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The Impact of Westward Expansion on Native Americans

The impact on the Native American people during the 19th century when white settlers began to expand into the west was utterly devastating. Although there were a recorded 10 million Native people, once the Frontier was established and closed, there were only 400,000 confirmed remaining. These remaining people were confined to the cruelty of reservations and coercions, legally, socially and economically, the last of which was likely the hardest felt and most important aspect. Politically, Native Americans were subjected to outrageous hypocrisy. When first negotiating with various Native American tribes, be it Soux, Arapaho, Cheyenne or Lakota, each was recognized as a distinct and independent nation, detached from the USA.

This meant they acted under their own rules and had their own political culture; they were not subjected to, nor incorporated within, either the constraints or liberties of the American constitution. Even the 1830 Removal Act, brutal in its implementation, recognized the ‘Five Civilised Tribes’ as autonomous ad external nations. The problem was the 1871 Indian Appropriations Act. Here, tribes and lands ceased to be viewed as independent countries. The inhabitants of these regions were removed and placed on the reservation, often in Oklahoma. Significantly, the issue of Native Americans was placed under the direct control of Congress, who acted on Native issues without and constitutional authorization to do so or legal obligations to comply with. Living on a reservation meant one must give up their political culture, the idea of a clan rather than a nuclear family unit, as Brogan describes, and subjugation to both the Indian Bureau, curiously a subdivision of the war department.

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They also were under the control of a U.S army and police force, yet without any civil or political rights. The Dawes Act of 1887 further sought to destroy any Native Political culture. By assimilating Natives through allotments, the government suggested citizenship could be conferred if one surrendered their political identity. Thus, it was almost impossible for Native Americans to fight for their legal rights without any political rights. This wouldn’t have been a problem until 1871 when it was made clear they had absolutely no rights whatsoever; they were not even referenced in the United States Constitution. The Law of 1871 transcended the laws of 1851 and 1868 in that these, Native American’s legal rights were entirely removed, deliberately leaving a legal black hole. Previous actions such as relocations of the Black Hills of Dakota to the Sioux were contingent on the Sioux being realized as legal entities. This, therefore, had many subsequent effects; as early as 1868, built-in majority claims allowed Indians to surrender their status and gain American nationhood.

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This legal affront on Native Americans by civil progressiveness and racial nationalists greatly prevented their ability to regain their lost political, social or economic rights. It was done deliberately, as was the case with the Standing bear case, where the United States government did not overrule a decision made by a local court that restored some of the rights of the tribal leader, for fear of setting a federal precedent where Native Americans were established as a legal entity. Needless to say, without this recognition, Native Americans did not influence within the courts themselves; there were no Native judges or lawyers, for example. Furthermore, when someone like Red cloud was shot for resisting arrest, nobody cared, for there was no legal capacity for the Native Americans to respond – it is not just that they could not defend themselves from accusation; they could not even prosecute or speak against those committing atrocities unto them. This legal vacuum not only affected their political capacity but made it entirely acceptable to ravage their culture, ransack their land rape their women.

Termed ‘ethnocide,’ the destruction of Indian social culture and customs was dramatic. Their specific myths, animalism, dances and dress disappeared rapidly, and the influences of social implosion, i.e. mass population growth, forced migrations ad perhaps alcohol, led to the loss of any sense of identity, the purpose of the progressiveness. Young Native American children were forced into boarding schools, punished for speaking their own language, ostracised by staff and pupils as a minority; the death rate in these schools was 30% amongst Native American students. Sometimes this manifested itself horrifically. The Ghost Dance Massacre of 1880, when white settlers emerged from behind tepees and annihilated everything they came across.

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The onset of industrialization rendered much of the social culture of the Natives entirely meaningless, too, as much of it was based on economic practice. The glorification of the buffalo made sense when buffaloes were abundant in numbers. The Native Americans were free to follow their trail. Still, following the killing of thousands by Buffalo Bill and others, and the confinement to reservations, hunting and other economic, ritualized practices were damaged irreversibly, leaving the Natives short of means to gather food, hide and money. A much larger economic impact of Westward expansion on Native Americans was their sheer poverty, deprivation and starvation. Placed on small reservations, without knowledge of how to farm, many Natives often wasted away, unable to carry out subsistence farming as they knew not how to. They began to rely on government grants and external food sources from the Indian Bureau. Many of their fishing rights were removed, too, and without expanding their economy, they began to diminish in numbers. The Miriam Report of 1928 suggested that the Dawes Act entirely failed in assimilating Native Americans into society, in fact doing the exact opposite; ostracising them. With starvation came real population collapse; in 1865, there were 300-400,000 Native Americans; by 1890, there were only 100,000 remainings, which obviously affected their economic growth capacity; only the Cherokee, who discovered gold, and few other tribes, survive to this day.

To conclude, there are many different ways Westward expansion affected Native Americans, be it economic, political, social, legal or a mixture of them. The Native’s economic lack of power meant that their legal and political rights were not respected, and their social culture became devoid of meaning. The intentional action by the Federal Government and Congress, combined with the economic backdrop of industrialization and the ensuing collapse of any political or social autonomy as well as the sheer scale of a brutal murder, by way of either reservation, deprivation or assassination, impacted on an irrevocable, immeasurable and incomprehensible scale on those who owned the continent.

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The Impact of Westward Expansion on Native Americans. (2021, Aug 13). Retrieved December 1, 2022, from