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THE PLIGHT OF NATIVE AMERICANS

The westward stream of settlers in the mid-1800s severely disrupted the lives of Native Americans. The migration patterns of buffalo, which the Native Americans depended on, were disrupted; settlers thought nothing of seizing lands that previous treaties had given to Native Americans. Some tribes tried to cooperate with the onrush of settlers, while others violently resisted. It is unlikely that any Native American approach would have saved Native American territories from the rush of American expansionism. The completion of the transcontinental railroad required that rail lines run through territories previously ceded to Native American tribes. A congressional commission meeting in 1867 stated the official policy of the American government on “Indian affairs”: Native Americans would all be removed to Oklahoma and South Dakota, and every effort would be made to transform them from “savages” into “civilized” beings.

The tribe that resisted the onrush of settlement most fiercely were the Sioux. In 1 865 the government announced their desire to build a road through Sioux territory; the following year tribesmen attacked and killed 88 American soldiers. After negotiations in 1868 the Sioux agreed to move to a reservation in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Yet in late 1 874 miners searching for gold began to arrive in the Black Hills. The chief of the tribe, Sitting Bull, and others of the tribe left the Dakota reservation at this point. General George Custer was sent to round up Sitting Bull and the Sioux. He and his force of over 200 men were all killed at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in June of 1876. This was the last major Native American victory against the American army. Large numbers of federal troops were brought into the region, returning the Sioux to their reservations.

Conflict with the federal army occurred again in 1890 after the death of Sitting Bull. Some Sioux again attempted to leave their reservation; these tribesmen were quickly apprehended by the federal army. As the male Sioux were handing in their weapons, a shot was fired by someone. The soldiers opened fire on the Native Americans, killing over 200 men, women, and children in the Massacre at Wounded Knee.

Other tribes such as the Nez Perce also initially resisted, only to be eventually driven to reservations. Nez Perce warriors ending up taking part in elaborate Ghost Dances, which were supposed to remove the whites from Native American territories, return the buffalo, and bring ancestors killed by the whites back to life. The Ghost Dances terrified white settlers who viewed them and served to bring more federal forces into territories nominally controlled by Native Americans.

The killing off of tribes of buffalo by white settlers for food, hides, and even for pure sport did much to destroy Native American life, since Native Americans depended upon the buffalo for their very existence. A fatal blow to remaining land owned by Native American tribes was the 1887 Dawes Act. This act was passed in the spirit of “civilizing” the Native Americans and was designed to give them their own plots of land to farm on. The real intent of the legislation was to attempt to destroy the tribal identities of Native Americans. Many Native Americans had little skill or interest in farming; many eventually sold “their” land to land speculators.

In 1889 there were still 2 million acres of unclaimed land in “Indian territory” in Oklahoma. On April 22 a mad rush took place by white settlers staking out claims on this territory (those who staked claims that day were called “boomers”; settlers who had entered Indian territory a day or more early to stake their claims were called “sooners”).

By the end of the century virtually all Native Americans had been placed in reservations. Many young Indians attempted to dress, talk, and act like white men in schools established by white reformers, but their attempts to think like and become whites were much, much more difficult.

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