Useful Notes: Native Americans
Native Americans, or "American Indians" for those who are older, are the people and their descendents who inhabited the land of the United States prior to the arrival of Europeans. Canada uses different terms; you can read about First Nations/Inuit/Metis in their article. Generally "Native Americans" refers only to groups living in the continental ("lower 48") U.S., with Native Alaskans and Native Hawaiians normally viewed as separate groups with unique histories and cultures (plus they have very different relationships with the federal government). Because of this, Native Alaskans and Hawaiians will be grouped in their own state pages. Like most useful notes pages, this article is meant to inform and enlighten and hopefully be less boring than more traditional encyclopedias.
Census data consistently show Native Americans making up just over 1% of America's population of 310 million, though this varies by state, with the largest concentration being in the Southwest, especially Oklahoma. Due to romanticism of the peoples and their largely lost lifestyles, they tend to be somewhat over-represented in media (but under-represented in having actual Natives portraying them). Shockingly considering the source, one of the most accurate representations - to a point - is Disney's Pocahontas
(seriously). Of course, modern
Natives can be just as urbane as anyone else. This article is also designed to correct assumptions and stereotypes.
For tropes about Native Americans, see Native Americans Tropes
This article will discuss larger geographical groupings rather than the individual tribes, since listing and describing all 565 federally-recognized tribes would itself require multiple wikis (and probably more true scholars than this site has). Geography was naturally one of the biggest influences on Native American culture; however, it should be noted that these descriptions are generalizations and there is plenty of variation within each group. For a complete list of all tribes with descriptions, try the other wiki
- These are the groups that lived around the Great Lakes and the eastern side of the Appalachians. One of the Aboriginal groups that usually farmed, they were more semi-nomadic than their wandering neighbors and often had more complicated clan style family structures. They tended to live in more permanent structures like longhouses and wigwams, usually made of bark moss and smaller branches. They are the group that grew maize, squash, and beans (the "three sisters") and usually hunted and fished as well.
South East: AKA the moundbuilders
- Similar in culture to the North Eastern group, they also grew the "three sisters." However, they had much bigger emphasis on the sun and fire gods. The tribes of the southeast built many mounds and other structures to worship and honor the sun and other gods, some of which are still honored today. Many of the South Eastern tribes, most notoriously the so-called "Five Civilized Tribes" (Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw, and some of the Seminole tribes), were relocated to modern-day Oklahoma in the 1830s as part of the Trail of Tears. The tribes that didn't (primarily the the Okahumpka and Miccosukee Seminole tribes) remain today as the only tribes to have never surrendered to the United States).
- The "Mound Builders", aka the Mississippian Civilization, were probably the ancestors of most of the Southeastern tribes. The mounds themselves were the beginnings of a sophisticated urban civilization, which by the 13th century CE had already produced at least one major urban center (Cahokia in what is now southern Illinois), with other "mounds" showing definite patterns of concentration of power in the hands of central spiritual and political elites, with definite hinterlands outside the cities paying tribute. This probably would have developed quite nicely had it not been for a big plague; for which, see "History" below.
Plains: AKA the guys who lived in tipis and beat Custer
- The group you're mostly likely to see in media, due to their association with the romanticized Wild West. They originated many of the tropes common in Westerns. Anglos are most likely to have heard of Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull and Black Elk. Nomads who followed the buffalo ("American Bison" for you pedants and tropers not from the Americas); they did actually live in tipis, although there were also several Plains tribes, including the Omaha, that farmed as well. It should be noted that horses were extinct in the Americas until the Spanish arrived, so many of the tropes associated with natives and horses are actually relatively recent.
Northwestern Plateau: AKA Sacajawea's peoplenote
- Hunter-gatherers who lived in the area between the Columbia and Fraser rivers. The tribes of the plateau moved around, following their various food sources. They lived in a prime location for trade routes and often traded with other tribes.
- Mostly speakers of the Numic Languages, this group lived in the desert and moved around seasonally following sources of food and water. One of the last groups to encounter European influence, and therefore have maintained stronger cultural and linguistic ties to their heritage.
