Native Americans

views updated Jun 11 2018

Native Americans


Uneducated Pagans. The Spanish, English, Dutch, and French all professed their desire to teach Native Americans the gospel of Jesus Christ. Indeed, spreading Christianity to the benighted peoples of the New World was a prime rationale for European colonization. However, propagating the faith always took place within a broader cultural context peculiar to the nationality of the colonists involved. Both the Spanish and the English thought in terms of transforming the Indians way of life, but only the Spanish pursued that goal rigorously and made it the foundation upon which much of Spanish American culture was based. Of course it was arguably much more the result of European and Indian sexual intermingling than the monumental educational efforts jointly undertaken by the Catholic Church and the Spanish Crown. Moreover, in the borderlands of Florida, Texas, and New Mexico, Spanish success at acculturating the Indians was limited at best. The British too aimed at civilizing as well as Christianizing the Indians, but compared to the Spanish, whose mighty missionary efforts were driven by the powerful Catholic Church, the British commitment to propagating their faith and culture among Native Americans was desultory. Also bringing together the resources of their Catholic Church and Crown, the French missionary adventure in North America was extensively pursued through the Saint Lawrence River valley, the Illinois country, and down the Mississippi River valley to Louisiana and the Gulf of Mexico. Less intrusive and generally more accommodating than Spanish clerics, French priests nevertheless garnered thousands of converts and played a crucial role in forging a Franco-Indian alliance that dominated much of North America. The European missions to the Indians aside, the most fascinating educational story regarding the Indians concerned their adjustments to the European invasion of America that began with Columbuss arrival in 1492.

Florida. During their war against the Aztec empire in the 1520s, Spaniards developed attitudes toward the Indians that would shape their policy in the borderlands. Before the Aztecs could be taught the gospel, the Spanish conquerors believed, their old religion, which sanctioned human sacrifice and idolatry, had to be crushed. The Franciscan priests carried this conquest mentality into the borderlands, bound and determined not just to convert the natives but to civilize them. Because of its location near the Bahamas channel used by Spanish treasure ships, Florida was of strategic importance. After the French established a Huguenot settlement there in 1564, Spain struck back. The French fort was destroyed; Saint Augustine was established in 1565; and presidios and missions gradually multiplied through central and northern Florida. Numbering perhaps as many as five hundred thousand in 1500, the Indians in Floridathe Calusa, Tequesta, Tocobaga, Timuca, and Apalacheedeclined rapidly in response to disease, warfare, and enslavement. By 1650 Franciscan friars had disrupted traditional tribal life and established thirty-eight missions, to which were attached twenty-six thousand Indian converts. Intent upon advancing both Christianity and Spanish culture, the Franciscans tightly regulated mission life, teaching not only religious doctrine but handicrafts and farming skills. Several tribes such as the Guales and Westos never accepted Spanish domination and resisted fiercely the expansion of Franciscan missions. The Creek Indians and English settlers from the Carolinas raided the Florida missions, seizing the Indian converts and selling them into slavery in the Caribbean.

Eighteenth Century. By 1750 Florida was garrisoned by four hundred soldiers, but the Indian population may well have declined to no more than a few thousand, and the civilian population remained slight. Deerskins were the chief export, and Saint Augustine had to be continuously supplied from Cuba. Threatened by growing English populations in South Carolina and Georgia, Spanish officials in Florida granted freedom to runaway slaves from Carolina and Georgia, who joined with friendly Indians and Spanish troops in defending the province. In 1763, when Florida was surrendered to the English at the end of the French and Indian War, the Spanish government evacuated some thirty-one hundred settlers and Indians to Cuba and New Spain.

New Mexico. As in Florida, demographic catastrophe reduced the Pueblo Indians in New Mexico from eighty thousand in 1598 to seventeen thousand in 1679. Some twenty-four Pueblo towns survived the conquest, and they were divided into seven districts by the Franciscans, who were determined to root out the idolatrous religion they believed the Indians practiced. Everything about Pueblo life had religious significance, from irrigating the fields and working the corn crops to annual hunting trips. The gods were collectively known as the kachinas, and many voluntary associations, dedicated to one of the kachinas, were formed to pass along crucial knowledge about daily life and work which this or that particular god had supposedly passed along to the people once upon a time. Just as parents taught their young basic skills and kinship traditions, so did the associations initiate the young into the myriad of rules and regulations that governed the village. Taught to obey and conform, Pueblo Indians appeared to take the teaching of the Franciscans to heart, increasing numbers accepting Christianity and working at the missions, where they practiced their traditional arts and also those Spanish handicrafts introduced by the friars. Although the Franciscans confiscated ceremonial masks, prohibited the traditional rituals which took place in the kiva (underground religious chambers), and punished native religious leaders who dared to defy them openly, the Pueblo accepted Christian baptism but continued to keep their customs.

Revolt and Aftermath. The uncompromising stand of the Franciscans, coupled with several years of drought and rising persecution of native religious leaders, led to the Pueblo Revolt in 1680, during which the Spanish colonists were driven from the northern Rio Grande, including Sante Fe, and the old religious ways were fully revived. A dozen years later the Spanish began to reconquer the Pueblo, taking a frightful vengeance upon the Indians. However, the Franciscans who returned with the soldiers did not try to dominate the Pueblo as before the 1680 revolt. The Pueblo continued to become more Hispanized, incorporating more and more Catholic doctrine

into their lives, but it was increasingly upon their own terms. As for the friars, they concentrated increasingly upon the general population, catechizing and nurturing the faith among the settlers and their children as well as the Indians. By 1750 the settlers numbered about four thousand and the Indians about ten thousand. As Pueblos and settlers alike banded together to resist marauding Apache and Comanche, cultural and religious compromise became more acceptable for the Pueblo and their Hispanic neighbors alike.

Arizona and Texas. The work of Father Eusebio Francisco Kino and two other Jesuit priests among the Indians of northern Mexico and southern Arizona proved a salutary contrast to the Franciscan missionaries in New Mexico. Unlike the Franciscans, who generally thought that Indian culture was incorrigible and must be totally transformed, the Jesuits believed that they could engraft Christianity upon the religious views of the Indians. Ministering among the Pimas and their northern neighbors, the Papagos, the Jesuits were much more gentle and positive in their missionary approach than the Franciscans. Father Kino established some twenty enclaves of Christian Indians, introduced wheat and other European cereals, and brought cattle and other livestock into the region. Carefully catechizing and preparing the Indians for baptism, Father Kino also utilized other Christian Indians to spread the gospel. Altogether, despite their cautious approach to proselyting, Kino and his Jesuit cohorts baptized more than thirty thousand Indians between 1687 and 1711. However, following his death his missions among the peoples of the Pimeria Alta were neglected and failed. Fear of French expansion into Texas in 1714 shifted Spanish attention, both civil and ecclesiastical, toward the region northeast of Mexico which had been declared a frontier province in 1691. Between 1717 and 1724 the Franciscans established ten missions and the Viceroyalty of New Spain established four presidios in Texas, with San Antonio de Bejar as its capital. In the mission communities converts were not only instructed in Catholicism but also taught various trades that would enhance the self-sufficiency of the mission itself. Mission work among the nomadic and warlike Apache, Comanche, and various Indian bands known collectively as Norteños was challenging and dangerous. The Spanish settlements were vulnerable to marauding Indians and the French, both of whom came well armed. As late as 1742 there were only eighteen hundred Spaniards and thirteen hundred Native Americans in Texas.

Early French Missions. As Samuel de Champlain, the entrepreneur who founded Quebec in 1609, made trade agreements with the Indians of Canada, he obtained their approval to send missionaries among them. The Recollects and the Capuchins, both reform branches of the Franciscans, were the first French missionaries in Canada. However, the Franciscans thought in terms of root-and-branch reformation of the Indians, that is, transforming them into good Christian Frenchmen, something that was quite impossible to do as long as French colonists remained few in number in the province. In short, the Indians had to be civilized before they would become good candidates for Christianity. So the Recollect and Capuchins encouraged the Huron and Montagnais to give up nomadic habits and settle near European villages, become farmers, and send their children to Catholic schools. They educated some Indian boys themselves in Canada and sent others to France for schooling. However, they had little success. Between 1615 and 1627 the Recollects reportedly baptized only fifty-four Indians, forty-one of whom had stopped coming to church services.

French Jesuits. Clerics of the Society of Jesus were better equipped to preach and teach among the Indians of New France. In 1625 the Jesuit mission to the Huron began in earnest with the arrival of Fathers Charles Lalemand, Jean de Brebeuf, and Ennemond Masse. In 1639, thanks largely to the encouragement of the Jesuits, the Ursulines and the Soeurs Hospitalières of Dieppes founded a school for girls and a hospital in Quebec. The school was initially intended for Indian girls, but their parents were resistant. Rather than simply dismissing Indian culture as worthless paganism, the Jesuits learned to build upon certain traditional elements in Indian religion to bring them around to Christianity. So the Jesuits traveled and lived with the Indians and accepted much of Native American culture as legitimate. They generally found it did little good to complain about the lack of sexual inhibitions of young girls, easy divorce practices of adults, or ritualistic torture and cannibalism. Unlike the Franciscans, who were usually rotated around every five years, the French Jesuits would spend many yearsoften the remainder of their livesministering to the same Indians. Such methods won not only converts but respect for the blackrobes, whose gentle ways and strange dress had initially led the Indians to ridicule them. Altogether, 115 Jesuit fathers came to New France during the seventeenth century.

Later Mission Efforts. The Jesuits early on concentrated their efforts among the Hurons, who dominated the fur trade in Canada and who lived in a vast area bounded by Georgian Bay and lakes Huron, Erie, Ontario, and Simcoe. They learned their language, nursed them through illnesses, assisted them with farming, and began to gain a following among the thirty thousand Hurons by discrediting native religious leaders. However, between 1648 and 1650 the Iroquois from the Finger Lakes region of western New York invaded Huronia and either killed or dispersed all its people, including some Jesuit priests, who claimed twelve thousand Huron converts before the Iroquois massacres. After gathering together the remnants of the Huron people, the Jesuits continued their ministry among the Indians in the east and the west, often traveling with explorers and furtraders to tribes who had not heard the gospel. As with the Huron, the Jesuits learned the languages of other tribes; translated the Catholic catechism, creeds, and set prayers into the local Indian dialect; and exercised native catechumens orally in the doctrines of the faith. Indian languages, though wonderfully suited to the style of life of their speakers, were ill equipped to convey the often abstract meaning of European Christianity. Sin, for example, as an offense before God, was simply not in their vocabulary. Jesuits overcame this linguistic obstacle by living with the Indians, by learning many of the nuances of their oral cultures, by the use of ritual and singing, and by using familiar occurrences to convey Christian principles. Images, especially ornamental crucifixes, vessels, vestments, pictures in Bibles, and token figures of Mary and the baby Jesus given to the Indians, were important instruments of propagating the faith.


In 1647 Jesuit priest Paul Rogueneau, ministering I among the Hurons, expressed more tolerance and patience than many other clergymen attempting to educate the heathens:

One must be very careful before condemning a thousand things and customs, which greatly offend minds brought up and nourished in another world. It is easy to call irreligious what is merely stupidity, and to take for diabolical workings something that is nothing more than human; and then, one thinks he is obliged to forbid as impious certain things that are done in all innocence, or, at most, are silly but not criminal customs.... Ï have no hesitation in saying that we have been too severe in this point.

Source: W. J. Eecles, The Canadian Frontier, 15341760, revised edition (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1983), p. 48.

Mississippi Valley Missions. As the Jesuits moved west into the Illinois country and down the Mississippi River, they taught not only Catholic doctrine but also French and on occasion would send a bright Indian boy

back to Quebec or Montreal for study. A few of these young men continued to be transported to France to attend a grammar school or college. However, the results of such a French education were not encouraging, for when the educated young Indians returned, they found themselves creatures torn between two worlds, neither of which fully accepted them. Those who learned French and remained with their respective tribes, however, often became important cultural mediators. Jesuit missions were established among the Ojibwes at Keweenaw Bay on Lake Superior in 1660 and on the western shore of Lake Superior at La Pointe du Saint Esprit in 1665. Opposition of the warlike Lakota forced Father Jacques Marquette to abandon La Pointe and establish another mission on Michilimackinac Island in the straits between Lakes Michigan and Huron in 1671. Having explored the Mississippi River with Louis Jolliet in 1673, Father Marquette established a mission he called Immaculate Conception among the Illinois Indians at Kaskaskia in 1674, the year before his death. Other Catholic missions were established at Detroit, Vincennes, and Saint Louis, with Christian Indians always congregating nearby. However, despite the French colonization along the Gulf Coast in the eighteenth century, French missions among the Muskogean Indians of the area never flourished, in part because ecclesiastical jurisdiction over the region was disputed for decades by the bishop of Quebec, the Congregation de Propaganda Fide in Rome, and the Society for Foreign Missions.

