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Federal Indian policy really began to take shape around the time of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was a very forward thinking president, and realized that unless American Indians could be convinced to give up their traditional way of life and become sedentary farmers like their white brothers, they would be doomed to extinction. He hoped that by “guaranteeing” them a future as American farmers, they would willingly settle on part of their lands, opening up the rest for sale. To this end, Jefferson used his presidential power to negotiate treaties with American Indian tribes that pushed them towards, “civilization” Not all of these policies were honest. Jefferson wrote a letter in 1803 to William Henry Harrison, governor of Indiana territory, advising he sell supplies to the natives on credit so they’d be forces to sell their lands to pay of the debts.
This process of “civilization” continued until the Jackson administration, when Andrew Jackson changed federal policy radically. Instead of simply “civilizing” the tribes, Jackson decided they weren't vacating valuable land quickly enough and decided to force them off their lands and onto reservations far to the west. This policy of removal was the precursor to the eventual reservation system that the federal government adopted soon after. Jackson’s removal of the Cherokee nation, along with the other nations of the southeast, was disastrous and became known as The Trail of Tears due to the high number of deaths among the removed Indians.
As more and more settlers moved west, the government moved to negotiate treaties with native tribes in order to secure more land for settlers. Regional scuffles and wars broke out as the terms of those treaties were violated by either settlers, Indians or the federal government’s own policies. It is no understatement to say that the U.S. eventually violated every treaty it ever made with the American Indians.
By the 1890’s, most tribes had been relocated by force to their new reservations and the focus of federal Indian policy became acculturation and self-reliance. Indian schools were built on reservations to teach Indian children English. Indians were also brought into the fold through the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924. Service by Native Americans during World War I and World War II led to a Native American Empowerment movement in the 1960’s which forced the federal government to grant new rights and privileges to tribes. Education and college opportunities were increased, as well as tribal sovereignty rights.
The goal until after the Civil War was to remove Indians off land the whites desired and relocate them elsewhere. At this point, whites considered the Great Plains "the Great American Desert" and were not interested in settling there. After the Civil War, immigrants, freed slaves and those who could not afford land in the East began to fill in the Great Plains. The government pursued a reservation policy. The goal was containment of the Indians in areas not desired by whites. More of the treaties granting land to the Indians were revoked or ignored. In the 1880s, the policy changed to assimilation. Indian children were sent to schools where they had to dress as whites, were beaten for speaking native languages etc. The Dawes Severalty Act took land from the tribes and granted it to individual Indian families. As a result, the Indians lost 80% of the land they controlled before this law. In the late 1960s, Indians became one of the groups who rallied for civil rights. The federal government acknowledged wrongs done in the past and pursued a policy of compensation.
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