The name Indian was first applied to Native Americans by Christopher Columbus, who mistakenly believed that the mainland and islands of America were part of the Indies, in Asia. Native Americans are true to their culture and have a strong bond to nature and its many creatures. The spirit that these people so highly prize was taken from them and has not yet been fully regained. Through a decrease in population, enforced migration, and racism, European settlers were allowed to gain the upper hand.
The Native Americans suffered a severe decrease in population as the European settlers arrived and expanded. The first factor was a disease called smallpox. This disease was carried over to the U.S. by the settlers, and unfortunately, the Native Americans had no immunity for it. In 1763, white colonizers gave a “gift” of smallpox-infested blankets to a group of Native Americans who sought a peace treaty; however, this “gift” eventually wiped out a good bit of the tribe’s population and continued to spread, killing others.
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The second factor consisted of the many battles held between the settlers and the Native Americans. On the morning of December 29, 1890, the Sioux chief Big Foot and some 350 of his followers camped on the banks of Wounded Knee creek, and when the smoke cleared and the shooting stopped, approximately 300 Sioux were dead, Big Foot among them. As the native population declined, their capacity for presenting a military obstacle to the settlers decreased dramatically.
Enforced migration of the Native Americans allowed the colonizers to gain full control of the land. The first phase of this migration began with the Indian Removal Act. This act was passed in May 1830, and it empowered the president of the United States to move eastern Native Americans west of the Mississippi, to what was then “Indian Territory” (Oklahoma). Although the removal was considered voluntary, it soon became mandatory and is known as the “Trail of Tears.” The second phase of the migration began with the expansion of the settlers.
As wagon trains clattered west, government officials concluded that the vast, unspecified tracts of “Indian Territory” would have to be more sharply defined as “reservations.” The same Washington officials decided that these people were to be rounded up by the U.S. Army and restricted to these “reservations” by force.
Finally, as in most cases, racism played a big part in the mistreatment of Native Americans. For the most part, people usually did not form their own opinions about the natives, instead, they believed what the scholars “fed” to them. Benjamin Franklin is one of the United States’ best known and most influential intellectuals; however, he publicly described the natives as “barbarous tribes of savages that delight in war and take pride in murder.” Also, an 1813 school book titled Guardians of Tradition explains the demise of the indigenous groups as nothing less than essential to “the increase of mankind, and for the promotion of the world’s glory and happiness.” Because of this, the natives were not allowed to share any of the settler’s stores, schools, etc. Secondly, the government added to the fire with their laws.
A proposed amendment to the Foreign Assistant Act, known as the Population Stabilization and Reproductive Health Act, was used to double Congressionally-appropriated population funds. Dr. Constance Redbird Uri stated that she had become involved in the issue of sterilization abuse in 1972, after learning that the government was conducting large numbers of permanent sterilization procedures on relatively young Native American women. Native Americans were almost exclusively portrayed as vicious degenerates who preyed on innocent women and children, and the Europeans used this as the fuel to keep the hatred burning for the generations to come.
The Native Americans felt as if they were one with the land and its spirit, but they were stripped of that as the European settlers trampled over their homes and forced them onto small portions of land. The decrease in population, enforced migration, and racism meant hard times for the natives, but they have found a way to survive. It was not until the last two decades that any significant general protest was made by U.S. citizens about America’s treatment of its original inhabitants. According to the United States Census Bureau, the Native American population in the United States rose more than 20 percent between 1980 and 1990. Pride in Native American heritage has survived as well.
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