Native American Civil Rights


NA's in 1865 and Plains War

Plains Indians:

The Great Plains, an area between the Appalachian and Rocky mountains, was where most the Native Americans lived. Most of the tribes were Nomadic and followed the buffalo herds for survival.

Intially white settlers considered the area as unsuitable for expansion therefore NA's were left alone at first.

Native American lifestyle consisted of being nomadic, having own tribal laws, government and language as well as own culture and ceremonies.

They wanted to preserve their customs and laws and wanted the right to self-determination, this completely contrasted with the white settlers.

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NA's in 1865 and Plains War

Threats to the Native Americans:

Settlers encouraged to move westward by govt. partly due to their belief of manifest destiny ( to expand its dominion and spread democracy and capitalism across the entire north american continent.) 

This was a direct threat to NA's as the govt. wanted to assimilate them into white society.

NA's suffered from:

  • The passing of the 1830 Removal Act, moving tribes from southern states to the Plains in Oklahoma.
  • The movement of white men across the Plains b/c of discovery of gold.
  • The hunting of buffalo, which caused NA's to become reliant on govt. providing food.
  • The building of railroads across the Plains, adding to the destruction of the buffalo herds.
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NA's in 1865 and Plains War

The Plains War (1862-68):

For the US government, NA's presented a problem as there was widespread demand for more land by white settlers and no protection for tribes under US law. They did not recognise US law and often hostile to settlers.

During the Civil war (1861-65) many regular soldiers were withdrawn from west to fight and replaced by ill-disciplined voluneers who despised the NA's. There were a series of brutal encounters such as the Sand Creek Massacre in 1964

This was compounded by the Homesteads 1862 which gave 160 acres to white settlers on the plains. The opening up of the Union Pacific railway added effect of disturbing the Buffalo which the NA's relied on.

The war was a series of clashes such as Little Crow's War (Sioux in 1862); Cheyenne uprising of 1863; Red Cloud's war of 1867 (Sioux) and the Winter Campaign of 1868 against the Cheyenne.

During the conflicts many NA's, inc. women and children, were killed.

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NA's in 1865 and Plains War

Native Americans and the loss of land:

Govt. was determined to control land. Treaties were made with NA's that resulted in them handing over land:

  • Fort Laramie Treaty, 1851
  • Fort Wise Treaty, 1861
  • Medicine Lodge Treaty, 1867
  • Fort Laramie Treaty, 1868

The Govt. encouraged settlers to move west by passing Homestead Act in 1862 which gave farmers 160 acre plot if they farmed there for 5 years, this brought 20,000 settlers to the Plains.

This put pressure on the NA's as they had to give away land, buffalo nearly became extinct due to the hunting and slaughter by white settlers, there was not support from government and the government policy had weakened their position.

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The progress and development of NA rights


The aim of federal government was to assimilate the Native Americans, achieved in a number of ways:

  • Reservation Policy 
  • Education
  • Conversion to Christianity
  • The Dawes Acts ( turning NA's to farmers)
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The progress and development of NA rights

Reservation Policy:

Started in the 1850s by providing land to the NA's to occupy which was their former homeland. it was to prevent them from moving freely. Some tribes resisted this by raiding settlements or attempting to flee to Canada. This policy allowed govt. to enforce policies:

  • Forbidding polygamy, herbal remedies, tribal laws.
  • Ending communal living and powers of tribal chiefs.
  • They also sent children off to off-reservation boarding schools.

Late 19th Century policy was based on the assumption NA's would become farmers. Sioux agent Thomas Galbraith said their goal was to 'weaken and destroy their tribal relations and individualise them by giving seperate homes'. 

In 1870 the Supreme Court ruled that Congress had power to supersede the treaties with NA's, and in 1885 congress passed the Indian Appropriation Act taking away right of tribal govt. and extended federal law to the reservaions under the Major Crimes Act.

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The progress and development of NA rights


'The general purpose of the govt. is the preparation of Indian youth for assimilation into the national life.' - A report of the commissioner of Indian Affairs of 1890.

Education in the reservation schools was usually poor quality, money was sometimes taken by Indian agents.  Late 1870s two reservation boarding schools established in Virginia (Hampton Normal & Agricultural Institute) and Pennsylvania (Carlisle Indian Industrial School). NA children were transferred there after 6 years on the reservation schools.

The clear intention was to purge young people of their tribal lifetyle. Charitable organisations became involved like the Indian Rights Association. Catholics and Protestants had a missionary approach, they viewed indians as dwelling in an earlier stage of civilisation and it was their duty to enlighten them.

