The Indian reservation system established tracts of land called reservations for Native Americans to live on as white settlers took over their land. The main goals of Indian reservations were to bring Native Americans under U.S. government control, minimize conflict between Indians and settlers and encourage Native Americans to take on the ways of the white man. But many Native Americans were forced onto reservations with catastrophic results and devastating, long-lasting effects.
Treaty of Hopewell
In 1785, the Treaty of Hopewell was signed in Georgia—the largest state at the time—placing the native Cherokees under the protection of a young United States and setting boundaries for their land.
But it wasn’t long before European settlers intruded on Cherokee land. The Cherokees cried foul and revolted against the white settlements. To reestablish peace between the Cherokees and the settlers, the Treaty of Holston was signed in 1791 in which the Cherokees agreed to give up all land outside of their established borders.
Not only did the federal government want Native Americans to give up their land, they also encouraged them to become farmers and Christians. In the early 19th century, settlers moved into southern Cherokee territory en masse and wanted their government representatives to claim the land.
The United States acted to remove all Indian nations from the southeast. Georgia agreed to cede her western land to the government in return for Indian land title.
After the Louisiana Purchase, Thomas Jefferson hoped to move eastern Indian tribes past the Mississippi River—but most Indians rejected his idea. When Georgia held lotteries to allocate seized Indian land, the battle-weary Creeks who’d sought sanctuary in east Alabama fought for their independence against the militia of Andrew Jackson, which included so-called “friendly Indians.”
After suffering a devastating defeat at what became known as the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, the Creeks yielded more than 20 million acres of land to the federal government.
Over the next several years, the government passed several acts to diminish Indian autonomy, despite the Cherokee forming a new constitution-based government of their own. And in December 1828, Georgia ordered the seizure of the remaining Cherokee land in their state.
Indian Removal Act And The Trail Of Tears
On May 28, 1830, the Indian Removal Act was signed by President Jackson. The Act allowed the government to divide land west of the Mississippi to give to Indian tribes in exchange for the land they’d lost. The government would pick up the cost of relocating the Indians and helping them resettle.
The Indian Removal Act was controversial, but Jackson argued it was the best option since settlers had rendered Indian lands incompatible with sustaining their way of life.
Over the next few years, the Choctaw, Chicasaw and Creeks were forced to move westward on foot, often in chains and with little or no food and supplies. Even some Indians in the North were forced to relocate.
In 1838, President Martin Van Buren sent federal troops to march the remaining southern Cherokee holdouts 1,200 miles to Indian territory in the Plains. Disease and starvation were rampant, and thousands died along the way, giving the tortuous journey the nickname “Trail of Tears.”
A group of Seminoles, however, refused to leave and hunkered down in Florida. They fought federal troops for almost a decade before their leader was killed and they finally surrendered.
The Indian Appropriations Act
As white settlers continued westward and needed more land, Indian territory shrank—but there was no more land for the government to move them to.
In 1851, Congress passed the Indian Appropriations Act which created the Indian reservation system and provided funds to move Indian tribes onto farming reservations and hopefully keep them under control. Indians were not allowed to leave the reservations without permission.
Life on Indian Reservations
Daily living on the reservations was hard at best. Not only had tribes lost their native lands, but it was almost impossible to maintain their culture and traditions inside a confined area.
Feuding tribes were often thrown together and Indians who were once hunters struggled to become farmers. Starvation was common, and living in close quarters hastened the spread of diseases brought by white settlers.
Indians were encouraged or forced to wear non-Indian clothes and learn to read and write English, sew and raise livestock. Missionaries attempted to convert them to Christianity and give up their spiritual beliefs.
The Dawes Act
In 1887, the Dawes Act was signed by President Grover Cleveland allowing the government to divide reservations into small plots of land for individual Indians. The government hoped the legislation would help Indians assimilate into white culture easier and faster and improve their quality of life.
But the Dawes Act had a devastating impact on Native American tribes. It decreased the land owned by Indians by more than half and opened even more land to white settlers and railroads. Much of the reservation land wasn’t good farmland, and many Indians couldn’t afford the supplies needed to reap a harvest.
Prior to the Indian reservation system, women Indians farmed and took care of the land while men hunted and helped protect the tribe. Now, men were forced to farm, and women took on more domestic roles.
The Indian Reorganization Act
After a review of life on Indian reservations known as the Meriam Survey, it was clear the Dawes Act was severely detrimental to Native Americans.
The law was ended in 1934 and replaced with the Indian Reorganization Act with the goals of restoring Indian culture and returning surplus land to tribes. It also encouraged tribes to self-govern and write their own constitutions and provided financial aid for reservation infrastructure.
Voices of American Indians
Modern Indian Reservations
Modern Indian reservations still exist across the United States and fall under the umbrella of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). The tribes on each reservation are sovereign and not subject to federal laws.
They handle most reservation-related obligations but depend on the federal government for financial support. On many reservations, the main sources of revenue are tourism and gambling.
According to the BIA, 567 federally-recognized American Indian tribes and Alaskan natives reside in the United States. The BIA is responsible for improving their quality of life, providing them with economic opportunities and improving their assets which the BIA holds in trust.
Despite their efforts, living conditions on reservations aren’t ideal and are often compared to that of a third-world country. Housing is overcrowded and often below standards, and many people on the reservations are stuck in a cycle of poverty.
