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Native American Population and Federal Policies Essay

First Encounters and Coexistence

The federal policies that targeted Native American populations were highly influenced not only by the white population’s aims and objectives for the land where the Natives resided but also by the Natives’ attitude toward nature, resources, and the concept of prosperity. As pointed out by Butler (129), there were two distinctive cultures, the Northern Fremont and the Shoshonean; those Shoshonean that lived in the Lemhi were considered to be a part of the Northern Shoshone. Lewis and Clark’s expedition can be seen as the first phase of the federal policy approach toward the Native populations, namely, coexistence. The Lewis and Clark’s expedition did not aim to bring any harm to the Natives yet (as they themselves showed by providing the Shoshone with gifts) but mostly aimed to observe and evaluate the lands encountered, as well as prepare for future expansion; “the Corps of Discovery” was the tool for exploring the lands and Native populations that stayed isolated from the white population until 1805 (Schwantes 12).

During their expedition, Lewis and Clark had the opportunity not only to gain a better understanding of the terrain and acquire maps of it (as they did, trading American goods for horses and information with one of the Native chefs, Cameahwait) but also study the lifestyle and behaviors on the Native population. The explorers emphasized the poverty the Natives lived in and also indicated the necessity of seasonal migrations. To gain the necessary information about the Columbia, Clark promised Cameahwait that he would receive a particular privilege in trading with the American government, as well as access to goods, ammunition, and arms (Ronda 152). As the Native populations were unaware of the expedition’s aims in detail, they provided the Corps with the needed information, thus facilitating the next step in federal policies toward Indian populations and the expansion of the exploration further to the West.

Explorations and Reservations

Knowledge gathered by Lewis and Clark expedition became the basis for future ones, including Bonneville’s exploration of the far Northwest and Fremont’s search for the trail to Oregon (Schwantes 43). The Oregon Fever and mass emigration of American settlers to this area have various explanations. Some of the emigrants hoped to improve their health, while others relied on the opportunity to start a new life in the West, escaping slavery and race issues. Others sought the new life due to the series of floods in 1836, 1844, and 19846, which destroyed farms and made the area barren (Schwantes 43).

However, the exploration of the West and Oregon led to a series of treaties that reduced the area available for Idaho’s Native settlers and mostly focused on providing these lands to white citizens. The governor of the newly created territory of Washington, Isaac I. Stevens, prepared and pursued a policy that would force Indians onto reservations and make the land available for white populations (Schwantes 46). The first treaty, secured by Stevens, at first left the Indians with an 11,000-square-miles area in Oregon, Washington, and central Idaho; however, in 1863, it was reduced to 1,100 square miles by a treaty signed with a pro-American Nez Perce leader. The era of reservations that lasted for several decades began.

The Cour d’Alene Reservation was established in 1873; it made Indians abandon their holdings in Idaho and settle on 600,000 –acre reservation. Nevertheless, it was only ratified in 1891, “when the tribe ceded 2.4 million acres for $600,000 that was to be divided among its members” (Schwantes 47). The signed treaties adversely influenced the life of Indians because they found it difficult to adjust to agriculture after years of hunting and gathering. Furthermore, some of the supplies that were sent to Indians were redirected by federal agents. The lands provided to some of the Indians were so sterile that even those interested in farming were not able to make the land fruitful.

Saints and Natives

Additional attention should also be paid to the settlements of Mormons and their impact on the life of Natives. Mormons moved north from Salt Like Valley; they have been prominent in Idaho since the 1850s (Schwantes 54). The first town in Idaho was called Franklin and found by Mormons in 1860, on April 14. Mormons’ towns were self-contained communities that centered on family and religion; citizens built schools, irrigation channels, roads, and bridges.

Mormons’ encounter with Native populations happened five years prior to the foundation of Franklin, during the Salmon River Mission or Fort Limhi (Lemhi). The partakers of the mission were told to settle near or among the Natives (Flathead, Bannack, or Shoshone Indians specifically) in order to teach them agriculture and peaceful communication and residence with other tribes and the white population (Arrington and Bitton 167). As the Book of Mormon stated that Indians were also God’s chosen people, who once practiced Christianity but forgot it due to the loss of belief, the Mormons’ mission was to teach the Natives about the Book of Mormon so that they could be revitalized (Arrington and Bitton 145).

