American Indian

WhoBefore the arrival of the Europeans, most Native Americans belonged to very thriving and highly prosperous social groups known as nations.  They lived in well-developed farming villages in societies largely based on agriculture.[1]  Many nations, such as the Choctaw, had some of the most accomplished farmers in the southeastern US, growing maize, beans, and squash along with hunting and fishing.[2]  Men were originally hunter-gatherers but became more involved in agriculture “with the use of domesticated animals for cultivating crops.”[3]  Women and children cared for the crops, while the men cleared fields and helped with planting and harvesting.[4]  The women in most Native American societies also prepared meals, made clothing, pottery, and baskets, and cared for the children.[5]  The men hunted, worked on the land, built homes, and performed ritual ceremonies.[6]

Language and the arts also played an important role in Native American societies.  Language was used for purposes of trading and passing down old customs and traditions.  Tribes also passed down traditional arts, which included carving of wood, stone, and shell, basket and textile weaving, beading, and pottery.[7]

WhatRelations between Native American nations and European powers had both positive and negative consequences.  As more Native Americans began to be “discovered” by the Europeans, there was much debate on how the indigenous peoples should be treated and whether they should be given the same rights as other Europeans.  Francisco de Victoria, a leading intellectual of the 16th century, was consulted in Spain and concluded that Native Americans were entitled to the same natural rights of man as the Europeans and therefore asserting political control over them without their consent would be illegal and immoral.[8]  Native Americans “could not become subject to the rule of European or other governments without their consent, and absent such consent they remained subject only to their own tribal governments.”[9]  Francisco de Victoria’s work became the “foundation of Western, and in particular American, law regarding Native Indians.”[10]

Most Native American nations enjoyed fairly good political and economic relationships with European powers, especially with the French.  By remaining independent of European countries, Native American nations ultimately participated heavily in trade with the Europeans.  As interaction between Native American nations and Europeans increased, so did Native Americans’ economic development.  Native American nations were very involved with arts and agriculture and therefore traded baskets, pottery, textiles, shells, different types of crops, etc.[11]  Sales of goods and livestock to Europeans became sound business and many Native American nations thrived for a period of time throughout the 18th century.  As more Europeans arrived, many Native American nations embraced Europeans’ and trading skyrocketed.  There was also cultural sharing among the different groups, resulting in high rates of intermarriage and conversions to Christianity.[12]

Benjamin Hawkins

Benjamin Hawkins

Although there were many benefits to Native Americans from the arrival of the early Europeans, there were extremely harsh consequences. Throughout North America, it is estimated that the over eleven million Native Americans perished between 1500 and 1900, mostly from highly contagious diseases.[13]  It is estimated that between 80-95 percent of all Native Americans died from smallpox, measles, influenza, typhus, cholera and the bubonic plague. [14]

Another consequence of European arrival was fear of colonization as European powers began fighting in the US. Many Native Americans sided with certain European countries for the purposes of self-preservation.  During the wars between the French and the British, for example, many Native American nations located in the southeast allied themselves with the French.[15]


Relations between Native American nations and the early U.S. government ultimately proved to be destructive for the preservation and survival of Native American life.  By the end of the 19th century, only about 250,000 Native Americans remained in the territory of the United States.[16]  The US was growing and pressure was increasing for the government to acquire more land.  The government turned towards the Native American land.

The Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole nations were particularly at risk.  These five tribes became known as America’s Five Civilized Tribes[17]  because of their “quick and skillful adaptation to the white man’s ways.”[18]  The United States government felt threatened by these tribes and saw them as a massive barrier to expansion.[19]  Many scholars suggest that the Choctaw became one of the first targets for the federal government not only because they had valuable land that the government wanted, but also because they were a large, prestigious, highly-successful and well-respected nation.  Ultimately, the Choctaw paid the price for their success:  “The Choctaw was the first American Indian tribe to be removed by the federal government from its ancestral home to land set aside for them in what is now Oklahoma.”[20]

