Federal Indian Policy:

Historical Roots and 19th Century Policies


Introduction for the Teacher

This 4-5 day lesson for middle and high school classrooms introduces students to the historical roots of federal Indian policy. It is designed to fit within a history unit about westward expansion during the 19th Century. It is divided into two parts, each of which is two days in length (but can be expanded by additional information as noted below in the lesson plan):

  • Map of land transferred from Indians to U.S. government and private citizensThe Lives of American Indians prior to Euro-American Contact
  • Federal Indian Policy during the Nineteenth Century

Each of the two-day sections can be used independently or taught as part of the larger 4-5 day unit.


Grade Level and Standards: The lesson is especially focused on 8th, 11th, and 12th grade topics related to California standards for the 8th grade. (See Standards listed at the end of this guide).


Objectives: The student will be able to understand:

      1. the political, cultural, and economic sophistication of American Indians before the Constitution was signed and of Indian lifestyles in the Nineteenth Century;
      2. the colonial policies regarding American Indian people and how such policies created a precedent for Federal Indian policies created by the United States;
      3. various Federal Indian policies passed and administered by the US. government during the Nineteenth Century; and
      4. that the Westward Movement had different meaning for European Americans who were colonizing new lands, and for American Indians whose lands were being occupied.


Academic Language (words or phrases with which students should be familiar will be in bold the first time they appear in the text of the lesson): stereotype; diversity; Euro-American contact; savage; civilized; clan; hunter-gatherers; mastodons; wooly mammoths; mound builders; confederacy; sovereignty; semi-sovereign; treaty; pupilage; indict; assimilate; allotment; repeal; genocide.


Days 1 and 2 Lesson Content -

The Lives of American Indians Prior to Euro-American Contact


Introduction: Today we are going to begin learning about the relationship between the leaders of the new government of the United States and America and the people of the many American Indian nations.


Hook: Have the following "Do Now" written on the board, an overhead, or powerpoint slide.

  • Please take 5 minutes to respond to the following: What are your thoughts about American Indians who lived in the US over 400 years ago when Europeans began to permanently settle in North America? How did they dress? What were their homes like? What did they do for a living? How did they have fun? How do you think their lifestyles are different from American Indians today?

Then, engage the students in a discussion about their answers. Determine how their answers are similar and how they are different. Then engage in the following discussion:

Engraving of "A Religious Man  of Secota" 1590

  • Have we engaged in stereotyping early American Indians? If necessary, explain that stereotyping occurs when an entire group of people is characterized by mistaken ideas of how they behave, live, dress, or think. Have them examine the print to the right, sketched by Theodore de Bry in 1590 from a painting by John White who visited North America in 1585. Discuss how this is different from the stereotypical belief about Indian clothing.
  • What is harmful about such stereotyping? Stereotyping degrades Indian people and their cultures and it distorts the reality of Indian people for non-Indian people. It is dehumanizing.
  • What types of stereotypes do you think that non-Indians have about Indian people?

Lesson Plan. It is important that we try to erase such stereotypes and to replace them with a clear understanding of the diversity of Indian Nations that existed throughout North America before and after Euro-American contact.Indian Peoples spoke hundreds of different languages, practiced many different spiritual beliefs, and experienced a wide variety of different political, cultural, and economic lifestyles. Ask the following:

  • What is diversity? What is cultural diversity? Spiritual diversity? Political? Economic?
  • How diverse are the students in our classroom? Ask them to relate some information about their ancestry and emphasize how truly diverse they are - even though they may not appear to be physically diverse.

But most Euro-Americans, instead of recognizing the diversity of American Indians, instead referred to Indians as "savages" - people who were so primitive and uncivilized that they never attained the agricultural or technological sophistication of other ancient peoples. Noah Webster, the author of the first new dictionary produced in the
United States in 1828, included the following definition for the word savage: "A human being in his native state of rudeness; one who is untaught, uncivilized or without cultivation of mind or manners." To get a greater understanding of how Indian stereotypes have been integrated into our culture, let's look at this video entitled "Native American Stereotypes and Truth" at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e15YDqt9n9M&feature=related that begins with an excerpt from a Seinfeld episode. (Note to the teacher: You may only want to show only the first 2-3 minutes of this video as it become repetitive thereafter.) Then, ask the following:

  • What are the specific stereotypes shown in these images
  • Did the stereotypes we discussed from our "Do Now" writes reinforce the idea of savage Indians? Do you think your stereotypes were influenced by such images and movies?
  • What does it mean to be civilized? Uncivilized?
  • Note to the teacher: Another option would be to show this video on the first day of this 2-day lesson.

Although most colonists and later American citizens believed these stereotypes - that Indians were savage and uncivilized - the historical evidence suggests that neither characteristic was true. Indeed, when European settlers arrived, hundreds of separate tribal societies existed in North America, most of which were highly sophisticated in terms of their political, economic, social, and spiritual development. Each society had developed the capacity for unified action, had learned how to adapt to their natural environment, had achieved some sense of group identity and ethnic pride, and had created its own system of family and social organization. A great example of such sophisticated cultural, political,and economic characteristics can be found in the Cherokee Nation.


The Cherokee were a large tribe that lived in northeastern Alabama, eastern Tennessee, northern Georgia, and western North and South Carolina. Conical-shaped Cherokee houses in which several families lived together were built along streams and waterways. The Cherokee people were good hunters, fishermen, traders, farmers, statesmen, artists, and medicine people. The Cherokee nation was divided into seven clans or groups of people who considered themselves to be blood relatives. Each clan was named for and associated with an animal or natural phenomenon: The Bird, Paint, Deer, Wolf, Blue, Long Hair, and Wild Potato.


