U.S. Policy Towards Native Americans

The policy of the federal government towards the Great Plains Indians was headed for failure from the very early stages. The policies were created to avoid conflict between the natives and the whites, but this was never accomplished.

Prior to the gold rush in the late 1840s, explorers declared that the plains of the United States were unfit for living. The vast stretch of land was even referred to as the Great American Desert. This view would change as settlers migrated across the Great Plains towards the gold mines on the west coast. This gold rush greatly altered the importance of the Great Plains to the U.S. government. As a result of increased travel to the west coast, the government saw the need for a method of transportation to travel from one coast to the other. Because of this, railroads were built at a frantic pace. The transcontinental railroads in particular significantly affected the Great Plains Native Americans.

The U.S. government instituted a new policy towards the Native Americans in 1851, at Fort Laramie. The treaty essentially created a buffer zone between where whites would be working on the railroad and traveling and where the natives lived. This policy was called concentration. The idea was to concentrate the natives to “one big reservation” and keep them from disturbing white travelers and railroad workers.

The policy of concentration was practiced until miners discovered gold in Colorado in 1858-1859. Because of this new discovery, wealth-seeking whites traveled right through the native territory that was established in 1851 at Fort Laramie. This infringement angered the Great Plains Indians, and federal troops were sent to maintain order. In Nov. 1864, Col. Chivington (the commander of the troops in the Colorado area) responded to claims of Indian attacks at Sand Creek. Without validating these claims, Chivington and his troops charged the reservation and massacred 450 natives. This tragedy led to the Sioux Wars.

Between the years of 1865 and 1867, the Great Plains were a place of attacks and ambushes. Random attacks on white travelers were very common. This conflict forced Congress to send out a Congressional Committee to meet with the Great Plains tribes. As a result of this meeting, a policy of small reservations would be enforced. This policy took very different tribes and placed them very close to each other. This experiment was a very na�¯ve one, because there was no consideration for hostility and history between tribes.

In the 1870s, gold was discovered in the Black Hills of South Dakota, right in the middle of the Dakota Sioux reservation. U.S. policymakers began to realize that the root of Native American power and unification was the tribe. Thus, new policy towards the Great Plains Native Americans should deal with destruction of the tribe. The Dawes-Severalty Act of 1887 did exactly this. The warrior class was turned into farmers and reservations were divided into 160 acre plots. The natives were given no tools, and even worse, the land was not suitable for effective farming. Christian missionaries began to set up churches on the reservations, breaking down the culture of the tribe. Schools were set up which taught native children to be white.

By the latter decades of the 1800s, little was left for the Great Plains Native Americans. Their children were being forcibly taught to be white. The buffalo, their main resource, was all but extinct. The once-great warriors were now attempting to farm. The natives were psychologically exhausted, as the U.S. government had virtually destroyed their culture and everything that they had ever known. The one hope the Great Plains Indians still had was the Ghost Dance. This dance was a signal of hope for the natives. They hoped that in performing this dance that all whites would be removed from the earth and all that would be left was the natives and the land and culture that they once knew.

At Wounded Knee in 1890, after turning over all of their weapons to a group of army soldiers, a gathering of natives began to perform the Ghost Dance. The soldiers were unsure of what the natives were doing, so they opened fire, killing a handful of natives. There was no more hope for the Great Plains Indians. The government had succeeded in breaking the culture and spirit of the natives, but their policies had failed horribly. The goal of avoiding conflict was never achieved.

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