New Netherland. Dutch traders and Iroquois chiefs early on formed a military and economic alliance that proved mutually beneficial. The Iroquois served as the middlemen in the fur trade between the Dutch and the western Indians, performing much the same role as their traditional enemies, the Huron, did for the French. The Provisional Articles for New Netherland, promulgated by the Dutch West India Company in 1624, expected the colonists to lead the Indians to Christ. By the example of godliness and outward discipline on the part of the Christians, wrote the commissioners of the company, the heathen may sooner be brought to a knowledge of the same. The first Dutch Reformed preacher in the colony, Jonas Michaelius, who arrived in New Amsterdam in 1628, found ministering to the Indians especially frustrating. Domine Michelius stated that they were entirely savage and wild, strangers to all decency, yea, uncivil and stupid as garden poles, proficient in all wickedness and godlessness; devilish men, who served the Devil. The only way to Christianize the Indians, Michelius believed, was to separate the young from their parents and teach them both the Dutch language and Christian principles before they learned the heathenish tricks and deviltries of their elders. But the domine doubted that such a plan could ever be implemented, given the reluctance of Indian parents to be separated from their offspring. In 1642 Domine Johannes Megapolensis became the minister for Rensselaerswyck, the patroonship located up the Hudson surrounding Fort Orange. Megapolensis learned the Mohawk tongue and wrote a small book about them, but he apparently had little success converting them to the Christian faith. In 1649 Megapolensis was called to New Amsterdam, where he was joined shortly by another preacher, Domine Samuel Drisius. In 1657, having worked for two years instructing their single Indian convert in the Christian doctrine, the two domines sadly reported that their once prized neophyte had become a drunk, sold his Bible, and turned into a regular beast, doing more harm than good among the Indians. Domine Gideon Schaets, who had replaced Megalpolensis at Rensselaerswyck in 1652, was asked to use all Christian zeal there to bring up both the Heathen and their children in the Christian religion, but his success was negligible.

Virginia. The English mission to the Indians in Virginia began promisingly enough as the Reverend Alexander Whitaker converted the Indian princess Pocahontas to Christianity. The latters visit to England, which ended tragically with her death, built public support for the establishment of an Indian college at Henrico, a project that collapsed with the massacre of settlers around Jamestown in 1622. The way of conquering them is much more easy than of civilizing them by fair means, reported officials of the Virginia Company after suppressing the Indian uprising, for they are a rude, barbarious, and naked people, scattered in small companies, which are helps to victory, but hindrance to civility: Besides that, a conquest may be of many and at once; but civility is in particular, and, slow, the effect of long time, and great industry. Despite such sentiments, the charter granted the College of William and Mary in 1693 called for the establishment of a school with one professor to teach Indian boys reading, writing, arithmetic, and religion. The latter provision qualified the college for funds from the legacy of Robert Boyle, and an Indian school was established.

Mayhew and Eliot. In New England, given their rigorous theology with its emphasis upon the conversion experience, biblical knowledge, and disciplined living, the Puritans found proselytizing the Indians especially challenging. Few were converted before the 1640s when Thomas Mayhew Jr. of Marthas Vineyard and John Eliot of Roxbury began their respective ministries to the local Indians in Massachusetts. By 1652 Mayhew had 283 Indian converts. Convinced that it was absolutely necessary to carry on civility with religion, John Eliot established the first town for his praying Indians in 1651. Over the next fourteen years thirteen towns of praying Indians were established, but only two of them had churches with covenants that fully met the approval of neighboring Puritan congregations. Eliot also established English schools in the towns of the praying Indians. Both Mayhew and Eliot were assisted by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in New England, chartered by Parliament in 1649 and having collected almost £16,000 by 1660. Rechartered after the restoration of the Stuart monarchy as the Company for Propagation of the Gospell in New England and the Parts Adjacent in America, under the leadership of the scientist Robert Boyle, this organization underwrote the publication of several books in the Algonquian language, including Eliots Algonquian edition of the Bible. By the early 1670s approximately twenty-five hundred Christian Indians lived in New England, roughly 20 percent of the remaining Indians in the region. During King Philips War perhaps a third of the praying Indians joined in and attacked New Englanders. Although the assistance of the other two-thirds of the praying Indians was crucial in the death of King Philip and the defeat of his forces, wartime hostilities destroyed most of their towns and brought the praying Indians under considerable suspicion. Even before King Philips War, Eliot and other New England mission leaders had come to doubt the wisdom of relying upon native teachers and made plans for establishing English schools. Given what they perceived as the idle ways of the Indians, New Englanders generally had decided that Indians would have to be Anglicized before there was hope for them to be truly civilized and Christianized.

Missions in the South. In 1714, to curry favor with the Siouan-speaking tribes along Virginias vulnerable southwestern frontier, Gov. Alexander Spotswood of Virginia established Fort Christina, where reportedly as many as seventy-seven Indian children were also taught English and exercised in the Anglican catechism. After political feuding in 1717 led the Virginia Burgesses to refuse further funding of the frontier outpost, the teacher at Fort Christina, Charles Griffin, became master of the Indian school at the College of William and Mary. Over the years Indian attendance varied, from a reported high of twenty-four in one year to one in another. In fact, well into the 1730s William and Mary itself was not much of a college, hardly more than a grammar school for planters sons. In 1721 there were no Indian students, but money allotted by the Boyle fund for Indian education in Virginia kept accumulating, so President Blair took £500 from the Boyle fund in 1723 to build Brafferton Hall, the fine two-story structure designated to house the Indians. In 1732 Blair tapped the Boyle account again, this time for the purchase of books to upgrade William and Marys small library, where Indians as well as white students would presumably use them. However, relatively few Indians were housed in Brafferton until intercolonial warfare in the 1740s and 1750s brought young Cherokee and Shawnee hostages there to be taught reading, writing, and religion. Many of them died there, victims of the unfamiliar and deadly disease environment despite considerable effort to give them the best medical care. Others simply ran away. As Gov. Robert Dinwiddie wrote in 1756 of some Cherokee boys, they had no Inclination to Learning and could not be reconciled to their books. William Byrd II complained of the Indian schoolboys that once back with their people they immediately Relapt into Infidelity and Barbarism themselves. Indeed, Byrd believed, since they unhappily forget all the good they learn, and remember the III, they are apt to be more vicious and disorderly than the rest of their Countrymen. In the rest of the colonial South, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (S.P.G.) encouraged its missionaries to teach Gods Word to the Indians, and some surely did, though most stayed along the coastal settlements where relatively few Indians lived. In the late colonial period the Presbyterians in Virginia especially and the Moravians in North Carolina and Georgia also engaged in missions to the Indians, though their impact was probably even slighter than that of the S.P.G. in the South.

New England Missions. Few of Eliots Indian-language translations were published after 1700. There was little enthusiasm even for reprinting Eliots Indian Bible. It is a very sure, the best thing we can do for our Indians is to Anglicize them in all agreeable Instances, wrote Cotton Mather, and in that of Language, as well as others. The Indians could not retain their language, Mather insisted, without a Tincture of other Salvage Inclinations, which do but ill suit, either with the Honor, or with the design of Christianity. Although much diminished, the work that Eliot had begun continued

among the declining praying Indians as English-language instruction became the order of the day. During the seventeenth century, while Indian missions were flourishing in Massachusetts, they were largely nonexistent in Connecticut. At the behest of Cotton Mather, whose influence with the Company for the Propagation of the Gospel in New England was significant, the Connecticut General Assembly founded a school on the Mohegan reserve in 1726. Shortly thereafter another English school for Indians was funded by the Company at New London.

The Godly. However, Mather and Connecticut governor Joseph Talcott believed the best method of civilizing and Christianizing the Indians would be putting native children as apprentices in English and Godly Families. Their respective masters would be required to educate them. When the reluctance of the Indians to part with their children killed the apprenticeship scheme, those pushing the Connecticut missions next advocated boarding schools that separated Indian youth from their primitive, heathen habits. Not only Indian boys but Indian girls too were to be educated at boarding schools because male graduates needed civilized mates or else they would likely leave the faith and return to their native ways. Not only John Masons school at New London but also the Reverend Samuel Whitmans school at Farmington took Indian boarders. A few of their Indian students, like John Mettawan of Whitmans school, became teachers themselves. The Stockbridge mission in Massachusetts Housatonic River valley, under the leadership of the Reverend John Sergeant and Timothy Woodbridge, the Indian schoolmasters, made plans for an Indian boarding school which opened in 1749, shortly after Sergeants death. Jonathan Edwards, who succeeded Sergeant as missionary, had to do battle with relatives of Sergeants widow to take control of the boarding school, which in 1752 was directed by Gideon Hawley, whose students included several Mohawk children from New York. The school was burned under mysterious circumstances in early 1753, ending its educational mission to the Mohawk. That same year the Reverend Eleazar Wheelock, a New Light Congregationalist, opened his Indian free school in Lebanon, Connecticut. Among his early students was Samson Occom, easily the most famous Indian preacher in colonial America, who established Presbyterian congregations among the Montauk Indians on Long Island. Wheelocks school was later endowed by Col. Joshua More and became known as Moors Charity School, where ten Indian students were studying in 1761. After the French and Indian War, Wheelright convinced Sir William Johnson, the British superintendent of Indian affairs, to send him several Mohawk boys, including Joseph Brant, later famed as an Indian leader during the American Revolution. With the money that Occom and others collected for him during a successful fund-raising trip to England, Wheelock, who was growing weary with his Indian school, turned his efforts toward the founding of Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.

Middle Colonies. Following the conquest of New Netherland in 1664, the British governors of New York encouraged the Dutch Reformed clergy of Albany and its environs to cultivate the faith among the nearby Mohawk and other Iroquois nations, for diplomatic as well as religious reasons. The Iroquois had been crucial political and commercial allies of the Dutch against the French. In the 1680s Gov. Thomas Dogan, himself a Catholic, considered introducing English Jesuits among the Iroquois to counter the influence of French priests. However, the overthrow of James II in 1688 in the Glorious Revolution ended any thought about English Jesuits, though King Williams War made it all the more important to the English to cultivate the Iroquois. In the 1690s Gov. Benjamin Fletcher encouraged Domine Godfriedus Dellius, the Dutch Reformed minister at Albany, to preach to the Mohawk. Dellius baptized more than a hundred; admitted sixteen to communion; and translated the Ten Commandments, creeds, and psalms into the Mohawk language. After 1700 Domine Bernardus Freeman of Schenectady and Domine Johannes Lydius of Albany were likewise encouraged by New York governors to minister to the Indians. The Anglican Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (S.P.G.), founded in 1701, sent Thoroughgood Moore as its first missionary to the Iroquois in 1705. Moore left his post after one frustrating year. Tis from the behavior of the Christians here that they [the Indians] have had and still have their notions of Christianity, which God knows has been and generally is such that I cant but think has made the Indian hate Christianity. After Peter Schuyler brought four Mohawk chiefs to London in 1710, the S.P.G. responded to popular enthusiasm for the Indians and in 1712 sent missionary William Andrews to Fort Hunter, in the Mohawk Valley, where a handsomely outfitted chapel had been built for the Indians, thanks to Queen Anne. Andrews established a school for Indian youth, shortly reporting more than forty students, and made good progress for a couple of years in preaching and teaching to the Mohawk. But the school began to fail, and as the gifts Andrews brought began to run out, so did attendance at his church services. The failure of the Christian Indians to give up such heathen ways as torturing captives and getting drunk angered the young cleric. Heathen they are, wrote the exasperated Andrews as he left in 1718, and Heathen they shall be. In the other Middle Colonies there was little organized effort to Christianize the Indians before 1740, though the Quakers, who preferred to influence by example, did establish good relations early on with Indians in both Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and there is evidence that a few Indians, mostly orphans or indentured servants, received some schooling in the other Middle Colonies as well as New York.

Later Efforts. The religious revivalism known as the Great Awakening reinvigorated Indian missions and the educational efforts directed toward Indian youth which usually accompanied them. In the 1740s the Moravians, whose missionary work among the Indians in many ways resembled that of the French Jesuits, taught both the young and the old. Moravian missionaries were active in New York and Pennsylvania. Accused of being Catholics in disguise, the Moravians aroused quite a stir in New York, especially because of their work among the dispirited Shakomeko Indians in Dutchess County between 1740 and 1744. In Pennsylvania the Moravians established several Christian Indian towns along the western frontier and beyond into the Ohio Territory, several of which survived until the American Revolution. In 1741 the Presbytery of New York, acting on behalf of the Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge (S.S.P.C.K.), appointed Azariah Horton, a recent Yale graduate, as minister to the four hundred or so remaining Indians on the southern shore of Long Island. The next year David Brainerd, another Yale alumnus, gained the sponsorship of the S.S.P.C.K. and began his ministry in New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania, working primarily among the Delaware Indians. Upon his death in 1747 his younger brother, John, became pastor to the Christian Delaware, whose primary reservation was named Brothertown in Burlington, New Jersey. The Anglican mission to the Indians in New York was picking up even before the Great Awakening. At Fort Hunter, after William Andrews left in 1718, various Anglican clerics from Albany had preached and exercised Indians young and old in the catechism. However, in 1735 another Yale graduate, Henry Barclay, whose father had earlier been Anglican minister to Albany, was named catechist to Fort Hunter. After eighteen months on the job he reported that he taught more than forty students to read and write their own language. Barclay continued to visit Fort Hunter after he became the Anglican missionary to Albany, where served from 1738 to 1746. Between 1736 and 1777 John Jacob Oel, a German minister with Anglican ordination, assisted significantly in the Mohawk mission. Taking charge of Indian affairs in New York in 1746, William Johnson worked hard to get both missionaries and schoolmasters for the Iroquois. Johnson and Henry Barclay secured the publication of a Mohawk Prayer Book in 1769, and despite his suspicions of New England Congregationalists, Johnson initially encouraged the work of Eleazar Wheelock among the Iroquois, including that of his protégé, Samuel Kirkland. The Reverend Kirkland began his ministry among the Oneidas near Brothertown, New York, in 1766, and due in no small measure to his missionary labors, the Oneidas generally sided with the Americans during the Revolution. Similarly, John Stuart, an Anglican priest, began his labors among the Mohawk Indians in 1770, and his ministry played a major role in keeping the other nations of the Iroquois Confederations generally loyal to Great Britain after the Americans declared their independence.