        Children automatically belonged to the mother's clan. Each clan member was bound by honor to defend any member of that clan from wrong. The clans were important in tribal government. Each clan appointed a counselor to represent them in their governing body called the Civil Council. It was the Civil Council that made most decisions for the clan.

Each village clan had three major tasks to perform:

    • assign the property to be used as gardens to households of the clan women;
    • regulate marriage; and
    • create and carry out an orderly plan for resolving disputes between villages.

When Europeans arrived, the Cherokees had a national government which was divided into three sectors: peace, civil, and war.

    • There were two elected tribal chiefs: the Peace Chief who conducted council meetings when the tribe was at peace, and the War Chief who was in command during times of war.
    • Those who were allowed to attend the council meetings were the chief, representatives from each clan, the chief's seven counselors, and sixteen officials (nine men and seven honored women).
    • The civil sector of the government - which was presided over by the Peace Chief - conducted religious ceremonies, held court, and made laws.

To get an even better understanding of how full extent of civilization, let's take a very brief look at a few other ancient geographical divisions of American Indian people that share some common cultural traits - the Pacific Northwest Indians, the Plains Indians, the Southwest Indians, moundbuilders of the Eastern Woodlands - as well as Indians who lived in towns and cities and who formed tribal confederacies.


Pacific Northwest Indians. The coastal regions of California, Oregon, and Washington supported a population of about 300,000 Indians who were hunter-gatherers and who lived in permanent communities. While the Indians primarily cultivated one crop -- tobacco -- they also harvested an abundant variety of natural foods. Many of the northwest Pacific Indians were seagoing peoples who had harvested rich marine resources for over 5,000 years. In these nations, men fished the ocean and rivers from canoes using harpoons and nets, as well as hunted deer and smaller mammals and harvested and stored marine mammals, fish, shellfish, acorns, pine nuts, and other wild plants. The women gathered and stored wild plants - especially acorns which they ground into meal.


  • Note for the teacher: If you want to provide your students with a more indepth understanding of one West Coast Indian nation in Washington State, see the lesson plan on the Makah Nation. You can add any or all of that lesson to this one. If you want to gain a better understanding of the relationship between the federal government and Indian Nations in Northwestern California, see the lesson plan on Indians of Northern California.

The Plains Indians. Photograph of a Dakota Sioux ManThe stereotypical picture of Indians wearing feathered headdresses and hunting buffalo from horseback did not become typical of the Great Plains Nations until the 18th and 19th centuries. Horses didn’t arrive until the mid-16th Century with the Spanish. For thousands of years prior to the introduction of the horse, Indian Peoples hunted the Great Plains on foot for big game - bison, mastodons, and wooly mammoths. Over time, they created increasingly lethal projectiles - spears that could inflict mortal wounds on animals as large as African elephants. Bows and arrows were in use throughout the Plains by A.D. 1000. And as they developed more effective ways to hunt large game, they also used communal hunting techniques that required a great amount of social organization.


Southwest Indians. The ancient inhabitants of the southwestern US developed agriculturally-based societies about 3,000 years ago. About 2,000 years ago, the Mogollon people in the highlands of the Arizona-New Mexico border grew corn and squash. They first lived in pit houses, and then later built multi-apartment structures above ground. Southwestern peoples began making clay pots around A.D. 200 and pottery was widespread by 500. The Hohokam constructed one of the largest and most sophisticated irrigation networks ever created using preindustrial technology. By A.D. 1200, hundreds of miles of these waterway canals, as shown in the map below, created green paths winding out from the Salt and Gila Rivers, the remains of which lie under the streets of metropolitan Phoenix.Map of Ancient Hohokum Canal system


Mound Builders of the Eastern Woodlands. About 4,000 years ago, Indian women in the floodplains region began domesticating indigenous seed plants such as sunflowers, squash, and marsh elder. Indians in Illinois crossbred wild grasses and created corn about 7,000 years ago. For thousands of years, Indian farmers selected the seeds of plants that did best in their environments and developed new strains for particular soils, climates, and growing seasons.


In the Eastern Woodlands, over a period of about 4,000 years, Indian peoples constructed tens of thousands of earthern mounds. The Adena people of the Ohio River Valley built mounds to honor their dead over 2,000 years ago. The Hopewellian culture that emerged from the Adena about the first century built more elaborate burial mounds and earthern architecture. Map of moundbuilding societiesThe culture spread through extensive exchange networks, and they obtained valuable raw materials from vast distances - grizzley bear teeth from the Rocky Mountains; obsidian volcanic stone for spear points and blades from Yellowstone; silver from Ontario; copper from the Great Lakes; mica and copper from the Appalachians; quartz from Arkansas; pottery, marine shells, turtle shells, shark, and alligator teeth from the Gulf of Mexico. The Hopewellian culture began a decline about 300 A.D. an seems to have disappeared around 550.

Around 700, Mississippian cultures arose that began in the lower Mississippi River Valley and spread north to the Great Lakes and east to Florida and the Carolinas. They were stable, agriculturally-based settlements close to floodplains with large populations and complex ceremonial and political structures.


