Everyday Life: Native Americans

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Everyday Life: Native Americans


Diversity. In 1800 the United States contained only sixteen states. Vermont, Kentucky, and Tennessee had joined the original thirteen in the 1790s, but the young nation was still bounded on the west by the Mississippi River and on the south by Spanish Florida. Both within the United States and in the lands that it would acquire lived indigenous people who called the land their own. Americans called these people Indians, but the name


Waterlily is Ella Cara Delorias fictional portrayal of a Sioux family in the middle of the nineteenth century, in the years before sustained contact with whites. After Waterlily, the protagonist, suffered a serious illness as a child, her stepfather, Rainbow, promised to hold a bunka, or child-beloved, ceremony for her. In this passage Deloria describes the dress of a child-beloved.

When enough elk teeth were on hand Dream Woman made the gown; and it was something to behold. As usual, Dream Woman had dreamed an original design. It was worked into the wide border of embroidery that topped the heavy fringe around the bottom of the skirt and of the loose, open sleeves. The matched teeth, which had been painstakingly polished to a high luster by the grandfather were appliqued in pleasing groups all over the upper half of the gown, above the belt and down over the sleeves. The gown was exactly alike both front and back.

Two whole years were spent in getting ready for the ceremony. But at last the great day arrived. At dawn Gloku [Waterlilys grandmother] began to prepare special foods for the bunka candidate and fed her as the sun appeared. Then Blue Bird [her mother] bathed her at the stream and washed and oiled her long hair until it shone. She braided it in two long braids in the usual style and tied on the new hair ties that were part of the special outfit. They were fragrant, for Dream Woman had made colorfully embroidered balls and stuffed them with perfume leaf, and these were attached to the ties.

The new gown and the necklace and belt and bracelet were put on Waterlily, and some long, wide pendants of tiny shells were hung from her ears. Though they were so heavy that they pulled the small lobes down, elongating them, Waterlily knew they must be endured for beautys sake. Last of all, the new moccasins of solid red quillwork with matching leggings went on. A detail of the dreamed design on the gown was here skillfully repeated, making of the entire costume a charming harmony. And not only the tops but also the soles of the moccasins were covered with quillwork. This seemed extravagant and unnecessary, and Waterlily ventured to say so. When I walk, I shall quickly break the quills and ruin the soles. Her aunt Dream Woman replied, But you will not walk. Then she told the girl that child-beloved moccasins for the bunka were always decorated so, and that one did not walk to the ceremonial tipi; one was carried.

Source: Ella Cara Deloria, Waterlily (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1988), pp. 74-75.

concealed the diversity of the native peoples. Native Americans were not politically united and did not view themselves as one people. They had created many cultures and spoke hundreds of languages. These cultures were not static. Rather they were constantly changing as native peoples traded and fought with each other, migrated

into lands new to them, and assimilated foreigners and captives into their worlds.

The Pueblos. By the 1500s, when the Spanish first encountered them in what is now the U.S. Southwest, the Pueblo Indians had been settled in farming communities for hundreds of years. Pueblos grew corn, beans, and squash in irrigated fields, made pottery in various

styles, and traded for ornaments made of copper and shell. Men wore shirts, kilts, and loincloths made of deerskin or cotton. They also wore sandals or leather moccasins. Women wore a kind of wraparound dress, belted at the waist and fastened over the right shoulder, leaving the left arm bare. They also wore a square piece of cloth that tied under the chin and hung down the back. Women sometimes went barefoot and sometimes wore high boots made of whitened deerskin. Both men and women wore their hair long. Travelers frequently commented on the distinctive hairstyle worn by unmarried Pueblo women, in which they gathered their hair into large whorls on either side of the head. Despite cultural similarities among the various Pueblo towns, there were considerable differences. The Pueblo towns were not politically united, and the languages of many towns were mutually unintelligible. The Tanoans, for example, spoke a language related to Kiowa while the members of some western Pueblos spoke a language related to those spoken in the Great Basin. The Keresans language was apparently unrelated to any known language.

The Spanish. By 1800 the Pueblo Indians had a long history of contact with Europeans. During the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the Spanish had colonized the region. Spanish priests and friars tried to eradicate the native religion of the Pueblos while both religious and secular leaders exploited Pueblo labor. In the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 the Indians expelled the Spanish. They would remain independent for the next twelve years only, but when the Spanish returned, they tempered their demands on the Indians labor and beliefs. By 1800 most Pueblo Indians outwardly conformed to the religious demands of the friars, but older religious traditions remained strong.

The Mandans. When the nineteenth century began, the Mandans were farmers, hunters, and traders. Their

villages along the upper Missouri River valley were at the center of a trade network that extended from Mexico to Canada and as far west as the Pacific Ocean. Among the Mandans men hunted, fought, and were responsible for most religious ceremonies. Women tilled the fields, produced food and clothing, and built and owned the earth lodges in which the people lived. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark spent the winter of 18041805 with the Mandans, and Americans and Mandans remained on good terms until a smallpox epidemic in 1837 killed 90 percent of the tribe.

