Indians of North America

Natives, North American

North American Natives, peoples who occupied North America before the arrival of the Europeans in the 15th cent. They have long been known as Indians because of the belief prevalent at the time of Columbus that the Americas were the outer reaches of the Indies (i.e., the East Indies). Most scholars agree that Native Americans came into the Western Hemisphere from Asia via the Bering Strait or along the N Pacific coast in a series of migrations. From Alaska they spread east and south. The several waves of migration are said to account for the many native linguistic families (see Native American languages), while the common origin is used to explain the physical characteristics that Native Americans have in common (though with considerable variation)—Mongolic features, coarse, straight black hair, dark eyes, sparse body hair, and a skin color ranging from yellow-brown to reddish brown. Some scholars accept evidence of Native American existence in the Americas back more than 25,000 years, while many others believe that people arrived later than that, perhaps as recently as 12,000 years ago. In pre-Columbian times (prior to 1492) the Native American population of the area N of Mexico is conservatively estimated to have been about 1.8 million, with some authorities believing the population to have been as large as 10 million or more. This population dropped dramatically within a few decades of the first contacts with Europeans, however, as many Native Americans died from smallpox, influenza, measles, and other diseases to which they had not previously been exposed. Native Americans were far more likely to die. From prehistoric times until recent historic times there were roughly six major cultural areas, excluding that of the Arctic (see Eskimo), i.e., Northwest Coast, Plains, Plateau, Eastern Woodlands, Northern, and Southwest. Information about particular groups can be found in separate articles and in separate biographies and subject articles (e.g., Pontiac's Rebellion; Dawes Act).

The Northwest Coast Area

The Northwest Coast area extended along the Pacific coast from S Alaska to N California. The main language families in this area were the Nadene in the north and the Wakashan (a subdivision of the Algonquian-Wakashan linguistic stock) and the Tsimshian (a subdivision of the Penutian linguistic stock) in the central area. Typical tribes were the Kwakiutl, the Haida, the Tsimshian, and the Nootka. Thickly wooded, with a temperate climate and heavy rainfall, the area had long supported a large Native American population. Salmon was the staple food, supplemented by sea mammals (seals and sea lions) and land mammals (deer, elk, and bears) as well as berries and other wild fruit. The Native Americans of this area used wood to build their houses and had cedar-planked canoes and carved dugouts. In their permanent winter villages some of the groups had totem poles (see totem), which were elaborately carved and covered with symbolic animal decoration. Their art work, for which they are famed, also included the making of ceremonial items, such as rattles and masks; weaving; and basketry. They had a highly stratified society with chiefs, nobles, commoners, and slaves. Public display and disposal of wealth were basic features of the society (see potlatch). They had woven robes, furs, and basket hats as well as wooden armor and helmets for battle. This distinctive culture, which included cannibalistic rituals, was not greatly affected by European influences until after the late 18th cent., when the white fur traders and hunters came to the area.

The Plains Area

The Plains area extended from just N of the Canadian border S to Texas and included the grasslands area between the Mississippi River and the foothills of the Rocky Mts. The main language families in this area were the Algonquian-Wakashan, the Aztec-Tanoan, and the Hokan-Siouan. In pre-Columbian times there were two distinct types of Native Americans there, sedentary and nomadic. The sedentary tribes, who had migrated from neighboring regions and had initally settled along the great river valleys, were farmers and lived in permanent villages of dome-shaped earth lodges surrounded by earthen walls. They raised corn, squash, and beans. The foot nomads, on the other hand, moved about with their goods on dog-drawn travois and eked out a precarious existence by hunting the vast herds of buffalo (bison)—usually by driving them into enclosures or rounding them up by setting grass fires. They supplemented their diet by exchanging meat and hides for the corn of the agricultural Native Americans.