James Axtell, The Invasion Within: The Contest of Cultures in Colonial North America (New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985);

Henry Warner Bowden, American Indians and Christian Missions: Studies in Cultural Conflict (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981);

John Calam, Parsons and Pedagogues: The S.P.G. Adventure in American Education (New York: Columbia University Press, 1971);

Henry F. Dobyns, Indians in the Colonial Spanish Borderlands, in Indian American History: An Introduction, edited by Frederick E. Hoxie (Arlington Heights, III.: Harlan Davidson, 1988), pp. 67-93;

W. J. Eccles, The Canadian Frontier, 15341760, revised edition (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1983);

Cornelius J. Jaenen, Friend and Foe: Aspects of French-Amerindian Cultural Contact in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (New York: Columbia University Press, 1976);

James McCallum, Eleazar Wheelock: Founder of Dartmouth College (New York: Arno, 1969);

Edgar Mclnnis, Canada: A Political and Social History (New York: Rinehart, 1947);

Edward H. Spicer, Cycles of Conquest: The Impact of Spain, Mexico, and the United States on the Indians of the Southwest, 1533-1960 (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1962);

Margaret C. Szasz, Indian Education in the American Colonies, 1607-1763 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1988).

Native Americans

views updated May 23 2018

Native Americans






Though referring properly to anyone born in America, the term Native Americans has referred to American indigenous peoples since the eighteenth century. Its use became popular in the 1970s as part of a movement to advance indigenous political and legal rights by emphasizing the aboriginal status of pre-Columbian peoples. The choice to use Native American rather than Indian, the term Christopher Columbus (14511506) gave and the other term commonly used in the United States, remains a matter of political debate in some indigenous communities. Aboriginal peoples of the Americas is more accurate, but unfamiliar. Further, it does not, strictly speaking, refer to Arctic peoples, sometimes known as Eskimo, Inuit, and other names pertaining to particular geographic groups, since the ancestors of these peoples arrived millennia after the ancestors of the people known as Indians. Indigenous has been criticized on the grounds that it means originating in, and all human beings originated in the Old World. Native American finds wide usage only in the United States, and for this reason this entry focuses on the United States. Moreover, Native American usually does not include aboriginal Alaskans, widely and officially known as Alaska Natives. Canadians usually use the term First Nations Peoples (French: première nations ), aboriginal peoples (French: autochtone ), Inuit, Native Canadians, natives, or Indians. In Latin America, the terms indigenous peoples (Spanish: pueblos indígenas ; Portuguese: povos indígenas ), Indians (Spanish: indios ; Portuguese: índios ), and sometimes aborigine (Spanish: aborigen ) are used. There, the term pre-Columbian peoples (Spanish: pueblos precolumbinos ; Portuguese: povos pré-colombianos ) refers to aboriginal people prior to 1492, not to anyone alive today. Most autonyms simply mean (the) people.


Archaeological data suggest that the first people probably arrived in North America from Asia approximately 15,000 years ago, although this date remains controversial. Numerous physical features are common to American Indians and East Asians, and unknown or unusual among Europeans and Africans: a brachycephalic (relatively wide) skull; Mongoloid spot (a greenish-blue birthmark above the coccyx which disappears within a few years); shovel-shaped incisors; dark, coarse, straight hair; little body hair; dry earwax; and others.

Prehistory The ancestors of modern American Indians spread out over the Americas rapidly. About 11,200 to 10,900 years ago, hunters developed the beautiful fluted Clovis point and played an important role in the extinction of many animal species, including mammoths, mastodons, giant sloths, horses, and several species of camel. The Ice Age ended 11,600 years ago, and with it the Paleolithic life of large-game hunting. Neolithic peoples hunted smaller animals and gathered wild plant foods. One exception includes the Maritime Archaic peoples in the extreme Northeast, who subsisted on deep-sea fish. With the exception of the alpaca, vicuña, and llama in South America, the turkey in Central America, and the dog everywhere, pre-Columbians had no domesticated animals. Beans, squash, and most importantly maize for the energy it supplies were all domesticated in Central America before 7,000 years ago. Maize probably originated from selective breeding of a grass called teosinte. Maize first arrived in the southwestern United States around 3,500 to 3,000 years ago. Around 1,300 years ago, a new variety called northern flint or maiz de ocho appeared, and with its larger kernels and much shorter growing season it spread throughout eastern North America, occasionally as far north as southern Canada.

Cultures The cultures and societies of the original peoples of North America represent an astonishing range of diversity. While some lived in a city of tens of thousands (Cahokia, in present-day Illinois), others living in parts of the Great Basin and subarctic regions never met more than two hundred people their entire lives. People who adopted maize tended to become sedentary and developed food surpluses, concentrations of wealth and political power, and larger, denser populations. In North America, maize production frequently correlates with matrilineality and matrilocal residence, whereas primary dependence on hunting often correlates with patrilineality and patrilocal residence. When maize first arrived in an area, women probably cultivated it, since women already gathered plant foods while men hunted. As maize became more important in the diet over time, womens increasing contribution to the economy brought them greater political power and the most valuable types of property, in some cases including the societys political offices, often descended from mother to daughter. Even where men later ended up doing most or all of the farming, matrilineal social structure and inheritance often remained. An example of this latter case is the Hopi, arguably the most matrilineal people on earthso much so that what we think of as normal sex roles are sometimes reversed: men traditionally wove and women did most of the house construction. The Crow, once matrilineal farmers, later moved out onto the plains, where men provided most of the food through bison hunting. Crow men after a time began to argue for patrilineal social structure.

Some two hundred to five hundred different languages were spoken in North America, and there were at least sixty-two language families and isolates. While immense differences exist between the various languages of North America, they all share the characteristics of polysynthesis and agglutination, meaning that they can bring together subject, object, verb, tense, adjective, adverb, mood, and so on in one word. For example, the Micmac word ketulmieyap means I wanted to go home.


It has long been recognized that peoples in various parts of North America share more cultural similarities with peoples of the same geographic area than with peoples of other geographic areas. Although controversy persists in identifying exact culture area boundaries, one can say much about the general locations of these areas and the general characteristics of the peoples inhabiting each area.

California Most California peoples subsisted on fish and game, but especially on acorns, an abundant food that made them, like the peoples of the Northwest Coast, capable of sedentary life in permanent villages, and thus nearly unique among all hunting-and-gathering peoples. Here, great wealth meant concentrations of both wealth and power, and peoples such as the Yurok developed a sharply defined nobility. Yurok pegerks owned great wealth, especially money, heirlooms, and even prehistoric antiquities. They lived at named elevated locations, served as priests and judges, wore distinctive clothing, ate foreign foods, employed aides, gave gifts and feasts at ceremonies, spoke foreign languages, traveled extensively, and used ornate speech. Most societies have moieties, and some have ambilateral social structure in which each individual had the choice to join the fathers group or the mothers group; often individuals chose the group with the most resources. Some southern California people also raised maize, beans, and squash.

Great Basin This intermontane region of Nevada, Utah, and adjoining areas was home to some of the most mobile and dispersed populations of hunters and gatherers in the world. Due to the difficulty of survival, which affected all parts of life, bands were small, often the size of a nuclear family, with fluid membership, and kinship was largely bilateral with little or no emphasis on lineages, which would confer no benefits to such dispersed people. People hunted and collected seeds and roots. Because of the rigorous conditions and sexual division of labor, marriage was essential to survival; people married early, and they married people living at a distance to create kinship links over a wider area. In some places, the sororate and levirate were legally required and both polygyny and polyandry were practiced. Warfare was almost unknown, cooperation was so essential for survival. In places, giving birth to twins was considered unluckyin a few places, one of the pair was killed.

Northeast From Maine to Wisconsin and south to Virginia and Kentucky, people depended partially on maize, beans, and squash, which the Iroquois named the three sisters, but also upon hunting, gathering, and fishing. As swidden horticulturalists, people had to move their villages every decade or so as soil lost fertility, weeds encroached, and firewood and game became scarce. The Iroquoisian peoples are matrilineal; elsewhere social organization is patrilineal. Warfare for the purpose of revenge occurred frequently, and villages were often palisaded.

Northwest Coast The coastal region of Oregon to southern Alaska has some of the most distinctive cultures in the world. These people traditionally subsisted on the immensely abundant salmon, making them the wealthiest in North America and leading them to build permanent villages. Their cultures reflected this: fine arts and theater were developed, people (slaves) were considered a measure of wealth, and the rich gave lavish feasts known as potlatches, which because of the wealth acquired through trade with Europeans, grew to titanic proportions in the nineteenth century, involving the giving away and destruction of what would be millions of dollars in todays money. Warfare, including raiding for slaves, was common, and many villages were palisaded. Many groups had an elaborate system for ranking individuals, and for those in high positions, marriage to someone of equal rank was the only possibility. Both men and women were wealthy, owning various types of corporeal and incorporeal property, which was inherited both matrilineally and patrilineally.

Plains The Plains consists of two smaller areas, the high plains (short-grass prairie) to the west of the hundredth meridian where mobile people hunted, and the prairie-plains (tall-grass prairie) to the east where people lived as horticulturalists and hunters. Though many associate the High Plains culture with that of North American Indians generally, High Plains culture is unique in most respects in North America. What we have come to know as High Plains culture did not exist until recent times, because few people could manage to live on the high plains: the region is dry, inhospitable to agriculture without a steel plow, and the prolific denizen of the plains, the bison, was very difficult to find and kill reliably. But the European introduction of the horse allowed people to find and kill sufficient quantities of bison so that entire societies could live by hunting alone on the high plains, encouraging people from all surrounding culture areas to live there, developing within two hundred years what we know as Plains culture. Due to Euro-American hunger for land, this culture disappeared even more quickly. The High Plains Indian culture represents an almost unique case in human history of people leaving farming to become hunters. Because of the extreme mobility of high plains life in which individuals and families moved from one band to another, lineal groups were rare.

Plateau From southeastern British Columbia and eastern Washington and Oregon, east to Montana, were people who, like the peoples of the Northwest Coast, subsisted primarily on salmon. However, the fish sometimes did not migrate in large numbers so far inland, and thus the people of the plateau region had to depend upon other foods, particularly various roots such as the camas bulb. Therefore, semipermanent villages were usually located at prime fishing spots, but the populations of those villages tended to be fluid as resources determined. Some groups took to raiding Plains peoples after the horse came, and combined into confederacies to repel Plains raiders. Kinship structure is bilateral, sometimes with emphasis on the patriline, and the kindred was important.

Southeast In the Southeast, warm temperatures, abundant rainfall, fertile soil, and maize all combined to produce far more food than was necessary, and commonly large and fast-growing populations, concentrations of wealth in the hands of a few in stable classes, cities (often palisaded), priestly classes, large armies frequently built by conscription, fine arts, monumental earthworks, leaders holding the power of life and death over followers, celebration of the annual Green Corn Ceremony (emphasizing renewal), playing of the ball game (a lacrosse-like game with two sticks), and wars often due to rivalries between leaders. Many villages and cities were permanent, since maize fields were planted on floodplains that were refertilized each spring with silt. Probably because of the importance of maize, all the peoples here are matrilineal. This is the one part of North America for which arguments have been made for the existence of state societies. In many of these societies, male leaders held offices, but which because of the matrilineal social structure were passed through the female line.

Southwest The Southwest is a complex area because its range of environment supported a number of subsistence strategies. The area was dominated on the one hand by the Puebloan peoples, sedentary matrilineal maize farmers who live in permanent villages and who sometimes had to run for dozens of miles to tend distant maize fields. The other dominant peoples are the Apache and Navajo, two closely related matrilineal Athabaskan-speaking migratory peoples who hunted, gathered, raided, and farmed and whose ancestors arrived in the Southwest from the western subarctic in the 1400s. Numerous other populations include the patrilineal Piman and bilateral Yuman peoples.

Subarctic Stretching from Alaska to eastern Canada lies a territory too far north to grow any kind of crops in premodern times. In this cold and wet land, small groups of people had to depend almost entirely on the large game and fish that men acquired. Thus, a patrilinealizing influence pervaded this region, fully evident among the Algonquian speakers of the eastern half. In the western half, the traditionally matrilineal culture of the Athabaskans competes with this influence, to produce cultures that are nominally matrilineal or have bilateral kinship. Mostly migratory, most groups had summer gathering places. Here, people sought the hardest workers as spouses.


