the removal was hastened.  During the autumn and winter of 1838 the last of the eastern tribes were rounded up and detained in concentration camps before being  forced marched west.  This march which took the life of one in four Indians is commonly referred to as the “Trail of Tears.” 

The Oregon, Kansas, Texas, and Gadsden Purchase Territories were all acquired within this period.  May 1, 1832 under the leadership of Captain Benjamin Eulalie de Bonneville led a wagon train of white settlers from Fort Osage on the Missouri river to  the Columbia River in Oregon thus inaugurating the Oregon Trail.  In the July 1845 issue of The United States Magazine and Democratic Review,  the term  ‘‘manifest destiny” is first used.  John O’Sullivan, editor, described the United States’, “ Manifest destiny [is] to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.”  (Schlesinger 249)  The discovery of gold in California in 1849 initiated a flood of immigration west.  The manifest destiny of the white man further reduced Indian lands west of the Mississippi as one Indian nation after the next  ceded land to the US government:  The Choctaw Indians lost 8 million acres, and the Sauk and Fox Indians signed a treaty giving away what is now Iowa, Missouri and Minnesota.  Hostilities with Indians in the western frontier was greatly reduced by the late 1840s and the acquisition of so much land  caused Congress to establish the Department of Interior and the responsibility for Indian affairs was transferred from the War Department  March 3, 1849.   

During this period the United States was engaged in a civil war that tested the Union.  Its military might was improved and after the civil war the government used this might to control the increased Indian hostilities in the West.  Manifest Destiny seemed confirmed as a basic truth and the fate of the Plains Indians was secured with the completion of  the First Transcontinental Railway  May 10, 1869 in Promontory Point, Utah.  

The removal and relocation had tremendous consequences for many of the eastern tribes.  The Choctaw, Cherokee, and Creeks were removed to Oklahoma along with numerous other tribes. Their physical and ecological  environment was different.  The land was unfamiliar and they were forced to live with other tribes that could not speak their language or understand their customs and traditions; some of these were natural enemies.  Hunters and gathers had to become farmers.  They were often short-changed by the unscrupulous traders increasing their dependence on the United States Government for subsistence.  These tribes lost their autonomy as the Bureau of Indian Affairs replaced their council governments.  The Bureau of Indian Affairs was more concerned with the assimilation of Indians and less interested in preserving the traditional way of life of Indians.  Boarding schools were built to educate the children in the white dominant culture.  Traditions and knowledge of the homeland and culture were kept alive by elders secretly.  Many of the removed eastern tribes adopted Christianity through forced acculturation via the education of the children.  The Plains Indians were forced to submit to reservation life as the buffalo, their means of subsistence, was eradicated largely in part by the railroad industry.  By 1870 much of what is referred to now as the Continental Forty-Eight was dominated by the white man.  The Sioux, Cheyenne, and Apache tribes would continue to struggle for another twenty years but the railroad and the loss of the buffalo marked the end of the second period.  Next was the beginning of a third period of  Native American relations with the United States Government, one of forced assimilation. 

Assimilation and Allotment period  1871 - 1928
This period began with the end of the more infamous Indian wars and the capture, surrender, or death of such notable personalities: Cochise and Geronimo of the Apaches,  Little Wolf and Dull Knife of the Northern Cheyenne, and Crazy Horse, Red Cloud, Sitting Bull and Black Elk of the Sioux.  Nothing incensed the American attitude toward the Native Indian as the defeat (massacre) of  General George Custer and his troops at Little Bighorn Creek.  “The United States Army, thirsting for revenge, [prowled] the country north and west of the Black Hills, killing Indians wherever they could be found.” (Brown 287)  Though Indian military resistance had be contained, the massacre of 230 Sioux at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation Dec. 28, 1890 marked the end of Indian independence.

The US quit making treaties with Indians because it was viewed as an impediment to the assimilation of Indians.  “Because of humanitarian attacks upon the treaty system and the objections of the House of Representatives to the concentration of authority for dealing with the Indians in the hands of the Senate through its treaty-making power, Congress in 1871, in an obscure rider to the Indian appropriation bill, outlawed further treaty making with Indian tribes.” (Prucha 136)   Shortly there after the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Francis A. Walker, assigned Indian agencies to religious societies primarily to advance the moral and religious character of  the Indians in November 1872.  By doing so the US government was removed as the initial contact.  The political nomination to the office of agent was removed and placed in the hands to those interested only in good will. In essence Indian tribes had no forum of direct interaction with the US Government.
The Dawes Act of 1887 reflected the forced assimilation  views of those who would reform Indian Policy.  “This act dissolved many tribes as legal entities, wiped out tribal ownership of land, and set up individual Indian family heads with 160 free acres.  If the Indians behaved themselves like ‘good white settlers, ‘ they would get full title to their holdings, as well as citizenship in twenty-five years.”  (Bailey and Kennedy 606)  Congress via the Indian citizenship Act, June 2, 1924 granted citizenship to all Indians born within the United States who were not yet citizens.  Since war, disease, and starvation reduced Indian populations,  the excess reservation land that was not allotted  was reacquired by the US Government and sold to railroads and white settlers.  The federal government allocated the proceeds from the sale of these lands to be used to educate and civilize the native people.   

