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Native American

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Native Americans (also Indians, Aboriginal Peoples, American Indians, First Nations, Alaskan Natives, or Indigenous Peoples of America) are the indigenous inhabitants of The Americas prior to the European colonization, and their modern descendants. This term comprises a large number of distinct tribes, states, and ethnic groups, many of them still enduring as political communities.

Depending on the context, the terms "Indian" or "Native American" may or may not include the Eskimos (Inuit, Yupik, and Aleut peoples), whose culture and genetics are distinct from the other groups. The terms may be construed either to include or to exclude the Canadian Métis.


Early history

See also: Archeology of the Americas

Based on anthropological and genetic evidence, scientists generally agree that most Native Americans descend from people who migrated from Siberia across the Bering Strait, at least 12,000 years ago.

The exact epoch and route is still a matter of controversy. Until recently there was a consensus that the migrants crossed the strait around 10,000 BC via the Bering Land Bridge which existed during the last ice age (24,000 to 9,000 BC), and that they followed an inland route through Alaska and Canada that had just been freed of its ice cover. There are a number of difficulties in this theory — in particular, growing evidence of human presence in Brazil and Chile by 9,500 BC or earlier [1] . Thus other possibilities, not necessarily exclusive, have been suggested:

  • The migrants may have crossed the land bridge several millennia earlier and followed a coastal route, thus avoiding the ice-covered interior.
  • They may have been seafaring people who moved along the coast. (Which is highly unlikely to the undeveloped seafaring capacity of ancient peoples of this time period).
  • The crossing of the Bering Land Bridge may have occurred during the previous ice age, around 35,000 BC.
  • A more radical alternative is that the Siberians were preceded by migrants from Oceania, who arrived either by sailing across the Pacific Ocean or by following the land route through Beringia at a much earlier date. Proponents of this theory claim that the oldest human remains in South America and in Baja California show distinctive non-Siberian traits, resembling those of Australian Aborigines or the Negritos of the Andaman Islands. These hypothetical American Aborigines would have been displaced by the Siberian migrants, and may have been ancestral to the distinctive Native Americans of the Tierra del Fuego, who are nearly extinct.

Mainstream anthropologists and archaeologists consider the genetic, linguistic, and cultural evidence for a primarily Siberian origin overwhelming. According to this evidence, at least three separate migrations from Siberia to the Americas are highly likely to have occurred:

  • The first wave came into a land populated by the large mammals of the late Pleistocene, including mammoths, horses, giant sloths, and wooly rhinoceros es. The Clovis culture would be a manifestation of that migration, and the Folsom culture , based on the hunting of bison, would have developed from it. This wave eventually spread over the entire hemisphere, as far south as Tierra del Fuego.
  • The second migration brought the ancestors of the Na-Dene peoples. They lived in Alaska and western Canada, but some migrated as far south as the Pacific Northwestern US and the American Southwest, and would be ancestral to the Apaches and Navajos.
  • The third wave brought the ancestors of the Eskimos and the Aleuts. They may have come by sea over the Bering Strait, after the land bridge had disappeared.
  • In recent years, molecular genetics studies have suggested as many as four distinct migrations from Asia. These studies also provide surprising evidence of smaller-scale, contemporaneous migrations from Europe, possibly by peoples who had adopted a lifestyle resembling that of Inuits and Yupiks during the last ice age.

One result of these successive waves of migration is that large groups of Native Americans with similar languages and perhaps physical characteristics as well, moved into various geographic areas of North, and then Central and South America. While Native Americans have traditionally remained primarily loyal to their individual tribes, ethnologists have variously sought to group the myriad of tribes into larger entities which reflect common geographic origins, linguistic similarities, and life styles. (see Classification of Native Americans)

While many Native American groups retained a nomadic or semi-nomadic lifestyle through the time of European occupation of the New World, in some regions, specifically in the Mississippi River valley of the United States, in Mexico, Central America, the Andes of South America, they built advanced civilizations with monumental architecture and large-scale organization into cities and states.