The Mormons were greeted by The Bannock chief, Rock-i-kae, and received permission to settle in the area; the only condition that the chief emphasized was not to hunt and kill animals for commercial purposes. Nevertheless, Mormons disregarded the promise and sent eight wagons of smoked salmon to Salt Lake. However, unlike white settlers, Mormons did not acquire the provided lands aggressively and quickly and did not build any reservations; instead, they expanded their fort after the 1855-1856 winter, during which they also supported the remaining Shoshones with food and other provision (Arrington and Bitton 175). The difference between Mormons’ and secular attitude toward Indians was in the former’s awe toward the chosen people together with the “white man’s burden”, according to which their responsibility was to civilize the populations that once were morally superior and, assumingly, will be once they are civilized. Mormons’ “civilization” was partially effective; during the spring of 1856, approximately one hundred Indians were baptized. Furthermore, Mormons’ were also advised by their leader Thomas Smith to improve relations with Indians and marry Indian women.

The role of women in Mormon settlements depended on the protection of polygamy and plural marriages, supported by the church. Woodworth-Ney (168) also points out that many economic transactions between male and female settlers were based on sex; Native American women took part in the sex trade as well. The definition of prostitution, however, varied among these women, as some of them understood it as the sale of sex in saloons, while others viewed cohabitation with non-Indian men as prostitution. Whereas European women were desexualized (according to the Victorian view of male sexualization dominating female asexual nature), Native American women were only seen through the prism of sexualization; aboriginal women were by default prostitutes or concubines at best. This way concludes Woodworth-Ney (168), sexualization and desexualization became powerful tools during the European colonizing process.

Both the Mormon attempt to “civilize” Indians and view of Aboriginal women as prostitutes and sex objects are the parts of the process that tried to assimilate Native populations; both approaches were not persecuted (and, in turn, supported) by law or its substitute (church). Nevertheless, the Mormon-Indian assimilation eventually resulted in the Bear River massacre, where many Indian men, women, and children were killed or raped (Woodworth-Ney 173). Thus, the assimilation process also failed.

Dawes Act

The next attempt to assimilate Native populations was the Dawes Act, passed on February 8, 1887 (U.S. National Archives & Records Administration para. 2). It postulated that reservation lands could be divided into small allotments that were the property of individuals rather than the whole tribe. It was assumed that if Indians were able to adopt the lifestyle of white settlers, they would eventually “drop [their] Indian-ness and be assimilated into the population” (U.S. National Archives & Records Administration para. 1). However, the Act was not as useful as it appeared to be; many of the lands provided to Indians were desert or near-desert, i.e., impossible to farm. Additionally, not all Native populations understood agriculture due to their previous tribal way of life. Inheritance, although granted by the law, was also problematic because if several children inherited one small allotment, these holdings were too small and unsuitable for farming. Moreover, some of the heirs did not know how to farm because they were sent to boarding schools instead. Thus, the Dawes Act was also ineffective in assimilating Native Americas and addressing the “Indian problem”.

Works Cited

Arrington, Leonard J., and Davis Bitton. The Mormon Experience: A History of the Latter-Day Saints. University of Illinois Press, 1992.

Butler, B. Robert. “Prehistory of the Snake and Salmon River Area.” Handbook of North American Indians, edited by Warren L. d’Azevedo, Smithsonian Institution, 1986, pp. 127-134.

Ronda, James P. Lewis and Clark among the Indians. University of Nebraska Press, 1984.

Schwantes, Carlos A. In Mountain Shadows: A History of Idaho. U of Nebraska Press, 1991.

U.S. National Archives & Records Administration. Our Documents. 2017, Web.

Woodworth-Ney, Laura. Women in the American West. ABC-CLIO, 2008.

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IvyPanda. 2021. "Native American Population and Federal Policies." January 10, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/native-american-population-and-federal-policies/.


IvyPanda. (2021) 'Native American Population and Federal Policies'. 10 January.

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