Often critical of govt. organisations like the Board of Indian Commissioners believing they mistreated NA's. The modern view is that they were misguided in their patronising attitudes to NA's culture, but they did genuinely believe they were helping the American Indians.

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The progress and development of NA rights

The Dawes Act of 1887:

By late 1880s was apparent that reservation policy failed to de-tribalise and assimilate NA's. Congress decided to divide the reservation land into homesteads and allocate these to NA's. This was done under the General Allotment Act also known as the Dawes Act as Dawes was a sponser of this bill. The act completely failed to recognise the cultural and spiritual nature of tribal life.
Dawes claimed: ' To be civilised was to wear civilised clothes...cultivate the ground, live in houses, ride in the Studebaker wagons, send children to school, drink whiskey and down property.'

This Act undermined their belief that land was communal, and forced them into farming which was unknown to them. Many were unable to farm due to unsuitable land for crops so sold the land to white people.

By 1914, land given to them in treaties was taken away. Two court cases (Cherokee Nation vs. Hitchcock in 1902 and Lone Wolf vs. Hitchcock in 1903). In Lone Wolf vs. Hitchcock Supreme court upheld the right of Congress to revoke all treaties made with the NA's to take away more land. NA's lost their identity and pride as they now often depended on the govt. for food.

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The progress and development of NA rights

Curtis Act 1898:

This was an amendment to the Dawes Act. Officially called the Act of protection of the people of Indian Territory.

It authorised the application of the allotment system to the five 'civilised' tribes of Oklahoma. It ended the independence of those tribes by removing their right to be subject to their own laws and govt. The original Dawes Act exempted the five tribes of Oklahoma. 

The Curtis Act proposed the termination of the right of these tribes to be self governing by 1906. These tribes responded with the Muskogee Convention in 1905, they proposed a separate state called Sequoyah which would cover their lands. The convention showed NA's support for this idea with a majority vote being won, Congress rejected the proposal and territories were incorporated into the state of Oklahoma.

Between 1898 and 1907 100,000 NA's from Oklahoma were assigned land under the allotment polciy and 2 million acres of former Indian land were opened up to white settlement.

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The progress and development of NA rights

To what extent did the NA's benefit from the Gilded Age:


  • Two off reservation boarding schools set up providing training for boys and skills in domestic service to girls. This gave NA's opportunities to find better jobs.
  • Some NA's used reservations to set up farming communities, giving some NA's the opportunity for better healthcare & tribal life continued on reservations.
  • The Navajo tribe increased their land from 4 million to 10.5 million acres and no. of sheep & goats from 15,000 to 1.7 million, resulting in an increase in wealth and population.
  • The Dawes Act turned some NA's into land-owners, this gave them theoretical full rights of a US citizen. 
    • Alice Fletcher and her fellow 'Friends of the indians' were motivated by a genuine desire to help people.
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The progress and development of NA rights

To what extent did the NA's benefit from the Gilded Age:


  • By 1885 the extinction of Buffalo and seizure of most NA land destroyed the NA's traditional lifesyle and confined them to reservations.
  • The victory over Custer in 1876 shortlived as many whites wanted revenge and take more NA land, especially the Black Hills with their gold.
  • Reservation life was a failure, NA's lost freedom, denied civil rights and their pride, forcing them to depend upon Fed. Govt. aid.
  • Atrocities were committed like the massacres at Fort Robinson 1877 & Wounded Knee 1890.
  • Education in reservations was poor quality, and off reservation boarding schools openly aimed to destroy NA culture by seperating NA children from their families and forcing them to change names, language, religion and way of life :'Kill the Indian, save the man'.
  • Women in tribes lost status after the allotment policy as the land was given to the men of the family.
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The progress and development of NA rights


By the 1920s, 80% of Native American land had been lost. Pueblo Indians of New Mexico in 1921 lost most of their land as a result of a supreme court decision that they were incapable of managing their own lands.

  • In reaction to this in 1923 a group of writers and anthropologists forms the American Indian Defense Association (AIDA). Its aim was to campaign for laws which protected both land rights and the culture of NA's. AIDA was successful in blocking both the Bursum and Leavitt bills which further threatened the Pueblos.

NA's were granted citizenship and some improvements in their lives with the New Deal in the 1930s, however these gains made were not what the NA's wanted. 

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The progress and development of NA rights

The Indian Citizenship Act of 1924:

This Act came as a reward for veterans in WW1, however the decision was mostly seen in the context of the govt's drive for Indian assimilation. The act did empower the NA's as citizenship technically gave rights nevertheless it could be argued the act made little difference.