The horse, first introduced by the Spanish of the Southwest, appeared in the Plains about the beginning of the 18th cent. and revolutionized the life of the Plains Indians. Many Native Americans left their villages and joined the nomads. Mounted and armed with bow and arrow, they ranged the grasslands hunting buffalo. The other Native Americans remained farmers (e.g., the Arikara, the Hidatsa, and the Mandan). Native Americans from surrounding areas came into the Plains (e.g., the Sioux from the Great Lakes, the Comanche and the Kiowa from the west and northwest, and the Navajo and the Apache from the southwest). A universal sign language developed among the perpetually wandering and often warring Native Americans. Living on horseback and in the portable tepee, they preserved food by pounding and drying lean meat and made their clothes from buffalo hides and deerskins. The system of coup was a characteristic feature of their society. Other features were rites of fasting in quest of a vision, warrior clans, bead and feather art work, and decorated hides. These Plains Indians were among the last to engage in a serious struggle with the white settlers in the United States.

The Plateau Area

The Plateau area extended from above the Canadian border through the plateau and mountain area of the Rocky Mts. to the Southwest and included much of California. Typical tribes were the Spokan, the Paiute, the Nez Percé, and the Shoshone. This was an area of great linguistic diversity. Because of the inhospitable environment the cultural development was generally low. The Native Americans in the Central Valley of California and on the California coast, notably the Pomo, were sedentary peoples who gathered edible plants, roots, and fruit and also hunted small game. Their acorn bread, made by pounding acorns into meal and then leaching it with hot water, was distinctive, and they cooked in baskets filled with water and heated by hot stones. Living in brush shelters or more substantial lean-tos, they had partly buried earth lodges for ceremonies and ritual sweat baths. Basketry, coiled and twined, was highly developed. To the north, between the Cascade Range and the Rocky Mts., the social, political, and religious systems were simple, and art was nonexistent. The Native Americans there underwent (c.1730) a great cultural change when they obtained from the Plains Indians the horse, the tepee, a form of the sun dance, and deerskin clothes. They continued, however, to fish for salmon with nets and spears and to gather camas bulbs. They also gathered ants and other insects and hunted small game and, in later times, buffalo. Their permanent winter villages on waterways had semisubterranean lodges with conical roofs; a few Native Americans lived in bark-covered long houses.

The Eastern Woodlands Area

The Eastern Woodlands area covered the eastern part of the United States, roughly from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River, and included the Great Lakes. The Natchez, the Choctaw, the Cherokee, and the Creek were typical inhabitants. The northeastern part of this area extended from Canada to Kentucky and Virginia. The people of the area (speaking languages of the Algonquian-Wakashan stock) were largely deer hunters and farmers; the women tended small plots of corn, squash, and beans. The birchbark canoe gained wide usage in this area. The general pattern of existence of these Algonquian peoples and their neighbors, who spoke languages belonging to the Iroquoian branch of the Hokan-Siouan stock (enemies who had probably invaded from the south), was quite complex. Their diet of deer meat was supplemented by other game (e.g., bear), fish (caught with hook, spear, and net), and shellfish. Cooking was done in vessels of wood and bark or simple black pottery. The dome-shaped wigwam and the longhouse of the Iroquois characterized their housing. The deerskin clothing, the painting of the face and (in the case of the men) body, and the scalp lock of the men (left when hair was shaved on both sides of the head), were typical. The myths of Manitou (often called Manibozho or Manabaus), the hero who remade the world from mud after a deluge, are also widely known.