Other theories have been advanced, some with growing acceptance, as to the ultimate origin of Native Americans:

  • Several anthropologists, historians, and archeologists have suggested that Native Americans are descendants of Europeans or Africans who crossed the Atlantic Ocean in prehistory. Some proponents argue that there is a resemblance between Olmec and African physiques. Thor Heyerdahl demonstrated that the trip is possible by sailing from Africa to America on a replica of an Ancient Egyptian reed boat. There is also genetic evidence of such African predecessors among some descendants in Argentina, and archeological evidence of European natives in North America, including Clovis point weapons of European design pre-dating Asian-descended occupation, and the apparently European traits of those weapons' owners' bones.
  • Most Native American religions teach that humans were created in America at the beginning of time and have continuously occupied the area.
  • According to Mormon doctrine, most Native Americans are descendants of Lehi and the Nephites, Israelites who came to the Americas ca. 590 BC
  • In the 19th century and early 20th century, proponents of the existence of lost continents such as Atlantis, Mu, and Lemuria used these to explain how humans could have reached the Americas.

See also: Mississippian culture, Cahokia, Mesoamerica, Maya, Olmec, Zapotec, Toltec, Teotihuacan, Aztec, Aymara, Inca, indigenous people of Brazil.

European colonization of the Americas

The European colonization of the Americas forever changed the lives and cultures of the Native Americans. In the 15th to 19th centuries, their populations were ravaged, by the privations of displacement, by disease, and in many cases by warfare with European groups and enslavement by them. The first Native American group encountered by Columbus, the 250,000 Arawaks of Haiti, were violently enslaved. Only 500 survived by the year 1550, and the group was extinct before 1650. Over the next 400 years, although the contacts between the two cultures rarely amounted to genocide, they were usually disastrous for the Native Americans.

In the 15th century Spaniards and other Europeans brought horses to the Americas. Some of these animals escaped and began to breed and increase their numbers in the wild. Ironically, the horse had originally evolved in the Americas, but the last American horses died out at the end of the last ice age. The re-introduction of the horse had a profound impact on Native American culture in the Great Plains of North America. This new mode of travel made it possible for some tribes to greatly expand their territories, exchange goods with neighboring tribes, and more easily capture game.

Europeans also brought diseases against which the Native Americans had no immunity. Ailments such as chicken pox and measles, though common and rarely fatal among Europeans, often proved fatal to Native Americans. More deadly diseases such as smallpox were especially deadly to Native American populations. It is difficult to estimate the percentage of the total Native American population killed by these diseases, since waves of disease oftentimes preceded European exploration, sometimes destroying entire villages. Some historians estimate that up to 80% of some Native populations may have died due to European diseases. For more information, see population history of American indigenous peoples.

Native Americans in the United States

Early relations

From the outset, European colonists had, at best, lived in an uneasy truce with the Native North Americans. While the groups sometimes cooperated, the Natives were inexorably displaced from the most favorable land, and frequently resisted this process with violence. Although in recent years it has become popular to assert that Native Americans learned scalping from Europeans, historical evidence suggests that scalping by Native Americans had been practiced long before contact with Europeans.[2]
The first reported case of white men scalping Native Americans took place in New Hampshire colony on February 20, 1725.

Four Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy sided with the British and the Tories in the American Revolutionary War. The colonists were especially outraged by the Wyoming Valley Massacre and the Cherry Valley Massacre, which occurred in 1778. In 1779 Congress sent Major General John Sullivan on what has become known as the Sullivan Expedition to neutralize the Iroquois threat to the American side. The two allied nations were rewarded, at least temporarily, by keeping title to their lands after the Revolution. The title was later purchased very cheaply by Massachusetts and sold off in the Phelps and Gorham Purchase and the Holland Purchase, after which by treaty these lands became part of New York State. The tribes were either moved to reservations or sent westward. Part of the Cayuga Nation was granted a reservation in British Canada.

Indian Wars and forced relocations

In the 19th century, the Westward expansion of the United States incrementally expelled large numbers of Native Americans from vast areas of their territory, either by forcing them into marginal lands farther and farther west, or by outright massacres. Under President Andrew Jackson, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which forced the Five Civilized Tribes from the east onto western reservations, primarily to take their land for settlement. The forced migration was marked by great hardship and many deaths. Its route is known as the Trail of Tears.

