Indian Affairs Prior to 1900

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The position of the Indian tribes within the limits of the United States is Anomalous. Strictly speaking, they are not a part of the body politic, but are regarded as "domestic dependent nations," and are officially spoken of as the 'wards' of the nation. So long as they maintain their tribal relations, their right to regulate their domestic affairs has been generally conceded.

 Recently this right has been restricted by acts of Congress enlarging the jurisdiction of the Federal courts in respect to crimes committed by Indians. The tribes inhabiting the Indian Territory, namely, the Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws, Creeks, and Seminoles, are officially known as the "five civilized tribes." They have adopted the habits of civilized life and live under well-ordered governments. Each nation has its own popularly elected executive, legislature, and judiciary.

They may enact such laws for the regulation of their internal affairs as do not conflict with the Constitution and laws of the United States, while the decisions of their courts receive the same recognition as to faith and credit as those of the Territories. The title to land occupied by them is not in the individual members of the tribe, but in the nation as a whole, and it can be alienated only with the consent of the Government. White men may become members of an Indian nation by adoption, and are then subject to the jurisdiction of the tribal courts, although they still retain their citizenship. The Supreme Court has held that an Indian born within the jurisdiction of a tribe can become a citizen of the United States only by Naturalization.

By an act of Congress however, passed in 1887, it was provided that Indians residing on lands allotted to them in severalty should be considered as citizens of the United States without the formality of naturalization. The immediate effect of the act of 1887 was to confer citizenship upon 10,122 Indians to whom allotments had already been made under special laws and treaties. Every year from 1000 to 2000 Indians signify their desire of becoming citizens by taking allotments. The right of Indians to sue and be sued in both Federal and State courts is well recognized, and they are frequently given the right of suffrage by the States in which they reside. At the present time there are estimated to be over 20,000 Indian voters in the United States. The Constitution confers upon Congress the power to regulate commerce with the Indian tribes, and until the year 1871 the common method of dealing with them was by treaty through the agency of special commissioners. In that year, however, an act of Congress abolished this practice, and placed under the immediate control of Congress all commercial or diplomatic intercourse with the Indians.

From an early period it has been the practice of the Government to conclude treaties with the Indians for the extinction of their possessor right to the lands occupied by them and for their removal to certain territories specially set apart for their occupation. These lands are known as Indian reservations, the largest and most important of which at the present time is the Indian Territory created in 1834. Whenever the United States sets apart an Indian reservation, whether within the territorial limits of a State or not, it has full authority to protect the Indians in their persons and property and to provide for the punishment of all offenses committed within the reservation.

An Indian reservation lying within the limits of a State is, however, subject to its jurisdiction also except so far as concerns the government and protection of the Indians themselves, unless otherwise provided by treaty with the Indians. While all territory officially known as 'Indian country' is subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, and while it belongs to Congress to enact laws for the regulation of intercourse of Indians with one another and with citizens of the United States, it is the policy of the Government to leave to the Indians the regulation of their own domestic concerns as far as practicable. By acts of 1885 and 1890 Congress curtailed the jurisdiction of the Indian tribal courts. By the act of 1885 the authority to administer their own criminal laws among themselves, so far as certain enumerated crimes committed by Indians are concerned, was withdrawn and vested in Territorial courts.

By the act of 1890 the Federal courts were given jurisdiction of all civil cases in the Indian Territory except those over which the tribal courts have exclusive jurisdiction, and over all cases of contract between Indians and citizens of the United States, and all controversies between members of different tribes, as well as certain other cases specially enumerated. By the same act certain laws of Arkansas were extended over the Indian Territory. State courts have no jurisdiction over offenses committed by tribal Indians upon a reservation within the State.

It is the policy of the United States to exercise a general supervision over the affairs of the Indians and to protect them from the encroachments of unscrupulous whites, as well as from the evil consequences of their own ignorance and improvidence. Many statutes have been passed by Congress to prohibit hunting on their lands, to prevent cutting timber from their lands, or pasturing stock on them, to prevent the sale of intoxicating liquors to them, etc. Citizens of the United States of good moral character are permitted to trade with Indian tribes, upon giving bonds. The power of appointing and licensing Indian traders, as well as prescribing rules concerning the kind, quantity, and prices of goods to be sold, belongs to the United States Commissioner of Indian Affairs.

This officer if further empowered to remove from Indian reservations all persons found there contrary to law or whose presence is deemed detrimental to the peace and good order of the Indians.

Until 1832 the supervision of Indian affairs was entrusted to a bureau in the War Department. In that year Congress authorized the President to appoint a commissioner charged with general superintendence of Indian affairs. He has the direction of eight inspectors and a large number of superintendents, agents, teachers, mechanics, etc. Since 1849 the business of Indian affairs has constituted a bureau in the Department of the Interior. The most numerous officials in the Indian service are the agents, appointed by the President for a term of four years, who are required to give bonds. Their duties are to superintend the intercourse among Indians within their respective agencies and to execute the orders of the commissioner.

An important feature of the Indian service is the educational work. The President is empowered to employ capable persons to instruct the Indians in agriculture and to teach their children reading, writing, and arithmetic. By an act of 1882 he was authorized to appoint an inspector of Indian schools. The schools under Government control are the non-reservation training-schools and the reservation boarding and day schools. Besides these there are contract schools under the supervision of religious associations which receive Government aid.

By an act of Congress passed in 1890, provision was made for field matrons who organize sewing-schools, weekly clubs, and Sabbath-schools among the Indians. In 1893 more than 21,000 Indian children were receiving the benefits of education, about two-thirds being enrolled in Government schools. The number of Indians occupying reservations is 134,476. The annual appropriation by Congress for the Indian service usually exceeds $10,000,000. The policy now being pursued by the Government will result in the incorporation of all Indians in the body politic as citizens, and with it the Indian reservations will disappear, the individuality of the Indian will be recognized, and the paternal care and control now exercised by the United States will cease.

Consult: Annual Reports of the United States Commissioner of Indian Affairs; Weil, The Legal Status of the Indian (New York, 1888).


Website: The History
Article Name: Indian Affairs Prior to 1900
Researcher/Preparer/Transcriber Miriam Medina


BIBLIOGRAPHY: From my Collection of Books: The New International Encyclopedia; 1902-1905 Dodd, Mead and Company-New York Total of 21 Volumes.
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