Major European colonial powers differed in their relationships with Native Americans. Britain and the United States sought a more formal legal relationship, and used treaties recognizing American Indian groups as politically independent entities, while maintaining social and cultural separation. The Spanish and French did not recognize Indians as separate legal entities, but rather intermarried with and assimilated them to a greater degree. Both the English and the Spanish sought control over conquered territories, whereas the French had more interest in establishing strategic trading venues than in controlling territories.

European invasion brought alcohol, increased warfare, and diseases (including typhoid, cholera, typhus, smallpox, measles, influenza, and malaria) to which aboriginals had little resistance, killing 10 to 80 percent of each population, and destroying entire societies. We shall never know about the cultures of many peoples or even the size of the population of the Americas before Columbus.

Initial aboriginal reactions to the European invasion varied greatly. The Iroquois, for example, had long dominated their political environment by warring with other Indian peoples, walking as far as Wisconsin, Georgia, and Nova Scotia to do so. The Iroquois for a time cooperated with the Dutch and later the English to control the fur trade in the Northeast, benefitting both parties at the expense of their neighbors, Indian and European.

Having endured military losses, alcohol, and disease, as well as the loss of land, freedom, and game, many native peoples became dispirited. When conditions change and people feel that their culture no longer serves them ideally in their new circumstances, it often happens that a leader with an idea for cultural revitalization appears. This occurred numerous times among native North Americans, and one of the most famous of these cultural revivals took place in the latter half of the nineteenth century in the West. A Paviotso man named Wovoka (c. 18561932) had a visiona direct connection with a supernatural being in which many American Indians place great faithtaking him to the other world, where he saw a great spirit, and there all the people who had died were young and happily engaging in traditional pursuits. The great spirits message was that he go back and tell his people that they must dance, be good, live in peace with white people, work, be honest, and give up war. If they obeyed him they would be reunited with those who had died and no one would grow old or die; from this resurrection of the dead came the name Ghost Dance. As time went on, many Indian people in much of the West accepted this message as a ray of hope. But as the Ghost Dance traveled orally, it began to change. A new message arose stating that white people would vanish, while the technological advancements they brought would remain.

Still later, the idea of the Ghost Dance shirt, allegedly providing invulnerability to the white mans bullets, was added. The altered message became popular among some of the Sioux of South Dakota in 1890. The Sioux had been militarily defeated, crowded into guarded camps, largely disarmed of their rifles (though not revolvers or clubs), experienced the assassination of their leader Sitting Bull (c. 18311890) by hostile Indian police, and suffered violations of every treaty that they had signed, most importantly the one guaranteeing them sufficient food (beef) to survive the winter. One irate adherent of the Ghost Dance, perhaps believing the message of invulnerability, fired on the U.S. cavalry, igniting a melee that killed the Sioux warriors present as well as a number of cavalrymen, and enraging the remaining cavalrymen, who themselves were still angry over the cavalrys obliteration at Little Bighorn in 1876, to the point that they then retaliated against any Sioux they could find, including women and children. This fight became known as the Sioux outbreak of 1890 and later as the Wounded Knee massacre. Following the demonstrated ineffectiveness of the Ghost Dance shirt, many Sioux became interested, temporarily at least, in Christianity.

Although rarely by design, European influences have sometimes benefited aboriginal peoples. Pacification, for example, ended indigenous warfare. The United States freed Hopi from the attacks of the Navajo, and the United States, by defeating the raiding Apache and purchasing their wheat and cotton crops, helped the Pimas (Akimel Oodham, river people) become wealthy farmers in the second half of the eighteenth century. Technological introductions eased many of lifes difficulties, and the imposition of the English language provided Indians with their first true lingua franca.

In 1969 Vine Deloria Jr. (19332005) published Custer Died for Your Sins, which argued that most of the types of information about Indians that interested scholars were unimportant. Deloria called upon scholars, particularly anthropologists, as well as missionaries, government workers, and others, to work toward the betterment of the living conditions of North American Indian people. His message was well heeded in academia, where two important effects can be noted. The first was a multiplication of programs of American Indian and Native American studies at North American universities, a development intended to increase the numbers of Native American college students. Another effect has been to discourage American Indian students from pursuing academic interests in anthropology, something that American Indian anthropologists have decried.


Although often framed in terms positive to Indian interests, most significant nineteenth-century U.S. legislation aimed to dispossess Indians of their lands for the benefit of non-Indians. For example, the 1830 Indian Removal Act promised southeastern Indians ownership of land in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), but those who did not accede to its terms were rounded up (some escaped) and forced to walk to Indian Territory, causing thousands of deaths. Even when aboriginal peoples agreed to cede lands, it was usually under intense pressure from non-Indians, often including both a military presence and payments to treaty signers. Moreover, the resulting reservation lands were often whittled away by official measures and encroachment. In addition, treaty provisions for food and medicine were often poorly enforced. As one-sided, deceptive, and coercive as the treaty process was, it at least recognized indigenous peoples as separate and capable of making their own decisions, and therefore gave them power to negotiate terms. The 1871 Indian Appropriation Act ended the power of Indians to make treaties, although it did give legal protection to those already made. In the same year, rules preventing Indians from leaving reservations ended.

In 1887 the U.S. Congress passed the General Allotment Act (also known as the Dawes Act), breaking up 118 reservations into individual parcels allotted to each family. The primary goal was to free up land for white settlers, since lands above and beyond those needed for each family allotment were considered surplus and were taken from the Indians and sold off. Native Americans lost 34,800,000 hectares, or 62 percent of reservation lands. The secondary goal was to assimilate Indians and acculturate them as farmers. Predictably, the first goal was met admirably, since in addition to the taking of lands, many Indians sold their lands or lost them due to their inability to pay the taxes on them. The second goal was rarely met. Indian poverty and misery both increased, due in part to the allotments effects on social unity and the loss of resources. Because the Dawes Act made no provision for later generations, many people had no land of their own.

The 1934 Indian Reorganization Act encouraged U.S. Indians to adopt a federally prescribed means of choosing leaders and forming governments to ensure democratic elections and governments where sometimes none had previously existed. This arrangement was accepted by approximately three-quarters of all U.S. Indian groups. Although representing an advance in democracy, it must be said that this measure also represented a change of the culture and a step back from independence. The question of what is best for a people is not clear-cut, and often this exact question divides communities. This legislation and other rules also created administrative units for American Indian governments based upon the concept of a tribe, a concept that despite popular opinion applies to few Amerindians. What people think of as a tribe is usually only a class of people speaking the same language. To call these tribes is comparable to thinking of all U.S. citizens, New Zealanders, South Africans, and so on as a single group because they all speak English. Traditional means of dealing with social frictions became useless in these new larger tribes. Nowadays, these groups possess more political power as a result of their greater size.

In 1953 and 1954 the U.S. Congress voted to terminate federal controls over many American Indians, prompting considerable outcry from Native Americans and others. As much as Native Americans dislike and distrust the federal government, they realize that they benefit from its oversight, financial assistance, and protections, and many groups split apart as a result of this program.

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 (NAGPRA) grants Indians in the United States rights over some human remains of ancestors and religious and culturally central objects. This legislation has allowed Indian peoples to reacquire many of these objects from federally funded institutions such as museums, as well as to gain legal standing to do such things as challenge the treatment of Kennewick Man, an ancient skeleton found in 1996 near the Columbia River in Kennewick, Washington.

From the 1970s onward, Congress chose to support tribal autonomy by encouraging and financing tribal courts. For many types of offenses, both the federal government and the tribal government have jurisdiction. Tribal courts decide many issues pertaining to disputes between Indians on the reservation, but cannot deal with the most serious crimes. These courts also have jurisdiction over disputes involving contracts between Indians and non-Indians on the reservation, which has led many non-Indian entrepreneurs to avoid doing business with Indians on reservations, and which therefore must be considered a reason for poor economic development there. Unfortunately, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which is accountable for the operation of these courts, has not always ensured that the courts operate according to the principles of procedure and justice upheld elsewhere in the United States.

The 1990s began to see U.S. courts interpret treaty rights liberally in favor of Indians. In Minnesota et al. v. Mille Lacs Band of Chippewa Indians et al., 526 U.S. 172 (1999), the U.S. Supreme Court decided that even though the Mille Lacs Chippewa in their 1855 treaty with the United States relinquished all of their interests in Minnesota lands, this did not include their rights to hunt, fish, and gather.

Although American Indians are among the poorest people in the United States, conditions are improving. Unemployment, domestic crowding, and poverty rates are dropping, educational levels are rising, and incomes are increasing at three times the rate of the general U.S. population. And whereas more than half of the American Indian population in the United States lived in cities in the 1980s, by 2000 people were moving back to the reservations in large numbers. Even Shannon County, one of the countrys poorest, which lies in Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, saw its population rise by more than a fourth between 1990 and 2000. One of several reasons for this growth is the employment opportunities accompanying newfound wealth deriving from the more than four hundred Indian casinos in twenty-eight states. In 2005 these casinos earned profits of $20 billion. While some Native American communities have become very wealthy because of their casinos, many other American Indian groups, particularly the poorest rural ones, have lost money with their casinos, and many of these have closed. And despite the fact that Indians acquired the right to operate casinos because of their limited sovereignty, states can still prevent and regulate casinos within their borders. Utah, for this reason, has no Indian casinos. Those groups with profitable casinos have used the money to build houses, fund education, create employment, and buy influence; in 2004 Indians gave $8.6 million to political candidates.

Cultural retention remains important to many Indians. Partly for reasons of pride in themselves, their people, and their history, many Indians are careful to teach their children about their traditions, language, and values both at home and in some reservation schools, partly as a way to counter the influences of Euro-American culture in schools, off the reservations, and especially on television. Others wish to retain culture for political reasons, now that most aboriginal North Americans dress the same way other Americans do, live in the same kinds of houses, and so on. Some worry that non-Indian Americans will argue that Indians do not differ from other Americans, and therefore do not deserve special rights. But on this matter, like all matters pertaining to the future of Indian people in North America, there are as many opinions as there are Native American individuals. Some Indian parents, even ones whose first languages are indigenous, go out of their way to speak to their children in English, believing that success in English is paramount to economic success in the United States and that knowledge of an Indian language represents an impediment. Although culture loss is lamentable, the fact that aboriginal peoples are attempting in myriad ways to succeed in this changing modern world must be viewed positively.

SEE ALSO American Indian Movement; Burial Grounds, Native American; Cherokees; Indigenous Rights; Inuit; Iroquois; Navajos; Sitting Bull; Trail of Tears


Deloria, Vine, Jr. 1969. Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto. New York: Macmillan.

Fagan, Brian. 2005. Ancient North America: The Archaeology of a Continent. 4th ed. New York: Thames & Hudson.

Fenton, William N. 1998. The Great Law and the Longhouse: A Political History of the Iroquois Confederacy. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Krech, Shepard, III. 1999. The Ecological Indian: Myth and History. New York: Norton.

Kroeber, Alfred Louis. 1925. Handbook of the Indians of California. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.

Llewellyn, Karl N., and E. Adamson Hoebel. 1941. The Cheyenne Way: Conflict and Case Law in Primitive Jurisprudence. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Mooney, James. [1896] 1965. The Ghost-Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

OBrien, Sharon. 1989. American Indian Tribal Governments. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Spicer, Edward H. 1962. Cycles of Conquest: The Impact of Spain, Mexico, and the United States on the Indians of the Southwest, 15331960. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Sturtevant, William C., et al., eds. 19782004. Handbook of North American Indians. 20 vols. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Swanton, John Reed. 1911. Indian Tribes of the Lower Mississippi Valley and Adjacent Coast of the Gulf of Mexico. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.

Daniel P. Strouthes

Native Americans

views updated Jun 08 2018

Native Americans

Native Americans are the indigenous peoples of the United States. Indigenous peoples are the first or earliest inhabitants of a region. As with indigenous populations in many other parts of the world, indigenous peoples differ in skin color and ethnic customs from the dominant society that assumed control of their lands sometime in the past five hundred years. The term Native American is commonly used to refer to American Indians living within the United States. However, it also includes Hawaiians and some Alaskan Natives not considered American Indians. Therefore, American Indians refers to most Native Americans in the main continental United States plus some native groups in Alaska.

The complex legal standing of Native Americans in the early twenty-first century resulted from governmental laws and policies that built up over centuries. By the twenty-first century over five hundred Native American tribes were officially recognized by the federal government. Although many similarities existed among them, each tribe had its own unique cultural and legal history. Their overall relationship to the U.S. government for over two centuries followed a pattern shifting between periods of support for tribal self-government and economic self-sufficiency to periods of forced Indian inclusion into the dominant white society, known as assimilation.

This relationship began taking shape during the seventeenth century. European colonists, who settled along the Eastern Seaboard, negotiated treaties with the local indigenous groups. These colonists brought with them a long-established international policy that treated individual native groups as politically independent nations. During early colonial settlement natives were dying in large numbers from violent conflicts and diseases their immune systems had no resistance to, which were introduced by the colonists from the Old World (the Eastern Hemisphere). Where native groups were able to persist at their settlements, in the treaties the colonists recognized the Indian right of possession to lands they were occupying and using. In return the colonists received promises of peace and security.

