US Policies Towards Native Americans

Key American Policies Towards Native Americans

Key American Policies Towards Native Americans


The intricate tapestry of American history is woven with diverse threads, each representing a group or event that has shaped the nation. Perhaps no thread is as poignant and complex as the one representing the policies towards Native Americans. From the moment of early contact with European settlers to the present day, Native Americans have been subjected to a myriad of policies that have oscillated between assimilation and extermination, autonomy and subjugation.

The importance of studying these policies cannot be overstated. It offers a mirror into America’s evolving attitudes towards its indigenous inhabitants, reflecting broader societal and political shifts. This essay delves into the key American policies towards Native Americans, chronicling the significant events, acts, and changes that have impacted the lives of countless indigenous individuals and communities.

Early Contact and Colonization

The earliest interactions between European settlers and Native tribes were a blend of cooperation and conflict. Settlers, predominantly from England, Spain, and France, arrived in North America with visions of expanding their empires, searching for resources, and spreading Christianity. In their wake, they brought with them new technologies, ideals, and, tragically, diseases.

Unbeknownst to the Native populations, these diseases, especially smallpox, would lead to catastrophic epidemics. With no prior exposure, Native American communities were devastated, with some tribes experiencing losses up to 90% of their population. This biological onslaught was an unintended precursor to the deliberate policies that would be enacted in the coming centuries.

While some early contacts were characterized by trade and mutual benefit, tensions invariably rose over land and resources. Native tribes, with their rich cultures and intricate societal structures, held a deep connection to the land. However, European settlers, driven by a doctrine of Manifest Destiny and their perception of terra nullius (“land belonging to no one”), often disregarded indigenous land rights. This culminated in a series of skirmishes and wars, resulting in the displacement of Native communities and the establishment of treaties.

These early treaties were largely imbalanced, favoring the settlers. Native American tribes, unfamiliar with European legal structures and often pressured by coercive tactics, ceded vast swathes of land in exchange for promises of protection, resources, or smaller parcels of reserved land. Such treaties set the precedent for future American policies, reinforcing the paradigm of Native American displacement and dispossession.

Removal Era and the Trail of Tears

The early 19th century saw the rapid expansion of the American territories. As settlers moved westward, the demand for land grew exponentially. It was during this time that the concept of “Indian removal” became a central policy of the American government. Rooted in the belief that Native American and European cultures were incompatible, the idea was to relocate Native tribes from their ancestral lands in the southeastern states to areas west of the Mississippi River.

The Indian Removal Act of 1830, championed by President Andrew Jackson, formalized this policy. The act authorized the federal government to negotiate treaties with southern tribes, offering them land in the west in exchange for their territories within state borders. Although presented as a voluntary exchange, many tribes faced threats, coercion, and intense pressure, leading to the cession of their lands.

The Cherokee Nation, among others, resisted removal. Despite winning a legal victory in the U.S. Supreme Court case, Worcester v. Georgia, the Cherokee were forcibly evicted from their homeland. This led to the infamous Trail of Tears in 1838-1839, where over 15,000 Cherokee were forced to march to Oklahoma, facing exposure, disease, and starvation. It’s estimated that around 4,000 Cherokee perished during this brutal relocation.

The removal era left an indelible scar on the collective memory of Native American tribes. Beyond the immediate tragedy of the Trail of Tears, the policy uprooted tribes from their ancestral lands, disrupted cultural practices, and laid the groundwork for subsequent policies that further marginalized Native communities.

Reservation Era and the Dawes Act

Following the tumultuous removal era, the U.S. government established a reservation system in the mid-19th century. This system allocated specific lands for Native American tribes, ostensibly providing them autonomy within these boundaries. In reality, reservations were often geographically isolated, resource-poor, and a fraction of a tribe’s original territory.

However, even these diminished lands became a target as westward expansion continued. The Dawes Act of 1887, officially known as the General Allotment Act, sought to break up communal reservation lands. Instead of tribes holding land collectively, the act mandated the division of reservations into individual plots, with any “surplus” land sold to non-Native settlers.

The stated intent behind the Dawes Act was to promote the assimilation of Native Americans into mainstream American society, encouraging agriculture and private property ownership. In practice, the act was catastrophic. Native Americans lost approximately two-thirds of their previously held territory, communal practices were disrupted, and many tribal members were left without land altogether.

The ramifications of the Dawes Act were profound. Tribal sovereignty was further eroded, cultural practices were suppressed, and Native communities were plunged into poverty. The act’s legacy would shape U.S. policies toward Native Americans for decades, until reforms in the 20th century sought to redress its damaging effects.

Assimilation, Boarding Schools, and Cultural Suppression

As the 19th century transitioned into the 20th, American policies towards Native Americans underwent another significant shift. The overarching aim became assimilation: the integration of Native Americans into mainstream American culture, often at the expense of their indigenous identities and practices. The U.S. government, bolstered by certain social reformers, believed that the “Indian Problem” could be solved if indigenous peoples adopted Euro-American customs, lifestyles, and values.

A primary instrument of this assimilation policy was the Native American boarding school system. Beginning in the late 19th century, Native children were often forcibly removed from their families and sent to off-reservation boarding schools. These institutions, with their motto, “Kill the Indian, save the man,” aimed to strip students of their cultural identity. Native languages, practices, and customs were suppressed. Students were made to adopt English, Christian teachings, and Euro-American customs.

The psychological and cultural impact of these boarding schools on Native American communities was profound. Generations of children were alienated from their heritage, causing long-term damage to indigenous languages, traditions, and family structures. The legacy of trauma from these schools persists today, a somber reminder of the lengths to which policies sought to suppress indigenous identity.