  • Note for the teacher: If you want to provide your students with a more indepth understanding of one Moundbuilding society that was especially sophisticated, see the lesson plan on Cahokia . You can add any or all of that lesson to this one.


Town and City Dwellers. Indian towns and cities were never haphazardly constructed. They were carefully planned to meet the social, political, economic, and ceremonial needs of their people. For instance, Pueblo Bonito (Beautiful Town) was the largest of the towns built in Chaco Canyon (in current day New Mexico and shown in the photograph below) and was home to about 1,200 people between 919 and 1085. Modern view of Pueblo Bonito in Chaco CanyonIt was a planned, multi-storied community of between 650-800 rooms laid out as a giant D-shaped amphitheater around a central plaza covering three acres. The walls were constructed of stones and filled with rubble; thousands of wooden roof beams were made from logs carried from almost 50 miles away.


Mesa Verde in southeastern Colorado had people living in many small villages on top of the mesa as early as A.D. 700. By 1150, most of the inhabitants were living in large cliff houses constructed within the huge caves in the canyon alls, which provided ssecurity against attack. As many as 7,000 people may have lived in the area. Cliff Palace was the largest cliff dwelling in the area with 200 rooms and 20 kivas.


Tribal Confederacies. Some nations worked together to form alliances prior to European contact. The most well-known is the Iroquois Confederacy. No one knows exactly when the confederacy or league was formed, but a committee of Six Nations chiefs in 1900 estimated that it was created around 1390. Some Iroquis assert that it was earlier, while some archeologists claim it was not formed until 1450. Regardless, it was in existance prior to European contact. Before its formation, tradition claims that the people lived in a constant state of warfare. One Onondaga chief known as Hayenwatha or Hiawatha, lost three daughters. While mourning his loss and preparing to assuage his grief by taking the life of an enemy, Hayenwatha decided to break the cycle of violence and vengeance and thus composed the laws of a great peace that would restore order and perserve harmony in Iroquois country.


Five nations accepted the teaching of peace - the Onondaga, Mohawks, Cayugas, Senecas, and Oneidas. In 1722, the Tuscaroras joined the league so that they became known as the League of Six Nations. Map of 6 nations in Iroquios  ConfederacyThey agreed to stop fighting among themselves and unite in common defense. The individual tribes retained control of their own affairs at the local level, but acted through the Grand Council in matters of common concern. Fifty council chiefs or sachems were selected by clan mothers from the member tribes. The names of the original chiefs passed as titled from generation to generation. Matters were discussed back and forth between the five tribes until concensus was reached or the subject was dropped. The sachems possessed no power of coercion: the chiefs had to be “of one mind.” People who could not abide by general concensus were free to go their own way as long as their actions did not threaten the league as a whole.


The Great Law of the League was preserved for generations through oral tradition and was not written down until 1851. However, it was well known among Indian peoples, as well as among Euro-Americans. Some believe the Great Law served as a model for American democracy. Benjamin Franklin did ask, if the Six Nations could create “such a Union,” why couldn’t the colonies do likewise? Whether it was used as a model is not known for certain. But in 1988, the US Senate passed a resolution acknowledging “the historial debt” which the US owed to the Iroquois “for their demonstration of enlightened, democratic principles of government and their example of a free association of independent Indian nations.” (House Concurrent Resolution 331)


Conclusions. Today we have learned about the cultural, political, religious, and economic lives of several Indian Nations that flourished prior to the arrival of Euro-Americans to North America. Let's review...


  • What commonalities do we see in these various Indian nations prior to European contact? A great deal of political, social, economic, and spiritual sophistication. Rather than the Indian Peoples being uncivilized savages, it is clear that they were quite civilized.
  • What does it mean when a society is civilized?
  • Why do you think that for almost 400 years, our history lessons on American Indians have portrayed them as savage and uncivilized? To justify the manner in which Euro-Americans dealt with them - and still deal with them

The following points summarize what we learned over the past two days:

    1. At the time of European contact in the early 1600s, the North American continent was populated by hundreds of Indian tribes that were culturally spiritually, and politically diverse. Additionally, the Indian people were quite civilized, even by European terms, and had achieved a great deal of technological, agricultural, and political sophistication.
    2. Despite Indian diversity and civilized society, most European settlers had little understanding of the cultural, spiritual, and political beliefs and sophistication of Indians. Thus, they believed the Indians were "savages"who needed to be civilized and Christianized.
    3. Although some Indian tribes became culturally, spiritually, and politically assimilated into Nineteenth Century American society, they were never accepted as equals within the Euro-American population.


It will be important to keep these ideas in mind tomorrow when wew begin to learn about the Federal Indian Policies that were designed to deal with what became known as the "Indian Problem."


Days 3 and 4 Lesson Content -

Federal Indian Policy during the Nineteenth Century


Introduction. Yesterday,we learned about the American Indian peoples who lived in the United States before the United States became a nation. Today we are going to begin talking about various federal policies that were passed in the late 18th and 19th Centuries - all of which led to the enormous loss of Indian land as well as the attempted destruction of Indian tribal cultural, political, religious, and economic traditions.



Project this picture of bison skulls waiting to be ground into fertilizer. Ask the following questions:1870 photograph of a pile of bison skulls waiting to be ground into fertilizer.

  • What do you see in this picture?
  • What do you think this picture has to do with Federal laws written to deal with American Indians? It is the consequence of federal policies and private actions of individuals to destroy the buffalo knowing that many of the Plains Indians depended on the buffalo for their existence. In killing the buffalo, many hoped it would also destroy the Indians.
This planned destruction of the buffalo was but one example of many efforts on behalf of the newly-created U.S. government to deal with what became known as the "Indian problem." These efforts resulted in what has become known as Federal Indian Policy.