Conflicts generally known at the time as "Indian Wars" broke out between U.S. forces and many different tribes. Authorities entered numerous treaties during this period, but later abrogated many for various reasons. Well-known military engagements include the atypical Native American victory at the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876, and the massacre of Native Americans at Wounded Knee in 1890. On January 31, 1876 the United States government ordered all remaining Native Americans to move into reservations or reserves. This set about the downturn of Prairie Culture that had developed around the use of the horse for hunting, travel and trading.

American policy toward Native Americans has been an evolving process. In the late nineteenth century reformers in efforts to civilize Indians adapted the practice of educating native children in Indian Boarding Schools. These schools, which were primarily run by Christians [3] , proved traumatic to Indian children, who were forbidden to speak their native languages, taught Christianity instead of their native religions, and in numerous other ways forced to abandon their Indian identity[4] and adopt European-American culture. There are also many documented cases of sexual, physical and mental abuses occurring at these schools [5] [6] .

Many other attempts were made to deprive the American Indians of their culture, language, and religious beliefs, some of which are reported to continue into current times. [7]

Current status

Military defeat, cultural pressure, confinement on reservations, forced cultural assimilation, outlawing of native languages and culture, forced sterilizations, termination policies of the 1950s, and 1960s, and slavery have had deleterious effects on Native Americans' mental and ultimately physical health. Contemporary health problems include poverty, alcoholism, heart disease, diabetes and New World Syndrome.

As recently as the 1960s, Indians were being jailed for teaching their traditional beliefs. As recently as the 1970s, the Bureau of Indian Affairs was still actively pursuing a policy of "assimilation" [8] , the goal of which was to eliminate the reservations and steer Indians into mainstream U.S. culture. Even their lands are perhaps no longer safe; as of 2004, there are still claims of theft of Indian land for the coal and uranium it contains. [9] [10] [11] [12]

In the state of Virginia, Native Americans face a unique problem. Virginia has no federally recognized tribes, largely due to the work of one man, Walter Ashby Plecker. In 1912, Plecker became the first registrar of the state's Bureau of Vital Statistics, serving until 1946. An avowed white supremacist and fervent advocate of eugenics, Plecker believed that the state's Native Americans had been "mongrelized" with its African American population. A law passed by the state's General Assembly recognized only two races, "white" and "colored". Plecker pressured local governments into reclassifying all Native Americans in the state as "colored", leading to massive destruction of records on the state's Native American community.

Even after his death, Plecker still haunts the state's Native American community. In order to receive federal recognition and the benefits it confers, tribes must prove their continuous existence since 1900. Plecker's policies have made it impossible for Virginia tribes to do so. The federal government, while aware of Plecker's destruction of records, has so far refused to bend on this bureaucratic requirement. A bill currently before U.S. Congress to ease this requirement has been favorably reported out of a key Senate committee, but faces strong opposition in the House from a Virginia member concerned that federal recognition could open the door to gambling in the state. [13]

In the early 21st century, Native American communities remain an enduring fixture on the United States landscape, in the American economy, and in the lives of Native Americans. Communities have consistently formed governments that administer services like firefighting, natural resource management and law enforcement. Most Native American communities have established court systems to adjudicate matters related to local ordinances, and most also look to various forms of moral and social authority vested in traditional affiliations within the community. To address the housing needs of Native Americans, Congress passed the Native American Housing and Self Determination Act (NAHASDA) in 1996. This legislation replaced public housing, and other 1937 Housing Act programs directed towards Indian Housing Authorities, with a block grant program directed towards Tribes.

Gambling has become a leading industry. Casinos operated by many Native American governments in the United States are creating a stream of gambling revenue that some communities are beginning to use as leverage to build diversified economies. Native American communities have waged and prevailed in legal battles to assure recognition of rights to self-determination and to use of natural resources. Some of those rights, known as treaty rights are enumerated in early treaties signed with the young United States government. Tribal sovereignty has become a cornerstone of American jurisprudence, and at least on the surface, in national legislative policies. Although many Native American tribes have casinos, they are a source of conflict. Most tribes, especially small ones such as the Winnemem Wintu of Redding, California, feel that casinos and their proceeds destroy culture from the inside out. These tribes refuse to participate in the gaming industry.