By 1924 NA's who had the right to vote had increased to 2/3 of the NA population, partly due to inter-marriage but largely as a result of the allotment system under the Dawes Act of 1887. Many western states used legal qualifications, similiar to those used against the blacks in the south, to restrict the voting rights of NA's.

The Meriam Report of 1928:

The Meriam report was on 'the problem of Indian administration' by reformers, anthropologists and social scientists. It presented a bleak picture of the impact of forced assimilation on NA's, it was in response to further encroachment on reservations to expoit oil fields. The report concluded NA schools were underfunded and understaffed. It condemned the allotment policy and noted NA's were the most impoverished people in the US. 

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The progress and development of NA rights

Roosevelt's New Deal/ The Indian New Deal:

The most important act of this period for NA's was the Indian Reorganisation Act (IRA) of 1934. This was the first act to preserve their culture and this was down to John Collier.
John Collier was a white American who became the commissioner for Indian Affairs in 1933. He believed that NA community life respect for the environment had a lot to teach American materialism.

The IRA gave the Native Americans:

  • The right to practise their religion and the right to undertake ceremonial dances and celebrations.
  • It ended the policy of allotment, banned the further sale of Indian land and decreed that any un-allotted land not yet sold to be returned to tribal control.
  • Extension of political rights to women.

Also improved conditions on reservations, building schools, and hospitals, also encouraged women to take up education and economic roles. But tribes still not independent and funding intended to improve their lives was later used for the WW2 effort instead.

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Essay Question: WW2

Was WW2 a turning point?:


  • During the war approx. 100,000 NA's left reservations or their homesteads.
  • 25,000 of the 350,000 NA's in USA served in the armed forces.
  • 75,000 moved to urban areas to work in the defence industry and for many of these it was their 1st experience of living and working outside their NA world.
  • These large numbers intergrated more in the cities than they had done on reservations.
  • National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) formed in 1944, this united NA's in protest.
  • Over the next 10 years the NCAI copied the actions of the NAACP and worked through the courts to challenge discrimination in employment and education.
  • WW2 began the process of Urbanisation of NA's which had been argued to be he most powerful force in accelerating assimilation in the post war years.
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Essay Question: WW2

Was WW2 a turning point?:


  • The Iroquois tribe refused to be drafted into the army.
  • For those who remained on the reservations it was a time of hardship as resources were poured into the war resulting in a reduction of money spent on the reservations.
  • Japanese Americans who had been interred were given reservation land in compensation at the end of the war.
  • Many returning NA soldiers were effectively forced back onto reservations at the end of the war.
  • Many munition workers were also driven back to the reservations by prejudice and discrimination.
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The Native American Movement 1945-92


The post WW2 period saw a considerable worsening position of the NA's through the policy of Termination:

Termination: This was the calling for immediate ending of Fed. relationship with a select group of tribes. Govt. believed that there were tribes ready to be part of main-stream American Society. It was introduced to speed up assimilation. Instead of the reservation system they were encouraged to move to cities.

For many NA's it was difficult to adapt, they found themselves living in the worst accomodation and working in poor paid jobs. 50% returned to reservations where conditions also worsening. 

Unemployment rate for NA's was 18% and life expectancy was 44 year which was 20 years below the national average.

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The Native American Movement 1945-92

End of Termination in 1968:

NCAI were able to prevent termination of some tribes including the Turtle Mountain Chippewa. Pace of termination slowed down in the mid 1950s as many NA's were not properly consulted and few fully understood the implications of termination.

By 1968, negative effects of termination were clear, NA's had the highest rate of unemployment and lived in poorest accomodation. Johnson created programmes so NA's could have legal help in understanding their rights. Nixon ordered for the end of termination.

Indian Claims Commision (ICC) 1946-78:

In recognition of NA's war effort congress set up Indian Claim Commission. Appeared they would regain lands given to them in treaties in 1800s.

Established under the Indians Claim Act of 1946, Congress to hear any longstanding claims of Indian tribes against the US.

It took until late 1970s to complete most of these with the last case finishing in the 21st Century.

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The Native American Movement 1945-92


During this period NA's were able to regain their land and educational opportunities improved.

Restoration of land:
Not all land was restored, and in some cases NA's were compensated instead of given land back. The compensation was often considerable but tribes rejected the offer as they wanted their land back rather than money. However this process is still continuing to this day.