Lesson Content. Almost immediately after Euro-Americans won their war for independence, they began to think about expanding to the west. The United States was still a small nation, surrounded by French, Spanish, and Indian people who lived on the North American continent. Expansion, then, could be difficult - especially given the fact that hundreds of Indian Nations thrived on land coveted by the United States and its citizens. Indeed, while Euro-Americans wanted to move westward to the Pacific Ocean, it was clear that the hundreds of Indian nations living on the North American continent were not going to willingly or voluntarily give up their land.


To deal with what became known as the "Indian Problem," the new American government created three distinct policies that determined how Americans would deal with Indians in the western territories: the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution, and the Indian Trade and Intercourse Act of 1890.

  • The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 defined the manner in which the United States government would deal with the Indian nations. Section 14, Article 3 of the Ordinance proclaimed, "The utmost good faith shall always be observed towards the Indians; their lands and property shall never be taken from them without their consent; and, in their property, rights, and liberty, they shall never be invaded or disturbed, unless in just and lawful wars authorized by Congress; but laws founded in justice and humanity, shall from time to time be made for preventing wrongs being done to them, and for preserving peace and friendship with them."
  • The Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution (Article 1, Section 8) declares that "The Congress shall have the power to regulate Commerce with foreign nations and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes."
  • The Indian Trade and Intercourse Act of 1790 placed nearly all interaction between Indians and non-Indians under federal - not state - control - including buying and selling of Indian land. It also established the new boundaries of Indian Country, protected Indian lands against non-Indian aggression, subjected trading with Indians to federal regulation, and stipulated that injuries against Indians by non-Indians was a federal crime. The conduct of Indians among themselves while in Indian country was left entirely to the tribes.

The "bottom line" of these three policies was that the new American government recognized the sovereignty of the Indian Nations. This was especially explicit in the Constitution's Commerce Clause which specified that there were three governmental entities within the United States with forms of sovereignty - Indian tribes, state governments, and the federal government. So, let's explore this concept of sovereignty. Tribal sovereignty is:

    1. The supreme power from which all specific political powers are derived.
    2. Inherent within Indian nations as it is derived from within a people or culture.
    3. Both internal - the power of self-government within tribes - and external - the power to deal with other nations.


The three federal policies we just discussed clearly recognize internal sovereignty - the right of tribes to govern themselves. But we will also learn that as the United States evolves and passes various policies related to Indian Nations, tribal internal sovereignty will be subject to Congressional approval and their right to external sovereignty will be terminated. In other words, 19th Century Federal Indian policies will reduce Indian Nations to semi-sovereign status - they will only be allowed sovereignty as defined by the U.S. government.



  • Can anyone define sovereignty in their own words?
  • How does sovereignty apply to American Indians?

Throughout the 19th Century, the American legislative and legal system created a series of special federal policies and laws that apply only to Indians. In general, these took two different forms, both of which created a unique status for American Indians:

  • signing hundreds of treaties with Indian nations, treaties which were bolstered by a series of U.S. Supreme Court Decisions; and
  • passing hundreds of laws designed to define relations between the federal government and Indian nations.

As we study these treaties and laws, it is important to note that each had two important goals:

  • to eliminate the Indian "threat" to "peaceful" westward expansion of white settlers; and
  • to destroy Indian cultural, religious, and political traditions by assimilating Indians into American life.


  • What is assimilation?
  • What other groups of people have been expected to assimilate into American society? A brief discussion about immigrants and their expectations to become Americanized would be appropriate at this point.

Assimilation expectations were that American Indians were to give up their cultural, economic, political, and religious traditions and become more like white men and women. Thus, while American politicians enacted these treaties and made these laws based upon assimilation, no effort was ever made to give the Indians a choice.

Now, let's examine these treaties and Supreme Court decisions, as well as the Congressional laws that comprise the body of Federal Indian policies passed in the 19th Century.

Treaties and Supreme Court Decisions. Treaties are contracts between sovereign nations. In other words, they are legal, government-to-government agreements between two governments that recognize each other's sovereignty. When an Indian nation signed a treaty, it agreed to give the federal government some or all of its land as well as some or all of its powers. In return, the federal government entered into a trust responsibility with the Indian Nation in which the federal government promised to provide protection, benefits, and rights to the American Indian peoples in exchange for some or all of their land. The trust responsibility bound the United States to represent the best interests of the tribe, protect the safety and well-being of tribal members, and fulfill its treaty obligations and commitments. Between 1776 and 1871, the U.S. government negotiated 900 treaties and enacted a total of 371.


Treaties were not the only legal entities that defined the federal relationship with Indian Nations. As early as 1823, the US Supreme Court also assumed that role. In what is known as the Marshall Trilogy, the Supreme Court established the legal basis for interpreting federal Indian law and defining tribal sovereignty.

