Indian Wars and Woes Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

For almost a hundred years after its founding, the United States dealt with Indian tribes as it did with foreign nations. The lands and property of Native peoples was, theoretically, “never [to be] taken from them without their consent; and, in their property, rights, and liberty, they never shall be invaded or disturbed, unless in just and lawful wars authorized by Congress” (Northwest Ordinance of 1787). Treaties with Indians were negotiated with agents of the executive branch and ratified by the US Senate. By 1871, however, after many decades of broken promises, Congress had decided that it was no longer necessary to conduct relations in this way; a simple executive agreement was sufficient. And by 1887, under the Dawes Allotment Act, negotiations with Native nations became largely moot, as it was now the individual property owner rather than the collective entity that mattered most for legal purposes.

For almost a hundred years after its founding, the United States dealt with Indian tribes as it did with foreign nations. The lands and property of Native peoples was, theoretically, “never [to be] taken from them without their consent; and, in their property, rights, and liberty, they never shall be invaded or disturbed, unless in just and lawful wars authorized by Congress” (Northwest Ordinance of 1787). Treaties with Indians were negotiated with agents of the executive branch and ratified by the US Senate. By 1871, however, after many decades of broken promises, Congress had decided that it was no longer necessary to conduct relations in this way; a simple executive agreement was sufficient. And by 1887, under the Dawes Allotment Act, negotiations with Native nations became largely moot, as it was now the individual property owner rather than the collective entity that mattered most for legal purposes.

Over the course of those hundred years, many wars were fought between Indigenous groups and the United States. The idea of dealing with Indians justly and humanely, as one would in the case of members of a respected foreign nation, was quickly set aside amid the rush to expand white settlements and extend US control of western territories. Indians were removed to reservations, and then relocated yet again to more isolated reservations, in order to suit the needs of the white population. Most of these actions had some legal component to them; Indians signed treaties accepting compensation in the form of money, livestock, guns, and clothing. The overall effect, however, was to establish Native Americans as clearly subordinates in the pairing of powers on the continent. They were attacked militarily whenever it was deemed expedient to do so, leaving their numbers depleted and their spirits crushed.

By 1890, the only recourse among Indigenous peoples seemed to be the spiritist movement known as the Ghost Dance. This religion spread rapidly and led some to dream again of Native pride and independence. The movement's rise, however, also caused worry among white residents and leaders, who resorted, once again, to force in a move to quell it.

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