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Key Events in American Indian History

American Indian and U.S. history has been shaped by many significant events. In this section we've highlighted some of these events and have provided a variety of resources to use in the classroom.

The First Thanksgiving (1621)

The first Thanksgiving took place between the colonists and Wampanoag Indians. The Wampanoag were agriculturists and grew corn, squash and beans seasonally. They also believed in the importance of giving back to the earth, and gave offerings to the earth to express thankfulness. During the Nikkomosachmiawene ceremony, the Wampanoag would celebrate their harvest through feasting, dancing and games. When the pilgrims arrived on the Mayflower in 1620, they did not bring enough food and did not know the land well enough to gain enough food to survive. At the same time, the Wampanoag were being threatened by a rival tribe, and approached the pilgrims in hopes of an alliance. A treaty was negotiated between John Carver, the governor, and Chief Sachem Massasoit, in which the Wampanoag and pilgrims pledged to aid each other. Tisquantum, a Wampanoag, helped the pilgrims raise crops, hunt and fish, which led to the pilgrim's survival. In 1621, the pilgrims had their first successful crop and celebrated through feasting with the Wampanoag. This event is considered by many as the first Thanksgiving, which we now celebrate each year on the fourth Thursday in November.

TeachersFirst Thanksgiving Resources
This rich Web site provides multiple links to study guides, activities, and information about the First Thanksgiving.

How the Pilgrims Lived
In this letter written by Edward Winslow, he recounts the experience of the First Thanksgiving.

The First Indian Reservation Is Created (1758)

The first Indian reservation was created in 1758 by the New Jersey Colonial Assembly. Reservations were created as a result of Indian land cessions. The U.S. government developed reservations in order to clearly define boundaries and better control Native American communities. Today, Native Americans retain sovereignty over reservations, although it is subject to federal jurisdiction as the lands are still considered federal territory.

List of federally recognized Indian reservations

Map of Indian Reservations
This detailed map shows all Indian Reservations in the United States.

The Treaty of Paris (1783)

In 1783, the Treaty of Paris was signed between the British and the Americans and officially ended the American Revolution and formally recognized the United States as an independent nation. The treaty handed control and ownership of Native American land over to the colonists without Native American consent. This marked one of the first of many instances in which Indian rights were disregarded.

Treaty of Paris
View images of the Treaty of Paris, read the text and learn more about the treaty.

The Indian Trade and Intercourse Act (1790)

This act was the first of a series of acts regulating Indian travel and commerce. The act recognized federal protection over Indian lands, restricted travel by non-Indians onto Indian lands, and regulated trading and colonist-Indian interactions. The act was renewed every two years until 1802 when a permanent act was passed. The final act was passed by Congress in 1834, which identified an area known as "Indian Country." This land was described as being "…all that part of the United States west of the Mississippi and not within the states of Missouri and Louisiana, or the territory of Arkansas…." The Act also established "factories" or trading posts where Indians could sell their wares. The trading posts were "officially" established to protect tribes but were instead used as leverage by the government to obtain more land from the Indian tribes.

An Act to Regulate Trade and Intercourse with the Indian Tribes Statute II

Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804)

Lewis and Clark marked the first American expedition to the Pacific Coast, with the help of a young American Indian woman: Sacagawea, who served as an interpreter and guide for the 33-member exhibition. Lewis, Clark and the rest of the Corps of Discovery gathered essential information on undiscovered rivers, mountains, plants and animals. This expedition aided the development of the American map as well as American knowledge of the uncharted western territories.

Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery
This interactive Web site provides video clips of experts answering key questions, primary documents relating to the expedition, classroom resources and a comprehensive listing of Lewis and Clark-related Web sites.

Enforcement of the 1830 Indian Removal Act (1838)

President Andrew Jackson's Indian Removal Act was enforced in 1838 and Native Americans were forced to give up all land east of the Mississippi River and migrate to Oklahoma. A small faction of Cherokees signed the Treaty of New Echota, which granted consent to relocation in exchange for money and the promise of an equal area of new land. This treaty, however, was never signed by an official representative of the Cherokee nation and went unrecognized by the Cherokee people. The U.S. government forcibly relocated the Cherokees, despite their protests, during the event known as the Trail of Tears. Faced with starvation, disease and exhaustion, nearly 4,000 Cherokee Indians died in the process of the forced migration.

