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The United States’ Treatment of Native Americans

A sad, cruel legacy of control and neglect in the United States.
Story Series
Simply Civics

The history of the United States government’s treatment of Native Americans (also called Indigenous People) is a sad and cruel one filled with broken promises, forced removal from tribal lands, murderous conflict bordering on genocide and an adamant refusal to respect basic human rights. Presidents from Andrew Jackson to Ulysses Grant to Rutherford Hayes, to modern day presidents such as Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon all supported legislation and rulemaking that diminished if not eliminated tribal control over land and denied them adequate health care, educational and housing support. The goal of presidential administrations and the Congress was to provide economic and financial opportunities to the “white man,” while driving the Native Americans into extreme poverty.

The sad legacy of control and neglect of Native Americans by the U.S. government began in earnest under the presidency of Andrew Jackson. During the period from 1830-1850, tribal policy was enforced by the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which initiated a removal of tribes largely from southern regions to land west of the Mississippi River. Jackson and his supporters saw tribes such as the Seminoles as a threat to economic expansion and development requiring the overwhelming power of the military to push them out by force.

Once removed, the tribes sought to start a new life on makeshift reservations that were basically internment camps designed to leave the tribes with little chance of retaking their ancestral homelands. The tribal leaders, however, did not accept the removal policy and the reservation system without a fight. In 1876 in South Dakota, the Lakota tribe engaged the 7th Cavalry of the U.S. Army in a series of battles, often called the Great Sioux War. At the Battle of Little Bighorn, the Lakotas, joined by the Cheyenne and Arapaho, surrounded the units of the 7th Cavalry under the leadership  of Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer. Custer and 270 of his men were killed, in what came to be called “Custer’s Last Stand.”

The conflict between the 7th Cavalry and the Lakotas continued on as the military sought to respond to the white settlers who feared the tribes. In 1890, the military gathered the Lakotas to disarm them at Wounded Knee in eastern Montana. The battle led to 250 men, women and children of the Lakotas being slaughtered. Wounded Knee became infamous as a cruel example of the extent the United States would go to control the tribes and force them to accept the reservation policy.

Also at this time, the legendary leader of the Nez Perce tribe, Chief Joseph, led a resistance movement against the United States government, which removed the tribe from their ancestral lands in northeastern Oregon and sought to place them on a reservation in Idaho. Chief Joseph and his tribe fought the removal effort as they moved northward to seek asylum in Canada. The tribe was pursued by the U. S. cavalry. After months of fighting, the Nez Perce tribe was stopped 40 miles from the Canadian border and Chief Joseph was captured. After being held prisoner in Kansas and Oklahoma, he and what was left of his tribe were removed to a reservation in Washington state. As he surrendered, Chief Joseph uttered what has become a memorable quote that summed up the plight of Native Americans seeking to retain control of their homeland in the face of US. military force. As Chief Joseph stated in 1877:

“I am tired of fighting, our chiefs are killed… It is cold, we have no blankets; the little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them have run away to the hills, and have no blankets or food. No one knows where they are… I want to have time to look for my children, to see how many I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead! I am tired; my heart is sick and sad, From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”

In a continuation of the policies to weaken and control various Indian tribes, Congress in 1887 passed the Dawes Act, which initiated a program of so-called “allotment,” in which tribes were given 160 acres of land for farming to provide them with ways to attain self-sufficiency. The land was substandard and as a result gave the tribes little opportunity to develop effective and profitable farming. It was not until the administration of Franklin Roosevelt in 1934, which passed the Wheeler-Howard Reorganization Act, that returned some land to the tribes and permitted the tribes to form corporations and launch businesses. The aim of the legislation was to begin a period of “assimilation” of the Native Americans into the American society and economy. Most of these “assimilation” efforts, however, were half-hearted and without much support to enhance the livelihood of the tribes.

It was not until the 1970s and 1980s that U.S. policy toward the Native Americans entered a self-determination and autonomy phase, which expanded somewhat educational and health care opportunities and also allowed various tribes to enter the gaming/casino phase of economic development. The Indian casinos proved to be a financial windfall for some tribes and gave Americans the false belief that the Native Americans were finally moving forward after years of neglect. In reality, many of the gambling venues created few jobs and were subjected to the vagaries of a weakened economy.

Currently, one in three Native Americans live in poverty with a median income of $23,000. Unemployment for Native Americans in 2022 was 11.1 percent, well above the national average. Moreover, the Covid-19 pandemic hit the Native American population hard as poverty, crowded living conditions and lack of access to health care led to mortality rates that were nearly three times as high as other American groups. Life expectancy for Native Americans is 73.7 years compared to the national average of 78.1, although some tribes on reservations have much lower life expectancy as mental illness, drug use, food insecurity and suicide continue to affect far too many Native Americans.

It is important to remember that the Native Americans were not granted citizenship until 1924, even though these Indigenous People were the first settlers in the New World. Yet, greed, racism, cruelty and neglect on the part of the United States government and indeed the American people led to second class status for these first Americans. While some small steps have been taken to lift the Native Americans out of abject poverty and second class citizenship, there remains a long and difficult road ahead to correct the neglect and abuse that has affected so many of our Native American brothers and sisters.