Native American policies in the United States and Canada

Native American policies in the United States and Canada
Native American policies in the United States and Canada

Since the foundation of the first permanent English settlement in North America in Jamestown in 1607, the relationship between Euro-American politics and the continent’s indigenous inhabitants has comprised a major chapter in British-American, French-American, U.S., and Canadian history. Imperial, colonial, national, state, and provincial government policies toward Native peoples varied widely and went through a number of distinct phases.

In the broadest terms, the process was one in which aggressively expansionist states—spurred by massive European immigration, settlers’ land hunger, efforts to enhance states’ fiscal capacities, and racist expansionist ideologies—successfully implemented a range of strategies intended to appropriate the lands of Native peoples.

In the mid-1700s indigenous peoples exercised effective dominion over most of North America, particularly the interior and the West. By 1900 they had been defeated and marginalized, their lands seized in a long series of wars, treaties, laws, and court rulings, and their communities relegated to reservations comprising less than 1 percent of the continent’s landmass, most on lands inadequate for subsistence and often on lands unfamiliar to them.

Colonial Period

During the colonial period, many Indian peoples in eastern North America were able to maintain a significant degree of economic, political, and cultural autonomy by playing off different European powers against each other (this despite the ravages of epidemic diseases, which severely weakened Native peoples before sustained interactions with white people had even begun).

Emblematic here was the diplomatic strategy pursued by the Five Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy (Mohawk, Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, and Oneida), the dominant political power throughout upstate New York and much of the Great Lakes region, which shrewdly avoided strong alliances with any European power or colonial government.

With the French defeat at the hands of the British in the Seven Years’ War, Indian peoples in areas conquered by Britain lost an important counterweight to British power. French fur traders and Jesuit missionaries, more interested in trade and saving souls than in acquiring land, on the whole were far more tolerant of Indians than the English.

After 1763 the balance of power strongly favored the British, diminishing the diplomatic and political leverage of Native peoples in the Northeast. Further west, a series of attacks launched by a Native alliance under the leadership of the Ottawa chieftain Pontiac in 1763 exposed Britain’s weaknesses west of the Allegheny and Ohio River valleys and in the Great Lakes region.

The unsettled conditions prompted the British government to issue the Proclamation of 1763, forbidding further settler expansion beyond the Appalachian Mountains. Settlers largely ignored the proclamation, setting the stage for further conflict on the western frontier.

The American Revolution

A similar dynamic unfolded in the aftermath of the American Revolution. The war split the Iroquois Confederacy, with the Mohawk, Seneca, and Cayuga allying with the British. The victorious Americans retaliated, compelling large numbers of Iroquois to abandon their lands and migrate west or north to Canada.

In the South, the Cherokee and others took advantage of the fighting between the British and Americans to launch a series of attacks on frontier towns and settlements, prompting harsh retaliation after the war.

Overall, the Revolution severely weakened the position of Native peoples vis-à-vis the new American republic, while also opening Appalachia and the Ohio, Cumberland, and Tennessee River valleys to white settlement and, south of the Ohio, to the expansion of African slavery.

In the early republic, under the intellectual leadership of Thomas Jefferson in particular, U.S. policy toward the Indian problem gelled into an eitheror proposition: either Indians east of the Mississippi River could assimilate into white society and become civilized, or they could migrate west of the Mississippi. Either way, the U.S. government would assume dominion of their lands.

As events unfolded, even eastern tribes’ adoption of all the hallmarks of civilization did not prevent the land seizures and forced migrations. In the Old Northwest, the Treaty of Greenville of 1795 with the Shawnee, following the armed conflicts between the U.S. Army and Shawnee in 1790–91, ceded most of present-day Ohio and parts of Indiana in exchange for the promise of a permanent boundary between Indian territory and the zone of white settlement, a pledge not enforced in subsequent years.

After 1815 with the 1812 U.S. defeat of the coalition of tribes cobbled together by the Shawnee chieftain Tecumseh and defeat of the British in the War of 1812, the U.S. government was in a position to enforce the Jeffersonian assimilate-or-migrate policy.

A series of Supreme Court rulings, beginning with Johnson v. McIntosh (1823), provided constitutional backing for the policy, based mainly on the Indian commerce clause of the Constitution. The rulings further defined Indian tribes as sovereign political entities subject only to the authority of the federal government and not state governments, largely resolving a key issue in the constitutional principle of federalism.

In 1824 the Indian Office was established under the administration of the War Department; in 1849 it became the Bureau of Indian Affairs under the authority of the Interior Department.

Indian Removal and Displacement

With the election of Andrew Jackson to the presidency in 1828, the U.S. government embarked on an aggressive policy of Indian removal. In 1830 Congress passed the Removal Act, which required Indian tribes east of the Mississippi to relinquish their ancestral lands and either become citizens of the states in which they resided or migrate west.

In the Northwest, the Sac and Fox under Black Hawk resisted and were defeated in the Black Hawk War of 1832. In the Southeast, the Five Civilized Tribes (Cherokee, Creek, Seminole, Chickasaw, and Choctaw) responded to white encroachment in a variety of ways, including armed resistance, the adoption of farming and Christianity, and the appropriation of nationalist discourses and practices.