  • Johnson v. M'Intosh (1823). In 1773 and 1775, Thomas Johnson, bought land from Piankeshaw Indian tribes and in 1818, William M'Intosh bought the same land from the United States Congress. Johnson's heirs sued M'Intosh in the United States District Court to recover their land. The District Court ruled for M'Intosh, reasoning that M'Intosh's title was valid since it was granted by Congress and that the Piankeshaw could not legally sell the land because they never “owned” it. The question the U.S. Supreme Court had to consider was whether federal courts recognized the power of American Indians to give or sell land to private individuals. The Supreme Court upheld the finding for M'Intosh, ruling that individuals could not buy land directly from American Indians because the United States government had acquired ultimate title to Indian lands through the "doctrine of discovery." Indeed, Chief Justice John Marshall's opinion stated that European nations had assumed "ultimate dominion" over the lands of America under the Doctrine of Discovery, and that upon "discovery" the Indians retained only the right to occupy their lands. Thus, the Court concluded that European and U.S. practice treated American Indians "as an inferior race of people, without the privileges of citizens, and under the perpetual protection and pupilage of the government."
  • Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831). The Cherokee Nation sued the State of Georgia for passing laws and enacting policies that were forbidden in the Constitution and federal laws. On appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court had to determine if Indian Nations were foreign nations under the Constitution. Its ruling read, in part, that "the court ... after mature deliberation ... is of opinion that an Indian tribe or nation within the United States is not a foreign state in the sense of the constitution." The Court further proclaimed that Indians were neither US citizens, nor independent nations, but rather were "domestic dependent nations" whose relationship to the US "resembles that of a ward to his guardian." Thus, Indian nations were like "domestic dependent nations."
  • Worcester v. Georgia (1832) In September 1831, Samuel A. Worcester and other non-Native missionaries, were indicted in the Georgia supreme court for "residing within the limits of the Cherokee nation without a license" and "without having taken the oath to support and defend the constitution and laws of the state of Georgia." Worcester argued that the state action violated the Constitution, treaties between the United States and the Cherokee nation, and the Indian Trade and Intercourse Act of 1790. Worcester was convicted and sentenced to "hard labour in the penitentiary for four years." When the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case on appeal it addressed the question of whether the state the Georgia had the authority to regulate the commerce between citizens of its state and members of the Cherokee Nation. The Court held that Georgia had interfered with the federal government's authority and its action was unconstitutional. The Court further stated than Indian people were under the "protection" of the federal government and in so being, Congress had overriding power over all Indian affairs.


  • How do these Supreme Court cases change the nature of tribal sovereignty? How do they influence Indian cultural, political, economic, and spiritual traditions?
  • Do you think these decisions were fair to the American Indians?
  • How and why do you think these decisions were justified at the time? How do you think they are justified today?
  • Note to the Teacher: To gain a good understanding of the Doctrine of Discovery, it might be worth your time to preview the excellent one-hour video of Robert J. Miller - a professor at the Lewis and Clark Law School, the chief justice of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde in Oregon, and a member of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma - explaining the historical origin of this doctrine and how it began embedded in American law. His book, Native America, Discovered and Conquered, is also highly recommended.


In addition to reducing Indian Nations to semi-sovereign status by giving Congress power over internal Indian affairs, the Marshall Trilogy cases also reinforced the federal land-taking powers of the 371 treaties that were ratified by the U.S.. Indians thereafter were largely under control of Congress, were to be governed by paternalistic trust, and were subject to the interpretation of the U.S. courts.


In 1871, Congress decided to end treaty-making with Indian Nations. Thereafter, the U.S. enacted “agreements” with Indian Nations as determined by Congress. While all 374 treaties continued to be valid government-to-government agreements, the federal government most often did not live up to its end of the treaty bargain. But just because the government did not fulfill its treaty obligations does not mean the treaties are broken or invalid, but rather that the promise was broken. The treaties are still valid and the U.S. is still legally bound to do what it promised.


Federal Policies and Laws. One of the main consequences of the federal policies and laws we are about to discuss was that Indian people lost the vast majority of their land between 1763 and 1889:
  • Indian Country was originally designated in 1793 under the King's Proclamation Line.
  • The boundaries moved west of the Mississippi under the Indian Trade and Intercourse Act of 1834.
  • By 1876, with the admission of Kansas and Nebraska to the Union, Indian Country had shrunk to what is now the state of Oklahoma, excluding the panhandle.
  • By 1889 after the passage and initial implementation of General Allotment Act and the creation of Oklahoma Territory, Indian Country had shrunk to its final form.

Indian Country 1763Indian Country 1834Indian Country 1876Indian Country 1889


Indian Country, however, was not just a geographical place ; it would also become the place where government agents, missionaries, and other white people operating under federal supervision, would "civilize" Indians and prepare them for inclusion into the United States. Indeed, as Euro-Americans moved westward, they began to demand access to more territory - the vast majority of which was occupied by American Indians. Thus, from 1830 throughout the remainder of the Nineteenth Century, the federal government responded with four specific policies that aimed to open up Indian land to white settlement: removal, reservations, allotment and assimilation, and elimination.



By the early 1830s, about 80,000 members of the Cherokee, Creek, Chickasaw, Choctaw,and Seminole Nations lived on land that many Americans felt could be more profitably farmed and settled by non-Indians. But all five nations had signed treaties with the federal government guaranteeing the right to live in their ancestral lands and maintain their systems of tribal government. Not surprisingly, these nations were unwilling to give up their land and to negotiate new treaties with the federal government that would give away any of their territory.


