The history of relationships between Native Americans, Europeans and other immigrants continue to affect us today.

The government policies of assimilation, relocation and genocide created questions for Native Americans about their own identity and their sense of belonging in mainstream society; questions over the power they have to self-govern; questions about preserving their families and culture; how to make a living on isolated reservations and stay healthy in the face of long-term historical trauma.

While the primary focus is on contemporary social issues, there are historic events that marked major shifts in government policies towards Native Americans. Here is an abbreviated timeline of events in Indian Country and Alaska.

First Contact

Before first contact, almost all tribes on the North American continent were communal societies. Some were nomadic, others sedentary. Some had a hierarchy form of self-governance, others were loosely organized by family clans or bands. But no matter how diverse, tribes shared a sense of community based on kinship. Individuals did not own the land, but its resources were shared by the group. They lived off the land.

Right of Discovery

When the Europeans arrived, they brought with them their materialistic worldview. They valued private ownership of property and a reliance on government’s written laws, popular consent and judicial dispute resolution. And they wanted more lands and resources Native peoples were using. In the European point of view, the Indians weren’t exploiting the land to its fullest, therefore. they were deemed to be savages and had no natural right to it. Because Europeans had “discovered” this New World, they had the right to possess it.


In the 1770s, one of the first big constitutional debates of the new United States was how much sovereignty or self-governing power, should tribes be allowed and who would control Indian policies, the federal government or the states. From colonial times, the founding fathers had dealt with Indian tribes as foreign sovereign nations through negotiated treaties. But the states aggressively pursued policies that would allow them, the states, to take the land and move the Indians away from the eastern seaboard.

Acknowledgement: Country Diaries

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