Relations between Indians
and U.S. Citizens

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    • Northwest Ordinance and the Ohio Valley
    • Relations with the British
    • War of 1812
    • Continued Resistance
    • Manifest Destiny
    • Forced Assimilation
    • Indian Reorganization Act of 1934
    • Termination in the 1950's
    • Self-Determination
    • Related Topics and Resources

Even before the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, the United States attempted to develop policies to deal with Indian affairs. In 1775, relations between the thirteen colonies and the British government were worsening, and the Continental Congress created three departments to establish good relations with Indian tribes and persuade them to remain neutral in conflicts between the colonies and the British. However, the British were far more successful in their efforts to bring the Indians over to their side. The Indians generally distrusted the Americans because colonial settlers had been spilling over the Appalachian Mountains since the 1760s, and Indian people feared that eventually the Americans would take over their lands. A few Indians actively fought for the United States during the American Revolution, particularly the Potawatomi Indians at Milwaukee, the Oneida in New York, and the Stockbridge in Massachusetts, but most fought for the British.

One reason so many Indians fought for Great Britain during the Revolution was that the British promised to preserve tribes' rights to their land if they served the British cause. The British also suggested establishing an independent Indian country in the Midwest to act as a buffer between the rebellious colonies and British colonies in Canada, which the United States invaded during the American Revolution and tried to gain during final peace talks. This British plan never came to fruition because the United States was given full sovereignty over the Midwest in the final peace treaty in 1783. From 1781 to 1789, the United States had a very weak central government known as the Articles of Confederation. During this time, the United States maintained that tribes had forfeited their rights to the land by fighting on the side of the British. However, Native people stated that they had not been defeated during the war as Great Britain had and refused to bow to American demands to vacate their lands. Moreover, the United States lacked the military power necessary to make the Indians leave.

Northwest Ordinance and the Ohio Valley

The focal point of American Indian policy was the Ohio River valley, where the young nation had many pioneer settlements. The United States took a more realistic approach when it passed the Northwest Ordinance in 1787, recognizing that tribes did have rights to their lands, and that U.S. purchase of tribal lands must be done through formal treaties. Ratification of the federal constitution in 1789 further streamlined Indian affairs by investing the new central government--rather than the states--with all treaty-making powers.

Despite this, tribes were not ready to give up their lands, particularly the Indians of Ohio. They did not recognize certain treaties made with the United States during the 1780s, and when the U.S. sent soldiers to take their lands, they fought back. The Ohio Indians successfully destroyed two American military expeditions sent to fight them in 1790 and 1791, but they lost a major battle at Fallen Timbers, Ohio in 1794. In the subsequent treaty, the United States forced the Ohio Indians to cede most of their land. This solidified Indian support for the British, who continued to distrust the United States and feared the federal government had designs on Canada.



Relations with the British

British traders from Canada continued to trade with the Indians in the United States, and to curb this influence President George Washington established the "factory system" in 1796. Indian factories (short for "manufactories") were government-run trading houses where Indian people could bring their furs and receive European-manufactured goods such as blankets, knives, and guns. The system lasted until 1822, and eventually there were government factories at Chicago, Green Bay, Prairie du Chien, and Mackinac Island. The Indians disliked the factories because they had very cheap, low-quality goods, and the Indians of Wisconsin and the Midwest continued to trade with the British traders from Canada.

Indian peoples' economic ties with the British were reinforced by a mutual desire to limit U.S. expansion. This alliance, although strained at times, was reinforced between 1805 and 1811 when two Shawnee brothers from Ohio named Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa (or the Shawnee Prophet) began to preach a doctrine of spiritual renewal among the Indians west of the Appalachians as well as a political doctrine that stressed limiting United States expansion. Tecumseh took the lead in creating a pan-tribal alliance among Indians west of the Appalachians. Many Wisconsin Indians joined him, particularly the Ho-chunk. In 1811, this Indian alliance suffered a dramatic setback when it lost the Battle of Tippecanoe to American forces in Indiana.


War of 1812

Soon afterward, the War of 1812 broke out between the United States and Great Britain, and almost every Midwestern Indian tribe fought against the Americans and on the side of Great Britain. At the war's outset, the Indians and the British quickly conquered the American military posts at Mackinac Island (Fort Mackinac) and Chicago (Fort Dearborn). In 1814, the United States built a small fort at Prairie du Chien, but it was taken from the Americans after a short siege. The United States made two attempts to retake Prairie du Chien and one to retake Mackinac Island, but British troops and their Indian allies successfully repelled each attempt. Indeed, the British retained a iron grip on Wisconsin throughout the War of 1812.

Despite this, British commissioners in Europe returned Wisconsin and the parts of the Midwest under their control to the United States when the treaty ending the war was finalized in 1814. When word of the treaty arrived in Wisconsin in 1815, the Indians and British soldiers were shocked and saddened, for despite their spectacular victories against the United States, the land they had defended would return to American sovereignty. Over the next two years, the United States signed separate peace treaties with each tribe to end existing hostilities. The United States also reestablished its military presence in the Midwest by reoccupying posts at Chicago and Mackinac Island and establishing new posts at Green Bay (Fort Howard), Prairie du Chien (Fort Crawford), Rock Island, Illinois (Fort Armstrong), Sault Ste. Marie (Fort Brady), and present-day Minneapolis-St. Paul (Fort Snelling). Indian agents were also assigned to each military post, acting as liaisons between the U.S. and tribes.