Health care on reservations is provided through Indian Health Services, but it’s underfunded and, in some cases, practically non-existent. Many Native Americans die from lifestyle-related diseases such as heart disease and diabetes.
Infant mortality rates are significantly higher for Indians than for whites, and alcohol and drug abuse is on the rise. Many people leave the reservations for urban areas in search of employment and improved living conditions.
The Indian reservation system was originally established as a result of the greed and prejudice of early American settlers and the federal government. Despite its challenges then and now, Native Americans continue to hold on to their heritage and thrive as a community.
The Seminole Wars
In the First Seminole War (1816-1818), the Seminoles, assisted by runaway slaves, defended Spanish Florida against the U.S. Army. In the Second Seminole War (1835-1842), the Indians fought to retain their land in the Florida Everglades but were almost wiped out. The Third Seminole War (1855-1858) was the Seminole’s last stand. After being outgunned and outnumbered, most of them agreed to move to Indian reservations in Oklahoma.
In 1830, President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, allowing the U.S. government to relocate Indians from their land east of the Mississippi River. In 1838, the government forcibly removed around 15,000 Cherokee from their homeland and made them walk more than 1,200 miles west. Over 3,000 Indians died on the grueling route, known as the Trail of Tears. The involuntary relocation fueled the Indians’ anger toward the U.S. government.
In 1832, Chief Black Hawk led around 1,000 Sauk and Fox Indians back to Illinois to reclaim their land. The battle, known as the Black Hawk War, was a disaster for the Indians who were greatly outnumbered by the U.S. Army, militias and other Indian tribes.
Sand Creek Massacre
The Sand Creek Massacre (1864) occurred after about 750 peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho led by Chief Black Kettle were forced to abandon their winter campsite near Fort Lyon in southeastern Colorado. When they set up camp at Sand Creek, volunteer Colorado soldiers attacked, scattering them while slaughtering 148 men, women and children.
Red Cloud’s War (1866) began as the U.S. government developed the Bozeman Trail through Indian territory to allow miners and settlers access to gold in Montana Territory via the Powder River. For two years, an Indian coalition led by Lakota Chief Red Cloud attacked workers, settlers and soldiers to save their native lands. Their persistence paid off when the U.S. Army left the area and signed the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868.
The treaty established the Black Hills of western South Dakota and northeastern Wyoming as part of the Great Sioux Reservation. After the discovery of gold in the Black Hills, however, the U.S. government began setting up Army posts there, leaving angry Sioux and Cheyenne warriors – led by Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse – determined to defend their territory.
Battle of the Little Bighorn
At the Battle of the Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876, General George Armstrong Custer led 600 men into the Little Bighorn Valley, where they were overwhelmed by approximately 3,000 Sioux and Cheyenne warriors led by Crazy Horse.
Custer and his men were all killed in the battle, known as Custer’s Last Stand. Despite the decisive Indian victory, the U.S. government forced the Sioux to sell the Black Hills and leave the land.
The U.S. Army fought multiple skirmishes during the Red River War (1874-1875) against Southern Plains Indians who had left their reservations to reclaim former hunting grounds in the Texas Panhandle. The war ended after intense pressure from the U.S. Army forced the Indians to return to their reservations.
Driven by revenge for the slaughter of his family and the need to protect Apache native lands in northern Mexico and Southwest U.S. territory, the warrior Geronimo led his men in brutal attacks against Mexican troops, white settlers and the U.S. Army from 1850 until his capture in 1886.
On December 29, 1890, in the final chapter of America’s long Indian wars, the U.S. Cavalry kills 146 Sioux at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota.
Throughout 1890, the U.S. government worried about the increasing influence at Pine Ridge of the Ghost Dance spiritual movement, which taught that Indians had been defeated and confined to reservations because they had angered the gods by abandoning their traditional customs. Many Sioux believed that if they practiced the Ghost Dance and rejected the ways of the white man, the gods would create the world anew and destroy all non-believers, including non-Indians. On December 15, 1890, reservation police tried to arrest Sitting Bull, the famous Sioux chief, who they mistakenly believed was a Ghost Dancer, and killed him in the process, increasing the tensions at Pine Ridge.
On December 29, the U.S. Army’s 7th cavalry surrounded a band of Ghost Dancers under the Sioux Chief Big Foot near Wounded Knee Creek and demanded they surrender their weapons. As that was happening, a fight broke out between an Indian and a U.S. soldier and a shot was fired, although it’s unclear from which side. A brutal massacre followed, in which it’s estimated almost 150 Indians were killed (some historians put this number at twice as high), nearly half of them women and children. The cavalry lost 25 men.
The conflict at Wounded Knee was originally referred to as a battle, but in reality it was a tragic and avoidable massacre. Surrounded by heavily armed troops, it’s unlikely that Big Foot’s band would have intentionally started a fight. Some historians speculate that the soldiers of the 7th Cavalry were deliberately taking revenge for the regiment’s defeat at Little Bighorn in 1876. Whatever the motives, the massacre ended the Ghost Dance movement and was the last major confrontation in America’s deadly war against the Plains Indians.
Conflict came to Wounded Knee again in February 1973 when it was the site of a 71-day occupation by the activist group AIM (American Indian Movement) and its supporters, who were protesting the U.S. government’s mistreatment of Native Americans. During the standoff, two Indians were killed, one federal marshal was seriously wounded and numerous people were arrested.
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