The assimilation of American Indians into American society was a process that took upwards of 300 years. At first, when the European colonists reached American shores, they had no need for more than limited contact with the indigenous natives of the land. In the 1700s, as the colonist population grew, it became necessary to form a working relationship with the American Indian tribes. The colonists traded Indian furs for European goods and encouraged the Indians to join them in their wars against England and European countries.
However, in the 1830s, as the government of the United States affirmed its stability, the needs of the new nation changed. Its growing population required more and more land. Now, the government had stronger reasons than just placating and wooing the tribes to clear them from their land. Using persuasion and force, the government implemented the Indian Removal Act, which resulted in the transportation of the Eastern tribes to the edge of the Great Plains.
However, through the years, as the borders of the American settlements grew, it became more and more difficult to maintain exclusive Indian occupation and control of their lands. The encroachment of the white men on Indian-controlled land resulted in many battles and countless deaths on both sides of the conflict.
By the late 1860s, U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant suggested a peace policy as a solution to the conflict. He advocated a reservation system that would relocate various tribes to clearly demarcated parcels of land. It also encouraged the Christianization of the native tribes. Grant's policy generated much controversy. White settlers often objected to the size of the Indian reservations, resulting in reduced land allotment. Generally, the federal agencies for Native Americans were rife with corruption, and most relocated tribes lived in poor conditions. Enforcing the reservation system also required the United States Army to restrict the movements of Indian tribes, many of which were nomadic by nature.
In 1879, a number of scandals related to the treatment of Native Americans resulted in a public consciousness that the current treatment of Indian tribes was unfair. Previously, the general public believed in separating the Indians from American society. Now, a number of groups and societies, including the Boston Citizenship Committee, the Women's National Indian Association and the Indian Rights Association, promoted assimilation of Indian tribes into American society.
As a whole, even those who promoted assimilation of Native Americans still viewed the tribes as people with deficient intellect, unable to live independently. They believed that it was necessary for American society to oversee all Indian affairs. In the 1880s, new programs focused on Indian landholding, education and citizenship. Previously, Indian tribes maintained their own political, religious and legal systems and were generally self-sufficient. These systems allowed Indians to separate from the white majority. Proponents of the assimilation policy believed that it was necessary to remove these barriers, thereby allowing integration into mainstream society.
The Americanization and assimilation policies encouraged the education of Indian children. Boarding schools were founded for these Native Americans. In these schools, typically considered harsh on the students, Indian children were forced to attend church and study standard subjects. They were forbidden to practice any of their tribal traditions and were prohibited from speaking their native tongues, even among themselves. American officials coerced Indian tribes to release a quota of students from each reservation, and by 1902, more than 6,000 Native American children attended these schools.
Another landmark in the Americanization of Native Americans was the United States v. Kagama lawsuit. The ruling included the statement that "The power of the general government over these remnants of a race once powerful … is necessary for their protection, as well as to the safety of those among whom they dwell." This ruling provided the government the power to interfere in all tribal issues. Believing that Christianity was the only "civilized" religion, the government outlawed all tribal rituals. This law did not change until 1978.
In 1887, the American government instituted the Dawes Act. With this act, the American government allotted portions of land to individual Indians, negating the idea of tribal lands. Ostensibly, this act was intended to promote Indian civilization by encouraging individual land ownership and propriety and breaking up the tribes as a social unit. However, it additionally benefited the "rewarded" Indians who abandoned their tribes with U.S. citizenship.