The region from the Ohio River S to the Gulf of Mexico, with its forests and fertile soil, was the heart of the southeastern part of the Eastern Woodlands cultural area. There before c.500 the inhabitants were seminomads who hunted, fished, and gathered roots and seeds. Between 500 and 900 they adopted agriculture, tobacco smoking, pottery making, and burial mounds (see Mound Builders). By c.1300 the agricultural economy was well established, and artifacts found in the mounds show that trade was widespread. Long before the Europeans arrived, the peoples of the Natchez and Muskogean branches of the Hokan-Siouan linguistic family were farmers who used hoes with stone, bone, or shell blades. They hunted with bow and arrow and blowgun, caught fish by poisoning streams, and gathered berries, fruit, and shellfish. They had excellent pottery, sometimes decorated with abstract figures of animals or humans. Since warfare was frequent and intense, the villages were enclosed by wooden palisades reinforced with earth. Some of the large villages, usually ceremonial centers, dominated the smaller settlements of the surrounding countryside. There were temples for sun worship; rites were elaborate and featured an altar with perpetual fire, extinguished and rekindled each year in a "new fire" ceremony. The society was commonly divided into classes, with a chief, his children, nobles, and commoners making up the hierarchy. For a discussion of the earliest Woodland groups, see the separate article Eastern Woodlands culture.

The Northern Area

The Northern area covered most of Canada, also known as the Subarctic, in the belt of semiarctic land from the Rocky Mts. to Hudson Bay. The main languages in this area were those of the Algonquian-Wakashan and the Nadene stocks. Typical of the people there were the Chipewyan. Limiting environmental conditions prevented farming, but hunting, gathering, and activities such as trapping and fishing were carried on. Nomadic hunters moved with the season from forest to tundra, killing the caribou in semiannual drives. Other food was provided by small game, berries, and edible roots. Not only food but clothing and even some shelter (caribou-skin tents) came from the caribou, and with caribou leather thongs the Indians laced their snowshoes and made nets and bags. The snowshoe was one of the most important items of material culture. The shaman featured in the religion of many of these people.

The Southwest Area

The Southwest area generally extended over Arizona, New Mexico, and parts of Colorado and Utah. The Uto-Aztecan branch of the Aztec-Tanoan linguistic stock was the main language group of the area. Here a seminomadic people called the Basket Makers, who hunted with a spear thrower, or atlatl, acquired (c.1000 BC) the art of cultivating beans and squash, probably from their southern neighbors. They also learned to make unfired pottery. They wove baskets, sandals, and bags. By c.700 BC they had initiated intensive agriculture, made true pottery, and hunted with bow and arrow. They lived in pit dwellings, which were partly underground and were lined with slabs of stone—the so-called slab houses. A new people came into the area some two centuries later; these were the ancestors of the Pueblo Indians. They lived in large, terraced community houses set on ledges of cliffs or canyons for protection (see cliff dwellers) and developed a ceremonial chamber (the kiva) out of what had been the living room of the pit dwellings. This period of development ended c.1300, after a severe drought and the beginnings of the invasions from the north by the Athabascan-speaking Navajo and Apache. The known historic Pueblo cultures of such sedentary farming peoples as the Hopi and the Zuñi then came into being. They cultivated corn, beans, squash, cotton, and tobacco, killed rabbits with a wooden throwing stick, and traded cotton textiles and corn for buffalo meat from nomadic tribes. The men wove cotton textiles and cultivated the fields, while women made fine polychrome pottery. The mythology and religious ceremonies were complex.

Contemporary Life

In the 1890s the long struggle between the expanding white population and the indigenous peoples, which had begun soon after the coming of the Spanish in the 16th cent. and the British and French in the 17th cent., was brought to an end. Native American life in the United States in the 20th cent. has been marked to a large degree by poverty, inadequate health care, poor education, and unemployment. However, the situation is changing for some groups. New economic opportunities have arisen from an upswing in tourism and the development of natural resources and other businesses on many reservations. With the passage of the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, many tribes began operating full-scale casinos, providing much-needed revenue and employment. An increasing interest among the general population in Native American arts and crafts, music, and customs has also brought new income to many individuals and groups.