President Andrew Jackson decided that a new federal policy would be necessary in order to remove the Indians from their lands. Thus, he supported the Removal Act of 1830 which gave the President the right to make land "exchanges" by forcibly removing the five tribes from their ancestral lands against their will. The President rationalized forced removal by telling the Indians that they were not losing any land, but rather, they were exchanging their old land for new land. In his Second Annual Address to Congress in 1830, President Jackson discussed the virtue of the new Act:


“Removal will separate the Indians from immediate contact with settlements of whites; free them from the power of the States; enable them to pursue happiness in their own way and under their own rude institutions; will retard the progress of decay, which is lessening their numbers, and perhaps cause them gradually, under the protection of the Government and through the influence of good counsels, to cast off their savage habits and become an interesting, civilized, and Christian community.”



  • How did removal further diminish American Indian sovereignty?
  • Why do you think Congress referred to removal as a land "exchange?" What is the difference between removal and land exchange?
  • How did President Jackson believe removal would help the Indians who were removed from their traditional lands?
  • Do you think most Americans agreed with the President? Why or why not?

While most Americans did agree with the President, there were some dissenting voices. Indeed, throughout the nation there were pockets of individuals and groups who argued against forced removal and relocation onto reservations. However, they were not numerous enough nor were their voices strong enough to influence public policy.


The Removal Act was bolstered by the 1834 Indian Intercourse Act which moved Indian Country (see above maps) westward across the Mississippi and was set aside for all Indians who were removed. Consequently, over the next several decades, more than 40 tribes were removed to Indian Country - the area that now makes up the state of Oklahoma.Indian Removal Act

From 1830 to 1840, between 70,000 and 100,000 American Indians living in the East were forcibly resettled by the US Army. Many others were massacred before they could be persuaded to leave; an unknown number died from disease, exposure, and starvation suffered during the Trail of Tears as well as on other enforced, long-distance marches westward to Indian Territory.


While the removal policy helped to alleviate the immediate "Indian problem," as more and more Americans continued to move westward, they found other Indian tribes living in freedom throughout the continent. Because these Indians prevented non-Indians from settling in many desirable areas, and because many white settlers did not feel safe living amidst the Indian "danger," another new policy was created to deal with the Indians - they would be confined to a land reserved exclusively for their own use - areas that came to be called reservations.




Reservations Map

The men who created the reservation system believed that if Indians could be confined to one particular geographical place reserved for them, they could become 'civilized" and assimilated into American life. They could be encouraged to stop being Indians and to become like white men. The reservations were to make sure the remaining tribes were converted to Christianity, taught English, and ultimately, to become Americanized. When relocated within reservation borders, Indians were:


  • not permitted to leave, except by permission
  • were subject to arrest if they left without permission; and
  • were governed by Indian Agents - men who worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs - who made all decisions about their lives on the reservation.

By the end of the 19th Century, 56 of 162 federal reservations had been established by executive order. After 1919, only an act of Congress could establish reservations. Yet despite the federal government's enthusiasm for reservations, the vast majority of Indians did not readily adjust to reservations, nor did they become more like the white man. Indeed, most fought to maintain their Indian culture and traditions.


While the reservation system continued to grow and resulted in the loss of even more territory (as seen above in the map of Indian Reservations in the 20th Century), it was clear that all Indians were not going to be confined to reservations and that the vast majority were not going to become Americanized. So Congress passed another new federal policy - allotment.


Allotment and Assimilation

Many Americans had come to believe that Indians would never become Americanized as long as they lived in large reservation communities in which they celebrated their cultural and spiritual traditions and communally lived upon the land. Further, American policy makers believed that the reservation did not give the Indian an incentive to improve his or her situation. This frustration was evident in President Chester Arthur's speech on December 6, 1881:


“…We have to deal with the appalling fact that though thousands of lives have been sacrificed and hundreds of millions of dollars expended in the attempt to solve the Indian problem, it has until within the past few years seemed scarcely nearer a solution than it was half a century ago. But the Government has of late been cautiously but steadily feeling its way to the adoption of a policy which has already produced gratifying results … I recommend the … enactment of a general law permitting the allotment ... of a reasonable quantity of land secured to them by patent, and for their own protection made inalienable for twenty or twenty-five years ... for their present welfare and their permanent advancement. In return for such considerate action on the part of the Government, there is reason to believe that the Indians in large numbers would be persuaded to sever their tribal relations and to engage at once in agricultural pursuits … A resort to the allotment system would have a direct and powerful influence in dissolving the tribal bond, which is so prominent a feature of savage life, and which tends so strongly to perpetuate it.”



  • In your own words, how would you define allotment as explained by President Arthur?
  • What did the president see as the benefits of allotment?
  • Given what you have learned about previous federal Indian policies and about the cultural, economic, political, and spiritual traditions of Indian Nations across the continent, do you think an allotment policy such as the President described would achieve its goals of assimilation?


Allotment - the federal government's new policy - was designed to destroy the idea of communal land ownership on the reservations. This policy was signed into law as the Dawes Severalty Act of 1887.


Poster of Indian Land for SaleThe Dawes Act allowed the President to give, or allot, portions of certain reservation land to individual Indians - 160 acres to each head of family and 80 acres to others - to establish private farms. Any land that Indians did not want to claim - "excess" lands - would be given back to the federal government and they could sell it to non-Indians. Each head of family would receive final title to the land and American citizenship after a 25-year period during which they had willingly assumed responsibility for the land. Any land remaining after allotment would be sold to whites; all proceeds were to be used to "civilize" Indians on the reservation.

