Justifications & Impacts: Policies Toward Native Americans

Attitude Towards Native Americans: Were the Policies and Actions Justified?

Attitude Towards Native Americans: Were the Policies and Actions Justified?


The historical narrative of the United States is intricate, with policies and actions towards Native Americans forming a significant, contentious part. This paper aims to analyze and evaluate the justifiability of these policies and actions, providing a comprehensive understanding of the motivations and consequences associated with them. It will explore the economic, political, and social justifications presented during different periods and scrutinize their ethical validity, considering the severe implications for Native American communities.

Understanding the attitude towards Native Americans necessitates a deep dive into the events, treaties, wars, and legislative acts that have defined their relationship with European settlers and later, the United States government. The paper’s objective is not only to recount historical facts but also to engage in a moral evaluation of the policies and actions in question. By doing so, it fosters a more nuanced and empathetic understanding of a significant aspect of American history.

Historical Background

Pre-colonial Native American Societies

Before European colonization, North America was inhabited by diverse Native American tribes, each with unique cultures, languages, and lifestyles. These societies were complex and organized, with established social, political, and economic structures. Some tribes were sedentary agriculturalists, while others were nomadic, depending on the environment and available resources. They had their own spiritual beliefs, moral codes, and social norms, which guided their lives and interactions with nature and each other.

The Native American societies were not monolithic; they showcased a rich tapestry of cultures and ways of life. They engaged in trade, diplomacy, and sometimes conflict with each other, demonstrating a dynamic and vibrant pre-colonial history. The diversity among these societies is crucial to acknowledge as it provides the backdrop against which European settlers initiated contact, setting the stage for future relations.

Initial Contact and Relationship with Europeans

The arrival of Europeans in the late 15th and early 16th centuries marked a turning point for Native American societies. Initial encounters were characterized by curiosity and exchange, with both sides intrigued by the other’s customs, technology, and appearance. Europeans were primarily interested in trade and exploration, while Native Americans engaged with them to establish diplomatic and economic ties.

However, the relationship quickly changed as European ambitions expanded. The drive for territorial expansion and resource exploitation by European settlers led to increasing conflicts with Native American tribes. The introduction of diseases, for which Native Americans had no immunity, resulted in devastating population declines, further exacerbating the power imbalance. As Europeans established colonies, they sought to dominate and control Native American lands and peoples, initiating a long history of dispossession, displacement, and cultural erosion for the indigenous inhabitants of North America.

Justifications for Policies and Actions

Manifest Destiny

The notion of Manifest Destiny played a pivotal role in shaping the American attitude and policies towards Native Americans. This 19th-century belief held that Americans were divinely destined to expand across the North American continent, spreading their civilization and democracy. Manifest Destiny was not only an ideological justification but also a reflection of the economic and political ambitions of the expanding American nation.

Under the banner of Manifest Destiny, expansionist policies were enacted that directly impacted Native Americans. The ideology provided moral and legal justification for the acquisition of indigenous lands, often through force or dubious treaties. Native Americans were depicted as savages obstructing the path of civilization and progress, a narrative that facilitated their dispossession and marginalization.

Economic Motivations

Economic motivations were intrinsically linked to the policies enacted against Native Americans. The burgeoning American economy required vast tracts of land for agriculture, mining, and settlement. Native American territories were viewed as an abundant resource to be exploited, leading to systematic efforts to seize these lands. The desire for economic gain often superseded any consideration for the rights, dignity, or well-being of the indigenous peoples.

Land acquisition was not solely for immediate economic benefit; it was also closely tied to the nation’s vision of progress and development. Control over land meant control over resources and trade routes, consolidating the economic power and international standing of the United States. This relentless pursuit of economic interests resulted in the displacement and disenfranchisement of Native American tribes, who were stripped of their ancestral lands and means of livelihood.

Consequences for Native Americans

Displacement and Forced Relocation

The pursuit of Manifest Destiny and economic interests led to the widespread displacement and forced relocation of Native Americans. Policies like the Indian Removal Act of 1830 sanctioned the coercive expulsion of indigenous peoples from their homelands to accommodate American settlers. The Trail of Tears exemplifies the suffering endured during these forced migrations, with thousands of Native Americans dying due to exposure, disease, and starvation.

The establishment of reservations represented a systematic effort to confine and control Native American populations. While reservations were ostensibly created to provide Native Americans with land for their use, they were often located in areas with limited resources and economic potential, further marginalizing and impoverishing indigenous communities.

Cultural Erosion

The policies and actions towards Native Americans not only had material consequences but also instigated a profound cultural erosion. Efforts to ‘civilize’ indigenous peoples involved the suppression of Native American languages, traditions, and spiritual beliefs. The establishment of boarding schools aimed to assimilate Native American children into Euro-American culture, often employing harsh measures to eradicate their indigenous identity and heritage.

The cumulative effect of displacement, assimilation policies, and economic disenfranchisement was the destabilization and dilution of Native American cultures. The loss of language, tradition, and land severed the connection between indigenous peoples and their ancestral heritage, leaving a legacy of cultural disruption and identity crisis that continues to affect Native American communities today.