This period of assimilation and allotment affected the lives of Native Americans more than any other period.  The violent conflicts between the Indian tribes and the US military reduced tribal populations.  The termination of treaties reduced tribal status to  something less than nation status.  By not having treaty making power tribes lost effective negotiation power with the US Government.   The Dawes Act served to destroy both the reservation system and tribal organization. The Dawes Act tried to make rugged individualists out of the Indians by making them farmers.  The Dawes Act removed nearly fifty percent of Native American land from Indian tribes and accelerated the already rapid loss of traditional Indian culture.  The religious controlled agencies were instrumental in separating the children from their tribes,  teaching these children English and indoctrinating them with white values and customs.  For the next fifty years The Dawes Act served as the government’s official Indian policy.

Reorganization period  1928 - 1945
The Meriam Report of 1928 set the tone of the fourth period of US and Indian relations.  Secretary of the Interior Hubert Work requested that someone survey the problem of Indian Administration. Lewis Meriam directed the survey.  His findings were expansive with many printed pages explaining in detail the economic and social conditions of the Indians and presented solutions to the problems his staff discovered.  The Meriam Report claimed the allotment policy a disaster and the Meriam Report became the guide for Indian policy for the next two decades. 

The Native American suffered as severely as many other Americans during the Great Depression.  As part of President Roosevelt’s Reorganization plan to bring the country out of depression Congress enacted the Indian Reorganization Act  June 18, 1934.  The Reorganization Act is significant because it set up Reservation Business Councils to govern tribes, and provided for adoption of constitutions and granting of federal charters. 

The Reorganization Act reversed the policy of allotment and encouraged tribal organization.  Indian Nations were given an opportunity to salvage their political structures and regain some of their traditions.  The last of religious society controlled agencies were replaced with government officials and dialogue was resumed between the tribes and the federal government.  Many children were still being sent to boarding schools and assimilated into the dominate white culture.  The Great Depression forced Indian and non-Indian alike to rely on the government for some subsistence.   World War II gave many Native American citizens the opportunity to join the armed forces and provide an income for their family that could purchase items like an automobile and radio.  

Termination period 1945 - 1961
World War II changed the very fabric of American life; women went to work. Minorities including the Indian joined the Armed Forces and some worked in factories to support the war effort.  The need for the human resources forced the United States to deal with multicultural diversity especially in the workforce.  Unfortunately when the general male population returned from the war they were not prepared to accept the changes made in American society and a backlash to the “way things were” ensued.   It is no surprise to me that the 1950s, an era of strict conformity, was one that nourished the Red Scare (communism).  It is in this environment that the American Indian after having benefited from the Reorganization Act and rebuilding their tribal organization sought more autonomy so that they could have more control over their livelihood.  The federal government misunderstood the intentions of the Indians and reasoned that the Indian wanted more freedom.  The government obliged the Indian by no longer providing Indians with subsistence thus breaking the federal trust defined by Justice John Marshall a little more than a century earlier.  On August 1, 1953, Congress resolved in House Concurrent Resolution 108  “to abolish federal supervision over the tribes as soon as possible and to subject the Indians to the same laws, privileges, and responsibilities as any other citizen of the United States.”   As a result of this resolution  the government implemented the process called “termination.”   The Indian community protested this resolution claiming that the US government had forced them to become dependent on the government for subsistence.  Without the government subsistence many Indians suffered deprivation and the accompanying misery generated by the termination policy.  The termination policy also resulted in the termination of more than fifty tribal governments when the federal government no longer recognized the nation status of their tribes.  

Two weeks later Congress passed Public Law 280.  This law changed the tribal relationship with the federal government.  This law affected tribal self-determination when it gave six states criminal and civil jurisdiction over offenses committed  by or against Indians in Indian territory. 