Clothing. Mandan clothing resembled that of other plains tribes. Men commonly wore a buffalo robe, sometimes with a leather tunic and loincloth. They also wore moccasins and deerskin leggings. These clothes were often plain, but on ceremonial occasions Mandan men wore clothing decorated with porcupine quills, beads, and fur. Women wore long dresses with fringes or scalloping at the hem. They also wore moccasins with leggings that reached from ankle to knee. Like the men, women wore more-highly decorated clothing on special occasions. Both men and women wore their hair long. Men usually braided their hair, which might be worn in various styles, and often added brown or red clay to it. Women wore their hair loose or braided and parted it in the center; they painted the part red with vermillion.

Religious Beliefs. The Mandans, like members of other tribes, tried to live in a relationship of respect with the land and with nonhuman life. Daily life and special occasions required rituals meant to create a correct relationship with the supernatural. Men and women fasted and offered sacrifices to gain the protection of supernatural protectors. In the Okipa ceremony, for example, young men endured torture to help ensure the return of the buffalo and the welfare of the people. In this ritual young mens backs or chests were slit open, and wooden skewers were inserted beneath the skin. Thongs were attached to the skewers, and the young men were suspended from tall poles by the thongs until they fainted. Certain tribal members also held sacred bundles, which might belong either to an individual or to the tribe as a whole. These sacred bundles held items of symbolic significance. Maintaining and caring for a bundle was a complicated process, and children who might expect to inherit one someday began learning how to maintain the bundle at a young age. Although the Mandans belonged to matrilineal clans, the bundles were passed down to the eldest male heirs of these clans.

The Tlingits. The Tlingits lived on the mainland and islands of what is now British Columbia and the southeastern Alaska panhandle. They did not have a central political body, such as a council or chief. Instead local communities were composed of members of several clans. These clans were matrilineal and divided into two larger moieties, Raven and Wolf. With the exception of foreign slaves, every member of Tlingit society belonged to one moiety or the other.

Social Organization. Tlingit society was hierarchical. Each clan had a nobility, made up of the headmen of clans or lineages and their families. More-distant relations were commoners; slaves, sometimes taken in warfare, were outside the social system. The clan, not the Tlingits as a whole or the moiety, held rights to land, and clan headmen had considerable authority. They could,

for example, have trespassers killed, make rules regarding hunting and fishing, and hold elaborate ceremonies in honor of deceased family members. Clans and lineages possessed crests that represented their totems. These crests, which might portray (among other things) animals, birds, or heroes, appeared on graves, dishes, totem poles, blankets, and other objects.

Childhood and Puberty. Young boys among the Tlingits began training for adult life at the age of seven or eight. At that point a boy went to live with his maternal uncle, who began teaching him to endure hardships of various kinds. The uncle also taught him hunting, magic, and the traditions of his clan and lineage. Girls endured a difficult passage to adulthood. A girls conduct during her first menstruation was considered particularly important since it had implications for her future. She endured an eight-day fast and was confined to a dark cellar or room for a time after her first menstruation. The ideal time for this confinement was two years although its length varied depending on rank. During this time her fathers sister and other female relatives taught her the traditions of the clan.

Villages. Tlingit villages were usually occupied only in the summer. In the winter families left the village to hunt and fish independently. A good village site included a sheltered bay, a beach, and access to water, timber, and other resources. A village contained large houses, each of which held roughly forty to fifty people. Each house had a central fire, and families within the house occupied positions of more or less honor. The highest-ranking family held the rooms at the back of the house while slaves slept near the front door. A clan crest might be painted on the front of the house.


Frederica De Laguna, Tlingit, in Handbook of North American Indians, volume 7, Northwest Coast, edited by Wayne Suttles (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1990), pp. 203-228;

Edward P. Dozier, The Pueblo Indians of North America (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1970);

Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns, Lewis and Clark (New York: Knopf, 1997);

Fred Eggan, Pueblos: Introduction, in Handbook of North American Indians, volume 9, Southwest, edited by Alfonso Ortiz (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1979), pp. 224-235;

Roy W. Meyer, The Village Indians of the Upper Missouri: The Mandans, Hidatsas, and Arikaras (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1977);

Virginia Bergman Peters, Women of the Earth Lodges: Tribal Life on the Plains (New Haven: Archon, 1995);

Virginia More Roediger, Ceremonial Costumes of the Pueblo Indians: Their Evolution, Fabrication, and Significance in the Prayer Drama (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1961);

Marc Simmons, History of Pueblo-Spanish Relations to 1821, in Handbook of North American Indians, volume 9, Southwest, edited by Ortiz (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1979), pp. 178-193.