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Native Americans: Conflict, Conquest and Assimilation During the Gilded Age

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  1. 0:07 Into the West and Onto Reservations
  2. 2:23 Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce
  3. 4:17 Famous Battles and the End of…
  4. 6:38 The Dawes' Act and Assimilation
  5. 9:26 Lesson Summary
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Taught by

Alexandra Lutz

Alexandra has taught students at every age level from pre-school through adult. She has a BSEd in English Education.

In the second half of the 19th century, the federal government attempted to control Native American nations. This led to violent conflicts known together as the Indian Wars. Learn about famous battles, and the attempt to 'civilize' tribes through various policies.

Into the West and Onto the Reservations

Although the North American continent was once filled with various Native American nations, by the end of the Civil War, most tribes had been forced west of the Mississippi River. But soon, white Americans wanted to live in the west, too.

The federal government began forcing tribes to sign treaties and live on reservations - that's land designated for each tribe. Often (but not always), tribes were given the worst land in a region, which was unable to meet the needs of their population. But if reservation land was found to be desirable - let's say there was gold there, or good farmland, or wild game or timber - white settlers would move in, and then complain to the federal government about being attacked while they were on Indian land.

Inevitably, the U.S. army would come riding out, full of Civil War battle-seasoned troops, and usually, it was the tribe who had to go, not the American settlers. Even when there wasn't fighting, many Indian nations suffered; more people meant fewer resources for everyone. Hide-hunters decimated the bison herds, on which many Plains Indians depended for survival. Resentment and mistrust brewed on both sides, and both were in the wrong on different occasions.

Some Native American nations, like the Pawnee, cooperated with the United States and protected railroad employees from attacks by the Sioux, who were known for sabotaging railroad construction. Other tribes, like the Apache in the American southwest, under the guidance of Geronimo, led murderous raids against settlers in their land. Both the whites and native tribes committed atrocities against the other side. These conflicts between Native Americans and the American government and citizens are known collectively as the Indian Wars.

Many nations accepted life on reservations because they felt it was the only way to end the conflict and save their way of life. In exchange, the United States typically offered peace, cash payments and/or supplies. But due to oversight caused by the Civil War, and because of some corrupt agents, much of these promises never came to fruition, leading to greater frustration and desperate conditions in some places.

Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce

The story of the Nez Perce is a sad example of many of these problems. For 20 years, the nation had lived peacefully on their reservation. But when gold was discovered, the Nez Perce were asked to relinquish 90% of their land, including an ancient burial ground. Most of the tribe accepted the new treaty and moved into the consolidated reservation. But others, like their new leader, Chief Joseph the Younger, protested. His father had made him promise that he would never sell the bones of their elders.

Chief Joseph and his followers tried to remain on the land that included the graveyard. But soon, even Chief Joseph realized that further resistance would only harm his tribe even more, and he began making plans to reunite his people in the relative safety of the reservation. Against his wishes, three frustrated Indians attacked white civilians one night.

Chief Joseph knew the young warriors had just provoked the U.S. army into a war he couldn't win. Yet he clearly couldn't stay where he was any longer, and he didn't want to break his word to his father and agree to the treaty that would sell the burial ground. So Chief Joseph decided on a different option: he would flee the country, along with 800 followers. But the U.S. was not content to let them escape into Canada; after all, there were murderers among them!

The Nez Perce fought off and evaded the Americans for nearly six months. Then, in December of 1877, just days from the Canadian border, they were trapped, outnumbered, cold, tired and hungry. Chief Joseph told his warriors he was ready to surrender, saying, 'I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.' The speech may be legendary, but it immortalized Chief Joseph and his fight to defend the tribe's freedom.

Famous Battles and the End of the Indian Wars

Throughout the Northern Plains, various tribes clashed with surveyors, travelers, gold prospectors, settlers and the U.S. army. In 1864, the U.S. army massacred the winter camp of a peaceful band of Cheyenne in the Battle of Sand Creek. Later that year, members of the Cheyenne, Arapahoe and Sioux nations began attacking travelers on the Bozeman Trail, which passed through their designated hunting grounds, and successfully shut it down for a time.

