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Researching the America's First Peoples: Sources and Searching Problems

Magazine article Searcher

Researching the America's First Peoples: Sources and Searching Problems

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Recently, archaeologists uncovered fossils in Oregon which appear to indicate that the first peoples in North America were here more than 14,000 years ago [1]. Scientists theorize that tens of thousands of years ago, these peoples crossed a land and ice bridge that connected the Bering Strait from Siberia to Alaska. Whether current theories hold or are supplanted by future discoveries, it is clear that many important, successful, thriving cultures existed on the North American continent long before the continent was "discovered" by Christopher Columbus, Leif Ericson, and other Europeans thousands of years later.

Despite more than 600 years of contact, traditional Native American customs, religion, culture, and history still remain a mystery or a foreign curiosity to many of the more recently arrived European descendents. Problems from this lack of understanding continue to plague researchers today and complicate online searching.


Studying Historic Native America

Estimates of North America's population prior to the arrival of Europeans in the 15th century vary considerably--from 8.4 million to 112.5 million [2]. In the 2000 U.S. Census, 4.3 million people (1.53% of the total population) reported their race as American Indian or Alaska Native [3]. Today there are 561 federally recognized tribal governments among U.S./Canadian aboriginal peoples. First Nations, Inuit, and Metis peoples comprised just over 2% of the total population in 2006 and include an equally diverse range of tribes or bands.

Like most aboriginal peoples around the world, Native Americans developed oral traditions for transmitting and recording important events, literature, rules, and knowledge:

   Traditionally, Native American people did not employ
   written records to keep track of their histories or to catalogue
   their customs. For centuries, knowledge was
   entrusted to particular individuals, who stored it in their
   memories, shared it in their oratory, and celebrated it in
   ceremonies and public performances. Many communities
   in North America used paintings, picture writing, and
   other devices to record particular elements of their cultural
   life, but these were intended as tools to assist the
   individuals charged with remembering and passing on
   what they had been taught [4].

This fact, alone, seriously complicates research into these cultures. Another problem is one of language. National Endowment for the Humanities chairman Bruce Cole has called language "the DNA of a culture, and it is the vehicle for the traditions, customs, stories, history, and beliefs of a people. A lost language is a lost culture" [5]. Experts estimate that more than 3,000 of the world's 6,000-7,000 currently used human languages are headed for extinction. The language issue is particularly critical for Native America. Of the approximately 210 indigenous languages still spoken in the U.S. and Canada, the statistics speak for themselves:

   [Thirty-four] are spoken by speakers of all generations, 35
   are spoken by the parental generation & up, 84 are spoken
   by the grandparental generation & up, & 57 are spoken by
   only a few aged speakers. It has been predicted that,
   nationwide, 45 of today's Native American languages will
   lose their last native speakers by the year 2000; 125 by 2025;
   and 155 by 2050. Most of the 20 that remain, while viable
   at present, will soon be fighting to survive [6].

In September 2007, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Aboriginal Peoples was passed by the General Assembly, which "sets out the individual and collective rights of the world's 370 million native peoples, calls for the maintenance and strengthening of their cultural identities, and emphasizes their right to pursue development in keeping with their own needs and aspirations." Interestingly, four countries with large, indigenous populations--Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the U. …

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