As a result of these treaties, the tribal groups were internationally recognized as nations well before the United States gained its independence as a nation from Great Britain. This process of formal recognition established the basis for future U.S.-Indian relations from the very beginning of U.S. existence into the early twenty-first century as American Indian communities made a strong economic and political recovery from centuries of prejudice and oppression.

The arrival of European settlement

Contact between Western Europeans and Native American societies in North America began in the seventeenth century as the first European colonists settled along the East Coast. The early colonists found numerous Native American settlements across the landscape. Consistent with the European doctrine of discovery used by early explorers in claiming New World lands, the colonists claimed exclusive right for the area they settled to negotiate with peoples who still occupied those lands.


Forced inclusion into the dominant society.
The first or earliest inhabitants of a region.
A nation's ability to govern its own internal affairs.
A tribe no longer having the U.S. government representing its best interests and providing special social services.
Holding and managing something of value for the benefit of another person or organization.

At first the small numbers of colonists were outnumbered and vulnerable to hostile attack by the more numerous Indians. Though outnumbered, the colonists carried forward the ethnocentricism (believing one ethnic group's way of life is superior to all others) that dominated Europe for centuries. They intended to carry civilization as known in Europe to the rest of the world's populations while helping themselves to the wealth of natural resources available in native-held lands. At first however, the colonists eagerly signed treaties of peace and friendship with Indian groups to ensure their own safety. However, the balance of strength changed as the number of colonists steadily grew and the Indian population along the coast rapidly declined. By the mid-1700s the coastal native population had been dramatically reduced by war, isolated skirmishes, disease, and starvation. Many surviving Indian peoples moved west of the Appalachian Mountains away from the colonial settlements.

In the 1783 Treaty of Paris ending the American Revolution (1775–83), the newly independent United States gained a claim to lands between the Appalachians and the Mississippi River from Britain. The United States now had the right to negotiate with tribes residing in this western region for the actual possession of their lands for new American settlement. However, racial prejudices of American citizens toward Indian peoples were strong. Not only were Indians considered uncivilized, they had also sided with the British during the Revolution. Now they were considered a defeated enemy. As a result, settlers poured across the Appalachians to settle the fertile Mississippi and Ohio River valleys regardless if the appropriate treaties acquiring possession of the land were completed or not.

Establishing U.S.-Indian relations

Adding to the growing conflicts on the American frontier, the Articles of Confederation governing the young nation through its first years largely left Indian relations to the individual states. The new and very weak central government could only take actions that did not get in the way of the states' activities. Greater decisiveness to address the chaos came soon when the Second Continental Congress adopted the Northwest Ordinance in 1787. The Ordinance formally established the Northwest Territory from lands west of the Appalachian Mountains. Having no funds to finance military conflicts with Indians, the Ordinance attempted to secure peaceful and orderly relations with Indians. While asserting its claim to the newly gained lands from Britain, the Ordinance recognized existing Indian right of possession to those lands. The Ordinance prohibited private individuals and local governments from negotiating treaties or buying these lands directly from Indians. Only the federal government could now negotiate treaties with tribes in that region and guide overall relations with Indians.

The policies defining U.S.-tribal relations by the Northwest Ordinance were carried forward into the new U.S. Constitution, adopted in 1789. An example of Congress's broad powers over Indian relations was Article I, section 8, clause 3 of the Constitution. This clause gave the federal government sole authority to regulate all trade not only with foreign nations and between individual states, but also with Indian tribes. The Constitution also recognized the importance of treaties with Indians. According to Article VI Indian treaties ratified (approved) by the U.S. Senate have the same legal force as federal laws and have priority over state laws.

One of the first actions of the new U.S. Congress in 1790 was passage of the Indian Trade and Intercourse Act. The act formed the basis for U.S.-Indian relations for the next two centuries. It gave Congress broad powers over Indian peoples including control of all interaction between Indians and U.S. citizens. Like the Ordinance, it prohibited states or private citizens from purchasing land from Indians. In addition, any merchant selling to Indians without first receiving government permission could face criminal penalties.

The 1790 act started a new era of treaties. Their primary purpose was removing Indians out of the way of the constantly expanding U.S. settlement. In 1800 the native population still possessed three-fourths of what would later be the United States. Between 1790 and 1871 the U.S. Senate ratified over 370 treaties with Indian nations. The treaties not only served to acquire lands, but to gain Indian allegiance to the newly formed nation instead of Britain which had maintained friendly relations with many of the tribes prior to American independence.

The treaty process clearly reflected the prejudices of the government negotiators and the society they represented. The treaties largely took place in English and normally in an atmosphere of extreme duress for the tribes. U.S. officials chose which tribal members to negotiate with. Usually those selected had no real tribal authority to sell (cede) tribal lands. The United States always purchased the lands for prices well below fair market value, only a few cents an acre for good farmland. The treaties also promised annual payments to the tribes and delivery of agricultural equipment and other basic necessities, such as blankets to protect against winter cold. These payments and goods frequently never appeared.

The treaty process gave the newly established democratic nation a false sense of fairness in the face of bitter prejudice shown by U.S. settlers toward the Indians and the blatant conquest of Indian lands. The treaty process made this transfer of land appear more peaceful and voluntary. Regardless of whether the U.S. government had negotiated treaties for removal of Indians from their land, the new settlers moved in anyway, clearing the natural woods and plowing agricultural fields. Game and natural foods the Indians had relied upon for centuries vanished. In some cases the settlers moved into areas reserved in treaties for Indian use only. The pioneers of predominantly white European ancestry only wanted the dark-skinned Indians out of the way, either peacefully or not.

Hostile conflicts

U.S.-Indian relations through the nineteenth century involved numerous skirmishes and battles. The Indians peoples suffered a heavy loss in life. Much bitterness developed, particularly owing to the brutal hand-to-hand combat that these battles frequently involved. The U.S. Army possessed more advanced military technology and a larger supply of arms and ammunition making the outcome of U.S. conquest inevitable. Fighting the outnumbered and outmatched Indians produced new American heroes including future U.S. presidents William Henry Harrison (1773–1841; served 1841) and Andrew Jackson (1767–1845; served 1829–37).

The Indian peoples repeatedly stiffened their resistance to the continued loss of their homelands to American settlers. On different occasions new Indian leaders promoted a return to traditional beliefs and ways of life, called revitalization. They rejected American goods including alcohol and other undesirable American habits.

The civilization program

The U.S. government constantly sought ways of avoiding conflicts with Indians and protecting lives of its citizens. In the early nineteenth century the government introduced a program to civilize indigenous peoples. Displaying prejudices toward ethnic lifestyles of natives, the U.S. leaders wanted to turn Indians from hunters into farmers in order to civilize them. The government provided agricultural implements and spinning wheels to encourage the farming lifestyle. The Office of Indian Affairs (later Bureau of Indian Affairs) in 1824 was created to administer government Indian policies. However, surprisingly to the ethnocentric Americans, Indians consistently showed a stronger determination to maintain their traditional economies. Indians did not find this new European way of civilized life acceptable. Many Indians sought wage labor in the newly established frontier towns. However, there exclusion from residing in these communities based on racial prejudice made it difficult.

States mounted legal challenges to U.S. recognition of tribal sovereignty and the exclusive control over Indian relations held by Congress. Sovereignty represents a nation's ability to govern its own internal affairs. States wanted to gain control over Indian relations. As a result, U.S. Indian policy became further defined by three landmark Supreme Court decisions between 1823 and 1832, known as the Marshall Trilogy after legendary Supreme Court chief justice John Marshall (1756–1835). The Court's opinions expressed in Johnson v. McIntosh (1823), Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831), and Worcester v. Georgia (1832) reaffirmed the tribal right to occupy and govern its own lands that were free from state jurisdiction (the geographic area over which law enforcement or courts have legal authority) on their own lands, referred to as Indian Country, and defined a U.S. moral trust responsibility to the tribes. Marshall called tribes domestic dependent nations. The trust obligations meant the United States was responsible for Indian health and welfare and their economic well-being.

The Marshall Trilogy established the legal status of the Indian tribes in the United States. Unfortunately for Indian peoples at the time, these legal principles were not well received by the U.S. population. Even President Jackson ignored the Court's rulings and pressed on with harsh Indian policies.

Before long, the U.S. government abandoned efforts to civilize Indian peoples. Instead, it adopted policies to isolate Indian peoples including even forced removal. The 1830 Indian Removal Act led to mass relocations of those surviving Indian peoples still remaining east of the Mississippi River. Under this policy, the United States forcefully removed members of the Five Civilized Tribes (Choctaw, Seminole, Cherokee, Creek, and Chickasaw) from the Southeastern United States to the newly created Oklahoma Indian Territory. Thousands of deaths directly resulted from initial long-term detention followed by the 1,800-mile, six-month march known as the Trail of Tears.

Reservation period

Through much of the nineteenth century American settlement continued its relentless march westward under the highly prejudiced notion of Manifest Destiny. Under this idea, U.S. citizens believed they had a God-given right to spread its influence across the North American continent to the shores of the Pacific Ocean. This expansion involved removal of Indian peoples they considered uncivilized and not making good use of the land by farming.

Following the acquisition of the Southwest from Mexico and the opening of the Oregon Trail to the Pacific Northwest in the 1840s, Indian removal policies of the 1830s continued into the 1870s. Through more treaties, tribes exchanged land, water, and mineral rights for promises of peace, security, healthcare, and education. The western treaties created a vast reserve system in which surviving Indian peoples could exclusively exercise their inherent (acquired at birth) rights within certain defined territories, called reservations. The reservations were usually located in remote areas judged unsuitable for white settlement. In 1871 Congress officially closed the treaty period with more than 650 treaties signed and 370 ratified into law.

Signing these treaties was one matter for the U.S. government, honoring them was another. Many believed that the dwindling native populations in the late nineteenth century would eventually cease to exist altogether. Consequently, some U.S. leaders considered the treaties only a temporary measure. Instead, these reservations formed the basis for Indian communities and governments into the twenty-first century.

With Congressional action in 1871 Indian removal was considered essentially complete. However, with discoveries of new goldfields in the 1860s, the remote reservation lands increasingly looked attractive to prospectors and settlers. Some of the last treaties forced tribes to greatly reduce the size of reservations promised in earlier treaties.

Throughout the nineteenth century Indians were banished from towns and relegated to remote reservations. A system for policing Indians developed largely outside the normal U.S. court jurisdiction. Indian agents working for the Office of Indian Affairs had ready access to the U.S. military and exercised broad authority. They routinely detained individual Indians for a wide range of alleged actions. Finally advocates for Indians took a case to federal courts. In 1879 a federal court ruled that Indians off-reservation were persons as defined in the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. They had the same constitutional due process (legal protections through established formal procedures) and equal protection rights (all persons treated fairly before the law) as U.S. citizens. The ruling meant the U.S. Army could no longer exercise broad authority to detain Indians while off the reservation without full civilian constitutional protections.

Assimilation policies

By the 1880s, many believed the only chance of survival for Indians was through integration into society. A major period of forced cultural assimilation began with the General Allotment Act of 1887. To a large degree this act marked a return to the highly prejudiced desire of civilizing Indian peoples. Believing the indigenous tradition of communally owning land was a major cultural barrier to Indians adopting Western ways, Congress passed the Allotment Act, also known as the Dawes Act. The act authorized the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) to divide communal reservation lands into smaller, privately owned parcels. The agency allotted 160-acre parcels to families and 80-acre parcels to single adults over eighteen years of age. Indians receiving allotments also received U.S. citizenship supposedly to speed their assimilation. U.S. policymakers reasoned that if they owned their own property, Indians would most likely become farmers and adopt the U.S. social values.

Given the dramatic decrease of the Indian population before 1887, a large amount of reservation land was left over after each tribal member or family had received their allotment. The BIA declared those unallotted lands as surplus and sold them to non-Indians. Often these were the more agriculturally productive lands on reservations. In addition to the loss of these so-called surplus lands, much allotted land went into forfeiture (was lost) when many Indians could not afford to pay taxes on their often remote, unproductive desert properties. This land, too, went to non-Indians eventually. Even when land was productive, markets were usually still too distant to deliver produce in this era before refrigerated railway cars. As a result, the allotment policy was an economic disaster for Indian peoples. The size of Indian Country in the United States decreased from 138 million acres in 1887 to just 48 million acres by 1934.

As part of its assimilation policies, Congress later passed the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924. The act granted all Indians citizenship. The act also made Indians citizens of the states in which they resided.

More legal challenges

The legal status of Indian tribes once again became a topic of the U.S. Supreme Court in the early twentieth century. Some of these decisions focused on the results of the early prejudices associated with the early treaty negotiations. In Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock (1903) the Court ruled that Congress has the plenary (absolute) power to take away tribal rights. However, the federal trust responsibility identified by Supreme Court chief justice Marshall eighty years earlier required careful exercise of this absolute power, using it only when Congress believed it was beneficial to Indian peoples.

In United States v. Winans (1905), the Supreme Court established the Reserved Rights Doctrine. The doctrine meant that tribes retain inherent rights until explicitly taken away by Congress. For example, a tribe retains its hunting and fishing rights even if its reservation is taken away by Congress unless legislation specifically states that the rights are no longer valid.