The Trail of Tears and the Forced Relocation of the Cherokee Nation
This lesson plan provides maps, reading, and activities to learn about the Trail of Tears.

Cherokee Protest Letter
This website provides the original text of a letter written by Chief John Ross and other members of the Cherokee nation to protest Andrew Jackson's removal policy.

Jackson's Address
This website provides the original text of Andrew Jackson's second annual message, in which he addresses the progress and rationale of his removal policy.

The Homestead Act (1862)

In 1862, Congress passed the Homestead Act, which granted non-Indians permission to settle on Indian lands, contrary to the prior provisions of the Indian Trade & Intercourse Acts. The Homestead Act granted 160 acres of undeveloped land to settlers who built a house on the land and maintained certain standards for 5 years.

Medicine Lodge Treaties (1867)

The Medicine Lodge Treaties were three separate treaties signed between the United States and the Kiowa, Comanche, Apache, Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes. The treaties negotiated Indian land in exchanged for smaller reservations. The treaties required ratification of ¾ of the tribe members, which was never obtained. In 1902, Kiowa Chief Lone Wolf sued the Department of the Interior, but the Supreme Court decided in the case of Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock that although the treaty had indeed gone unratified, it did not matter because while Indians were not recognized under the Bill of Rights, they were subject to U.S. protection and jurisdiction. This case recognized Congress's plenary power, or absolute authority, over Indian affairs.

Treaty with the Kiowa, Comanche, and Apache
This website offers one of the original Medicine Lodge Treaties.

Lonewolf v. Hitchcock
Read the text to the Supreme Court case.

Indian Citizenship Act (1924)

American Indians are granted U.S. citizenship through the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924. Previous to the Act, Indians could gain citizenship only through military service, marriage or treaties.

Read the Indian Citizenship Act

Implications of Citizenship
This website provides background information and study questions as well as additional resources for teachers to discuss the implications of the Act.

World War II and Code Talkers (1941)

During World War II, many Navajo Indians were recruited into the military to serve as Code Talkers. The Navajo language is very complex and during this time period was virtually impossible to decipher. The Code Talkers communicated important messages over the radio and greatly aided the United States during the war. During the war the code was never broken. 

Code Talkers
This website provides information and resources about the role of Navajo Code Talkers in WWII.

Code Talkers' Dictionary
This site provides an expansive listing of Navajo words used during the war and their English translations.

The National Congress of American Indians Meets (1944)  

In 1944, The National Congress of American Indians, which was created to monitor federal policies, meets for the first time. The Congress was developed in response to violations of treaty rights and a lack of tribal sovereignty. NCAI is still active and works to protect Native American rights.

The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) official website.

The Indian Claims Commission Act of 1946

The Indian Claims Commission Act of 1946 allows tribes to file claims regarding land rights. This act was a formal attempt to settle any claims tribes had against the U.S. government and required all claims to be made by Aug. 13, 1951. Any claims after that date would be forever barred by statute. 285 cases were settled for more than $800 million before the Claims Commission was terminated in 1976.

Indian Claims Commission Act
Read the full text of the Act.

The Indian Civil Rights Act (1968)

In 1968, the Indian Civil Rights Act was passed, which required states to gain tribal consent before imposing any legal jurisdiction over a tribe. The Act is also known as the Indian Bill of Rights, as it is similar to the Bill of Rights. The Act includes rights to religious freedom, equal protection of the law and due process. The Act is intended to protect individuals from a violation of their rights by a tribal authority.

In 1492, Christopher Columbus landed in what would become America and encountered the first Native Americans. Mistakenly believing he had reached India, Columbus dubbed the Indigenous people "Indians." In the decades that followed, European colonization exploded and Native Americans found themselves faced with a new culture that brought unfamiliar diseases to which the indigenous people were not immune. Between the 15th and 19th centuries, the Native American population severely diminished due to disease, displacement, internal warfare, and conflicts with the Europeans. Although faced with great challenges, Native Americans were resilient.

The Indian Civil Rights Act American Indian Civil Rights Handbook

This handbook, prepared by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, outlines the rights granted to Native Americans through the act.