Native American Resistance

The narrative of policies and actions towards Native Americans isn’t solely about victimization; it also encapsulates their resilience and resistance. Many tribes actively resisted dispossession and cultural erasure, engaging in armed conflicts, forming alliances, and navigating through the complex legal landscape imposed by the U.S. government. The history of Native American resistance is a testament to their enduring spirit and determination to preserve their lands, cultures, and identities amidst overwhelming odds.

Instances of armed resistance, such as the Sioux Wars, the Nez Perce War, and the Seminole Wars, highlight the struggle of Native American tribes against military, economic, and political pressures. These conflicts were not merely military engagements but were deeply entwined with the struggle for identity, dignity, and sovereignty of the indigenous peoples of North America.

Advocacy and Support

While the prevailing policies and attitudes were often detrimental to Native Americans, there were individuals and groups who advocated for their rights and welfare. These advocates came from diverse backgrounds, including religious missionaries, humanitarians, and even government officials, who recognized the injustice of the actions taken against Native Americans and worked to ameliorate their conditions.

Their efforts, though often overshadowed by the dominant narrative of expansion and conquest, provide a counterpoint to the history of dispossession and displacement. Advocates for Native American rights raised awareness about the plight of indigenous peoples, challenged prevailing policies, and contributed to the gradual shift in attitudes and legislation affecting Native Americans. These actions laid the groundwork for the later recognition and affirmation of Native American rights and sovereignty in the United States.

Case Studies

Sioux Nation

The Sioux Nation’s experience illuminates the complex interplay of policies and actions directed at Native Americans. The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 initially recognized Sioux sovereignty over the Black Hills. However, the discovery of gold led to a rush of settlers, ultimately resulting in the U.S. government forcibly taking the land. The Sioux’s resistance, notably at the Battle of Little Bighorn, exemplifies the struggle for sovereignty and the defense of ancestral lands.

Cherokee Nation

The Cherokee Nation’s history epitomizes the struggle against displacement. Despite adopting many European customs and legal structures, the Cherokees were not immune to the pressures of expansion. The infamous Trail of Tears resulted from the forced removal of the Cherokee people from their homelands, demonstrating the harsh realities of policies, even towards tribes that sought accommodation with U.S. demands.

Ethical Considerations

Examination of Moral Implications

An ethical evaluation of policies and actions towards Native Americans requires scrutinizing the moral implications of these historical events. While contemporary standards differ from those of the past, assessing the ethical considerations of displacement, cultural erasure, and loss of sovereignty provides a lens through which to understand and evaluate these actions. The ethical examination also fosters empathy and acknowledgment of the suffering and injustice endured by Native Americans.

Applying modern ethical theories highlights the profound moral failures represented by these policies. The principle of justice, the respect for autonomy, and the recognition of inherent dignity were often disregarded in the treatment of Native Americans, leading to deep and lasting harms that continue to reverberate through indigenous communities today.


This paper has explored the multifaceted policies and actions directed at Native Americans throughout U.S. history, evaluating their justifications and consequences. While the narrative of expansion and Manifest Destiny played a significant role in shaping these policies, the ethical examination reveals deep moral shortcomings in the treatment of indigenous peoples. Recognizing and understanding this history is crucial not only for acknowledging past wrongs but also for fostering reconciliation and justice in the present.

Engaging with this history requires a nuanced perspective that acknowledges the pain and resilience of Native American communities while critically evaluating the motivations and implications of historical policies. Through such engagement, there is an opportunity for reflection, understanding, and, ultimately, healing from the wounds inflicted by these actions and policies.

During the 1800’s and the period of Manifest Destiny Americans sought to move westward to gain a piece of independence, a plot of land to live on. After the Civil War the migration of Americans westward grew. For many Americans this was the American Dream. Far from the cities, where your neighbor couldn’t be seen of heard from without a half days journey. What most failed to consider is that whenever we moved anywhere we encroached upon lands already occupied and sustaining the lives of people who had been there for perhaps thousands of years. Americans viewed these people, Native Americans, as a horse might regard a fly… or a scorpion.

The passage below by American author James Fenimore Cooper clearly depicts American feelings towards Native Americans.

The Last of the
By James Fenimore Cooper

“More than two thousand raving savages broke from the forest at the signal, and threw themselves across the fatal plain with instinctive speed. We shall not dwell on the revolting horrors that succeeded. Death was everywhere, and in his most terrific and disgusting aspects. Resistance only served to inflame the murderers, who inflicted their furious blows long after
their victims were beyond the power of their resentment. The flow of the blood might be likened to the outbreaking of a torrent; and, as the natives became heated and maddened by the sight, many among them even kneeled to the earth, and drank freely, exultingly…. of the crimson tide.”

While many attitudes about native Americans were present, most viewed them as blood thirsty savages, a depiction which was clearly untrue. This attitude was driven by an American desire to move westward and conquer the lands to the west. While Manifest Destiny was the justification used by many for the removal of native Americans, it was the Homestead Act of 1862, the issuing of Land Grants and the California Gold Rush of 1849 that provided the fuel for the push.

– The Homestead Act promised free land to all settlers who staked a claim out west.

– The Land Grants were vast tracts of land given to the railroads so that a trans continental railroad would be built.

– In 1849 hundreds of thousands of speculators rushed west after gold had been found in California.

Each of these acts sped up what was most likely bound to be an inevitable process, the removal of native American from their ancestral lands. The superior technology of the white man who possessed guns, and railroads made the defeat of the native American inevitable.