Since the first encounters, Indian-white relations have been largely characterized by hostility and violence, causing the term "Indian wars" to gain wide currency. The Indian Wars were a result of a clash of cultures that led to many short, bloody battles. There were rare stories of unprovoked American Indian attacks on innocent families that brought about outrage by the rest of the country. These violent acts led to the United States military retaliating against the tribe responsible.
"There is not a tribe of Indians on the Great Plains or in the Mountains...but which is warring on the whites. The first demand of the Indian is that the white man shall not come into his country: shall not kill or drive off the game upon which his subsistence depends: and shall not dispossess him of his lands." The mass migration of Euro-Americans into the west was monitored by soldiers who prevented squatters from encroaching upon American Indian land. As the “overlanders” were migrating west they cut a path that divided the great buffalo herds of the Plains. The buffalo was the life source for the Plains Indians and their hunting of these animals became disrupted. The tribes may have been helpful initially to the “overlanders” but hospitable feelings turned to resentment as their way of life began to decline.
The government began establishing treaties with the American Indians and giving them rations of food, clothing and farm implements to allow the pioneers to continue to pass through their territory. At first the tribes were cooperative. In the Pacific Northwest the military was called in to provide a buffer between the settlers and the American Indians. By the 1860s, mounting pressure sparked battles on the Plains. The sentiment of many whites was stated by Philip Sheridan when he said that, "The only good Indian is a dead Indian."
The American Indians' land was taken from them, they were forced to live on reservations and they did not have the manpower to fight back. Many reservations were on worthless land. They could not farm or raise stock on much of the land. Most devastating for their culture was the lack of hunting on the reservations.
By the time of the Civil War, the flow of emigrants slowed, but revived afterward with the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869. As American Indians were forced to live on reservations, the need for soldiers dwindled, and slowly the forts closed.
By the late 1860'S the government's policy of removing Indians from desirable areas (graphically represented by the transfer of the Five Civilized Tribes from the Southeast to Oklahoma-the Cherokees called it the "Trail of Tears") had run its course and was succeeded by one of concentrating them on reservations. The practice of locating tribes in other than native or salubrious surroundings and of joining uncongenial bands led to more than one Indian war. Some bands found it convenient to accept reservation status and government rations during the winter months, returning to the warpath and hunting trail in the milder seasons. Many bands of many tribes refused to accept the treaties offered by a peace commission and resisted the government's attempt to confine them to specific geographical limits; it fell to the Army to force compliance. In his area, General Sheridan now planned to hit the Indians in their permanent winter camps.
While a winter campaign presented serious logistical problems, it offered opportunities for decisive results. If the Indians' shelter, food, and livestock could be destroyed or captured, not only the warriors but their women and children were at the mercy of the Army and the elements, and there was little left but surrender. Here was the technique of total war, a practice that raised certain moral questions for many officers and men that were never satisfactorily resolved.
The Indian Wars of the 1870's-1890's saw the Army involved in a long series of engagements. These wars often consisted of numerous scattered skirmishes over wide areas, without any substantial battle being fought to determine the war's end. This type of war led to the further enhancement of the Noncommissioned Officer's [NCO's] role as small unit leader. Often fighting in small detachments, troops relied heavily on the knowledge and abilities of NCOs.
The Army during the Indian wars was habitually unable to balance resources with requirements, both because of limited manpower and because of the continental size of the theater of operations. As Lt. Gen. William T. Sherman, commanding the Division of the Missouri, put it, "Were I or the department commanders to send guards to every point where they are clamored for, we would need alone on the plains a hundred thousand men, mostly of cavalry. Each spot of every road, and each little settlement along five thousand miles of frontier, wants its regiment of cavalry or infantry to protect it against the combined power of all the Indians, because of the bare possibility of their being attacked by the combined force of all the Indians."
During the Indian Wars period, enlisted men lived in Spartan barracks, with corporals and privates in one large room. Sergeants were separated from their men, in small cubicles of their own adjacent to the men's sleeping quarters. This gave enlisted men a sense of comradeship, but allowed little privacy.
Black soldiers of this period were often referred to as Buffalo Soldiers. The units they served in were the 9th and 10th Cavalry and the 24th and 25th Infantry. These troops provided 20 years of continuous frontier service. They campaigned in the Southern Plains, in West Texas, in the Apache lands, and against the Sioux.
The soldier of this period spent much of his time engaged in manual labor. Soldiers in the west were called upon to build or repair housing and fortifications, repair roads and bridges, serve as blacksmiths or bakers, perform guard duty, and other tasks. It was a hard life, pay was poor, and desertion was common. NCOs were fully tested in their abilities to maintain effective fighting units.
During the 1870's the Army discouraged enlisted men from marrying. Regulations limited the number of married enlisted men in the Army and required special permission to be obtained if a man in the Army wished to marry. Those men who did marry without permission could be charged with insubordination. They could not live in post housing or receive other entitlements. Still, nature proved stronger than Army desires or regulations. Marriages occurred and posts were transformed into communities.
Married NCO wives had a hard life, often working as laundresses or maids. Their meals consisted of beans, bacon, beef and hardtack, with eggs, sugar and other staples being too high-priced for their budgets. Many lived in dugouts, sod huts or adobe buildings. The luckier wives lived in wooden structures or stone buildings.
The earliest settlements of westward expansion were the forts. They were centers of trade and commerce and brought growth, stability, and trade. The soldiers helped to build roads and later string telegraph lines.
A soldier's life was not glamorous, perhaps a fact learned too late after men enlisted. Some men romanticized the life while others wished to escape from a lackluster career or an unhappy home life. Other soldiers came to the West from the Civil War battlefields. Many were recent European immigrants,and after the Civil War, former slaves. A soldier's life would entail wearing wool uniforms and living in crowded, unsanitary barracks. Often the men had only beef, beans, stew, or bacon to eat. They averaged around $13.00 per month in wages.
In Canada the Royal Mounted Police (established in 1874) were empowered to treat with the Indians--and then back the treaties against the encroachments of settlers. As a result Canada did not suffer the Indian wars that plagued her southern neighbor. While the several thousand soldiers of the US Army struggled to preserve peace on the American frontier, no more than 300 Northwest Mounties were sufficient to do the same in Canada's West, even after the settlers came.
The end of the 1800s brought tremendous change to the Indian Nations within the United States. It marked the end of the Indian wars and the beginning of the Reservation period in American history. A large number of culturally diverse tribes from the various regions of the United States were relocated to "Indian Territory." This region was to become the state of Oklahoma. This large concentration of Indian populations within Oklahoma made the state one of the main centers for growth and development of American Indian arts and crafts. Historically, the Southwest and California were also regions that had equally large populations of Indian people. Today these three areas are the leaders in the promotion and appreciation of Native art.
The late 1930s and early 1940s marked a change in direction in Indian education. Two official special art programs, one at the University of Oklahoma and one at the Santa Fe Indian School were developed to encourage and nurture the growth of Indian painting as well as the traditional arts. Out of these programs, the leaders in the Native American Fine Art Movement emerged. The late 1930s and early 1940s also saw a growing interest by collectors and promoters of Indian art in the small wood carvings being produced by Native artists.
The Indian Claims Commission was established in 1946 to settle any outstanding claims any Native American tribe might have against the federal government. Claims for unfulfilled treaty promises, inadequate compensation for lost land and resources, and other specific claims. The evidence presented to the court of claims was primarily ethnographic and historical. It was designed to focus on tribal distribution, village locations, resource use and changes brought about through the treaty era.