According to 2003 United States Census Bureau estimates, a little over one third of the 2,786,652 Native Americans in the United States live in three states: California at 413,382, Arizona at 294,137 and Oklahoma at 279,559 [14] .

As of 2000, the largest tribes in the U.S. by population were Cherokee, Navajo, Latin American Indian, Choctaw, Sioux, Chippewa, Apache, Blackfeet, Iroquois and Pueblo.

Native Americans in Canada

In Canada, the most commonly preferred term for Native Americans is 'The First Nations'. First Nations peoples make up approximately 3% of the Canadian population. The official term – that is, the term used by the act regulating benefits received by members of First Nations, and the register defining who is a member of a First Nation – is Indian.

The term First Nations excludes Inuit and Métis, who are instead recognized as aboriginal peoples.

Native Americans in Latin America

Native Americans make up the majority of the population in Bolivia, Peru, and Guatemala and are a significant element in most other former Spanish colonies. Exceptions to this include Costa Rica, Cuba, Argentina, Dominican Republic, and Uruguay. At least three of the Amerindian languages (Quechua in Peru and Bolivia, Aymara also in Bolivia, and Guarani in Paraguay) are recognized along with Spanish as national languages.

Culture and arts

Native American music is almost entirely monophonic, but there are notable exceptions. Traditional Native American music often includes drumming but little other instrumentation, although flutes are played by individuals. The tuning of these flutes is not precise and depends on the length of the wood used and the hand span of the intended player, but the finger holes are most often around a whole step apart and, at least in Northern California, a flute was not used if it turned out to have an interval close to a half step.

Performers with Native American parentage have occasionally appeared in American popular music, most notably Shania Twain, Robbie Robertson, Rita Coolidge, Wayne Newton, and Redbone (band). Some, such as John Trudell have used music to comment on life in Native America, and others, such as R. Carlos Nakai integrate traditional sounds with modern sounds in instrumental recordings. A variety of small and medium-sized recording companies offer an abundance of recent music by Native American performers young and old, ranging from Pow-wow drum music to hard-driving rock-and-roll.

The most widely practiced public musical form among Native Americans in the United States is that of the pow-wow. At Pow-wows, such as the annual Gathering of Nations in Albuquerque, New Mexico, members of drum group s sit in a circle around a large drum. Drum groups play in unison while they sing in a native language and dancers in colorful regalia dance clockwise around the drum groups in the center. Familiar pow-wow songs include honor songs, intertribal songs, crow-hops, sneak-up songs, grass-dances, two-steps, welcome songs, going-home songs, and war songs. Most indigenous communities in the United States also maintain traditional songs and ceremonies, some of which are shared and practiced exclusively within the community. For further information, see A Cry from the Earth: Music of North American Indians by John Bierhorst (ISBN 094127053X).

Native American art comprises a major category in the world art collection. Native American contributions include pottery, paintings, jewelry, weavings, sculptures, basketry , and carvings.

Artists have at times misrepresented themselves as having native parentage, most notably Johnny Cash, who traced his heritage to Scottish ancestors and admitted he fabricated a story that he was one-quarter Cherokee. The integrity of certain Native American artworks is now protected by an act of Congress that prohibits representation of art as Native American when it is not the product of an enrolled Native American artist.

The Cradle board is used by mothers to carry their baby whilst working or traveling.

See: Blackfoot music

What name?

Generally, ethnic groups desire that others use the name they gave themselves. This preference has gained importance recently as a means of avoiding ethnic discrimination. The principle applies poorly to larger, multi-ethnic groups since different sub-groups often have incompatible preferences. English, like other natural languages, has traditionally ignored this principle, exerting its privilege to invent its own ethnic terms, such as German, Dutch, and Albanian, and disregarding the self-apellations and preferences of the subjects. Not surprisingly, English names for the pre-Columbian Americans are largely assigned by tradition, and are not always accepted by the peoples themselves.

The terms Indian or American Indian were born of the misconception by Christopher Columbus that the Caribbean islands were the islands in Southeast Asia known to Europeans as the Indies. That word had also been tainted with a negative connotation by the 19th century American press and 20th century Western movies. The replacement term Native American was introduced in the United States by anthropologists who considered Indian quaint and inaccurate. (See "political correctness" for a discussion of this approach to altering language.)