The gain the Indian community received by the Reorganization Act of 1934 was compromised by both the House Resolution 108 and Public Law 280.  More than fifty tribes lost their status as a recognized Indian nation.  The autonomy the tribes were hoping to secure was severely compromised by mandating state control over adjudication in Indian criminal and civil law cases.  This affected many tribal government traditions of law enforcement for example:  before Public Law 280 the Seminole dispensed justice through their Green Corn Dance. 
Self-Determination period 1961 - Present
The current period of Indian relations began with the presidential election of John Kennedy and the era of civil rights.  The misery and deprivation and general abuses caused by the Termination Period led to reforms.  President Lyndon B. Johnson in a message to Congress March 6, 1968  proposed “a new goal for our Indian programs: a goal that ends the old debate about ‘termination’ of Indian programs and stresses self-determination; a goal that erases old attitudes of paternalism and promotes partnership self-help.” (Prucha 248)    The current period, The Self-determination period,   is characterized by the recognition of the powers of tribal self-government.  This period includes several important pieces of legislation: Indian Civil rights Act 1968, Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975, Indian Child Welfare Act 1978,  and the Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978.   It is in this period that the Seminole Tribe of Florida Inc. was established in August 1957.  The Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida incorporated in 1962. 

The Indian Civil Rights Act 1968 provided a Bill of Rights to Indians in their relations with the tribal governments.  It authorizes a model code for tribal courts for Indian offenses, and requires Indian consent be given to assumption; by states of jurisdiction over Indian territory.

The Indian Self-determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975 is a result of the pressure for Indian participation in federal programs affecting Indians.  This act provides that tribes can establish and run education and health programs themselves. The second part of the act provides for more Indian control of schools that educate their children.   

The Indian Child Welfare Act 1978 was initiated because Indian children were being placed in white foster or adoptive homes.   Indian families reacted negatively to this practice because it removed the child from its Indian surroundings and family members.  This law secures the placement of children in Indian surroundings and authorizes funds for family service programs.

The Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 is a broad statement of policy concerning Indian religious freedom.  In the form of a joint resolution Congress supports Indian cultural autonomy.  It also places responsibility on federal departments and agencies to ensure that all “appropriate changes necessary to protect and preserve Native American religious cultural rights and practices” are secured.  

The current social and political climate of Indian Relations is a good one.  Legislation during this period has helped many tribes to re-establish their traditional form of governments or organization.  They are free to worship their religions and given the authority to control their own education their children are being educated in the traditional skills and knowledge of their culture.  Legislation such as the Child Welfare Act gives tribes more control over their social environments.

The relationship between the US Government and the Native American populations has been an oscillating one.  As I discussed the treaties, policies, and events through the six periods one can see that the Indian came close to loosing their separate nation statuses.  But as the United States exercised its right to self-determination it also struggled to define the meaning of democracy and freedom.  The fruits of that struggle benefited not only the Indian culture but all culturally diverse groups in America.  This struggle guarantees the preservation traditions and the practice of religious beliefs.   Felix S. Cohen, an expert and author on Federal Indian Law, exemplified how the American struggle for defining democracy used the relations with the Indian unwittingly as its tool.  He expressed this best when he argued in the defense of honoring Indian treaties as Congress was debating the “termination” issue.  Cohen suggested that the treatment of American Indians was a reliable gauge of the state of American democracy.  “He recognized that if the federal government was willing to mistreat Indians - the most vulnerable group in the country - then it was probably denying all vulnerable peoples their democratic rights.” (American Indian Research and Policy Institute copyright 1998)  I do not  find it surprising that this paralleled the  African American Civil Rights movement.  Though Indians may have suffered through two hundred years of misery and struggle I agree with Mr. Cohen’s assessment.  The treatment of the American Indian was and is a perfect gauge of measurement of  the state of American Democracy.  In the current climate of relations the Indian has the opportunity to restore much of what has been denied his people.  He has control over education, health, and spiritual growth as well as the opportunity like the Seminole to develop a culture rich in tradition and assimilation that fosters a self-reliant people.

Sources Cited

American Indian Research and Policy Institute, “Framework of tribal sovereignty”, URL:  http://www.airpi/org/marge1.html, 1998

Bailey Thomas A., Kennedy David M,  The American Pageant: A History of the Republic  10th ed ,  Lexington, Massachusetts, D.C. Heath and Company,1994.

Brown, Dee, Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West,  New York, Bantam Press,1970

Josephy, Alvin M, The American Heritage Book of Indians, New York, American  Heritage Publishing Co,1961

Prucha, Francis Paul, Documents of United States Indian Policy, Lincoln, University of  Nebraska Press,1990

Schlesinger, Arthur M, The Almanac of American History, New York,Brompton Books  Corporation,1993


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