American Indian Laws and Policies

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American Policy Towards Native Americans

The policies of European settlers who settled North America towards native Americans has changed significantly over time. Laws have been passed and policies established with the intent to aid the American Indians or to move them out of the way of the "progress" of the non-Indian population. Some of the laws have supposedly created rights for the American Indian population, either as a body or as individuals. Some of these laws specified the recording of information about individual members of tribes. Some required Indians to give up their association with their native groups before they were allowed certain rights and thus recorded in records outside the designation as American Indians.

Some of the significant general laws passed by the federal government of the United States which have affected the records of the American Indians include the following. Of course, the treaties between the government and the individual tribes also had a great impact upon the relationships between the specific tribe and the government, and also influenced the records kept.

1787 - The Northwest Ordinance

This ordinance stated that Indians were to be treated with the "utmost good faith" and specified that "their lands and property shall never be taken away from them without their consent." As settlers pushed forward into occupied Indian territory, however, they received military protection. As governor of Indiana William Henry Harrison threatened, bribed and purposely intoxicated Indians. He was opposed by Tecumseh who began to organize an Indian Confederation. In 1811 and 1812 Harrison fought and defeated Tecumseh at the battle of Tippecanoe.

1819 - The purchase of Florida

For years Indians had fled south to Florida to escape American authorities. There the Spanish were powerless to control the Indians where a new tribe was formed called the Seminoles. The Seminoles, comprised of both native Americans and escaped slaves began to raid American settlements and then escape back into Spanish territory. In 1818 Andrew Jackson led a raid on Florida, captured two Spanish forts and crushed the Seminoles. Fearing the loss of their territory without compensation the Spanish sold Florida to the United States whereupon the Seminoles were swiftly moved to a reservation in central Florida.

1828 - Cherokee Nation vs. Georgia

In 1828 the Cherokee, a "civilized" tribe who had lived in peace working as farmers, building houses and roads found gold on their land. As a result white settlers moved in and the State of Georgia claimed jurisdiction over the Cherokee. The Cherokee sued claiming they were independent from Georgia. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Cherokee. The victory was short lived, however, as President Andrew Jackson in response to the Courts decision is reputed to have said, "John Marshall has made his decision. Now let him enforce it." Instead the federal government removed the Indians to Oklahoma.

1830 - Indian Removal Act

This act authorized the President to negotiate treaties and remove the remaining Eastern Indians to lands west of the Mississippi . Under Presidents Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren, federal agents again used threats, bribes and liquor to secure Indian consent to one sided treaties. The federal government removed thousands of Indians, some in chains, on a trip marked by hunger, disease and death. This became known as the "trail of tears." By the late 1840's almost all native Americans had been moved to lands west of the Mississippi.

1877 - President Rutherford B. Hayes in a message to Congress said, "Many, if not most of our Indian wars have had their origin in broken promises and acts of injustice on our part." In 1881 Helen Hunt Jackson further helped awaken white Americans to their shameful treatment of the Indians through her book A Century of Dishonor.

1860 - 1890's - Plains Indians Wars

During this period Americans and plains Indians clashed as Americans attempted to force Indians onto reservations. The battles are highlighted by the Battle of Little Bighorn, where Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and his regiment of 250 where all killed by approximately 4500 Sioux and Cheyenne warriors and the battle at Wounded Knee where thousands of Cheyenne men, women and children were slaughtered by the American Calvary. Wounded Knee represented the end of any real armed resistance on the part of the Native American.

1884 - The Indian Census Act

1887 - The Dawes or General Allotment Act

The act provided for the following:

  1. Each Indian family head be allotted a 160 acre farm out of reservation lands.
  2. Each new land owner who abandoned tribal practices and adopted the "habits of civilized life" would be granted American citizenship.
  3. "Surplus" reservation lands would be made available to sell to white settlers.

The Dawes Act, while well intentioned, did not benefit the Indians. The lands they were assigned were poor and the concept of "Americanization" led to a destruction of Indian culture and the destruction of the traditional status of Indian women in tribal life. Finally, as a result of the "surplus" land provision the Indians lost 90 million out of 140 acres of reservation land.

1924 - Snyder Indian Citizenship Act

Granted American citizenship to all Indians born in the United States. This applied to about 1/3 of the Indian populations as the others had already applied for citizenship.

1934 - Wheeler-Howard or Indian Reorganization Act

This act provided the following:

1. Ended land allotments and returned unsold lands to the Indians.

2. Authorized tribes to form corporations and launch businesses.

3. Provided for elected tribal councils with significant powers. This represented a reversal from previous policy and the restoration of tribal power.

1953 - Termination Policy

This was a new sharply different policy that ended the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and all of the programs that went with it. It divided tribal property among the tribes members thus subjecting them to taxation. It also curtailed tribal self government and relocated many Indians to the cities where jobs were available. The Termination policy also ended federal responsibility and social services - education, health and welfare, to the Indians.

1970 - Self-Determination

President Richard Milhouse Nixon recommends self determination for Indians. Indian tribes were once again brought under federal funding with the promise that federal control would be lessened.

1974 - Iroquois Nation vs. The State of New York

Claiming they have been using certain lands since 1805 Indians sue and win in federal court. The federal government is forced to be responsive to their treaty claims.

1980's - Autonomy

Several Indian nations, most notably in Connecticut and New York, sue to gain autonomy (independence) on tribal reservation land. Indians win these cases paving the way for the creation of gambling operations on reservation land. Today there are casinos on several reservations providing millions of dollars of income for those tribes.


  • Cohen, Felix S. "Handbook of Federal Indian Law." Washington, DC:United States Government Printing Office, 1945. Second Printing. Available online.
  • Kappler, Charles J. Indian Affairs: Laws and Treaties. Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office. 7 volumes. WorldCat 74490963; FHL book 970.1 K142i. Available online.