Nevertheless, Indian and American Indian continue in widespread use in North America (except that Canadians Indians don't call themselves American Indians), even amongst Native Americans themselves. Native American may be more preferable to academics than to Native Americans themselves. Although a relatively small percentage of Native Americans report being offended by the term Indian, the former term is more generally used today. Some people argue that Native American is inappropriate because "native of" literally means "born in", so any person born in America is "native" to it. A more serious difficulty with this term is that several ethnic groups traditionally excluded from the American Indians were just as "native" to the Americas as them. These groups include the Inuit, Yupik, and Aleut peoples of the far north of the continent. Eskimos was once used for these groups, but this term is in disfavor because it is perceived by many of them as derogatory.

In Canada the term First Nations is used to refer to Native Canadians, except for the Inuit and the Métis. The Canadian Indian Act however, which defines the rights of recognized First Nations, refers to them as Indians. In Alaska, the term Alaskan Native predominates, because of its legal use in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANSCA) and because it includes the Eskimo peoples. In Latin America, the preferred expression is Indigenous Peoples (pueblos indígenas in Spanish, povos indígenas in Portuguese). However, Indians (indios, índios) is often used too, even by the natives themselves. Red Indian is a common British term, useful in differentiating this group from a distinct group of people referred to as East Indians, but considered offensive in North America, where it is rarely if ever used. In the French language, the term Amérindien has been coined, and the English term Amerindian (sometimes abbreviated Amerind) is sometimes used in the social sciences to refer collectively to all Native American peoples or cultures.

Because the ancestors of the "Native" Americans are thought to have arrived from Asia, some people have proposed Asiatic Americans as being more historically accurate. This term is easily confused with Asian-American, and it is considered offensive by many natives whose religious belief is that they have been in the Americas since the dawn of time. Furthermore, there is a strong tradition in archaeological and anthropological nomenclature to name peoples after the geographical location where they were first documented, rather than for their hypothetical region of origin.

Further reading

  • Veronica E. Tiller (ed.), Discover Indian Reservations USA: A Visitors' Welcome Guide. Foreword by Ben Nighthorse Campbell. Council Publications, Denver, Colorado (1992) Trade paperback, 402 pages, ISBN 0-9632580-0-1.
  • Arlene B. Hirschfelder, Mary Gloyne Byler, and Michael Dorris, Guide to research on North American Indians. American Library Association (1983). ISBN 0838903533.
  • Roger L. Nicholes, Indians in the United States & Canada, A Comparative History. University of Nebraska Press (1998). Trade Paperback, 393 pages, ISBN 0-8032-8377-6.
  • David Wallace Adams, Education for Extinction: American Indians and the Boarding School Experience 1875-1928, University Press of Kansas , 1975. Hardcover, ISBN 0-7006-0735-8; trade paperback, ISBN 0-7006-0838-9.
  • John Bierhorst, A Cry from the Earth: Music of North American Indians. ISBN 094127053X.
  • Snipp, C.M. (1989). American Indians: The first of this land. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Related topics

External links

  • Linguistic Classification of American Indians
  • National Museum of the American Indian
  • Center for World Indigenous Studies
  • Native Languages of the Americas
  • Native American, Gathering of Nations, Powwow, Home Page
  • The Current Condition of Native Americans
  • GhostChild: A gathering place for the Indigenous Peoples of the world
  • New World Cultures , a site by the Minnesota State University E-Museum.
  • NativeWeb — information on native peoples of the world.
  • Teaching Young Children about Native Americans
  • List of North American Tribes
  • Canadian reserves
  • Countering Prejudice against American Indians and Alaska Natives
  • The Two-Spirit Tradition , an essay on shamanism and male love in Native American religion.
  • (Aboriginal peoples of Canada: A demographic profile)
  • Using Literature by American Indians and Alaska Natives in Secondary Schools
  • Houghton Mifflin Encyclopedia of North American Indians
  • United Confederation of Taino People - Information on contemporary Caribbean Indigenous Peoples.

Last updated: 02-07-2005 01:25:45
Last updated: 04-25-2005 03:06:01