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Native American

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Native Americans (also Indians, American Indians, First Nations, Alaskan Natives, or Indigenous Peoples of America) are the indigenous inhabitants of 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), which are very distinctive in culture and genetics from the other groups. The terms may also be construed to include or exclude the Canadian Métis.

Native Americans officially make up the majority of the population in Bolivia, Peru, and Guatemala and are a significant element in most other former Spanish colonies, with the exception of 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 as national languages alongside Spanish.


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 have migrated from Siberia across the Bering Strait, at least 12,000 years ago.

However, the precise 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, however, 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 millenia earlier, and followed a coastal route thus avoiding the ice-covered interior.
  • They may have been seafaring people that moved along the coast.
  • 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, which are nearly extinct.

Other theories have been advanced as to the origin of Native Americans:

  • Several amateur historians have suggested that Native Americans are descendants of Europeans or Africans who crossed the Atlantic Ocean in prehistory. For instance, some proponents argue there is a resemblance between Olmec physique and African physique. The journalist Thor Heyerdahl demonstrated the possibility of this notion by sailing from Africa to America on a replica of an Ancient Egyptian reed boat.
  • Most Native American religions teach that humans were created in America at the beginning of time, and have continually occupied the area.
  • According to official Mormon doctrine, most Native Americans are descendants of Lehi and the Nephites, Israelites who came to the Americas c. 590 B.C.
  • In the 19th century and early 20th century, proponents of the existence of lost continents such as Atlantis, Mu, and Lemuria would use them to explain how humans could have reached the Americas.

Although there are some experts actively researching these hypotheses, they are generally not taken seriously by mainstream anthropologists and archaeologists, who consider the genetic, linguistic, and cultural evidence for a Siberian origin overwhelming.

According to that 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 continent as far south as Tierra del Fuego.

The second migration brought the ancestors of the Na-Dene peoples. The Na-Dene peoples generally 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. Most surprisingly, those studies provide evidence of smaller-scale, contemporaneous human migration from Europe, possibly by European peoples who had adopted a lifestyle resembling that of Inuits and Yupiks during the last ice age.

While many Native American groups retained a nomadic or semi-nomadic lifestyle down to 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 organizaton into cities and states.

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

European colonization of the Americas

The arrival of Europeans

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 decimated, 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 totally extinct before 1650. Over the next 400 years, if the contacts between the two cultures rarely amounted to outright genocide, they would typically be disastrous for the Native Americans.

In the 15th century Spaniards and other Europeans brought horses to the Americas. Some of these animals escaped their owners 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, however, had a profound impact on Native American cultures 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 to more easily capture game.

Europeans also brought diseases against which the Native Americans had no immunity. Sometimes they did this intentionally, but often it was unintentional. 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 White scouts and often destroyed entire villages. Some historians have argued that up to 80% of some Indian populations may have died due to European-derived diseases. (See Jeffrey Amherst for an example of germ warfare)

Native Americans in the United States

Four Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy sided with the British and the Tories of the American Revolutionary War. The colonists were especially outraged at the Wyoming Massacre and the Cherry Valley Massacre, which occurred in 1788. In 1799 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, it became a part of New York State. The tribes were moved to reservations or sent westward. Part of the Cayuga Nation was granted a reservation in British Canada.

In the 19th century, the Westward expansion of the United States incrementally expelled large numbers of Native Americans from vast areas of its territory, by forcing them into marginal lands in areas 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 to western reservations, primarily to take the land for settlement. The forced migration was marked by great hardship and the deaths of some. The route is known as the Trail of Tears.

Conflicts widely reported 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 an 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 developed around the use of the horse for hunting, travel and trading.

The first reported case of white men scalping Native Americans took place in New Hampshire colony on February 20, 1725. 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 was practiced long before contact with Europeans.[2]

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 [7]. As recently as the 1960s, Indians were being put into jail for teaching their traditional beliefs. As recently as the 1970s, the BIA was still actively pursuing a policy of "assimilation" [8], whose goal was to eliminate the reservations and turn Indians into members of mainstream U.S. culture. As of 2004, there are still claims of theft of Indian land for the coal and uranium it contains. [9] [10] [11] [12]

Military defeat, cultural pressure, confinement on reservations, forced cultural assimilation, the 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 problems include poverty, alcoholism, heart disease, diabetes and New World Syndrome.

In one state, Virginia, Native Americans face a unique problem. Virginia has no federally recognized tribes; this is 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 beyond the grave, Plecker is still haunting 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 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 gaming 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.

Gaming has become a leading industry. Casinos operated by many Native American governments in the United States are creating a stream of gaming revenue that some communities are beginning to use as leverage to build diversified economies. Native American communities have also waged and often prevailed in various legal battles to assure recognition of rights to self-determination and to use of various 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 face, in national legislative policies.

According to 2003 United States Census Bureau estimates, a little over one third of the 2,752,158 Native Americans in the United States are in three states: California at 410,501, Arizona at 286,680 and Oklahoma at 278,124 [14].

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 Cher. 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 wish that others use the name they give themselves, and recently this principle has been gaining importance as part of a general trend to avoid ethnic discrimination. However, that principle is of little help in naming larger multi-ethnic groups since different sub-groups often have incompatible preferences. In any case, English, like any other natural language, has traditionally ignored this principle, and has generally exerted its "natural right" to invent its own ethnic terms — such as "German", "Dutch", and "Albanian" — in complete disregard to the self-apellations and preferences of the subjects. Thus it should not be surprising that the English general names for the pre-Columbian peoples of the Americas are still largely assigned by tradition, and are not always accepted by the peoples themselves.

The terms "Indian" or "American Indian" were born of the misconception on the part of Christopher Columbus who believed that the Caribbean islands he had reached in 1492 were the islands in Southeast Asia known to Europeans as East Indies. The replacement term "Native American" was introduced in the United States by anthropologists who considered "Indian" quaint and inaccurate. That word had also been too loaded with prejudice by 19th century American press and 20th century Western movies (epitomized by the saying "the only good Indian is a dead Indian").

Nevertheless, the words "Indian" and "American Indian" continue in widespread use in North America, even amongst Native Americans themselves, most of whom do not feel offended by the terms. Indeed, many prefer to be called "Indians" since it was the term applied to their forefathers. The use of the term "Native American" may be more current among politically correct academics than it is among Native Americans themselves. [15]

It has also been argued 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 that term is the existence of several ethnic groups who were traditionally excluded from the "American Indians", but who were just as "native" to the Americas as them. These groups include, for example, the Innu people of the Labrador/Quebec peninsula, and the Inuit, Yupik, and Aleut peoples of the far north of the continent. (The general term "Eskimos" was once used for these groups, in contrast to "American Indian", but it has been fallen in disuse because it is perceived as derogatory by many of them.)

In Canada the term First Nations is generally used to refer to Native Americans (excluding the "Eskimos" 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 legal use in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANSCA) and in order to include the "Eskimo" peoples.

In Latin America, the politically correct expression is Indigenous Peoples (pueblos indígenas in Spanish, povos indígenas in Portuguese). However, "Indians" (indios, índios) is generally 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 in reference to all Native American peoples or cultures considered collectively.

Because (according to the currently accepted theory) the ancestors of the "Native" Americans migrated to the Americas from Asia across the Bering Straits, some people have proposed the name "Asiatic Americans" as being more historically accurate. However, this term is likely to be confused with "Asian-American", and it is considered offensive by many Indians 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 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.

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Last updated: 11-10-2004 16:22:45