In Winters v. United States (1908), the Supreme Court ruled that the creation of reservations through treaties also carried with them implied (unwritten) water rights (right of a user to a particular water source) necessary to support residential and economic use of the reservation. The decision, known as the Winters Doctrine, remained central to water rights negotiations into the twenty-first century involving tribes, private landowners, and public agencies, particularly in Western states.

To resolve legal disputes over how treaties are to be interpreted, the Court created the doctrine known as "canons of construction" in its 1908 Winters ruling. This doctrine stated that courts should always interpret unclear treaty language from the tribal perspective.

Renewed hope at survival

It is estimated the peak Native American population was perhaps as high as ten million people prior to the arrival of European explorers and settlers in the Western Hemisphere in the sixteenth century. The population plummeted to less than 300,000 by the 1920s, at its lowest point.

By the late 1920s American Indians had been stripped of almost all their traditional lands. Surviving Indians were isolated on remote reservations or in rural communities, trapped in oppressive poverty with few opportunities for an education and poor access to health services. Highly prejudiced government programs prohibited them to practice ancient Indian traditions. A 1928 study by the Brookings Institution, The Problem of Indian Administration, documented in detail the dire situation of Native Americans in the United States.

In the midst of this desperate situation, hope came in 1933 when newly elected president Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945; served 1933–45) named Harold Ickes (1874–1952) as secretary of the interior. Ickes was a champion of civil liberties and not prejudiced against traditional native cultures. Ickes appointed John Collier (1884–1968), a leading critic of earlier federal Indian policies, to serve as U.S. commissioner of Indian affairs. Collier recommended an end to assimilation policies and Congress responded.

Under the guidance of Ickes and Collier, the 1930s became a turning point in American Indian history. The decade was marked by the Great Depression, a major decline in the nation's economy. Numerous federal programs of the Roosevelt administration designed to help those Americans suffering the most from hunger and unemployment were collectively known as the New Deal. Those programs aimed more directly toward Native Americans became known as the Indian New Deal. Using the 1928 report as a guide, Collier reformed the governmental policies guiding American Indian affairs. The U.S. Office of Indian Affairs (later renamed the Bureau of Indian Affairs or BIA) now promoted the continued political and cultural existence of tribes. American Indians would not be forced to blend into the dominant American white culture. Importantly, social services available to Indians were improved.

Collier wanted to provide tribes a way to pursue economic development while maintaining their individual tribal cultures. To achieve this goal he guided through Congress the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) of 1934. Still based on Western society racial prejudices, the act gave tribes an option of adopting written constitutions establishing democratic forms of government and forming federally chartered corporations. In creating an IRA government, a tribe could receive federal funds to purchase land, start businesses, and receive social services.

Some 252 tribes held elections to decide whether to create an IRA government. Of these 174 tribes voted to accept IRA conditions. However, ultimately only 92 tribes actually adopted IRA constitutions. Other tribes chose to organize new governments under their own tribal rules. Despite its limited acceptance by tribes, the IRA stopped the ongoing loss of American Indian lands and provided a major source of funds for tribes to pursue economic recovery. The IRA took a big step toward increasing tribal economic and political independence. On the other hand, the IRA-established tribal governments often clashed with the tribe's traditional leaders causing strife within tribal communities. Nonetheless, some tribes with a sufficient land base and marketable natural resources, such as timber, developed a strong economy and prospered during this period.

Collier orchestrated other reforms. To improve education and health services, Congress passed the Johnson-O'Malley Act in 1934. The act authorized the federal government to pay public school districts for expenses related to educating Indian children in their classrooms.

In 1935 Congress created the Indian Arts and Crafts Board to encourage American Indians to produce traditional as well as contemporary arts and crafts. The Board adopted standards for Indian crafts to guarantee their value. Indians could also now trademark their designs. The Board established galleries where Indians could market their crafts. The locations were in Washington, D.C.; Montana; South Dakota; Oklahoma; and at the World's Fair in San Francisco, California, in 1939 and 1940. In New Mexico the New Deal's Works Progress Administration (WPA) hired artists and musicians to teach Indian crafts and traditions that had been almost lost. A small group of Indian artisans whose influence would grow later in the twentieth century emerged from these governmental programs.

Assimilation through termination

Thousands of Indians served in the U.S. military abroad during World War II (1939–45) while others worked in defense plants. Much like African Americans at the time, their exposure to mainstream society during the war made life on poverty-ridden reservations less acceptable as they returned from active duty or the assembly line following the war. A population shift from reservations to cities began.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Indian policies took another turn away from promotion of Indian traditions. As the population trend toward cities increased, special interests longing for valuable Indian-owned assets persuaded Congress to shift policy back to assimilation, this time known as termination. Termination of a tribe meant ending its special trust relationship with the U.S. government and converting tribal reservation lands to private lands. Access to federal health and education services was also curtailed.

The assimilation policies in the 1950s were designed to increase integration of Indian peoples into mainstream U.S. society. The government created the Adult Vocational Training Program and the Employment Assistance Program to promote urban relocation. From 1952 to 1972 the government sent over one hundred thousand Indians from reservations to urban job placement centers. The percentage of Indians living in cities expanded from only 10 percent in 1930 to almost 30 percent in 1960.

Approximately one hundred tribes were selected for termination through acts passed by Congress. As in the allotment period, much Indian land was sold to non-Indians or became public lands including National Forests. The economic base for those Indian communities was devastated. Also as part of termination, Congress passed Public Law 280 in 1953. The act expanded state jurisdiction onto tribal lands in selected states. Tribal sovereignty was decreased even further.

A return to tribal support

Congressional support for the termination policies did not last long. Once again U.S. Indian policy took another dramatic shift. The 1970s saw renewed support for tribal government independence. What was referred to as the tribal self-determination era began in which the tribes could govern their own internal affairs.

Changes in support of tribes began again in the 1960s. Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act exempted Indians from job discrimination in certain circumstances. For example, the BIA could favor Indian applicants in filling jobs within the agency. The 1974 Supreme Court ruling in Morton v. Mancari affirmed that the federal government can treat American Indians differently from other U.S. citizens, despite antidiscrimination laws, when applying for jobs in the BIA. The Court ruled that when a government agency acts to protect Indian interests and promote tribal sovereignty, then tribes are considered political groups, not racial or ethnic groups.

Other legal distinctions for Indians were also identified. To ensure consistent civil rights protections within the individual tribes Congress passed the Indian Civil Rights Act (ICRA) of 1968. The act extended most of the U.S. Constitution's Bill of Rights (first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution recognizing certain rights and protections) to Indian peoples. These individual rights and protections included free speech protections, free exercise of religion, and due process (designated to protect the legal rights of individuals) and equal protection of tribal government laws. The act did not extend to Indians the prohibition on government support of a religion. Tribal governments were free to promote their own tribal religions.

The biggest boost in support of tribal sovereignty and self-sufficiency came in 1975 when Congress passed the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act. The act gave the BIA and other agencies authority to transfer responsibility for administering certain tribal programs to the tribes. The programs must be those federal programs benefiting Indian peoples, such as programs providing health and education services to tribal communities.

As the Indian population shift from reservations to cities progressed, problems of racial discrimination and poverty became prevalent for urban Indians. Underemployment led to homelessness, rampant substance abuse, and unusually high injury, disease, death, and infant mortality rates. To provide support for the expanding Indian urban population, Indian centers, clubs, and churches appeared in many cities. In 1976 Congress passed the Indian Health Care Improvement Act to address the urban Indian plight by bringing increased healthcare services to Indians.

Resurgence gains momentum

With the resurgence of some tribal economies in the 1980s and resulting improved living conditions on reservations, Indians began moving back to their rural tribal communities from the cities. The educations and skills they acquired in mainstream society further propelled Indian Country resurgence. As the wealth of some tribes increased, questions and issues related to tribal membership and rights, claims to Indian ancestry or tribal affiliation, and intellectual property issues (who has the right to represent Indian interests to the mainstream society) became key areas of concern.

Determining who was Indian had increasingly important financial and legal consequences. Individuals could gain tribal membership through birth or marriage and may have substantial non-Indian ancestry. However, a person of total Indian ancestry who never establishes a relationship with a tribe cannot claim legal Indian status. Because of tribal sovereignty, each tribe was responsible for determining the basis for its membership. Generally, an Indian could be anyone having some degree of Indian ancestry, considered a member of an Indian community, and promoting himself as Indian.

Congress continued passing acts protecting tribal rights and interests, including the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (1978), the Indian Mineral Development Act (1982), the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (1990), and the Indian Self-Governance Act (1994). The 1994 act amended the earlier 1975 Self-Determination Act making more federal government services to tribes subject to tribal administration.

A key player on the national scene

By the late twentieth century, a special branch of law in the U.S. legal system had even become recognized, referred to as Indian law. In the early twenty-first century 554 tribes were formally recognized as sovereign nations located within the boundaries of the United States. These tribal governments oversaw about 56 million acres, or just over 2 percent of lands within the United States. In 2000 approximately two million Native Americans lived on 314 reservations and in cities. More than 250 native languages were still spoken in Indian Country. The percentage of Indians living in cities grew to 56 percent by 1990. The majority of American Indians now lived in urban areas. Despite the population shift, the reservations in Indian Country remained the focus of native pride and political identity separate from American white culture.

Issues of tribal sovereignty persisted into the new century related to natural resource management and economic development. By the beginning of the twenty-first century tribal lands held much of the last remaining deposits of natural resources in North America. Ongoing issues involved water rights, forest management, restoration of fish runs, mineral development (including gold, copper, zinc, oil and gas, uranium, and coal), cleanup of heavy-metal poisoning left from earlier mining activity, and management of major waterways including the Columbia, Snake, Colorado, and Missouri rivers. Legal conflicts frequently pitted private interests and state governments against tribal governments with the federal government weighing in on various sides depending on the circumstances behind the particular dispute.

Tribal governments and their peoples continued to enjoy a unique legal status. Under the sovereignty concept, tribes could form and reorganize their own governments, determine tribal membership, regulate individual property, manage natural resources, provide health services, develop businesses, regulate commerce on tribal lands, collect taxes, maintain law enforcement, and establish tribal court systems. Members of federally recognized tribes were both U.S. and tribal citizens, simultaneously receiving benefits and protections from federal, state, and tribal governments.

Indian gaming

A new era of tribal economics arrived in 1988 when Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. By the end of the twentieth century, one-third of the 554 federally recognized tribes operated some form of gaming establishment. Annual revenue was estimated at $6 billion. Due to tribal sovereignty, casino revenues were tax free. However, agreements with individual states required by the act often provided some funding to states to pay for increased community needs due to their popular businesses. These needs included improved roads and sewers and expanded police capabilities in the communities.

The financial success of the individual gaming businesses varied greatly. The most notable success in gaming was the Foxwoods Casino and Resort, operated by the Mashantucket Pequots of Connecticut, a tribe of only five hundred members. Comprised of three million square feet plus a high-rise hotel and twenty-four restaurants, in 1998 it was the largest tribal facility in the country. By the late 1990s the tribe was making over $1 billion a year through its casino and other businesses. It had become the largest employer in New England and largest landowner in Connecticut with the land purchases the tribe made.

Similar stories unfolded elsewhere in the country though normally at a lesser scale. The Coeur d'Alene Tribe of northern Idaho with its newfound gaming income built a $5 million wellness center and a 8,000-bed hospital. For the Ojibwa of Minnesota, who built two lavish casino and hotel complexes in the early 1990s including the Grand Casino Mille Lacs, unemployment fell from 46 percent to less than 10 percent. Housing for tribal members improved and the tribes acquired new lands. The Oneida of Wisconsin became the largest employer in the Green Bay area due to gaming and other business ventures.

Other economic gains

Gaming revenues first went into education, housing, health and elder care, and law enforcement. But as wealth accumulated, investments in a wide range of developments grew. In addition, donations were made to local non-Indian community needs.

Indian gaming successes gave rise to a new generation of Native American entrepreneurs. Economic issues involving casino development usually grabbed the public's attention, but tribes were also investing in a diversity of other long-term business ventures. Economic investments involved billions of dollars. Many of these new business leaders saw gaming as a means to establish long-term more diverse tribal economies involving non-gaming developments. Tribal acquisitions ranged from golf courses to industrial parks. Unemployment rates in many areas plummeted.

Their goal was a lasting increase in quality of life. Tribes also built new cultural centers to help reconstruct tribal identities lost over the centuries of oppression from dominant societies. They focused on lost languages, songs, dances, and other traditions.

A prejudiced reaction

The substantial economic gains some tribes were able to achieve brought a backlash from the federal and state governments and the general public. Issues of economic development and tribal sovereignty became increasingly intermixed. With incomes growing for some tribes, opposition rose to the tax-free and largely regulation-free status of tribes. Many complained that tribal businesses operating free of state taxes and regulations had an unfair competitive edge against non-Indian businesses.

The concept of tribal sovereignty came increasingly under attack. Tribal leaders responded that this challenge only represented what tribes had faced for centuries: whenever Indians gained something of value, the dominant white society wanted it. Opposition grew against placing more land in trust for tribes as tribes purchased more lands. When lands are placed into federal trust they become exempt from local taxation and zoning requirements since they are not privately owned.