The first treaty signed between the sides was the Treaty of Hopewell in 1786 between the Cherokee, Choctaw, and Chickasaw and the U.S. government.  It was the first attempt by the U.S. government to establish some hegemony over Native American nations.[21]  This treaty ceded 69,120 acres of land in return for protection that was going to be given by the U.S. government.[22]  The treaty also promised the nations the return of all of their property seized during the Revolutionary War and freedom for any Native Americans who were convicted of any crimes in exchange for the return of any escaped slaves.[23]  Finally, it also established the boundaries of the nations, which covered about two-thirds of the present state of Mississippi.

Between 1784 and 1871, the U.S. government had negotiated 377 treaties with various tribes throughout the United States.  Many of these treaties ensured that Native American nations would never be removed from their lands.  However, with the election of Thomas Jefferson in 1800, a military order was issued to seize all lands bordering the east side of the Mississippi River for purposes of national defense.  Jefferson knew that eventually the United States government would have to induce the tribes east of the Mississippi River to trade their ancestral lands for new lands west of the Mississippi[24]  and the treaties were repeatedly violated.  Many prominent Native American leaders complained but nothing was ever done.

Annuity payments were not forwarded, guaranteed services were not rendered, tribal income was not invested properly, promises of permanent land tenure were not kept, and incompetence and corruption reigned generally.  Congress had established the United States Court of Claims in 1855 to hear suits against the federal government, but an amendment eight years later prohibited Native Americans from using the courts to recover land or money. The major legal avenue for redress of grievances was closed to Native Americans.[25]

The Indian Removal Act was signed into law by President Andrew Jackson and passed by Congress in May 1830. “Removal involved the physical relocation of Indian nations away from their homelands, usually to an area west of the Mississippi River for eastern nations.”[26]  The Indian Removal Act authorized the president to grant unsettled lands west of the Mississippi in exchange for Native American lands within existing state borders in the east.[27]  The Act also authorized the president to “guarantee the Indians’ title to their new lands in the West, to protect those lands from trespasses or attacks, to pay for improvements that Natives had built on lands they were surrendering, and to pay for the Indians’ costs of relocation.”[28]

Several factors motivated the passing of the Indian Removal Act.  President Jackson reasoned that, with the growth of American society, the demise of the Native American way of life was inevitable and there was an emerging pessimism about the ability of Native American tribes to assimilate.[29]  He argued that the union was a federation of sovereign states and Native American nations obstructed that vision. Jackson urged that Native Americans should either create their own states or should be subject to the laws of the existing states in the union.[30]  He saw the Indian Removal Act as a humane policy and a generous act of mercy on behalf of the federal government.[31]  Unfortunately, this view was held by many non-native people living in the southern United States and ultimately the Act was signed into law.

After the passing of the Indian Removal Act, many Native Americans were forced from their home.  The physical removal of the Cherokee in 1838 from their homelands in the east to resettlement west of the Mississippi, a journey and path known as the “Trail of Tears,” resulted in the loss of thousands of lives.[32]  “The concentration of American Indians in small geographic areas, and the scattering of them from their homelands, caused increased death, primarily because of associated military actions, disease, starvation, extremely harsh conditions during the moves, and the resulting destruction of ways of life.”[33]  Many scholars assert that the Trail of Tears would almost certainly be considered an act of genocide today; about 17,000 Cherokee were removed from their homes and an estimated 4,000 perished on the journey.  Another example is the forced migration of the Choctaw in three stages throughout 1831-1833.[34]  In three years, about 12,500 Choctaw were moved to the new lands in the west with almost 7,000 remaining in Mississippi.[35]  By 1847, another 4,500 would be moved west and only 1,000 members would remain in their ancestral lands.[36]