Indian Reorganization Act and the Shift in Policies

By the mid-20th century, the detrimental effects of previous policies towards Native Americans were evident. A change was precipitated by the Meriam Report of 1928, which highlighted the dire conditions on reservations and the failures of assimilationist policies. This led to a significant policy shift in 1934 with the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA), also known as the Wheeler-Howard Act.

The IRA, championed by Commissioner of Indian Affairs John Collier, aimed to reverse the damage of the Dawes Act and promote tribal self-determination. The act halted the further allotment of reservation lands, restored some surplus lands to tribes, and encouraged tribes to establish self-governing constitutions. Additionally, the IRA sought to promote Native American culture, providing funds for the establishment of tribal cultural centers and educational programs.

However, the IRA was not without its criticisms. Some Native American communities felt that the act’s provisions for tribal governments mirrored U.S. structures too closely, without enough consideration for traditional tribal governance. Others saw it as yet another imposition of federal control. Nonetheless, the IRA marked a significant departure from previous policies, signaling a new era of recognition, albeit imperfect, of Native American rights and sovereignty.

Modern Era: Sovereignty, Gaming, and Activism

The latter half of the 20th century heralded a renewed era of activism and self-determination for Native American communities. As the civil rights movement gained traction in the U.S., Native Americans too began to mobilize, advocating for their rights, the acknowledgment of past injustices, and the assertion of tribal sovereignty.

One significant outgrowth of this era was the establishment and recognition of Native American gaming enterprises. The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988 recognized the rights of tribes to operate gaming establishments on their lands. For many tribes, gaming became a lucrative industry, providing essential revenue for tribal programs, infrastructure, and welfare. However, it also brought challenges, including debates about tribal-state jurisdiction, concerns about economic dependency, and societal impacts of gambling.

Beyond gaming, modern Native American activism encompasses a broad range of issues. From the Standing Rock Sioux’s protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline to movements advocating for the protection of sacred sites, indigenous rights have become central in discussions about land use, environmental protection, and cultural preservation.

Modern policies, while more progressive, still grapple with the legacies of the past. Efforts towards restitution, the return of cultural artifacts, and the recognition of tribal jurisdiction reflect the ongoing journey towards justice and reconciliation.


The trajectory of American policies towards Native Americans is a testament to the resilience, adaptability, and indomitable spirit of indigenous communities. From early colonization, marked by displacement and disease, to contemporary struggles for recognition and rights, Native Americans have persistently navigated the challenges posed by ever-shifting policies.

Understanding this history is crucial. It offers insights into the complexities of nation-building, the costs of expansion, and the ethical imperatives of recognition and restitution. As America continues to evolve, the lessons gleaned from its interactions with its First Peoples remain relevant, serving as a guide for future policies and the ongoing pursuit of justice.

Class Notes – Key American Policies Towards Native Americans

1828 – Cherokee Nation vs. Georgia – In 1828 the Cherokee, a “civilized” tribe who had lived in peace working as farmers, building houses and roads found gold on their land. As a result white settlers moved in and the State of Georgia claimed jurisdiction over the Cherokee. The Cherokee sued claiming they were independent from Georgia. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Cherokee. The victory was short lived, however, as President Andrew Jackson in response to the Courts decision is reputed to have said, “John Marshall has made his decision. Now let him enforce it.” Instead the federal government removed the Indians to Oklahoma.

1830 – Indian Removal Act – This act authorized the President to negotiate treaties and remove the remaining Eastern Indians to lands west of the Mississippi. Under Presidents Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren, federal agents again used threats, bribes and liquor to secure Indian consent to one sided treaties. The federal government removed thousands of Indians, some in chains, on a trip marked by hunger, disease and death. This became known as the “trail of tears.” By the late 1840’s almost all native Americans had been moved to lands west of the Mississippi.

 1860 – 1890’s – Plains Indians Wars – During this period Americans and plains Indians clashed as Americans attempted to force Indians onto reservations. The battles are highlighted by the Battle of Little Bighorn, where Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and his regiment of 250 where all killed by approximately 4500 Sioux and Cheyenne warriors and the battle at Wounded Knee where thousands of Cheyenne men, women and children were slaughtered by the American Calvary. Wounded Knee represented the end of any real armed resistance on the part of the Native American.

 1887 – The Dawes Act – The act provided for the following:

1. Each Indian family head be allotted a 160 acre farm out of reservation lands.

2. Each new land owner who abandoned tribal practices and adopted the “habits of civilized life” would be granted American citizenship.

3. “Surplus” reservation lands would be made available to sell to white settlers.

The Dawes Act, while well intentioned, did not benefit the Indians. The lands they were assigned were poor and the concept of “Americanization” led to a destruction of Indian culture and the destruction of the traditional status of Indian women in tribal life. Finally, as a result of the “surplus” land provision the Indians lost 90 million out of 140 acres of reservation land.

 1953 – Termination Policy – This was a new sharply different policy that ended the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and all of the programs that went with it. It divided tribal property among the tribes members thus subjecting them to taxation. It also curtailed tribal self government and relocated many Indians to the cities where jobs were available. The Termination policy also ended federal responsibility and social services – education, health and welfare, to the Indians.

 1980’s – Several Indian nations, most notably in Connecticut and New York, sue to gain autonomy (independence) on tribal reservation land. Indians win these cases paving the way for the creation of gambling operations on reservation land. Today there are casinos on several reservations providing millions of dollars of income for those tribes.