At the same time that the Dawes Act was being conceptualized, American policy makers were also experimenting with a new assimilation policy. Some reasoned that for Indians to really become assimilated, Indian children would have to be taken from their tribal environment where they would be forced to give up their cultural, religious, political, and economic traditions. Thus it was that in 1879, a former Indian fighter, Colonel Richard Pratt, created the first large off-reservation Indian boarding school in the nation - the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania - dedicated to totally Americanizing Indian children.

    • Note for the teacher: If you want to provide a more detailed understanding of boarding schools, see the lesson plan on Indian Boarding Schools. You can use any or all of that lesson to supplement this lesson.

The results of the boarding schools policy and the Dawes Act were catastrophic for American Indians:

  • Indians lost even more of their land. When allotment went into effect, Indians still owned over 138 million acres of land. But when Dawes was repealed 47 years later, 90 million acres had passed from Indian hands into the hands of whites, representing a 60% loss of land.
  • Indians suffered enormous loss of their cultures and languages.
  • Indian family life was greatly disrupted by forcing Indian children to attend boarding schools.
  • While allotment was designed around the belief that ownership of private property would teach the Indian to imitate the white man and finally assimilate into American culture, it instead transformed many Indians into landless people who were dependent upon the federal government for basic subsistence.

Ultimately, allotment and assimilation policies failed to assimilate Indians and force them to accept a more settled, Americanized way of life. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, a large number of Indians and several Indian nations still lived in communal groups that refused to live on reservations or to be involved in allotment. Thus, the federal government moved ahead with another policy - elimination.


While no federal Indian policy of "extermination" exists on paper, when all other policies failed to “Kill the Indian,” the U.S. government created a rationale for eliminating Indians. It grew out of a belief that Indian resistance was equivalent to a declaration of war against the US. Using such a rationale, in the late 1800s the US Army declared war upon several tribes, began eliminating resisters, and sought to absolutely control any survivors. In the 1860s, Colonel Marcy articulated the problem and predicted that the U.S. government might not have any other alternative than extermination:


"The limits of their accustomed range are rapidly contracting, and their means of subsistence undergoing a corresponding diminution. The white man is advancing with rapid strides … and they are forced to give way to his encroachments. The time is not far distant when the buffalo will become extinct .... No man will quietly submit to starvation when food is within his reach, and if he cannot obtain it honestly he will steal it or take it by force. If, therefore, we do not induce them to engage in agricultural avocations we shall in a few years have before us the alternative of exterminating them or fighting them perpetually.”


But war was hardly a last resort nor was it something used only at the end of the nineteenth century. A review of official miliary records, some of which are incomplete, shows that from 1776 to 1907, the US Army was involved in 1,470 official actions against Indians. These figures do not include actions against the Indians undertaken by either the US Navy - of which there were probably dozens - or the hundreds of hostile actions undertaken by private armies against American Indians.


The vast majority of military Indian fighting under the auspices of the US government did occur between 1866 and 1891. According to official records for this 25-year period, the Army was involved in 1,065 combat engagements with Indians. In total, 948 soldiers were killed and another 1,058 wounded, as well as 4,371 Indians who were killed and another 1,279 who were wounded. While we have no actual figures of lost lives, we do know that in 1890 when the federal census included American Indians for the first time, less than 250,000 people identified themselves as American Indian.


Conclusions: By the turn of the century, this first era of Federal Indian policy came to an end. The consequences had been disastrous for American Indians:

land transfer map

  • The Indian population had dramatically decreased. Between 6 - 10 million native peoples lived in the US at the time of its birth; by 1900, less than 250,000 people remained and the majority of tribes had dwindled to the brink of extinction.
  • Most surviving Indians had been forced onto reservations or lived on allotted lands where they were expected to shed their "Indianness" and become civilized, Christianized, and Americanized.
  • The self-sufficiency that characterized the Indian tribes at the time of European settlement had been destroyed. From the early 1800s forward, the Native Americans were forced into a position of economic dependency upon the US government.
  • The majority of Indian tribal landholdings had passed into white ownership. Between 1887 and 1934, tribal lands dwindled from 138 million acres to 48 million, 20 million of which were arid or semi-arid.

Yet despite over 100 years of such destructive federal Indian policies, the cultural and spiritual heritage of many Indian nations survived. Indeed, by the end of the 19th Century, American Indians across the nation refused to be assimilated and victimized by their historical experiences with the federal government. With the progression of the twentieth century, this survival mode helped to revitalize many Indian nations as they continued their resistance to becoming assimilated and to celebrating their spiritual, cultural,economic, and political traditions.


Lesson Conclusions

While many issues and themes are discussed in the course of this lesson plan, the following conclusions are the ones that are most heavily emphasized.

