To say that the U.S. government and the various Indian tribes on the continent have had a contentious relationship might be one of the great understatements of American history.
That’s akin to saying the American Civil War was a “skirmish.”
As the doctrine of “Manifest Destiny” was taking hold on the country, expansion plans to the west were already taking place. In the wake of Thomas Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase and the California Gold Rush, the fledgling United States was growing as a rapid pace. Settlers were packing up their safe, city lives in the United States and moving west to grab more land for their families and to be the first pioneers in the new frontier.
We Were Here First
American Indians populated much of the western frontier, and there were conflicts over land and resources as white settlers moved into the areas. Indian warriors often defended their lands by attacking white settlements. After forced “removals” of Indians under President Andrew Jackson in the 1830s, even more bad blood ensured, making the pioneer spirit in the West an even more dangerous and risky proposition than dreamed of before.
It came to a head with the passage of the Indian Appropriations Act of 1851, which was the first official act that established Indian reservations in the United States, with the first one to be located in Oklahoma. During this entire time until this Act, the federal government had entered treaties with the various Indian tribes, respecting each as their own sovereign nation with self-determination. But establishing reservations and relocating tribes was the first time that the previously recognized sovereignty was being compromised, though at first the Indians were not forced to the reservations but were encouraged or asked to relocate.
So Much for Sovereignty
The reservation system that was established was causing more problems than they were meant to solve, as the goal was to “save” the tribes from having to assimilate or surrender to white settlement. For various reasons, tensions continued to flare, and finally in 1871 a new Indian Appropriations Act was passed that officially eliminated tribal sovereignty and essentially put all tribes under the auspices of government agencies. Reservations were now considered lands of the federal government which were “allotted” to the Native Americans – often, land that the settlers were not using because it was considered uninhabitable.
An Update to 1871
As Indian sovereignty was taken away and reservation borders were being drawn, a gold rush happened in the Dakota Territory, which impacted the sacred lands of the Sioux and Cheyenne tribes of the area. The settlers’ stress on the land and mining of natural resources led to the start of the Great Sioux War when the federal government tried to forcibly restrain the Sioux and Cheyenne to the Black Hills area of the Dakota Territory to work out a sale of the Black Hills themselves so gold mining can resume.
In 1876, just after General Custer’s defeat at Little Bighorn – the Indians’ greatest triumph of the Sioux War, though it lasted about 18 months longer – the federal government extended its authority powers over the tribes by re-drawing the lines for the Sioux and Cheyenne people, taking the Black Hills away from their designated lands and leaving them open for settlement and mining without negotiation with the tribes. The sacred mountains of the Great Plains Indians were ripped away without any compensation.
Needless to say, that further engendered animus from the Indians toward the federal government, and conflicts continued in various forms until the 1890s. Two more Indiana Appropriations Acts were passed, in 1885 and 1889, to finally put at least a legislative end on the conflicts and to bring the tribes to heel while America kept adding states.
In the end, a 1990 Supreme Court decision established that the Black Hills did rightfully belong to the Sioux and Cheyenne people, but three generations of culture were compromised in the meantime and has not been fully repaired.