American Indians Today/History of the American Indians from the 19th Century to the 21st

American history in school often starts with Columbus discovering the American continent in 1492. This produces the impression: “The Europeans have been the explorers of America and the first civilized subjects on this new continent.” But that is not true and conveys a one-sided picture of their own country to the students. First of all scientists estimate that the Native Americans crossed the Bering Street 20.000-50.000 years ago, so the American continent originally belongs to the Indians. Secondly the Europeans conquered a civilized continent with highly developed societies (like the Aztec or the Inca). Language and culture were complex and comparable to their own, although they prefer the image of the peaceful settlers who brought the savages values and God. From the independence of the USA in 1776 up to 1900 the American Indians have been driven out of their original tribal areas step by step (depending on the gradual western expansion of the USA). Between 1800 and 1850 the American population had grown from 5 million to 23 million people and they needed more space than ever before. So this required a great expansion of the young Nation and therefore a “legal” and systematic resettlement of the original inhabitants of North America. So this summary contains the important political events concerning the Native Americans and shall explain historical developments as a short overview.

Overview of the 19th century's events

  • 1824 The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) was founded (out of the US War Department)
  • 1830 Indian Removal Act: the first Indian tribes as a whole had to leave their territories. Many tribes accepted the land western the Mississippi in exchange for their homeland, but some refused to go which caused guerrilla wars
  • 1838/9 Trail of tears: the Cherokee tribe was forced to move to Oklahoma under military control and about one fourth of the tribe members died on this walk
  • 1869 the transcontinental railroad was finished so that the whole North American continent was finally under European control from now
  • 1871 Indian tribes were no longer considered independent: any issues concerning the American Indians and conflicts about land property were now exclusively handled by the US government
  • 1873-74 Buffalo War: Some tribes of Plains Indians tred to save the last herds of buffalo in Texas and Oklahoma from the white hunters by force of arms because the decreasing number of buffaloes (1890 only about 550 animals left from 50 million in 1800) threatened the survival of many tribes. The will to resist the Europeans was weakened (also by epidemics of smallpox and measles that wiped out whole tribes) so the American Indians were easily forced to sign contracts in which they agreed to leave their land to the USA
  • By that time almost all American Indians lived in reservations
  • 1874 Gold was found in the Black Hills (part of the “Great Sioux-Reservation” in South Dakota). The government planed a separation from the reservation and an immediate relocation of the inhabitants of this areax .This led to the Indian Wars:
  • 1876 Little Big Horn: a battle between Indian armed forces (under Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull) and the 7th US cavalry regiment (under Colonel Custer). It was the last and most striking military success for the American Indians but without positive effects for their situation.
  • 1880 Start of the Boarding School Policy in the USA: Indian children had to live in European schools which was a forced “civilization” of the American Indians
  • 1890-92 Ghost-dance Movement: a new religious movement which encouraged the American Indians in resisting against the government and the army. Therefore the US government tightened up the control and observation of Indian leaders
  • 1890 Sitting-Bull was murdered which marks the ending of the Indian wars.
  • 1890 Wounded Knee: massacre during which about 300 Indians were killed by the US army, among the victims there were mainly women, elders and children
  • 1898 Curtis Act: final step by the Congress to deprive the American Indians of self-government and sovereign control over tribes land

Overview of the 20th / 21st Century's events

  • 1924 Snyder Act: All American Indians received the US citizenship
  • 1941 The USA entered the 2nd Word War and young Indians serve in the US Army
  • 1950 Termination Policy: There were no further supports by the US government for the reservations( e.g. education, health care) and efforts were made to dissolve the reservations and to terminate all existing treaties between the government and the American Indians.
  • 1956 Relocation Policy aimed to attract the American Indians to leave their reservations (e.g. assimilation programs and offers for jobs and education in the cities). About 35.000 American Indians moved to cities as a direct result.
  • 1958 Alaska became a state of the USA so that the Alaskan Natives were now US citizens as well.
  • 1968 The AIM (American Indian Movement) was founded to represent American Indian interests and problems; activities like:
  • 1969 Occupation of the island Alcatraz (estate of a former federal prison) for one and a half years. *1969 The first Indian Survival Schools were founded by American Indian traditionalists)
  • 1972 »Trail of Broken Treaties«: Occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington D.C as a protest to arouse the government's attention to the problems and aims of the American Indians;
  • 1973 Wounded Knee “II”: members of the AIM occupied the village Wounded Knee in the Pine Ridge reservation to remind to the massacre and to criticize the US policy towards the American Indians. A forcible breakup of the demonstration by the police and the US Army took place. However, Wounded Knee is still a symbol for the oppression of the American Indians
  • The results of these activities were international attention and legislative effects:
  • 1975 Indian Self-Determination Act: the Congress guaranteed that the tribes would be supported as much as possible (in education and other issues) and far-reaching self-determination inside the reservations which showed a turning-point in Indian policy
  • 1977 International Indian Treaty Council (IITC, founded 1974) became a consultant for the UNO as a non-federal organization, so the American Indians received international acknowledgment:
  • 1990 Native American Languages Act was an obligation to protect and support Indian languages.
  • 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act: the return of American Indian ritual objects and skeletons from museums which had been stolen from graves and holy burial places, was promised.
  • 1999/2000 Foundation of “Nunavut”, a sovereign Inuit nation in northern Canada