In the 1820s a Cherokee nationalist movement under the leadership of John Ross and others, building on Sequoyah’s 1809–21 invention of an 85-character Cherokee syllabary, published the newspaper Cherokee Phoenix, the year after formally establishing a new nation-state in the Cherokee constitution of 1827, modeled on the U.S. Constitution.

Under President Jackson, however, the pressures for Indian removal proved too great. From 1830 to 1838 in the infamous Trail of Tears, upward of 30,000 members of the Five Civilized Tribes were forcibly removed and resettled in Oklahoma’s Indian Territory, a policy supported by the Supreme Court’s rulings in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831) and Worcester v. Georgia (1832). By 1840 virtually all the lands east of the Mississippi River had been opened to white settlement, south of the Ohio River accompanied by African slavery.

Western Expansion

From the 1840s to the 1870s with the U.S. victory in the Mexican-American War, the Homestead Act of 1862, the victory of the Union in the Civil War, the Indian Wars in the West from the 1860s to the 1880s, and the building of the railroads during the same period, the process of land dispossession was carried all the way to the Pacific.

In New Mexico Territory, the Taos Rebellion of 1847 was quickly suppressed and its leaders executed. In California, the gold rush from 1849 led to the enslavement and virtual genocide of California’s linguistically diverse and politically disunited Native peoples.

The early 1850s saw the coalescence of a new reservation policy favoring concentration, in which the federal government negotiated individual treaties with reputed representatives of specific tribes. Such treaties most commonly forcibly imposed an exchange of Indian land for cash.

Treaties also required tribal members to concentrate on reservations that comprised a small fraction of their former holdings. With the outbreak of the Civil War, many Plains Indians seized the opportunity to try to regain their lost lands, as in the Great Sioux Uprising of 1862 and its aftermath across Dakota Territory to Montana and beyond.

Similarly, from 1860 to 1864 the Navajo War in New Mexico Territory ended with the defeat of the Navajo and the Navajo Long Walk, or forced migration, out of their ancestral homeland 300 miles east to Bosque Redondo reservation in northwestern New Mexico.

In the postwar years, Plains Indians’ resistance to white encroachment intensified. Their lifeways dramatically transformed by their adoption of the horse from the 1700s, and firearms in the 1800s, the Dakota, Cheyenne, Apache, and many other Plains and western tribes presented the federal government with a formidable adversary.

A pivotal moment in the mounting conflict came in the aftermath of the systematic violation of the Treaty of Fort Laramie of 1868, which guaranteed in perpetuity Sioux dominion over the Black Hills of present-day South Dakota.

The Black Hills gold rush from 1874 prompted swarms of white prospectors to enter the region, violating the treaty and stiffening Indian resistance, and culminating in the annihilation of George A. Custer’s 7th Cavalry in the Battle of Little Bighorn in southern Montana in summer 1876 by a coalition of tribes led by Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse.

The defeat shocked the nation and steeled the federal government’s determination to resolve the Indian problem once and for all. After a complex series of aggressive U.S. military campaigns, which included the systematic slaughter of the region’s vast buffalo herds, by 1890 all organized armed resistance had been crushed.

The Dawes Act

The effort to eliminate Indians’ collective landownership was codified in the Dawes Act (General Allotment Act) of 1887, which required remaining Indian reservation lands to be broken up into individual parcels to male heads of households. Efforts to implement the law by the Bureau of Indian Affairs became riddled with corruption and malfeasance and its enforcement was only partial.

It is estimated that from its passage in 1887 until its repeal in 1934, the Dawes Act resulted in the privatization of 90 million acres, shrinking reservation lands from 138 million to 48 million acres. The ostensible goal of the Dawes Act was to facilitate the civilization of Indian peoples by their gradual assimilation into white society.

This goal was also pursued by the government’s establishment of Indian boarding schools in various parts of the country, in which Native children were forcibly subjected to assimilation, most famously at the Carlisle Indian School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, founded in 1879.

By 1900 the Native American population in the United States had shrunk to 237,196 (according to the U.S. Census Bureau), from a conservatively estimated 3 to 5 million people four centuries earlier, a demographic decline of around 95 percent.


A similar set of processes unfolded in what remained of British North America after 1815, which after 1867 became the quasi-independent Dominion of Canada. Through a series of wars, treaties, laws, and court rulings, First Nations peoples (as Native peoples are officially known in contemporary Canada) were systematically stripped of their ancestral lands in ways very similar to those implemented by Canada’s southern neighbor, though with less episodic violence overall. In the words of one eminent scholar, compared to their southern neighbors, First Nations peoples in Canada were shot less but starved more often.

In 1885 the Métis leader Louis Riel launched a major rebellion in Manitoba with the aim of ensuring the ancestral rights of the Métis peoples centered on Winnipeg and the Red River Valley. The rebellion was crushed by the Canadian government, and its leader executed.

With the formation of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, most First Nations peoples in the Canadian West recognized the futility of armed resistance and reluctantly consented to treaties relinquishing their land rights in exchange for reservations (often small and in marginal zones), cash, the promise of future annuity payments, hunting and fishing rights, and similar mechanisms mostly adopted from U.S. treaties.