  1. At the time of European contact in the early 1600s, the North American continent was populated by hundreds of Indian tribes that were culturally, spiritually, and politically diverse. Additionally, the Indian people had achieved a great deal of technological, agricultural, and political sophistication.
  2. Despite Indian diversity and tribal sovereignty, most European settlers had little understanding of the cultural, spiritual, and political beliefs of Indians. Thus, they believed the Indians were"uncivilized heathens" and "savages" who needed to become civilized and Christianized.
  3. Each of the tribes were inherently sovereign at the time of European contact. Such sovereignty was reinforced when colonial governments signed government-to-government treaties with various Indian nations. Indian sovereignty was further reinforced when the US government was established, especially through the Commerce Clause of the US Constitution which created two sovereign entities: the federal governments and tribal governments.
  4. Treaties were legal, government-to-government agreements between the United States and an Indian nation. When an Indian tribe signed a treaty, it agreed to give the federal government some or all of its land as well as some or all of its sovereign powers. In return, the Indian nation entered into a trust relationship with the federal government in which it promised to provide benefits to the Indians in exchange for their land.
  5. After the US government was created, hundreds of treaties were signed and many laws were passed by Congress - all of which gradually eroded Indian sovereignty. By the end of the Nineteenth Century, the remaining Indian Nations had been reduced to a semi-sovereign status.
  6. To white settlers, the era of Manifest Destiny and of Westward Expansion represented progress and the extension of their cultural and spiritual values to the American West. But to the American Indians, westward expansion was little more than a genocidal invasion that destroyed their ancestral homelands and eroded their cultural, political, economic, and spiritual traditions.
  7. During the era of Manifest Destiny, many federal policies - removal, reservations, allotment, assimilation - combined with westward expansion to further destroy the traditional homelands and lifestyles of the American Indian Peoples. By the turn of the Nineteenth Century, Indians lived on only a fraction of the land that had once been under their stewardship. Furthermore, while an estimated 5-10 million American Indians had lived in North America at the time of European contact, by the turn of the Nineteenth Century, only about 250,000 Indians still remained within the continental borders of the United States.
  8. The allotment era brought about a formalized, institutionalized method of Indian education - the Indian boarding school. For many Indian children, the results were tragic. In shedding their "Indianness," they were neither accepted into American society, nor were they able to comfortably resettle into traditional Indian society.
  9. American Indians are both victims and survivors. Despite the many attempts to destroy the culture, spirituality, and politics of the American Indian people, many tribes have replenished their populations and many have also been able to maintain and celebrate their traditional lifestyles.


Selected Bibliography


Calloway, Colin. First Peoples: A Documentary Survey of American Indian History. (New York: Bedford/St. Martin's Press, 2007)


Hester, Thurman Lee. Political Principles and Indian Sovereignty. (New York: Routledge, 2001)


Marcy, Randolph R. Thirty Years of Army Life on the Border. (New York: Harper & Brothers,1866)


Lewy,Guenter. "Were American Indians the Victims of Genocide?" November 22, 2004. http://hnn.us/articles/7302.html


Miller, Robert J. Native America, Discovered and Conquered: Thomas Jefferson, Lewis and Clark, and Manifest Destiny. (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2008).


Rakove,Jack. "Did the Founding Fathers Really Get Many of Their Ideas of Liberty from the Iroquois?" July 11, 2005. http://hnn.us/articles/12974.html


Stannard, David. American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992)


Wilkins, David E. American Indian Sovereignty and the U.S. Supreme Court. (Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1997)


Wilkins, David E. and Tsianina Lomawaima. Uneven Ground: American Indian Sovereignty and Federal Law. (Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 2001)


California Social Science Standards addressed in this lesson


Eighth Grade

  • 8.1.2. "Students understand the major events preceding the founding of the nation and relate their significance to the development of American constitutional democracy, in terms of...the philosophy of government expressed in the Declaration of Independence with an emphasis on government as a means of securing individual rights"
  • 8.2.2. "Students analyze...the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution and the success of each in implementing the ideals of the Declaration of Independence.
  • 8.2.7. "Students analyze...the principles of federalism, dual sovereignty, separation of powers, checks and balances... ."
  • 8.5.3. "Students analyze US foreign policy in the early Republic in terms of...the major treaties with Indian nations during the administrations of the first four presidents and their varying outcomes..."
  • 8.6.3. "Students analyze...the reasons for the wave of immigration from Northern Europe to the US and growth in the number, size, and spatial arrangements of cities."
  • 8.6.5. "Students analyze...the development of American public education from its earliest roots..."
  • 8.8.2. "Students analyze the divergent paths of the American people from 1800 to the mid-1800's and the challenges they faced, with emphasis on the West, in terms of...the purpose, challenges and economic incentives associated with westward expansion including the concept of Manifest Destiny (e.g....accounts of the removal of Indians and the Cherokees' Trail of Tears)...
  • 8.12.2. "Students analyze the transformation of the American economy and the changing social and political conditions in the United States in response to the Industrial Revolution, in terms of...the reasons for the development of federal Indian policy and the Plains wars with the American Indians and their relationship to agricultural development and industrialization..."

Eleventh Grade

  • 11.1.3. "Students...Understand the history of the Constitution after 1787 with emphasis on federal versus state authority and growing democratization."
  • 11.3. " Students analyze the role religion played in the founding of America, its lasting moral, social, and political impacts, and issues regarding religious liberty."
  • 11.10. "Students analyze the development of federal civil rights and voting rights."
  • 11.10.5. "Students...Discuss the diffusion of the civil rights movement ... and how the advances influenced the agendas, strategies, and effectiveness of the quests of American Indians, Asian Americans, and Hispanic Americans for civil rights and equal opportunities."
  • 11.11. "Students analyze the major social problems and domestic policy issues in contemporary American society."

Twelfth Grade Government

  • 12.5. "Students summarize landmark U.S. Supreme Court interpretations of the Constitution and its amendments."
  • 12.7. " Students analyze and compare the powers and procedures of the national, state, tribal, and local governments."
  • 12.10. "Students formulate questions about and defend their analyses of tensions within our constitutional democracy and the importance of maintaining a balance between the following concepts...liberty and equality; state and national authority in a federal system...the relationship of religion and government."