How the United States Erased Its Native Americans from History

Native Americans, also known as native Indians worked hard to build their country from scratch. They had been living on these lands before European explorers came calling in the 15th century. However, these European invaders forcefully took their lands and eroded their cultural identity as the years went by.

The infamous “Trail of Tears” was the term given to the forceful relocation of the native Americans from the southeastern region of the United States to the western part, named the “Indian territory”, and modern-day Oklahoma. White settlers were on a quest to industrialise the newfound country and they felt that the Indians were not putting the lands to good use. Thus, they needed to dispossess them of it.

The Native Americans, known as Paleo-Indians, had migrated from Eurasia/Getty Images.

Using a series of acts and treaties, wars and horrible strategies, an entire indigenous group of people was almost wiped out.

So, how were these European invaders or White settlers successful in stealing the lands of these Native Americans and erasing them from history through ethnic cleansing?

The History of Native Americans and White Settlers

Long before the Americas were founded, the natives known as Paleo-Indians had migrated from Eurasia. From the remains found, archaeologists have deduced that this migration happened about 10,000 years ago. The Paleo-Indians spread across the region, growing in numbers and splitting into different tribes with unique cultures and languages.

Over centuries, they evolved leading to different eras characterised by specific activities such as hunting, farming, and water life. These tribes were also known for creating native artefacts and building historical sites that are still a subject of wonder today.

Colonists arrival at Jamestown, Virginia, 1607
First settlers building Jamestown, Virginia Colony, 1607. Hand-coloured woodcut of a 19th-century illustration.

The first set of white settlers to set foot on American soil built a camp at Plymouth. These were the likes of the Pilgrims and the Jamestown colonists. Seeing that the lands were not ’empty’ as they had expected, they devised various dispossession strategies to take the previous inhabitants out of the way. Their methods involved both peaceful and violent means such as signing land treaties, cession agreements and outright war.

The white settlers would promise the native Indians compensation, as well as smaller parcels of conservative lands, where they could carry out their communal activities including fishing, hunting and so on, in exchange for the lands they currently dwelt on. However, these agreements were not always upheld, resulting in conflicts and further violent dispossession.

Native American Acts and Treaties

Different treaties were created to further push the natives away from lands the settlers wanted. Some of these treaties were the Hopewell Treaty, the Treaty of New Echota, the Peace Treaty of Fort Laramie, the Treaty of Medicine Lodge Creek and the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek to mention a few.

The Sand Creek massacre of November 29, 1864.

Unfortunately, these agreements were not always followed to the letter. Treaties were initially signed with the promise of making payments to the tribes as compensation. Many times, these treaties were rescinded and the funds would never get to the natives. Various Indian tribes fought back leading to devastating defeat and almost complete annihilation of the tribes.

Although some tribes were willing to settle conflicts peacefully, they were still raided and plundered by the white settlers. In one gruesome event known as the Sand Creek massacre, about a hundred of the natives, on November 29, 1864, were murdered by white settlers led by Colonel John Chivington even though they had already surrendered. They killed the elderly, women, and children without mercy.

The government of the white settlers came up with some acts in an attempt to remove territory from the control of the Indians. The General Allotment Act of February 8, 1887, also referred to as the Dawes Act, was passed to effect the forceful relocation of the Native Americans to what was referred to as The Indian Territory.

But the growing lust for more land reclamations led to the signing of the act which was to regain the Indian Territory. This act was aimed at reallocating portions of lands on this territory to white settler families to take over. Portions which had not been assigned to anyone were sold off as real estate transactions. It’s been stipulated that over a hundred million acres of land were dispossessed from the natives.

The Indian Removal Act

The Indian Removal Act, enacted in 1830 by President Andrew Jackson, was focused on relocating the Indians from their territories to a selected region. This act was further promoted by a concept, known as Manifest Destiny, to justify the settlers’ need for more land.

Andrew Jackson
President Andrew Jackson enacted the Indian Removal Act in 1830.

The Manifest Destiny was supposedly a call for civilisation and the Indians were seen to be a hindrance to making this possible. The settlers needed land to carry out various activities and they believed evacuating the natives who had previously occupied the land was their best shot. This act birthed the (infamous) “Trail of Tears” in which thousands of Indians including the Seminole, Choctaw, Cherokees, Chickasaw, and Creek were forced to relocate to the western parts of Oklahoma between 1830 and 1850.

The Indian Citizenship Act

The Indian Citizenship Act was another Native American-based act passed by President Calvin Coolidge on June 2, 1924. It established the citizenship of Native Americans, who prior were not citizens of the United States. This, however, did not improve the living conditions of the Indians as many lived in poverty, suffered discrimination and many times were not allowed to vote. The Indian Reorganisation Act came up shortly after. It was a policy passed by John Collier on June 18, 1934. Collier was President Franklin Roosevelt’s Commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs from 1933 to 1945.

The Indian Removal Act
The Indian Removal Act of 1830.

The policy was aimed at reclaiming lands forcefully taken from the Indians through the Dawes Severalty Act of 1887. It stopped the sales of tribal lands and demanded the return of lands which had not yet been sold. The act was largely unsuccessful for many Indians as most of them had already lost a better part of their lands to sales and erosion. Other subsequent acts were the Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968 and the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975.

Native American Battles and Wars

In terms of conflicts, battles and wars, the Native Americans were no match for the White immigrants. The immigrants were more organised and better equipped for the brutal conquests that took place in the battle for territories. Although tribes such as the Nez Perce gave up their lands peacefully, there were different fronts of resistance put up by other Indian tribes that resulted in wars.