Trail of Tears

Trail of Tears

The first removal began in October of 1831 with 4,000 Choctaw being transported on foot and by wagons to the Mississippi, then west on steamboats. Due to poor planning and bad weather, however, the river leg of the journey was shortened and the Choctaw were forced to walk much farther than had been planned. Most of the first wave didn’t arrive, tired and ill, in Oklahoma until March 1832. The second wave contained 550 Choctaw and was much harsher. Due to cost overruns encountered in the first removal, the second wave was required to walk most of the way, was provided with fewer rations, and was hit by a cholera outbreak en route. Having heard about the travails of the first two removal efforts, only about 800 Choctaw showed up for the third and final trek. This final wave went relatively smoothly and concluded the removal effort even though almost 6,000 Choctaw remained in Mississippi to take advantage of the promise of land.[37]

One of the most detrimental acts perpetrated upon Native American nations of the Plains region was the rapid and systematic destruction of the American buffalo population.  At the beginning of the 19th century, it is estimated that there were about 40 million buffalo.  By the end of the 19th century, the buffalo population was practically extinct.  Two main reasons for their rapid and systematic slaughter was the value and high demand of fur at the time, and the intent to rid the lands of Native Americans by destroying their source of food and a critical element of their culture.  Most of the Native Americans who lived on the Plains depended on the buffalo and with their destruction, this resulted in “wide-scale starvation and the social and cultural disintegration of many Plains tribes.”[38]

The Dakota hangings were another dark chapter in U.S. history, the largest mass hanging in American history.  On Dec. 26, 1862, thirty-eight Sioux were hanged after a series of biased and unjust trials.

Events leading up to these hangings were the result of more treaty violations by the U.S. government.  In 1851, the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux and the Treaty of Mendota were signed by various Dakota leaders and the U.S. government.  These treaties ceded large amounts of Dakota lands to the US in exchange for food, money, and other annuity payments.  These goods were given to Native American agents who were supposed to give the goods to the Native American nations, but this was never done.  “Indian agents kept the treaty money and food that was to go to the Indians; the food was sold to white settlers and food that was given to the Indians was spoiled and not fit for a dog to eat.”[39]  This obviously caused a great deal of hardship for the Native American nations as thousands went hungry.  The money that was promised was often given late or not at all.

Dakota leaders, including Little Crow, made efforts to negotiate with the U.S. regarding the enforcement of already-existing treaties but their efforts went ignored as more land was taken.  This disrupted the Dakotas’ hunting, fishing and farming.  As more and more promises were broken and hunger swept the region, tensions rose between the Dakota and the U.S. government.  This ultimately resulted in several attacks by Native American groups in an effort to drive out the white settlers and to reclaim their way of life.  Although the Dakota were successful at first, they were ultimately defeated in September 1862.  As a result of the uprising, a commission of military officers, established by Henry Sibley, began to try the Dakota men who had been accused of murder.[40]  The result was that 303 Sioux were tried and sentenced to death.

The trials of the Dakota were conducted unfairly. The evidence was sparse, the tribunal was biased, the defendants were unrepresented in unfamiliar proceedings conducted in a foreign language, and authority for convening the tribunal was lacking. More fundamentally, neither the Military Commission nor the reviewing authorities recognized that they were dealing with the aftermath of a war fought with a sovereign nation and that the men who surrendered were entitled to treatment in accordance with that status.[41]


VictimsThe situation for most Native American nations was horrific following the Indian Removal Act.  Not only was the economic situation terrible, but many Native American nations were often targets of racial abuse.  For example, the Mississippi Choctaw economic conditions have often been described as “worse than black slaves” following years after their removal from their ancestral lands.[42]  In 1849, one Choctaw member described the situation of his people: “We have had our habitations torn down and burned, our fences destroyed, cattle turned into our fields, and we ourselves have been scourged, manacled, fettered, and otherwise personally abused, until by such treatment some of our best men have died.”[43]

Many members of Native American nations who remained on their ancestral homelands during this time made their living primarily by sharecropping, “a life that offered little more than living in the woods.”[44]  Through this system, they became an “impoverished people with substandard quality of life and poor health conditions.”[45]

