Colonial and early US history
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From the beginning of the
European colonization of the Americas, Europeans often removed native peoples from lands they wished to occupy. The means varied, including voluntary moves based on mutual agreement, treaties made under considerable duress, forceful ejection, and violence. The removal caused many problems such as tribes losing means of livelihood by being subjected to a defined area, farmers having inadmissible land for agriculture, and hostility between tribes.
On March 11, 1824,
John C. Calhoun founded the
Office of Indian Affairs (now the Bureau of Indian Affairs) as a division of the
United States Department of War (now the
United States Department of Defense), to solve the land problem with 38 treaties with American Indian tribes.
Rise of Indian removal policy (1830–1868)
The passage of the
Indian Removal Act of 1830 marked the systematization of a US federal government policy of forcibly moving Native populations away from European-populated areas.
One example was the
Five Civilized Tribes, who were removed from their native lands in the southern United States and moved to modern-day
Oklahoma, in a mass migration that came to be known as the
Trail of Tears. Some of the lands these tribes were given to inhabit following the removals eventually became Indian Reservations.
In 1851, the
United States Congress passed the
Indian Appropriations Act which authorized the creation of Indian reservations in modern-day
Oklahoma. Relations between settlers and natives had grown increasingly worse as the settlers encroached on territory and natural resources in the West.
Forced assimilation (1868–1887)
Most Indian reservations, like the
Laguna Indian reservation
in New Mexico (pictured here in 1943), are in the western United States, often in regions suitable more for ranching than farming.
In 1868, President
Ulysses S. Grant pursued a "Peace Policy" as an attempt to avoid violence.
 The policy included a reorganization of the Indian Service, with the goal of relocating various tribes from their ancestral homes to parcels of lands established specifically for their inhabitation. The policy called for the replacement of government officials by religious men, nominated by churches, to oversee the Indian agencies on reservations in order to teach
Christianity to the native tribes. The
Quakers were especially active in this policy on reservations.
The policy was controversial from the start. Reservations were generally established by
executive order. In many cases, white settlers objected to the size of land parcels, which were subsequently reduced. A report submitted to Congress in 1868 found widespread corruption among the federal Native American agencies and generally poor conditions among the relocated tribes.
Many tribes ignored the relocation orders at first and were forced onto their limited land parcels. Enforcement of the policy required the
United States Army to restrict the movements of various tribes. The pursuit of tribes in order to force them back onto reservations led to a number of Native American massacres and some wars. The most well known conflict was the
Sioux War on the northern
Great Plains, between 1876 and 1881, which included the
Battle of Little Bighorn. Other famous wars in this regard included the
Nez Perce War.
By the late 1870s, the policy established by President Grant was regarded as a failure, primarily because it had resulted in some of the bloodiest wars between Native Americans and the United States. By 1877, President
Rutherford B. Hayes began phasing out the policy, and by 1882 all religious organizations had relinquished their authority to the federal Indian agency.
Individualized reservations (1887–1934)
In 1887, Congress undertook a significant change in reservation policy by the passage of the
Dawes Act, or General Allotment (Severalty) Act. The act ended the general policy of granting land parcels to tribes as-a-whole by granting small parcels of land to individual tribe members. In some cases, for example the
Umatilla Indian Reservation, after the individual parcels were granted out of reservation land, the reservation area was reduced by giving the excess land to white settlers. The individual allotment policy continued until 1934, when it was terminated by the
Indian Reorganization Act.
Indian New Deal (1934–present)
Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, also known as the Howard-Wheeler Act, was sometimes called the
Indian New Deal. It laid out new rights for Native Americans, reversed some of the earlier privatization of their common holdings, and encouraged
tribal sovereignty and land management by tribes. The act slowed the assignment of tribal lands to individual members, and reduced the assignment of 'extra' holdings to nonmembers.
For the following 20 years, the U.S. government invested in infrastructure, health care, and education on the reservations, and over two million acres (8,000 km²) of land were returned to various tribes. Within a decade of
John Collier's retirement (the initiator of the Indian New Deal) the government's position began to swing in the opposite direction. The new Indian Commissioners Myers and Emmons introduced the idea of the "withdrawal program" or "
termination", which sought to end the government's responsibility and involvement with Indians and to force their assimilation.
The Indians would lose their lands but be compensated (though many were not). Even though discontent and social rejection killed the idea before it was fully implemented, five tribes were terminated: the
Klamath, and 114 groups in California lost their federal recognition as tribes. Many individuals were also relocated to cities, but one-third returned to their tribal reservations in the decades that followed.