The distinct eras of United States Indian policy

From “The Land is Not Empty: Following Jesus in Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery” by Sarah Augustine

In his book Native America, Discovered and Conquered: Thomas Jefferson, Lewis and Clark, and Manifest Destiny, legal scholar Robert J. Miller describes distinct eras of United States Indian policy designed to permanently remove Indigenous Peoples from their lands by way of war, violence, forced relocation, internment, land-grabbing, urbanization, segregation, and discrimination.

During the Trade and Intercourse era (1789-1825), the United States established policy to govern trade and political discourse with Indigenous Nations and to ensure that only the federal government could control Native American lands.

The Removal era (1825-1850s), established policies as the final solution to the “Indian Problem,” by forcing the Indigenous Nations in the eastern United States to relocate west of the Mississippi River. This solution was hardly final. The Gold Rush in California, the expansion of the Oregon Trail, and the resolution of the Mexican-American War in the late 1840s meant a flood of American settlers rushed to the Western territories.

The Reservation Era (1850-1887) resolved to force Indigenous Nations onto small, remote reservations established by treaties negotiated under the threat of violence by the U.S. military. Reservations were much smaller than Indigenous tribes’ traditional food-gathering areas, often outside their traditional homelands, and resources for adequate food, medicine, housing, clean water, and other necessities were inadequate. These necessities continue to be inadequate for tribal peoples in the United States today.

As discussed in chapter 2, the Allotment and Assimilation era (1887-1934) further diminished Indigenous lands by reducing the size of reservations that treaties had established. To break up tribal ownership of land and open reservations to American settlers, reservations were divided into small allotments, which were then assigned, or “allotted,” to individual tribal members.