The settlers usually had the upper hand with more sophisticated weapons and footmen and won in most cases. There were wars such as the Tecumseh War, Creek Wars, Seminole Wars, Sioux uprising and Red Cloud’s War all of which were attempts by the natives to resist the white settlers, but to no avail.

However, the Battle of The Little Bighorn fought on June 25, 1876, was one that stood out among the many battles. This was a battle between the Sioux Indian tribe and the immigrants. Unknown to the US troops, the Chief of the native tribe, Sitting Bull had implored neighbouring tribes to help him fight. Eventually, the US troops had been outnumbered leading to a staggering defeat in which over two hundred and fifty men were killed. But the victory of the Sioux was short-lived as the government soon clamped down on them leading to arrests, deaths and complete removal from their lands.

Native Americans worked hard to build their country from scratch.

Another prominent example was the Dakota War of 1862, a gory clash between the Dakotas and the United States. This clash resulted in further pushing the Dakotas out of their lands. During this conflict, almost 40 natives were executed by hanging. The massacre of the natives that occurred during the popular California gold rush, between 1848 and 1852, has been portrayed as just migration to California in search of wealth and good fortune. However, Native Americans living on those lands were killed in large numbers in the process of dispossessing them from their lands.

The Battle of The Wounded Knee or The Wounded Knee Massacre of December 29, 1890, was also one of the many battles between the United States and the natives to be much remembered. This was more or less a rematch between soldiers of the United States Army and the Sioux. This time, the Chief leader of the Sioux who had led them to victory had been captured and killed and the tribe decided it was time to surrender.

Some accounts state that an accidental discharge from an Indian soldier had led to sporadic shootings from the US troops in retaliation. This led to the killing of over 200 tribe members including women and children. After the massacre, 20 U.S. soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honour.

The battle of The Wounded Knee was the last known war to have been fought between the Native Americans and the United States before another strategy was introduced.

Education: The Ultimate Weapon for Erasing the Native Americans

Education has always been synonymous with progress and development in a nation but this time, the United States used it as a strategy for the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans. The white immigrants had devised a better and more effective way of fighting the Indians. The name was Americanization and its weapon was education and religion.

The United States sought to subtly incorporate Native Americans into society and erase their cultural heritage and identity through religion and education.

Carlisle Indian School
By the 1880s, the children of Native Americans were being admitted into boarding schools – majorly the Carlisle Indian School and the Hampton Institute.

The memo spread across the nation like wildfire and with the promise of a better life and future, children of the indigenous people were coerced into white boarding schools and forced to adopt European customs and systems. This was supposed to help them better integrate into the new American society.

By the 1880s, the children of Native Americans were being admitted into boarding schools – majorly the Carlisle Indian School and the Hampton Institute. Children were forced to forsake every material and clothing that symbolised their native cultural heritage. Their hair was cut off and they were forbidden to speak or sing in their native tongue. All these were replaced with American teachings, way of living, dressing and general communal behaviour. They were also trained for industrial purposes so that they could take up manual jobs, playing their part in the United States of America’s industrialisation quest.

Sitting Bull Family
Sitting Bull with his family, 1881/Wikipedia Commons.

It would be more than a century later before the gravity of the atrocities that went on in these schools would be investigated. Reports of abuse in sexual, physical and mental ways have resurfaced. In February 2022, numerous unmarked gravesites believed to have been that of the children were discovered in Canadian schools which had been modelled after the Native American boarding schools. This has caused many to question what went on behind the walls of these schools and if children of the Native American tribes had suffered the same fate.

Americanization of the Native Americans

The adults were not left out of the acculturation process and the major weapon used on them was religion. Several religious denominations such as the Evangelicals, Protestants and Catholics attempted to convert adult native Americans, convincing them to forsake their customs, traditions and way of dressing to adopt the European-American ways.

The determining factor in this devastating yet effective strategy was to give the Indians land in exchange for the denouncement of their culture, identity, customs and literally anything that symbolised their native heritage. The concept of ownership of land was contrary to their communal way of living in which no land belonged to anyone.

the Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968
President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Indian Civil Rights Act, 1968.

This time, President Grover Cleveland, on February 8, 1887, signed into law the Dawes Severalty Act, also known as the General Allotment Act. This act gave the government the right to take over lands of different tribes and reshare portions, with more significant portions going to heads of families.

However, the Indians could not lay total ownership of these lands until after 25 years when they had been granted full citizenship rights. As their custom was when dealing with the Indians, the immigrants made sure to apportion the most infertile lands to the Indians while also laying claims on other allocated portions as “surplus”.

To cement their denouncement, the “last arrow pageant” was conducted. During this pageant, Indians would have to gather, dressed in their full tribal regalia and wielding a bow and an arrow. Then they would fire this symbolic arrow into the air termed their “last arrow” and then enter into a tent where they changed to white farming overalls and come out holding the American flag. This was to prove that they had fully forsaken their old way of life for a ‘better one’.

Native Americans Today

A popular quote in the 19th century, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian” somewhat promoted the notion among white immigrants that killing a Native American was an act of patriotism. It became a motivating factor for these immigrants to eliminate the Native Americans and attempt to obliterate their cultural existence. Some of these tribes survived and have now become a recognised and functional part of American society.

For some reason, these historical events surrounding how the United States erased its Native Americans from history have either been secretly hidden from the academic curriculum in many states in America or told in ways that shifted the focus from what happened to related events that portray the early white invaders as the beauties and not the beasts.

The efforts to erase the distinct cultural identity of these Native Americans in times past have strengthened their resolve, leading to the establishment of schools and colleges focused on reviving their cultures. Notwithstanding, the wounds from the previous generations run deep and the loss encountered by these Native Americans may never be recovered.

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