South West: AKA the guys who built Pueblos
- The group that lived in the driest part of the United States. There is a definite emphasis on water and especially rain in these cultures. There is also a noticeable cultural influence from the Mexican cultures farther south; with the Southeastern Moundbuilders, they're on the list for the "most likely to build an urban civilization by 2000 if the Europeans hadn't gotten in the way" award. They also were an agrarian society with very strong family groups. The best known of these peoples is probably the Navajo, who also happen to be the most numerous of any remaining Native group.
Pacific Northwest: AKA the guys with the totem poles
- Note that most of the tribes in this region who actually built totem poles actually live over the border in Canada or in southern Alaska. Many of them traditionally spoke Salish languages, or, once American and British traders moved in, a hybrid tongue known as Chinook Jargon. Salmon fishing and basketweaving were both very important culturally. Tribes would often gather together for elaborate gift-giving ceremonies called potlatches. However, these were viewed with suspicion by the American and Canadian governments and were banned in both countries for a while. Look up "gift economy" on The Other Wiki if you're interested in how this really worked. Art was usually very intricately done and beautiful, usually as decoration on practical items. They were particularly good at crafting wooden boxes out of one single piece of bark.
There are two issues to take into consideration when looking at Native history. The first is European/Western Bias: since most history is written by white men, they tend to bring their preconceptions into their work and interpret things wrongly because of them. The second is a tendency to paint Natives as simple or even backward. Often this was an attempt to justify the European takeover, rather than the greed and cultural posturing it actually is (this one isn't limited to just American Natives: Ireland, India, and most of Africa have similar issues).
This is far less true of works made after the 1960s due to massive cultural shifts that caused many White Americans to re-examine their own role in history. In addition, the number of Native scholars who were accepted in their fields increased. That's not to say that any work done prior to 1960 is without value; just that you might want to keep these things in mind. Also while the prejudice may have lessened in recent years, that doesn't mean it has disappeared altogether. Likewise, keep in mind as well that it works also in the other direction: just as Native Americans weren't/aren't simple-minded "noble savages," neither were/are White Men (or most Western-descended citizens for that matter) evil. More often than not it's a case of misunderstanding and ignorance, although it does slide into Well-Intentioned Extremist
territory at points. Not that this excuses the horrific results of white policies and expansion, and there were quite a number of cases of white people clearly just being unforgivably cruel.
- How did we get here? Up until recently, consensus was that the first Americans came over from Siberia, over land that is now sunk beneath the Bering Strait, around 30,000 years ago. Nicknamed the Clovis Culture after their distinctive fluted arrowheads (first found in Clovis, New Mexico), they've recently been dethroned from their position as First Americans by the discovery of unambiguously older human sites. There's also the small matter that the entire Bering Strait land bridge would have been a glacier for most of the last ice age. The new thinking (supported by the aforementioned pre-Clovis findings, plus linguistic studies and genetic research) is that there were several waves of migration (mostly from Asia but probably one directly from Africa as well), starting no later than about fifty thousand years ago.
- An alternate theory espoused by some Native scholars is that native people were always there, originating from somewhere in the Americas. This theory was prompted by concerns that the Bering Land-Bridge theory was yet another attempt by whites to undermine Native claims to their ancestral lands (as in: "Hey, you guys immigrated from Siberia just like we immigrated from Europe, so this isn't really your land"). This idea is not given very much credence, as it conflicts with with the Recent African Origin hypothesis, which is thus far supported by virtually all the credible biological evidence (particularly mitochondrial and Y-chromosomal DNA).
- For the first several thousand years most early North Americans roamed around in small bands of about twenty or so family members following large game. At around 8000 BCE the climate of North America stabilized and larger groups and tribes started to form.
- The largest society to exist north of the Aztecs was the Mississippian Culture, who had a complex society with several specialized careers and classes. Centered around Cahokia, they had a large chiefdom and many smaller tributary chiefdoms spread across what is now the southern US. Cahokia in 1250 was actually larger than some major European cities (including London and Paris) with a population numbering in the tens of thousands.
- Most tribes had a traditional enemy they periodically went to war with, often over territory but occasionally for other reasons. Battles were often less violent then their European counterparts since Native Americans tended to capture rather than kill their enemies. Battles also took place at dusk so the retreating side could escape into the dark once shamed.