The sharecropping system developed across the south after the Civil War.  Under the system, a land-owner would allow a family to live on a plot of his land in exchange for a share of the crop they produced on that land.  In the springtime, the landlord would give the sharecropper seed, fertilizer, food, household necessities, farm equipment, and a horse in advance.  At the end of the growing season, the landlord might take more than half the crop as his share for use of the land.  But, the sharecropper was also expected to pay back what he had been given in advance by the landlord out of his own share of the crop.  Often, the landlord would claim that he was owed more than his tenant’s share of the crop.  The sharecropper, after a season of back-breaking work, would end up with nothing.[46]

During this time, Native American families often resided in makeshift shacks with the barest essentials for food and clothing. [47]  They lived on credit from local landowners and the landowner would take the entire crop while the sharecroppers fell deeper and deeper into debt.[48]  Due to federal government neglect, all aspects of Native American society began to suffer.  For the Choctaw nation by the late 19th century, about 85 percent of Choctaw housing was classified as substandard and unemployment rose to 75 percent.[49]  Life expectancy dropped to 45-55 years and education stopped at about the sixth grade.[50]  In addition, the health care situation was dreadful; Choctaw experienced the highest level of infant mortality rates in the nation.

By 1871, the norm of negotiating treaties with Native Americans nations was generally over as the federal government began to take a different approach.  “Treaties and consensual agreements were necessary when the government had to worry about the damage from potential Indian attacks.  Now the federal government felt itself powerful enough to dictate policy to the Indians regardless of their consent, so it now chose to do so.”[51]

The concept of reservations was developed in the 1850s, a federal policy that assigned tribes to permanent locations reserved specifically for their tribes.  With reservations, the tribes would have to develop a self-supporting economy for themselves which would often leave Native American communities in very poor conditions.  In the years to follow, any amount of sovereignty that tribes retained was soon taken away as the concept of allotment was introduced.  Allotment converted tribal ownership of land into ownership by individuals. By doing this, Native Americans became subject to state authority rather than tribal authority. The reservation system soon became overtaken by the implementation of allotment.

Once allotment was implemented, each Native American adult head of family received 160 acres; single adults over eighteen years old and orphans under eighteen got 80 acres; and other single youths under eighteen received 40 acres.[52]  Native Americans could choose their land but if they failed to do so in four years, the Department of the Interior could do it for them.[53]  Additionally, Native Americans accepting allotment and leaving their tribes were awarded American citizenship and came under their residing state’s law.[54]

The consequences of such policies were detrimental to Native American nations.  This liquidated their power, along with individual Native Americans “losing their holdings through fraudulent sales, foreclosure, or other means.”[55]  Many Native American nations such as the Creek, Seneca, Shawnee, Cherokee, Chickasaw, and the Choctaw made formal complaints to Congress as well as to the Bureau of Indian Affairs regarding the allotment policy but nothing was done.  The frustration of non-Native Americans with the reservation system was too great and the momentum for allotment was too strong.  Under the sponsorship of Senator Henry L. Dawes a compromise bill, known as the General Allotment Act, passed Congress on February 8, 1887.”[56]

The 20th century proved to be a time of progress for many Native American nations.  During the 1920s, many communities increasingly rejected the old allotment and assimilationist policies aimed at dismantling the tribes and destroying any distinct tribal cultures.  Many in the Native American community advocated for policies to be passed by the federal government that would instead provide support for the tribes and make sure that “Indians who wanted to remain part of their traditional tribes and perpetuate their unique cultures would be free to do so.”[57]  In addition, there were calls for better educational opportunities and policies to promote economic development for all Native Americans and their families.  A very important event that occurred during this time was the release of the “Meriam Report,” an in-depth analysis of current Native American living conditions.  “This report went on to influence policy initiatives which improved healthcare, education, and land rights for Native Americans. This was a step forward for the protection of a minority who was still without voting rights.”[58]