Respect for NA religious traditions was restored and they were able to worship freely. 30 states passed laws to protect NA burial grounds and remains.

Society and Culture:
NA's began to negotiate with the Bureau of Indian Affairs to take responsibility for their health, education and other social service provisions. The period after the 1960s saw the ending of assimilation and movements towards self-determination. These developments may also have benefitted NA pop. which rise to 1.7 million in 1990 from 800,000 in 1970.

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Impact of Civil Rights Movement in 60s

One of the most significant changes was a new willingness to unite in protest. The National Congress of American Indians had some civil rights success in courts and got a pledge from JFK to develop the human and natural resources of the reservation however wass not fulfilled by the time he was assassinated.

NCAI's legal approach suggested working within the US system which went against the movement who still wanted to resist assimilation.

In response to this the National Indian Youth Council (NIYC) set up in 1961. They took an active role in protest and in 1964 100s of NA's gathered in Washington for recognition in LBJ's war on poverty.

Inspired by the Black Power movement the American India Movement (AIM) emerged in 1968 beginning a more radical emergence of the Red Power movement.

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Impact of Civil Rights Movement in 60s

Militancy and Red Power:

They engaged in a number of high profile activities to gain media attention and benefitted from the momentum of other protest movements.

By 1968 protest was growing strongly particularly among younger NA's. In 1969 Vine Deloria Jr publishedd the book 'Custer Died for your sins' followed by a book by Dee Brown called 'Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee an Indian History of the American West'. These both raised awareness of millions about the plight of NA's and still very popular to this day.

In 1968 NA's in Washington State asserted their old treaty rights to fish in the Columbia river. The same year the AIM movement began their own 'patrol the pigs' campaign wearing red berets and jackets, as a result there was a decline in arrests of young NA offenders.

This was combined with a more vigorous pursuit of the return of Native sovereignty in the courts. They campaigned for return of tribal lands.

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The Siege of Alcatraz 1969

Background and Aims:

14 Indian men and women from all tribes, occupied the deserted prison on Alcatraz Island. Led by the young and charasmatic Richard Oakes. This island had belonged to the Ohlone Indians before being made into a prison in 18th century. Indians campaigned for its return pointing out the government had bought Manhattan island off the NA's for $24 in beads and cloth. US govt. offered the same in return but it was refused and 80 NA's occupied Alcatraz.


  • While the seige failed to regain sovereignty of the island it recieved huge media attention.
  • It lasted until June 1971 making it very long running news issue.
  • This spread beyond USA into international news and raised awareness of NA land issues and poverty.
  • During the occupation 10,000 NAs visited the island.
  • Could be seen as an influential factor in the reappraisal of govt. policy in the 1970s.
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Impact of Red Power in 1970s

Occupation of Mount Rushmore: (1971)

Mount Rushmore was in Black Hills of Dakota, AIM protestors established camp below the sculputures of Presidents. It was a significant site as they attempted to reassert the disputed ownership of the sacred burial grounds of Lakota Sioux Indians, they renamed it Mount Crazy Horse.

Protestors were eventually evicted and ownership of this territory is still disputed. Native groups laid a claim to Black Hills by setting up camp there. It also drew a lot of attention to Indian issues.

AIM took over Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington DC: (1972)

This was the outcome of Alcatraz siege. With The presidential election, the purpose was to raise awareness of the plight of NA's as a result of unjust treatment.

Although it was intended to be a peaceful protest, marchers found themselves without accommodation in the city so occupied the offices of BIA. Violence errupted when they were made to be evicted.

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Impact of Red Power in 1970s

Occupation of Wounded Knee: (1973)

Wounded Knee was the site of the 1890 massacre of the Sioux and was a highly evocative place for all indians. Protest arose after allegations of suspected financial dealings of the president of Reservations and his maltreatment of its Indian inhabitants.

It had full media coverage across the whole of the USA. It ended in a negotiated settlement after a violent occupation of the hamlet of Wounded Knee.

It lasted 71 days however an FBI officer was killed and support for the occupation was lost as a result of this.

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Federal Govt. attitudes and actions

Until the 1930s and  Roosevelt's New Deal, the Fed govt. did not support the rights of NA's. Some would argue that it was not until 1969 and Nixon's presidency that the govt. did anything to help the NA's in their desire for self-determination.