Continued Resistance

Between 1815 and 1834, the situation in Wisconsin did not change dramatically for the Indians. They retained possession of the vast majority of their lands, and the fur trade continued as before. The only real change was that the American Fur Company replaced British trading companies in Canada. Animosity against the United States still prevailed: in every tribe, there were many tribal members who continued to distrust the United States, and this anti-Americanism led to two short-lived Indian uprisings. The first was the 1827 Winnebago Uprising, led by the Ho-chunk who lived at La Crosse. They failed to attract other Ho-chunk bands or tribes to their cause, and the United States army quickly put down the revolt.

The second uprising was led by a Sauk warrior named Black Hawk, who led about one thousand Sauk, Fox, and Kickapoo across the Mississippi into Illinois to occupy their old village site. Black Hawk believed his tribe's land in Illinois had been illegally taken by the United States. He also believed that the British in Canada and other Midwestern tribes would support his band. He was sadly mistaken on both counts. The United States Army and the Illinois militia chased him through Wisconsin in the summer of 1832 and defeated Black Hawk at the Battle of Bad Axe along the Mississippi River.



Manifest Destiny

The defeat of Black Hawk in 1832 came at a critical moment in American history. During the 1830s and 1840s, White Americans began to formulate a doctrine known as Manifest Destiny, which called for the United States to stretch from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans. This, of course, meant that Indian people who inhabited the vast lands of the west had to be dealt with. During the 1830s, American policy makers devised a strategy known as Indian Removal, which called for moving all Indians to lands west of the Mississippi River. As these lands began to attract attention and the idea of spreading to the Pacific gained momentum, Americans devised a new strategy of moving Indians off their lands and putting them onto smaller tracts called reservations. In reality, the doctrine of Manifest Destiny was just a flimsy set of rationalizations for dispossessing Indians of their lands. This affected federal Indian policy in Wisconsin.

Between 1804 and 1848, all Indian lands in Wisconsin had been ceded to the federal government, although the majority was purchased in the 1830s and 1840s. The United States wanted the Indians to go west across the Mississippi, and while many Indians did, many more refused. To solve this dilemma, the United States began to negotiate land reservations for the tribes. The Menominee, Stockbridge-Munsee, and Ojibwa all signed treaties with the federal government in the 1850s to gain reservations of land within the state. Others such as the Potawatomi and Ho-chunk staked out claims much like White settlers so they too could remain in Wisconsin.


Forced Assimilation

Throughout the nineteenth century, most White Americans thought Indians should give up their tribal customs and languages, believing that Indians had to be "civilized" and learn to live like White people. What most Americans did not know was that Indians already had their own cultures and were loathe to give up their ways of life. Nevertheless, American Indian policy focused on "civilizing" American Indians in various ways. First, they built boarding schools where Indian children could be taught English, wear White peoples' clothes, and learn non-Indian trades and farming. White reformers believed the best way to "civilize" Indian children was to separate them from their tribes and forbid them to use tribal languages, practice tribal customs, or dress in Indian clothes. Many children were sent to boarding schools hundreds of miles from their homes in places such as Carlisle, Pennsylvania and Hampton, Virginia. In Wisconsin, an Indian boarding school was established at Tomah in 1891.

Another major program initiated by the federal government was the 1887 Dawes Act, which mandated that Indian reservations be divided and parcels of land given to each family. Reservations were owned communally by tribes, and the government believed that Indians would become "civilized" faster if each family were given an allotment of land and learned to farm. Excess reservation lands could then be sold to Whites who would provide good examples to Indians on how they should live their lives. The plan was a disaster for the Indians. When they received their land allotments, they could not sell it for twenty-five years. However, many allotments were comprised of poor land for land for farming and very few Indians were able to make a living through agriculture. In Wisconsin, many Indians sold their land to lumber companies to supplement their often meager incomes. On some reservations, over ninety percent of the land passed into the hands of non-Indians.



Indian Reorganization Act of 1934

The government finally reversed its assimilationist policies in 1932, when John Collier became the U.S. Commissioner of Indian affairs. Collier believed that assimilationist policies of the past were morally bankrupt and that Indians should be able to live as Indians and enjoy their tribal cultures, religions, and customs. The major tool Collier used to bring about this program was the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) of 1934. In an effort to allow Indians to preserve their sovereignty, the IRA also allowed Indian tribes to write constitutions and become self-governing. Also, some landless tribes in Wisconsin were able to place lands in federal trust during Collier's tenure, thus protecting it from further encroachment. The Mole Lake and St. Croix Ojibwa bands established reservations in 1937 and 1938 respectively, while the Stockbridge-Munsee managed to buy back 15,000 acres of their old reservation in 1936 and 1937.


Termination in the 1950's

Despite Indian support for these reforms, there was often little support in Congress. In the 1950s, many congressmen wanted to end the special relationship existing between the federal government and tribal governments through a program called termination. Under this policy, the Indians' status as sovereign, federally-recognized tribes would be ended. The only two tribes to undergo termination were the Menominees of Wisconsin and the Klamaths of Oregon. Both tribes experienced so many problems after termination that no other tribe was willing to go through with it, and the program was ended. The Menominees finally regained their status as a federally-recognized tribe in 1973.




Since the 1970s, federal Indian policy has promoted tribal self-determination. The 1975 Indian Self-Determination and Educational Assistance Act allowed tribes to assume certain responsibilities formerly carried out by the federal government and gave tribes control over education funds as well. Federal courts have also aided Indian tribes in key legal decisions protecting Indian treaty rights and tribal sovereignty. One of the most important legal decisions for Wisconsin Indians was in 1983, when the federal court in Chicago reaffirmed the Wisconsin Ojibwas' right to harvest fish and hunt off of their reservations on lands they ceded to the federal government in 1837 and 1842. The court determined that the Ojibwa had never relinquished those rights, and that the state of Wisconsin had illegally restricted their activities when it forbid them to hunt and fish on their ceded lands.


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