Invasion and Colonization
- Europeans didn't just start settling right away. Indeed, they didn't even make it to the mainland of the Americas for several years after Columbus' first voyage.
- Related to this: The European contact was a disaster for the Native Americans in a manner completely unintended by them. Old World diseases hit the New shortly after contact, and within the span of a century had spread across North and South America. In North America, at least, this plague killed some 90 percent of the population—which is why the continent was relatively easy for Britain and France to colonize and the US and Canada to conquer. Had it not been for a temporary decline in the various civilizations of North America (chief among them the aforementioned Mississippian one) combining with the lethality of the plague, the history of the continent would have been quite different (more English-speaking mestizos, for one thing...).
- One remarkable blind spot that persisted for centuries in the minds of European settlers was how well-suited North America was for colonization. They attributed this to divine providence and/or their own industry. Only very recently have less-biased historians done their best to point out that North America made for great colonies because the land had already been cultivated for centuries by the suddenly plague-stricken Native Americans.
Western Expansion and Assimilation
- Colonial Era - Initial English colonists often tried very hard to not go to war with the local tribes, namely because they were very outnumbered and wanted to turn to the Native Americans to help them cultivate these new lands. Some also wanted to convert the tribes to Christianity, which sometimes happened. Eventually, though, enough Europeans came over that they became serious threats to Native American sovereignty. For some reason, most Native Americans were not very happy with this. Notable colonial wars during this time included the Pequot War (1636-1638) and King Philip's War (1675-1678) in New England, various conflicts with Powhatans in Virginia, and Pontiac's War (1736-1766) in the Great Lakes. The latter led to the British banning colonial settlement past the Appalachian Mountains, which got the ball rolling for the American Revolution. Fur-trading with Native Americans was one of North America's largest and most profitable businesses during this time, with beaver skins being especially valued.
- Revolution-1820s Many Native American tribes west of the Appalachians fought on the side of the British during the American Revolution and the War of 1812, believing that the British would try to protect their ancestral lands. They were led by Joseph Brant during the Revolutionary War and Tecumseh during the War of 1812. While good leaders in their own right, they never really stood a chance of actually stopping the flow of settlers coming from the coast. There were other notable conflicts, with Little Turtle's War (1785-1795) in Ohio being the most famous. Two future Presidents, Andrew Jackson and William Henry Harrison, became national figures thanks to their battles with frontier tribes.
- 1823-32 Marshall Trilogy:note Three US Supreme Court decisions that drastically changed the legal status of native people in the eyes of the US gov't. Remarkably fair for their day, they defined the tribes as sovereign but dependent states under the protection of the United States federal government. As such, they would have certain protections, including certain land rights and so on. However:
- 1830 Indian Removal Act: The discovery of gold in Georgia in 1820 caused more white settlers to pour into the state, putting increased pressure on the US government to somehow get rid of the Native Americans living on the gold-rich land. President Andrew Jackson (who got elected in part because he supported Indian Removal) signed the Indian Removal Act—over the Supreme Court's objection (Jackson is said to have said, "John Marshall has issued his decision; now let him enforce it!"). The Act forced the entire Cherokee nation to relocate to Oklahoma, which US citizens of the time basically viewed as no-man's-land. Since the Cherokees were forced to move there in winter, and most of them on foot, about 25% of them died along the way, leading their ordeal to become known as the Trail of Tears. Additionally, this era saw the last of the major Indian Wars east of the Mississippi River; the Black Hawk War (1832) in Illinois (fun fact, two participants in this war would be the future leaders of the two sides of The American Civil War) and the Second Seminole War (1835-1842) in Florida.
- 1850s Gold Rush: Of the many eras of US/Native relations, the Gold Rush was probably the most openly genocidal. Over 100,000 Californians died during this period.
- Plains Wars (roughly 1850 to 1890) - The most famous era in the minds of most non-Indian Americans. If a Native American is portrayed in any media, chances are they'll be based off of some Plains culture. As more and more people poured into the land west of the Mississippi River, the federal government began pressuring and (often) forcing tribes to give up their lands and move onto reservations, especially if the tribes lived on lands with lots of gold or oil or any other resource. Since this was during the era of photography, telegraphs and telephones, and better record keeping, there is a lot more information about the tribes and wars of this time than during all of the aforementioned eras. Also, because this was the last era of Indian Wars, this one has stuck the most in America's cultural conscience. The Battle of Little Bighorn, where Sioux warriors pretty much whooped the ass of George Armstrong Custer and his forces, is especially legendary. There are too many famous figures to name, but some of the most noteworthy include Manuelito, Red Cloud, Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Chief Joseph, and Geronimo.