President Coolidge after signing Indian Citizenship Act

Throughout the 20th century, several laws were passed which improved the conditions of Native American nations.  In 1924, the Indian Citizenship Act was passed, giving Native Americans dual citizenship in their own nations as well as U.S. citizens.[59]  In 1934, President Roosevelt signed the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA), allowing them to re-organize and gain more recognition as nations.[60]  One of the main goals behind the decision to pass the IRA was to recognize and establish a continuing role for tribes within the borders of the United States.  It was designed so that Native Americans could “exercise self-determination, spawn economic development, and maintain their culture.”[61]

One of the most important aspects of the IRA was federal acknowledgement of tribal authority and self-government.  Due to this change in approach, many nations reorganized and were formally recognized under the IRA.  Many adopted constitutions which established their new tribal government.  This provided a strong foundation for more independence from state government.  In the decades to come, various Native American nations began to take control of their own schools, health-care facilities, social service programs, and legal and judicial systems.  The IRA also worked to discontinue the allotment system and prevent any further loss of Native American lands.[62]  “One provision of the law stated that tribal land should not be parceled out in small plots to individuals, but rather, it should be held in common for the entire tribe in trust states by the federal government.”[63]

The passing of the Indian Reorganization Act was followed by the Voting Rights of 1965, in which Native Americans gained uniform voting rights, and the Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968, in which Native Americans gained the right to free speech, the right to a jury and protection from unreasonable search and seizure.[64]



There are several challenges affecting the Native American population today.  These include slow economic development, inadequate housing, ongoing efforts at tribal sovereignty and preservation of Native identities and cultures, high infant mortality rates and other health issues, and violence against women and girls.  Regarding economic development, living conditions on Native American reservations have been compared to conditions in third-world countries.[65]  The percentage of Native Americans living below the poverty line is estimated to be 28%.[66]  One of the biggest contributing factors is a lack of jobs and economic opportunity.  Because of this, many Native Americans are forced to leave the reservations in search of work.

A second major challenge is the need for adequate housing.  Currently, there are 90,000 homeless or under-housed Native American families.[67]  Thousands of Native American families are considered to be living in substandard or inadequate housing, with 30% of housing being defined as overcrowded and less than 50% of housing connected to a public sewer.[68]  “It is not uncommon for three or more generations to live in a two-bedroom home with inadequate plumbing, kitchen facilities, cooling, and heating.”[69]

Pine Ridge, South Dakota Reservation Housing

Tribal sovereignty is the third major issue affecting Native American nations.  A question such as how to create and maintain a sovereign nation with the U.S. poses many legal and social barriers that many Native American nations are facing today[70]  including the right to govern, definition of membership, encouragement of self-administration of programs for all members, management of tribal property, and regulation of tribal business and domestic relations.[71]  Also extremely important for Native American tribal sovereignty is the preservation of an “identity” and the ability to “maintain and pass on traditional religious beliefs, languages and social practices without fear of discrimination.”[72]

A final major issue affecting many tribes is substance abuse.  Alcohol abuse is a big concern, especial for Native American youth, and it is proving to be devastating for some Native American nations with the result that many young people are unable to complete school.  William P. Ragsdale, Director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, states that methamphetamine use “is destroying lives in Indian country.” [73]  Many are concerned that whole generations of young people may soon be lost to this one drug.  “The social effects of meth use go beyond destroying the body and mind of the user.  Addicted parents are neglecting to care for their own children and meth is fueling homicides, aggravated assaults, rape, child abuse, and other violent crimes.”[74]

Although Native American nations face significant issues, they have also achieved great successes. The rapid expansion of Tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) is one of the most notable achievements. Since 1968, when the first TCU was founded, 33 more accredited TCUs have opened in the US, serving more than 30,000 Native students, as well as some non-native students[75].   Students learn about Native culture, in addition to traditional academic fields such as chemistry, engineering, and mathematics[76]. With many generous scholarships available to Native students, TCUs are also often their most affordable option[77].  Initiatives like TCUs give Native American nations hope for a prosperous and culturally-vibrant future.

