Rights of Native Americans

Rather than struggle for new liberties, Native Americans fought to preserve rights that they already possessed.

The history of Native American rights is not a progressive march; it’s a story of rights being alternately acknowledged and disregarded. In this struggle, tribes negotiated hundreds of treaties with the Federal Government. Nonetheless, Native Americans lost many rights due to conflicts with Americans and the interests of the Federal Government.

  • Recognition of tribal sovereignty
  • Protection of land rights
  • Survival of indigenous culture

Chapter one

“Talking Leaves”
“Talking Leaves” 1778–1829
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The new United States continued the Colonial-era practice of signing treaties with tribes to maintain peace between nations. But thirst for Native American land proved stronger than Government promises. Native Americans called treaties “talking leaves” that blew away as easily as leaves in the wind. The United States formally ended the policy of treaty-making with tribes in 1871.

Mounting Treaty Violations 1812–1860

In the early 1800s, rising immigration to the United States expanded the country’s population and settlers’ demand for more land. Pushing to the south and west at a rate that the Government could not, and sometimes would not control, settlers encroached on Indian territory.

The War of 1812 1812–1815

Following the War of 1812, Native Americans posed less of a military threat to the United States because they could no longer choose to ally with the British. Consequently, treaty negotiations between the United States and Native Americans became increasingly one-sided in favor of American interests.

Chapter two

Removal and Relocation
Removal and Relocation 1830–1849
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Prior to 1830, most Eastern Native American tribes remained east of the Mississippi River. Some tribes attempted to assimilate, in the hope that they could remain on their ancestral homeland. However, the demands of the expanding United States would lead to a shift in Federal Indian policy that favored removal of tribes West of the Mississippi.

Chapter three

From the Reservation to Assimilation
From the Reservation to Assimilation 1850–1889
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The Government moved Native Americans from their homelands—largely against their will—onto reservations west of the Mississippi to make way for expanding settlement. Native Americans were generally unsuccessful in their fight to protect their rights reserved through treaties, their land from further encroachment, and their culture from Euro-American influence.

Chapter four

“Kill the Indian, Save the Man”
“Kill the Indian, Save the Man” 1890–1917
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The Dawes Act sought to assimilate Native Americans through establishment of individual land ownership. The act banned traditional cultural and religious practices and established compulsory English and Christian children’s education. The effects of the Dawes Act were negative and enduring—it damaged tribal affiliations, familial and societal roles, and the economic standing of Native Americans.

Chapter five

The Birth of Self-Determination
The Birth of Self-Determination 1918–1952
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Following a privately funded 1928 report detailing the deplorable conditions of most Native Americans, Government officials concluded that the assimilation policy had failed. They reversed Federal Indian policy with legislation that ended the division of tribal lands and recognized tribal sovereignty. These changes enabled Native Americans to regain some power over their lives and tribal affairs.

World War I 1917–1918

Although many were not recognized as citizens of the United States, approximately 12,000 Native Americans served in World War I. Their service demonstrated to the Government that Native Americans could successfully integrate into American society, accelerating the decision to grant citizenship to all Native Americans in 1924.

The Great Depression 1929–1938

During the Great Depression, economically disadvantaged minority populations who also faced discrimination suffered the most. Indian reservations were among the poorest places to live during the Depression.

World War II 1941–1945

During World War II, many Native American men and women served in the military or worked in defense industries on the home front. Participation in the wartime effort brought economic success for many individual Native Americans, but tribes suffered when those members chose not to return to the reservation.

Chapter six

Shifting Federal Policies
Shifting Federal Policies 1953–2013
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The termination policy of the 1950s ended Federal recognition of tribal sovereignty and Federal benefits secured through treaties. In the 1970s, Native American protests against the policy and centuries of injustices led the Government to shift its Federal Indian policy to one of self-determination—recognition of the right of tribal governments to manage their own affairs.

Television 1950–2013

By 1960, approximately 90 percent of American homes had a television. Just as other social movements used the media to get their message to the American people, Native American activists used the growing popularity of TV as a mainstream means of advocating for their rights.

Social Movements of the 60s and 70s 1960–1975

The social movements of the 1960s and 1970s increased white awareness and concern about the discrimination and civil rights violations of many marginalized groups of Americans, including Native Americans. Both non-Indian and Native American activists pushed for American Indian civil rights and self-determination.

What about contemporary Issues?

Most of the records in "Records of Rights" were created before 1980 because the National Archives generally receives permanent records when they are 30 years old or older. Prior to that, they are maintained by the federal agency that created them.