- 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre: In the late 1800s, the Plains tribes were getting increasingly demoralized by the near-extinction of the buffalo, the subsequent starvation of their people, the grim quality of life on reservations, and the continued loss of their land to the US. Out of this atmosphere of desperation sprang the Ghost Dance: a messianic religious movement that espoused a return to traditional values and promised that soon the buffalo would return, the people's ancestors would rise from the dead, and the whites would disappear from the land. White settlers grew increasingly nervous about the pan-tribal nature of the Ghost Dance and misinterpreted the "whites disappearing" part to mean "we're going to kill you all," and US officials tried arresting some of the chiefs associated with the movement. This tension finally boiled over in the winter of 1890, when 350 Lakota, mostly women and children, many sick and starving, gathered under a flag of truce at Wounded Knee. Their camp was surrounded by the 7th Cavalry, numbering 500, who ordered the Lakota to surrender their weapons. A miscommunication led both sides to start firing, and by the end, 150 Lakota and 25 US soldiers were dead (though it's believed that many of the latter deaths were from friendly fire).
- 1887 Dawes Act: aka the General Allotment Act. Most native cultures traditionally owned land in a communal fashion; the Dawes Act divided up native land-holdings into small chunks which were allotted to individual members of each tribenote . The goals behind this act were: a) to undermine tribal leadership and break up native communal ties in a divide-and-conquer fashion and b) to assimilate native people into a more Western style of land ownership and encourage them to become Western-style yeomen farmers and ranchers. The fine print of the Dawes Act meant that these allotments could be sold off to non-Indians incredibly easily, usually helped along by trickery, fraud, or marrying outnote . Consequently, the remaining native land-holdings plummeted by 75% roughly a 90-million-acre loss.
- Coinciding with the Dawes Act, the US gov't also banned all Native American religious practices from 1890-1934note The ban even forbade dancing, since many native dances had spiritual significance. Many Native Americans continued to practice their religions in secrecy and endured fines and imprisonments due to their refusal to submit, but the long duration of the ban combined with the demoralizing nature of reservation life at the time resulted in the loss of much native cultural knowledge.
- The Dawes era also saw the widespread rise of Indian Boarding Schools real life Boarding Schools of Horrors where native children were forcibly taken from their parents (who risked imprisonment if they resisted) and assimilated into Western culture. They were forced to wear Western clothing, cut their hair (which in native cultures was only done when somebody died), change their names, speak English, and practice Christianity, and severe punishments were meted out for any attempts to practice native culture (punishments for speaking one's native language included being forced to eat lye soap and having a needle stuck through one's tongue) resulting in the death of many native languages. The schools operated under the philosophy of "Kill the Indian, save the man," a phrase coined by Richard Henry Pratt, who founded the school that served as the blueprint for most other Dawes-era boarding schools (and who modeled his school off a POW prison, charmingly enough). Physical, psychological, and sexual abuse were rampant at the boarding schools, and the enormous toll this took on native communities is still strongly felt to this day.
- We should note that both Canada and Australia thought this system was a wonderful idea and applied it to the First Nations and the Indigenous Australians, respectively.
- 1924 This year, all Native Americans living in US borders were given citizenship status. Several tribes had already been granted citizenship, but the remaining tribes had not until this date. Surprisingly to modern ears, many of those non-citizen tribes actually opposed this policy, arguing it was an attempt to force them to join United States culture.
- 1934 Indian Reorganization Act: Prompted by the Meriam Report, a congressional report that revealed how badly the Dawes Act had screwed everything up, the IRA ended the allotment practice and returned some land to the reservations, although it also continued some of the Dawes Act's paternalistic policies towards Native Americans (e.g.: tribes could now form their own gov'ts and constitutions again, but only with approval from the Secretary of the Interior.) The ban on native religion was also lifted the following year. Considered to be one of the few policies that actually had some actual benefit, even if it was still a mixed bag.