The U.S. government attempted to defeat the allied Indian force in the Powder River Valley Campaign, but they were unsuccessful. These conflicts prompted Crazy Horse and a small band of warriors from various tribes to ambush and completely wipe out 81 U.S. soldiers. Known as Fetterman's Massacre, this was the most significant U.S. defeat in the Indian Wars until the Battle of Little Bighorn, infamously known as Custer's Last Stand.

The federal government had redoubled its efforts to force the uncooperative Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapahoe bands onto their reservations permanently. Under the guidance of Chief Sitting Bull, a combined force of Native American warriors had gathered on the banks of the Little Bighorn River. Colonel George Custer discovered them and attacked. It was a fatal mistake. Five of seven U.S. army units were completely destroyed, including Custer and every one of the men under his direct command. Many of the surviving Indians fled for Canada. Sitting Bull had been among them, but he returned to the U.S. in 1890, setting off a series of events that are widely considered the end of the Indian Wars.

Sitting Bull was arrested, leading to a riot in which he was killed accidentally, along with six police officers and eight other Indians. The protestors were then captured and led to a holding camp on Wounded Knee Creek, but many of them were allowed to keep their weapons. Details of exactly what happened next are uncertain, but in general, both sides were edgy and in the morning, uncertainty, fear and miscommunication led to the massacre of at least 150 Sioux. The so-called 'Battle' of Wounded Knee in 1890 marks the effective end of the Indian Wars.

The Dawes Act and Assimilation

Three years before Wounded Knee, in 1887, Congress had passed the General Allotment Act, better known as the Dawes Act. This law split up reservations so that land was owned by individuals rather than communally by the tribes. The Act had six specific objectives, including the breakup of tribes as a social unit (in favor of nuclear families) and assimilation of Indians into mainstream American society. Although the Act was initiated by well-intended people who felt it would protect Indian land and help Native Americans become more self-sufficient, the results were disastrous.

Over about 50 years, nearly two-thirds of all tribal land was lost. 'Excess' land (often the best parcels) was sold at a profit to white settlers. More importantly, the Dawes Act interfered with the cultures of many tribes, in different ways. For one thing, pretty much all Indians viewed the land much differently than other Americans; it wasn't something that could or should be owned.

And even though plenty of tribes were agricultural, tending fields had been often been women's work. It's not that farming was looked down upon - it just messed up the whole social hierarchy. Men who had been warriors or hunters were now field hands, and women, who had contributed something vital to the tribe by growing food, now lost their importance and became dependent. Also, by removing millions of acres of land from tribal control and converting it to farmland, and ending collective ownership of most remaining land, hunting as a way of life ended for many nations.

Another important step in 'civilizing' Native Americans was to assimilate their children into white American culture. At first, schools were set up on reservations to teach children how to speak English, how to dress, wear their hair and behave in mainstream society. Soon, children were sent to boarding schools where they were no longer under the influence of the tribe at all; even their names were changed. The Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, where students learned a trade, was the national model for such institutions. Their motto? 'To civilize the Indian, get him into civilization. To keep him civilized, let him stay.'

By the end of the 20th century, Native American children were being taken away from their homes and tribes and adopted into white families in a misguided attempt to 'improve' their lives. The American Bar Association estimates that as many as 35% of all Indian children were removed from their homes before a 1974 law gave broad jurisdiction over child welfare back to tribal governments.

Lesson Summary

Let's review. In the late 19th century, as Americans settlers migrated to the west, they came into conflict with Native American tribes, prompting the U.S. government to force them onto reservations. Several violent clashes were termed the Indian Wars. Even tribes who did cooperate often found that they could not trust the promises made to them by the U.S. government.

The Nez Perce, for example, lived peacefully on their reservation until gold was discovered, then they were asked to give up almost all of their land. Ultimately, their leader, Chief Joseph, made an unsuccessful run for Canada. When the army caught him, he supposedly told his followers, 'I will fight no more forever.' Many more fights ended in tragedy for both sides.

After the Massacre at Wounded Knee, federal policy switched from conquest to assimilation. The Dawes Act sought to achieve this by splitting up reservations so that land was owned by individuals, not the nation. Children were the targets of forced assimilation, first through boarding schools and later through adoption into white families.

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