Hindering rights:

  • The belief in manifest destiny and the encouragement of settlement on the Plains, such as the Homestead Act. NA's way of life conflicted with the laws govt had made. Assimilation was seen as key to controlling them.
  • The Allotment Policy seen as improving NA rights, but ignored the Tribal way of life and went against their desire for self-determination.
  • Reservation Policy allowed govt. to control NA's and remove tribal customs. Termination policy allowed mining of forestry companies to take more of their land.
  • When the govt. faces economic problems the reduced the revenue made available for NA's. This occured during the American Civil War, the 1890s and during WW2. As well as this it was reduced during Reagan's presidency, he reduced Fed. and state expenditure because of his belief in 'native capitalism' as a means of self-sufficiency.
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Federal Govt. attitudes and actions

Supporting rights:

Progress made under Roosevelt, Johnson, Ford, Carter and mainly Nixon. Roosevelt's New Deal helped preserve NA culture with the Indian Reorganisation Act. Johnson spoke of NA's as 'Forgotten Americans' and set out programme to improve their position, carried on by Nixon.

  • The programme improved education provision with the Indian Education Act of 1972.
  • Some NA nations or tribes regained their native sovereignty and self-determination.
  • Some lost lands were returned to the Makah, Taos, Pueblo and Yakama tribes.

Under Ford the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975 was passed. This was continued under Carter who brought in the Native Americqan Religious Freedom Act of 1978.

As a result, the period from 1970 to 1978 saw the greatest advancement in the rights for NA's.

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Federal Govt. attitudes and actions

Supreme Court:

At the end of the 19th century, the Supreme Court supported NA civil rights, however their position changed at start of 20th century with the decisions to revoke all treaties and remove more land.

Which led to the Pueblo Indians losing land in 1921.

However in latter part of this period, from the 1960s, the Supreme Court did much to advance the rights of NA's. The Court was faced with challenges from the Red Power movement and claims over land and fishing rights.

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Federal Govt. attitudes and actions

Supreme Court:

  • Oneida vs Oneida and Madison Counties (1974) - Oneida tribe successfully sued for return of lands encouraging further actions.
  • Fisher vs Montana (1976) - Gave tribal courts the right to decide on adoption and therefore recognised tribal courts.
  • Sioux vs U.S (1980) - Sioux tribe compensated for loss of land but rejected it arguing instead for return of lands.
  • Seminole Tribe vs Butterworth (1982) - Seminole allowed to establish gambling premisis on their lands even though against state laws.
  • Charrier vs Bell (1986) - This helped protect NA burial grounds and promoted respect for their religious traditions.
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Native American pressure groups

Native Americans did little to help advance their rights. In part due to divisions between tribes, making it easier for the govt. to pursue its policies. Only after WW2 with an increased sense of unity, that NA organisations became established.

Native American divisions:

  • Divisions between tribes meant there was a united front against the govt., seen in the Plains Wars when tribes fought both for and against the govt.
  • Some tribes gave in and made treaties with the govt. The Society of American Indians founded in 1911 to promote unity among all NA tribes, lacked funds and mass support.
  • The NA's were spread all over the country and lacked an agreed aim and made up a very small proportion of the population.

Progress in gaining rights began in the 1920s and 1930s with the work of white social scientists and anthropologists, leading to the Meriam Report.

This growing awareness continued in 1930s with the work of John Collier.

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Native American pressure groups


WW2 witnessed the establishment of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI)  which brought together a number of tribes. The experiences of many who fought in the war made them aware of both racism and discrimination.

The NCAI put pressure on the govt. to improve their rights and the Indian Claims Commision was established.

The response to Termination:

The policy of termination and the awareness of the civil rights movement led to the formation of the National Indian Youth Council in 1961. 

It took on law cases to protect treaties and religious freedom.

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Native American pressure groups

The importance of Red Power and the American Indian Movement:

Inspired by the Black Power movement, many NA's adopteda more militant approach, establishing a Red Power mass movement which had pride in their race and culture. Led to AIM in 1968. These movements were able to exert pressure on the government and encouraged presidents such as Nixon to pass legislation.

Native American action:

  • Established a group to patrol the streets and monitor police activities.
  • Staged a fish-in in Washington State to try uphold treaty rights which Supreme Court failed to protect as well as publishing literature on their history and culture to raise awareness.
  • Pursued cases in the Supreme Court to recover tribal lands.
  • Besieged Alcatraz in 1969, led by Oakes, which gained worldwide media coverage.
  • Occupied Mount Rushmore, the sacred burial ground of the Sioux.
  • Took over the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1972 ( although did lead to violence and were evicted). And Occupied Wounded Knee.

Their position changed partly due to them and partly due to the govt. changing attitudes. 

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