Tribes began spending millions of dollars in donations to political parties and hiring lawyers, lobbyists, and public relations firms. Some tribes have even opened lobbying offices in Washington.

During the summer of 1999, Indian peoples filed a class-action lawsuit against the BIA alleging over two centuries of misuse of Indian assets held in trust by the U.S. government. They were asking for tens of billions of dollars in payment. The lawsuit captured national headlines in the following years as major changes were made in the way the government administered tribal programs.

Prejudice and poverty remained

Despite dramatic economic gains by some tribes in the late twentieth century, by 2000 Indian reservations overall still had a poverty rate of 31 percent, six times the national average at the time. Health and education needs were high. Almost 60 percent of Native Americans lived in substandard housing while large numbers were homeless.

American Indians in the United States suffered higher rates of tuberculosis, liver disease, cancer, pneumonia, diabetes, suicide, and homicide than the general U.S. population. In many tribes amputations, blindness, and dialysis were a way of life as diabetes is rampant.

American Indian Movement

The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, which made progress toward ending certain forms of racial discrimination of African Americans, inspired Indian activism and radicalism including growth of what became known as the Red Power movement. Among various organizations was the American Indian Movement (AIM) in the summer of 1968 by Dennis Banks (1937–) and others on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, an Indian community long known for its poverty and isolation.

AIM was formed to protect traditional ways of the Indian communities and inspire a cultural rejuvenation. Specific issues included from alleged heavy-handed police actions against tribal members and government takeover of Sioux lands in the Black Hills of South Dakota for gold mining. AIM was more confrontational than most social activist organizations of the time. They confronted government agencies and organizations that sought to marginalize American Indians. AIM caught national attention in November 1972 when AIM members seized the Washington, D.C., headquarters of the BIA in protest of the agency's policies. Twenty-four were arrested. The following year a gun battle erupted between Banks and approximately two hundred AIM members and FBI on the Pine Ridge Reservation at Wounded Knee, South Dakota. The standoff lasted seventy-one days. Three tribal members were killed. In 1975 more violence erupted between AIM members and FBI leading to the deaths of two tribal members and two FBI agents in separate incidents. AIM member Leonard Peltier (1944–) was convicted in 1977 for the murder of the agents and became a symbol of American Indian radicalism as he served a life sentence in prison.

AIM remained active in the early twenty-first century advocating American Indian interests. Their involvement included the protest of schools and sports teams using indigenous caricatures as mascots and protests of the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial celebrating U.S. exploration of the American West in the early nineteenth century. Another early leader of AIM, Russell Means (1939–), ran for governor of New Mexico in 2001.

The Indian Health Services (IHS), a U.S. federal agency, provided health care for about three-fourths of the two million Native Americans in the United States. Health care was provided at both reservation health centers and in urban clinics. Recognizing the hopelessness and despair still prevalent in much of Indian Country, in March 2000 the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights recommended formation of a federal task force to seek solutions. In April 2000 President Bill Clinton (1946–; served 1993–2001) visited the Navajo Nation to stress how the American economic boom of the 1990s had bypassed some Native American communities. Almost 40 percent of Navajo households were still without electricity, 70 percent were without telephones, and the unemployment rate was 50 percent.

Despite foreign incursions of epic proportions into their native lands over the past five centuries, Native Americans refused to just disappear. Though isolated on poverty-stricken reservations and in inner cities for much of two centuries, the Native population had rebounded in population size as well as economically and politically.

For More Information


Dowd, Gregory. A Spirited Resistance: The North American Indian Struggle for Unity, 1745–1815. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1992.

Matthiessen, Peter. In the Spirit of Crazy Horse. New York: Penguin Books, 1992.

Washburn, Wilcomb E., ed. Handbook of North American Indians: History of Indian-White Relations. Vol. 4. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1988.

Wilkinson, Charles F. American Indians, Time, and the Law: Native Societies in a Modern Constitutional Democracy. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987.


American Indian Movement. (accessed on November 29, 2006).

National Congress of American Indians. (accessed on November 29, 2006).

Native Americans

views updated May 18 2018

Native Americans

The international community has not legally admonished the United States for genocidal acts against Native Americans, yet it is clear that examples of genocidal acts and crimes against humanity are a well-cited page in U.S. history. Notorious incidents, such as the Trail of Tears, the Sand Creek Massacre, and the massacre of the Yuki of northern California are covered in depth in separate entries in this encyclopedia. More controversial, however, is whether the colonies and the United States participated in genocidal acts as an overall policy toward Native Americans. The Native-American population decrease since the arrival of Spanish explorer Christopher Columbus alone signals the toll colonization and U.S. settlement took on the native population. Scholars estimate that approximately 10 million pre-Columbian Native Americans resided in the present-day United States. That number has since fallen to approximately 2.4 million. While this population decrease cannot be attributed solely to the actions of the U.S. government, they certainly played a key role. In addition to population decrease, Native Americans have also experienced significant cultural and proprietary losses as a result of U.S. governmental actions. The total effect has posed a serious threat to the sustainability of the Native-American people and culture.

Ideological Motivations

Two conflicting yet equally harmful ideologies significantly influenced U.S. dealings with Native Americans. The first sprang from the Enlightenment and, more specifically, John Locke's Second Treatise of Government. Locke proposed that the individual had an exclusive claim to one's person. The fruits of one's labor, as an extension of the individual, then, become the laborer's property. Thus, individuals acquire property rights by removing things from the state of nature through the investment of their labor. This particular theory of property helped justify the many harmful policies against Native Americans throughout United States history. European settlers falsely saw the Americas as a vast and empty wasteland that the Native Americans had failed to cultivate and, therefore, had no worthy claim to. Euro-Americans saw themselves as the torchbearers of civilization and therefore thought they were uniquely situated to acquire the vast wilderness and develop it (this later developed into the idea of Manifest Destiny). To the Euro-American mind, that the Native Americans must yield to European settlement was inevitable. This line of reasoning went so far as to result in a common nineteenth-century belief that the extinction of Native Americans was also inevitable.

The second ideological motivation behind U.S. treatment of Native Americans was the policy of assimilation. Its origins are manifested in president Thomas Jefferson's idea of the yeoman farmer. Jefferson envisioned a land populated by industrious and autonomous yeoman farmers. Native Americans stood in the way of this vision by their communal occupation of vast quantities of land. The best solution, then, would be for Native Americans to assimilate to Euro-American ways. Thus, the Native Americans would require less land and the remainder would be available to white settlers. Under this ideological view of Native Americans' role in the new world, there was no place for Native-American culture as it existed before colonization. It was a useless stump in fertile land that had to be extracted. Assimilation of Native Americans and the intentional destruction of Native-American culture remained overt policies into modern times and were often tied to many religious groups' interactions with Native Americans.

Colonies and States

One of the lesser known facts in U.S. history is that the Virginia and Carolina colonies were heavily engaged in the slave trade of Native Americans. In the Carolinas, the proprietors of the colonies favored cultivating Native-American ties for the lucrative fur trade. Settlers, some from Barbados where slavery was already established, however, raided Native-American tribes and exploited long-standing native rivalries in order to capture and sell Native Americans on the slave market. Historian Thomas R. Berger notes that a South Carolinian, James Moore, abducted and enslaved 325 Native Americans in the Florida region in 1704 and also launched a lucrative attack against the North Carolinian Tuscarora tribe in 1713, killing 200 and capturing 392. The end result of such campaigns was to displace many of the eastern seaboard tribes. The majority of Native Americans in this region were enslaved domestically, sold abroad, or forced to flee into the interior. Such displacement necessarily also destroyed these tribes' cultural unity. These acts of intentional enslavement and displacement would qualify as genocidal acts under the United Nations (UN) definition of genocide. While slavery is not specifically mentioned in the UN Genocide Convention's definition of genocide, it fits the spirit of the convention. These acts deliberately caused bodily and mental harm and imposed conditions on the eastern tribes that made life near the colonized settlements precarious to the point of becoming impossible.

Relations between the northeastern tribes and colonists were also precarious and often hinged on perceived threat, land conflicts, and trade relations. The Puritans of New England recognized native land title only if the land was being cultivated and had a persistent practice of enslaving Native Americans. What harmony existed was often disturbed by conflicts over new settlements and further encroachment on native land. The Pequot War of 1637 illustrates this tension. The Pequot had faired the influx of Western disease better than other tribes and had the strength to resist settlements rather than acquiesce to them. When settlers moved into the Connecticut Valley, the Pequot did just that. In response, a group of settlers launched an attack against the Pequot stronghold at night, surrounding and setting fire to it. The result was the killing of more than five hundre Pequot and the enslavement of the survivors. The desire to eliminate a threat also motivated a similar policy of extermination in Virginia following the Indian massacres of 1622 and 1644.

The western states did not fair much better with their relations with Native Americans. The Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado (1864) and the massacre of the Yuki of northern California (1856–1860) demonstrate that the competition for land and other resources was not fixed in time, but enduring throughout the United States' westward expansion. Both the desire to eliminate a threat and competition for resources, usually land, led many colonies and states to actions that would probably be considered war crimes or crimes against humanity under the Rome Statute.

Federal Government

Much of the federal government's dealings with Native Americans were fueled by states' and individuals' desire for land. After the French and Indian War (1754–1763), the English strongly opposed encroachment on native lands for fear that it would provoke native retaliation and the destruction of beneficial military and trade alliances. King George's Proclamation of 1763 forbade settlement beyond the eastern mountain ranges and granted the Crown the exclusive right to purchase Native-American land. This law frustrated many colonists and land speculators, including Virginia statesman George Washington, who wished to purchase native lands. Under the Proclamation, native lands could be acquired from the Crown, but at a much higher price. The restriction on settlement of certain portions of land also greatly hindered the expansion that many colonists saw as desirable and inevitable. The Crown's interference with settlers' desire for cheap, arable land contributed to many colonists' support and justification for the Revolutionary War. This property system, whereby Native Americans had occupancy rights but because the Europeans "discovered" the continent the Crown had exclusive purchasing rights, was later absorbed into U.S. federal law in the seminal caseJohnson v. McIntosh in 1823. Despite this paternalistic relationship between the federal government and the native tribes in the post-revolutionary United States, settlers continued to attempt to acquire native lands through direct purchase and coercion. The promise of economic gain at Native Americans' expense by taking native land was a cornerstone of the voting Euro-American population's interaction with Native Americans and heavily influenced U.S. Native-American policy.

The War of 1812 marked a turning point from the policy of Native-American assimilation and partial retention of native land to the policy of outright removal of native tribes to the West of the Mississippi. The forced removal or tribes also resulted in a total relinquishment of traditional native land. After many largely unsuccessful attempts to convince the five relatively prosperous and assimilated tribes of the Southeast (Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Seminole, and Creek) to voluntarily move westward, the federal government acquiesced to state pressure and passed the Indian Removal Act of 1830. It offered a trade of land in the East for land in the West. The particularly coercive aspect of the act was that those who refused the exchange would no longer be protected under federal law and would be subject to hostile state regulation. The removal policies of the federal government resulted in the humanitarian disaster referred to by the Cherokee as the Trail of Tears.

Approximately four thousand Cherokee perished on this forced walk to western lands. Removal, however, was a larger policy than this one famed act. It occurred both before and after 1830 and represented the belief that American Indians were not capable of existing with nor desired to coexist with white settlers. There were conflicting motivations behind the policy. For some, it was a thinly veiled method of evicting Native Americans from land that was desired by white settlers. For others, it was based on the belief that Native Americans were members of an inferior civilization that could not survive in the civilized world and therefore needed to be removed for their own sake. Either way, some scholars reference the federal removal policy as a genocidal act due to the death and proprietary loss incurred to Native Americans as well as the destruction of their traditional way of life.

A second and particularly destructive policy was that of assimilation. Behind assimilation policies lies the desire to remove all that is "Indian" from the Native Americans. A particularly poignant historical example of how this policy was also tied to the continued desire for more land is the General Allotment Act of 1887 (the Dawes Act). This act terminated communal land holdings on the reservations and redistributed land to individual Native Americans by a trust system. After twenty-five years, they would own the land individually and become U.S. citizens. Any "surplus" land would be taken for sale to settlers. It was an attempt to assimilate Native-American traditions of communal land holdings to the Euro-American system of private ownership. Thereby, it was thought, Native Americans would join mainstream society and, at the same time, require less land. This act had disastrous effects on traditional Native-American life and reduced their land holdings by two-thirds.

Yet another assimilation policy was the forced removal of Native-American children from their parental homes to boarding schools for "civilized" education. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 established an involuntary boarding-school system where children were typically forbidden to speak their native language and were stripped of all outward native characteristics. The Carlisle Indian Industrial School was one of these schools and incorporated an "outing system" whereby children were placed with white families in order to learn American customs and values. While having the good intention to provide education to Native-American children, this system of indoctrination was also aimed at "killing the Indian and saving the man" (Glauner, 2002, p. 10) as Richard Pratt of the Carlisle School said. In the twenty-first century, this policy would be considered both a potential violation of the UN Genocide Convention's prohibition on transferring children from one group to another, and a blatant intention to cleanse the Indian population of their native language and cultural values through the re-education of their children.