The first tribal college opened on the Navajo reservation in 1968; by 1995 there were 29 such colleges. A number of Native American radio stations now broadcast in English and native languages. Although there have been Native American newspapers since the early 1800s, there has been an increase in all types of native periodicals since the 1970s, including academic journals, professional publications, and the first national weekly, Indian Country Today. Many of these publications are now produced in cities as more Native Americans move off reservations and into urban centers. Over the years many Native Americans have bitterly objected to the disturbing of the bones of their ancestors in archaeological digs carried out across the country. These concerns brought about the passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (1990). Under its terms some 10,000 skeletons had been returned to their tribes by the end of the 20th cent., and efforts to repatriate and rebury other remains were ongoing. In 1990 the Native American population in the United States was some 1.9 million, an increase of almost 38% since 1980. Oklahoma, California, Arizona, and New Mexico have the most Native American inhabitants; most Eskimos and Aleuts live in Alaska.

Bibliography

The Bureau of American Ethnology, The American Indian Historical Society, The American Museum of Natural History, and the Heye Foundation have published many useful works on Native Americans. For some general works see A. L. Kroeber, Cultural and Natural Areas of Native North America (1939, repr. 1963); R. F. Spencer et al., The Native Americans (1965); C. Wissler, Indians of the United States (rev. ed. 1966); W. Haberland, The Art of North America (1968); A. Josephy, The Indian Heritage of America (1968); A. L. Marriott and C. K. Rachlin, American Indian Mythology (1968); A. Debo, A History of the Indians of the United States (1970); W. Moguin and C. Van Doren, ed., Great Documents in American Indian History (1973); W. H. Oswatt, This Land Was Theirs (2d ed. 1973); W. C. Sturtevant, ed., Handbook of North American Indians (20 vol., 1978–98); J. Axtell, The European and the Indian (1981); R. Thornton, American Indian Holocaust and Survival (1987); F. M. Bordewich, Killing the White Man's Indian (1996); S. Malinowski et al., ed., The Gale Encyclopedia of Native American Tribes (1998); A. Hirschfelder and M. K. de Montaño, The Native American Almanac (1999); S. Krech, The Ecological Indian (1999); J. Wilson, The Earth Shall Weep: A History of Native America (1999).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2014, The Columbia University Press.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Indians in the United States and Canada: A Comparative History
Roger L. Nichols.
University of Nebraska Press, 1998
The Encyclopedia of North American Indians
D. L. Birchfield.
Marshall Cavendish, vol.1, 1997
Librarian’s tip: Questia has other volumes in this series
American Indian Nations from Termination to Restoration, 1953-2006
Roberta Ulrich.
University of Nebraska Press, 2010
Termination Revisited: American Indians on the Trail to Self-Determination, 1933-1953
Kenneth R. Philp.
University of Nebraska Press, 1999
"They Made Us Many Promises": The American Indian Experience, 1524 To the Present
Philip Weeks.
Harlan Davidson, 2002
This Land Was Theirs: A Study of Native North Americans
Wendell H. Oswalt.
Oxford University Press, 2006 (8th edition)
Beyond 1492: Encounters in Colonial North America
James Axtell.
Oxford University Press, 1992
Broken Landscape: Indians, Indian Tribes, and the Constitution
Frank Pommersheim.
Oxford University Press, 2009
How the Indians Lost Their Land: Law and Power on the Frontier
Stuart Banner.
Belknap Press, 2005
American Indians and State Law: Sovereignty, Race, and Citizenship, 1790-1880
Deborah A. Rosen.
University of Nebraska Press, 2007
Farewell, My Nation: The American Indian and the United States in the Nineteenth Century
Philip Weeks.
Harlan Davidson, 2001
The Land Looks after Us: A History of Native American Religion
Joel W. Martin.
Oxford University Press, 2001
The Columbia Guide to American Indians of the Northeast
Kathleen J. Bragdon.
Columbia University Press, 2001
The Columbia Guide to American Indians of the Southeast
Theda Perdue; Michael D. Green.
Columbia University Press, 2001
Encyclopedia of the Great Plains Indians
David J. Wishart.
University of Nebraska Press, 2007
From Dominance to Disappearance: The Indians of Texas and the Near Southwest, 1786-1859
F. Todd Smith.
University of Nebraska Press, 2005
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