The Plight of the Indians

United States History

As in the East, expansion into the plains and mountains by miners, ranchers and settlers led to increasing conflicts with the Indians of the West. Many tribes of Native Americans -- from the Utes of the Great Basin to the Nez Perces of Idaho -- fought the whites at one time or another. But the Sioux of the Northern Plains and the Apache of the Southwest provided the most significant opposition to frontier advance. Led by such resourceful leaders as Red Cloud and Crazy Horse, the Sioux were particularly skilled at high-speed mounted warfare. The Apaches were equally adept and highly elusive, fighting in their environs of desert and canyons.

Conflicts with the Plains Indians began with a Sioux massacre of whites in 1862 and continued through the Civil War. In 1876 the last serious Sioux war erupted, when the Dakota gold rush penetrated the Black Hills. The Army was supposed to keep miners off Sioux hunting grounds, but little was done to protect Indian lands. Yet when ordered to take action against bands of Sioux hunting on the range according to their treaty rights, the Army moved vigorously.

In 1876, after several indecisive encounters, General George Custer found the main encampment of Sioux and their allies on the Little Big Horn River. Custer and his men -- who were separated from their main detachment -- were completely annihilated. Later, in 1890, a ghost dance ritual on the Northern Sioux reservation at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, led to an uprising and a last, tragic encounter that ended in the death of hundreds of Sioux men, women and children.

Long before this, however, the way of life of the Plains Indians had been destroyed by the slaughter of the buffalo, almost exterminated in the decade after 1870 by indiscriminate hunting. Meanwhile, the Apache wars in the Southwest dragged on until Geronimo, the last important chief, was captured in 1885.

Government policy ever since the Monroe administration had been to move the Indians beyond the reach of the white frontier. But inevitably the reservations had become smaller and more crowded, and many began to protest the government's treatment of Native Americans. Helen Hunt Jackson, for example, an Easterner living in the West, wrote a book, A Century of Dishonor (1881), which dramatized the Indians' plight and struck a chord in the nation's conscience. Most reformers believed the Indian should be assimilated into the dominant culture. The federal government even set up a school in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, in an attempt to impose white values and beliefs on Indian youths. (It was at this school that Native American Jim Thorpe, often considered the best athlete the U.S. has produced, gained fame in the early 20th century.)

In 1887 the Dawes Act reversed U.S. Indian policy, permitting the president to divide up tribal land and parcel out 65 hectares of land to each head of a family. Such allotments were to be held in trust by the government for 25 years, after which time the owner won full title and citizenship. Lands not thus distributed, however, were offered for sale to settlers. This policy, however well-intentioned, proved disastrous, since it allowed more plundering of Indian lands. Moreover, its assault on the communal organization of tribes caused further disruption of traditional culture. In 1934 U.S. policy was reversed again by the Indian Reorganization Act, which attempted to protect tribal and communal life on the reservations.

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Source: U.S. Department of State