- 1940s-1960s Termination: In the mid-forties, the US gov't had grown tired of managing the problematic reservation system and decided that it would be best if they could assimilate Native Americans into US society once and for all. To that end, the gov't "terminated" 109 tribes, which meant that a) about 2.5 million acres of native-held land previously held in trust by the gov't no longer had that protected status, b) native people were subject to state laws and state/federal taxes, rather than determining their own tribal laws, c) about 3% of native people lost their tribal affiliation, and d) terminated tribes immediately lost all federal aid and services, including health care. Though intended to fix the broken reservation system and improve the lives of Native Americans, termination had an overall negative effect, undermining tribal sovereignty and leading to even more loss of native land.
- To aid the termination process, the gov't also tried to encourage those living on reservations to move to the cities, usually offering jobs or education to entice them. This urban migration met with mixed reviews: some people liked it while others felt alienated by it, and as a termination policy, it was largely unsuccessful since most of the people participating would just move back home to the reservation once their job or schooling was finished. However the urban migration did have one unforseen positive effect: the formation of a collective "Native American" identity. Previously most native people identified solely with their specific tribe, but when members of many different tribes were thrown together in the cities, they found more in common with each other than with their non-native city neighbors and started to think of themselves as belonging to a larger pan-tribal group. This paved the way for the rise of pan-tribal civil rights activism in later decades.
- 1973 Wounded Knee II: Amongst the many civil rights groups that sprang up in the sixties and seventies was AIM, the American Indian Movement. Founded in 1968, AIM led and participated in numerous acts of protest, the most famous of which was Wounded Knee II. On February 27, 1973, a group of AIM members and Oglala Lakota supporters (led by, among others, Russell Means whom you might know as the voice of Pocahontas's dad) seized control of the town of Wounded Knee (chosen for its obvious historical and symbolic value) and held it for 71 days. This was done to protest the failed impeachment of corrupt Oglala tribal president Dick Wilson and more generally the US government's long history of broken treaties. After numerous shoot-outs between the protesters and the FBI/US Marshals/law enforcement, the affair ended with AIM relinquishing control of the town to the US gov't. However, the protest drew considerable media attention, spotlighted the plight of modern-day Native Americans, inspired many native people across the country to travel to Wounded Knee and join the protest, and overall marked the start of a period of slight improvement for Native American people.
This is the horrible part of the article.
Do not read if you want to maintain your view on the world.
The current Native American population
, according to The Other Wiki
, is 2.9 million, with an additional 2.3 million claiming mixed heritage.
Native Americans are often raped. To the point where they now expect it as a part of their lives, as stated by
this article by the New York Times which details it further.
This causes some to be suicidal. Others rehabilitate and have successful lives. Note that the AHF has been cut massively in 2010. The media barely illustrates the current pain and suffering, often showing Native Americans pre-WW2
. In shows where modern Native Americans are portrayed, for example as tour guides, their suffering is never delved into. Modern times are horrible.
Needless to say, it is a very sensitive topic for Americans to discuss. Although that said, there are efforts to bridge centuries' worth of mistrust between "native" and "white man." In an interesting side-note, many of the efforts done to alleviate their plight since the 1970s were either inspired by or begun by Richard Nixon
, who not only shut down the Termination policy but also had lands returned back to their original owners, resulting in him being generally regarded with respect among Native Americansnote
As noted below, gambling laws are usually less restrictive on Indian reservations. This led to the rise of the "Indian casino" around the turn of the 21st century, and modern media depictions of Native Americans are likely to reference this phenomenon. In reality, although casino-building brings some much-needed income to the tribes that do it, it also brings a whole host of fresh problems. It's far from a cure-all for the challenges Native Americans are still dealing with.
- Who is Native American? Most tribes require some form of officially documented family tree and a certain percentage of native blood or "blood quantum" for membership. However, since the historical record for most tribes aren't well documented, and many laws are designed to whittle down the number of those benefiting from treaties, there are a number of even full-blooded Native Americans who are not recognized by the federal government.