[1] James S. Olson & Raymond Wilson, “Native Americans In the Twentieth Century.” Pg.8 (Brigham Young University Press, 1984).

[2]Choctaw Economy.” Countries and their Cultures. (2014).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Peter J. Ferrara, “The Choctaw Revolution: Lessons for Federal Indian Policy.” p.19.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Felix Cohen.  “The Spanish Origin of Indian Rights in the Law of the United States.” (1942).

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Guenter Lewy.  “Were American Indians the Victims of Genocide?”  (History New Network, September 2004).

[14] Ibid.

[15] History, Mississippi Band of Choctaw official homepage (2001),

[16] Lewy.  op. cit.

[17] Grant Foreman. “The Five Civilized Tribes: Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, Seminole.” (University of Oklahoma Press, 1934).

[18] Vine Deloria Vine Jr. “Behind the Trail of Broken Treaties:  An Indian Declaration of Independence.”  (University of Texas Press, 1895).

[19] William Brescia. “Choctaw Tribal Government: A New Era .”(Choctaw Heritage Press, 1982).

[20] History, The Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians (2011),

[21] Removal, Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma (2010),

[22] Treaties with the Choctaws, The Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians (2011),

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ferrara.  op .cit.

[25] Olson & Wilson.  op. cit.  p. 135

[26] Ferrara.  op. cit.

[27] Indian Removal Act, Primary Documents in American History, Library of Congress,

[28] Matthew L. M. Fletcher, “Encyclopedia of United States Indian Law and Policy.” Michigan State University Press, 2012).

[29] H. W. Brands.  “Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times.” Pgs. 489-493 (Anchor Books, 2006).

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Lewy. op. cit.  

[33] Leah Trabich.  “Native American Genocide Still Haunts United States.”  An End to Intolerance.

[34] Robert V. Remini, “Brothers, Listen … You Must Submit. Andrew Jackson and the Course of American Freedom, 1822-1832.”

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ferrara.  op. cit. p. 31-32 .

[37] Removal.  op. cit.

[38] Leah Trabich. op. cit.

[39] “Largest mass hanging in United States History.”

[40] “The US-Dakota War of 1862:  The Trials and Hanging.”  Minnesota History Society.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Charles Hudson. “The Ante-Bellum Elite; Red, White, and Black; Symposium on Indians in the Old South.” (University of Georgia Press, 1971).

[43] Williams Walter.  “Three Efforts at Development among the Choctaws of Mississippi: Southeastern Indians: Since the Removal Era.” (University of Georgia Press 1979).

[44] Ferrara.  op. cit. p.38.

[45] Economic Development History, Mississippi Band of Choctaw official website (2011),

[46] Brescia, op. cit. p.20.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Ibid. p. 21.

[50] Ibid. p. 21.

[51] Ferrara, op. cit. p.35.

[52] Olson & Wilson, op. cit. p. 67.

[53] Ibid. p. 68.

[54] Ibid. p. 68.

[55] Ferrara, op. cit. p. 34.

[56] Olson & Wilson. op. cit. p.68.

[57] Ibid. p. 40.

[58] “Atrocities Against Native Americans.”  United to End Genocide.

[59] Ibid.

[60] Indian Reorganization Act, Encyclopedia Britannica (2014),

[61] Ferrara. op. cit.  p. 42.

[62] Ibid. p. 43.

[63] Brescia.  op. cit. p.20.

[64] “Atrocities Against Native Americans.”  op. cit.

[65] “Living Conditions.”  Native American Aid.

[66] Ibid, 

[67] Ibid. 

[68] Ibid. 

[69] Ibid.

[70] “Today’s Challenges.”  Indian Country Diaries.

[71] “Native Americans.”  The Leadership Conference.

[72] Ibid.

[73] “Challenges facing American Indians.”  Reporters Committee fro Freedom of the Press.

[74] Ibid.

[75] “About Us.” American Indian College Fund.

[76] Ibid.

[77] Ibid.