- Many within the Aboriginal community feel that there is a cultural component necessary to be considered truly Aboriginal, begging again the question of what Native American culture truly is. Not to mention the fact a cultural definition tends to lend itself to people who adopt Native American spirituality and attempt to Go Native which most Native Americans find dubious at best. Reactions to Johnny Depp (part Cherokee, recently adopted by the Comanche) exemplify the many varying attitudes towards this issue: to many, he fits a decent definition of a cultural Native American. To others, he's a fraud cashing in on the image of the Magical Native American. Some extremely conservative Plains traditionals refer to full-blooded Indians who share sacred traditions with non-Indians as "fraud", "twinkie" and "apple". Most Native Americans have their own definition and most don't agree.
- One of the biggest events in modern Native American culture is the pow wow, and it's the one non-native tropers are most likely to encounter. Pow wows are gatherings (often intertribal) where traditional songs and dances are performed. Usually dances are performed inside a circle (or several) formed by the various drum groups in attendance. Historically a Plains tradition, the modern pow wow has spread to almost all tribal groups and geographic regions. The pow wow is seen as a celebration of Native culture and often attracts vendors of Native American art, crafts and food. Don't forget to try the fry bread/bannock/Indian bread. Watch out though, it's fattening!
- The outfits worn by the dancers are called "regalia", not costumes, and you should ask permission before touching them as they often have sacred significance. The same goes for photographing people, their regalia, or some of the structures that might be put up during a pow wow.
- Dances are called by a Master of Ceremonies (MC) and guides that the drum groups take turns providing. Pow wows generally fall into three categories:
- Competition, where dancers compete for prize money
- Traditional, where dancers simply perform and usually an honorarium is given out to cover dancers expenses
- Mixed, which is a combination of the two
- Native Americans have a unique sense of humor that is often deadpan and tongue in cheek. There is an emphasis on self-deprecation and many jokes about sex along with laughs at the Anglos' expense. Also Native Americans like to tease, anyone and everyone. For a great example of Lakotah humor, read Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions by John Fire Lame Deer and Richard Erdoes.
- Most Native Americans have a strong reaction to alcohol—Aboriginal communities and Aboriginals have some of the highest rates of alcoholism in the world. Views on alcohol are mixed; many see it as essential to a good party but others look upon it as literal poison.
- Some tribes even outright ban alcohol in their reservations because of this. The Navajo and Oglala Sioux are well known for this.
- The Iroquois Nation has its own religious healing tradition which has helped many Indian alcoholics, founded more than a century before AA: it's called the Code of Handsome Lake.
- Many Native Americans live on reservations, plots of land set aside for their use under various treaties. This land is held in trust by the federal government, although it legally belongs to the division of the tribe or "band" it's allotted to. Some tribes consider their reserves their own sovereign territories. Although this is controversial, there is some legal precedent. Reserves are subject to federal laws instead of state or provincial ones so they often have different laws than the areas surrounding them. This is why they often have different gambling laws and why they are one of the only places in Canada that you are allowed to smoke in public places unless the band has specifically banned this themselves.
- Native Americans tend to live communally and practice an extended family model, which means families are very close and tend to pool resources amongst themselves. Even in urban communities Native Americans tend to have an extended network of family and neighbors to draw from. Boundaries tend to be very fluid in most families and in some cases are a completely foreign concept. The Extended family model means that even that instead of your standard nuclear family Native Americans treat most of their family tree as immediate family. Since most Native tribes have a long history of adoption we also tend to have a few people who are not actually related but are considered family for one reason or another. Basically if you're Native American there's no such thing as too much family.
- Sports are a major part of Native American culture, with two especially standing out. Lacrosse, now one of the fastest-growing sports in the country, is descended from games played by tribes along the US and Canadian east coast as well as the Canadian plains. In parts of the American west, basketball has developed an enormous Native American following, especially at the high school level. "Rezball", so called by both Native Americans and the non-indigenous, is noted for its very fast pace, often with full-court pressure defense, and often flashy play.
It is useful to note here that as with all sweeping, broad-brush statements, there are exceptions to everything presented here. There are tribes that fit all of these generalities, tribes that fit some of these generalities, and tribes that fit none of these generalities. Lumping "Native Americans" together into one large "culture" is as incorrect as lumping all Europeans or all Asians together.