A clearer example of a federal genocidal act against Native Americans was the involuntary sterilization of approximately seventy thousand Native-American women. The federally funded Indian Health Services carried out these sterilizations between 1930 and the mid-1970s. They were often done without informed consent, covertly, or under a fraudulent diagnosis of medical necessity. This directly contravenes the UN Genocide Convention. Destroying a group's ability to reproduce is an obvious and crude method of ensuring the inability of the group's survival.

Whether government actions such as the Trail of Tears and assimilation policies qualify as genocidal acts or as crimes against humanity continues to be a subject of much disagreement and debate. The UN Genocide Convention requires that a state actor have "intent to destroy" a group to satisfy the definition of genocide. As previously outlined, many of the actions taken by the federal, state, and colonial governments fell short of actual intent to destroy the Native Americans. Scholars Frank Chalk and Kurt Jonassohn maintain that the closest cases are the massacres at Sand Creek and of the Yuki of Round Valley (a modern example would be the sterilization programs). In both instances, government officials played key roles in facilitating the purposeful killing of Native Americans. The circumstances under which the United States committed genocide against Native Americans tended to be when other methods failed to clear a path to settlement, or other notions of progress. "Ethnocide was the principal United States policy toward American Indians in the nineteenth century . . . the federal government stood ready to engage in genocide as a means of coercing tribes when they resisted ethnocide or resorted to armed resistance" (Chalk and Jonassohn, 1990, p. 203).

The U.S. government was more often guilty of acts of "advertent omission" (that is, without intent to commit genocide, failing to act to prevent private acts that have genocidal effects or failing to perform obligations that prevent genocidal effects). There is a debate as to whether such acts should be incorporated into the definition of genocide, although they currently are not a part of the UN definition. Continually turning a blind eye to aggressive settlers' illegal consumption of native land and to other private acts of intimidation are examples. On the plains, the U.S. government did not prevent the destruction of tribes' primary food source and government officials often spoke in approval of it. From 1883 to 1910, the buffalo, upon which tribes in that area were dependent, were killed in such great quantities that the number fell from 60 million to 10 buffalo. Without their traditional food source and with the pressure exerted by settlers mounting, the plains Indians experienced famine or were forced to relocate to reservations. Further, the United States often failed to uphold treaty obligations to provide protection, food, and blankets to Native Americans. The failure of the U.S. government to protect Native Americans and, in some cases, to follow through on its own obligations, left Native Americans with few options and contributed to their destruction.

The third possibility is to categorize U.S. actions as crimes against humanity under Section 7 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. Murder, extermination, and deportation or forcible transfer of population fall under this statute when done "as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population. . . ." Because many of the acts of removal were coercive, they could qualify as crimes against humanity.


The aforementioned allegations of genocidal acts against American Indians occurred before the United States ratified the UN Genocide Convention in 1948 (as of 2004, the United States has not ratified the Rome Statutes). Most treaties in international law are not retroactive. Legal reprisal under the UN Genocide Convention, then, is not likely. An argument may be made, however, that the involuntary sterilization of Native-American women occurred after the United States signed the UN Genocide Convention (although before ratification) and that the United States violated its obligation not to act against the object and purpose of the treaty.

Perhaps more important than formal legal sanctions, however, is the recognition of the colonies', the United States', and individuals' role in the devastation of Native-American population and culture. As the description of state policies and actions attest, the destruction of Native-American communities and culture was neither by chance nor mandated by fate. It was directly connected to government policies and actions.

SEE ALSO Cheyenne; Forcible Transfer; Indigenous Peoples; Pequots; Racism; Sand Creek Massacre; Trail of Tears; Wounded Knee; Yuki of Northern California


Axtell, James (1981). The European and the Indian: Essays in the Ethnohistory of Colonial North America. New York: Oxford University Press.

Berger, Thomas R. (1999). A Long and Terrible Shadow: White Values, Native Rights in the Americas since 1492. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Berkhofer, Robert F., Jr. (1965). Salvation and the Savage: An Analysis of Protestant Missions and American Indian Response, 1787–1862. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press.

Chalk, Frank, and Kurt Jonassohn (1990). The History and Sociology of Genocide: Analyses and Case Studies. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

Churchill, Ward (1997). A Little Matter of Genocide: Holocaust and Denial in the Americas, 1492 to the Present. San Francisco: City Lights Books.

Dippie, Brian W. (1982). The Vanishing American: White Attitudes and U.S. Indian Policy. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press.

Glauner, Lindsay (2002). "Comment: The Need for Accountability and Reparation: 1830–1976 The United States Government's Role in the Promotion, Implementation, and Execution of the Crime of Genocide Against Native Americans." DePaul Law Review 51:911.

Hagan, William T. (1979). American Indians. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Horsman, Reginald (1970). The Origins of Indian Removal 1815–1824. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press.

Lynden, Fremont J., and Lyman H. Legters, eds. (1992). Native Americans and Public Policy. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Sheehan, Bernard W. (1973). Seeds of Extinction: Jeffersonian Philanthropy and the American Indian. New York: W.W. Norton.

Wilkins, David E. (2002). American Indian Politics and the American Political System. New York: Rowman & Littlefield.

Williams, Robert A. Jr. (1990). The American Indian in Western Legal Thought: The Discourses of Conquest. New York: Oxford University Press.

Stacie E. Martin

Native Americans

views updated May 29 2018


The term Native American is commonly used to refer to American Indians living within the United States, though it also includes Hawaiians and some Alaskan natives not considered American Indians. When referred to in general, American Indians often prefer to be called by their tribal names, such as Nez Perce, Navajo, Sioux, or Oneida.

The place of Native Americans in the U.S. legal system is highly unique. Tribes are formally recognized sovereign (politically independent) nations located within the boundaries of the United States. By the 1990s over 2 percent of lands within the United States were actually governed by Native American tribal governments. Such lands under tribal jurisdiction are referred to as Indian Country.

Tracing the history of U.S.-Indian relations from the nation's early years reveals that present-day Native American legal standing in the United States is not the result of a well-organized body of legal principles, but rather an accumulation of policies coming from many sources over time. Although many similarities do exist, each tribe has its own unique cultural and legal history. For over two hundred years, U.S. Indian policy shifted between periods of supporting tribal self-government and economic self-sufficiency apart from U.S. society to periods of forced Indian social and economic assimilation (inclusion) into the dominant society.

The Growth of Indian Law

The basis for what is known as Indian law, which is actually U.S. law about Indians and not by Indians, was established well before the birth of the United States. During the seventeenth century British and Spanish colonies began negotiating treaties with the New World's native peoples, treating them as politically independent groups. The treaties recognized Indian ownership of lands they were living on and using. The United States, after independence from Great Britain, inherited this age-old European international policy. As a result, tribal sovereignty, recognized well before the birth of the United States, became the basis for future U.S.-Indian relations.

Fresh from victory over Britain in the American Revolution (1775–1783), the fledgling new government made establishment of peaceful and orderly relations with American Indians one of its first items of business. The 1787 Northwest Ordinance, enacted by the Continental Congress, recognized existing Indian possession of the newly gained lands from Britain that were not part of the original colonies. Attempting to end the practice of private individuals or local governments negotiating treaties with or buying lands directly from the sovereign Indian nations, the Ordinance stated that only the federal government could legally carry out such activities.

Recognition of tribal sovereignty was directly addressed in the U.S. Constitution, adopted in 1788. Authority for the federal government's legal relationship with tribes was placed in the Commerce Clause of Article 1 which reads simply that Congress has power "to regulate Commerce with foreign Nations and . . . the Indian Tribes." The Constitution also recognizes the legal status of Indian treaties in Article VI by stating, "This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States . . . and all Treaties made . . . shall be the supreme Law of the Land." This means congressionally ratified (approved) treaties have the same legal force as regular federal laws. Further reflecting the importance of Indian relations to the new nation, one of the first acts passed by the first U.S. Congress was the Indian Trade and Intercourse Act of 1790. Exercising its new constitutional authority, Congress proclaimed treaty-making policy and brought all interactions between Indians and non-Indians under federal control.

U.S. Indian policy became further defined by three landmark Supreme Court decisions between 1823 and 1832. Known as the Marshall Trilogy after then-Chief Justice John Marshall, the cases of Johnson v. McIntosh (1823), Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831), and Worcester v. Georgia (1832) affirmed the tribal right to occupy and govern their lands, tribal sovereignty from state jurisdiction within Indian reservations, and defined a moral trust responsibility of the United States toward the tribes. Marshall described tribes as "domestic dependent nations" essentially free of state controls. The trust relationship toward Indian nations meant the United States is responsible for Indian health and welfare.

Later Court decisions further defined Indian policy. A reserved rights doctrine was established in United States v. Winans (1905) meaning that Indians retain certain inherent (native) rights until explicitly taken away by Congress. But, the Court in Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock (1903) also gave Congress "plenary" (absolute) power over Indian peoples. Plenary power meant Congress could on its own change U.S. Indian policy, even change treaties and end specific rights without consent of the tribes. However, the trust responsibility requires careful exercise of this absolute power, using it only when considered beneficial to Indian peoples. To resolve legal disputes over treaty interpretations, the "canons of construction" recognized in Winters v. United States (1908) state that unclear treaty language should always be interpreted by the courts from the tribal perspective.

U.S. governmental policy concerning Indians proceeded from the Marshall Trilogy to the year 2000 along a zig-zag pathway of alternating goals. Policy swerved from isolation and protection on reservations, to forced integration (assimilation) into American farming society, to recognition of reorganized tribal governments and relations with the federal government, to termination of trust status, and finally to support for tribal self-determination and integrity.

Treaties, Removal, and Reservations

Despite the seemingly protective U.S. Indian policies developed through the first few decades of the nation's history, in reality Indian peoples suffered catastrophic loss of economies, lands, and life during the persistent westward push of white settlements. One of the more tragic examples of U.S. government actions was the 1830's removal policy directed by President Andrew Jackson (1829–1837). Under this policy, the United States forcefully removed the Five Civilized Tribes from the Southeastern United States to a newly created Indian Territory in what later became Oklahoma. Thousands of deaths directly resulted.

U.S. removal policies continued through the 1850s and 1860s as more treaties were made with tribes in the West. The western treaties created a vast reservation system in which the inherent rights of Native Americans would presumably persist within certain defined territories, called reservations. Some treaties also reserved Indian hunting, fishing, and gathering rights outside reservation boundaries to help maintain traditional economies. Although not written in the treaties, water rights were also implicitly included as later interpreted by the Court in Winters. Honoring these treaties conflicted with the promotion of non-Indian settlement and economic development in newly gained U.S. territories.

As opposed to rights of tribal governments, the legal rights of Indian individuals was a major concern of neither the federal government nor the courts throughout much of the nineteenth century. With tribal relations largely guided by the treaties rather than standard U.S. law, legal dealings with Indian individuals were generally avoided. As a result, a system for policing and punishment of Indians developed largely beyond the reach of U.S. courts. Indian agents having ready access to the military, exercised broad authority, often detaining and executing numerous individuals for a wide range of alleged actions.

The End of Treaty-Making

In 1871, Congress ended treaty-making, closing a major chapter in U.S.-Indian relations. By this time, the Indian population had largely been isolated by the U.S. government into remote areas, out of the way of U.S. expansion and settlements. Distant from U.S. markets, as well, prospects for economic recovery were slim at best. Consequently, the fortunes of Indian peoples was only to decline further through the next sixty years. Greed for more lands led to further damaging federal policies. Continued U.S. expansion brought increased natural resource needs and gold discoveries making the remote reservation lands suddenly attractive to Westerners.

In addition, by the 1870s Indian issues rose more in the national public eye as social reformers shifted attention from slavery. Demands for humanitarian action gathered momentum. An 1879 federal court ruling in United States ex rel. Standing Bear v. Crook asserted that Indians off-reservation were "persons" having the same constitutional due process and equal protection rights under the Fourteenth Amendment as U.S. citizens. The U.S. army no longer held broad authority to detain Indians without full civilian constitutional protections. However, much about the legal standing of Indian individuals still remained poorly defined. In 1884 the Supreme Court ruled the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution had not automatically granted citizenship to Indians.


A major period of forced cultural assimilation began with the General Allotment Act of 1887 and lasted into the 1930s. Assimilation means the U.S. government tried to blend Native Americans into the mainstream U.S. society. Many believed the Indian tradition of communally-owning property was a key barrier to Indians adopting Western ways. As a result, Congress passed the Allotment Act, also known as the Dawes Act, authorizing the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) to divide all reservation lands into smaller parcels. The agency then allotted (assigned) 160-acre parcels to families and eighty-acre parcels to single adults over eighteen years of age. Indians receiving allotments also received U.S. citizenship. U.S. policymakers reasoned that when people owned their own property they would most likely become farmers and adopt the U.S. farming lifestyle.

Given the still relatively extensive land holdings of the Indians in 1887, much land was left over after every tribal member had received their allotment. Those unallotted lands were declared "surplus" and sold by the United States to non-Indians. In addition to the loss of vast amounts of "surplus" lands, much allotted land went into forfeiture (banks claim ownership) when many Indians could not pay taxes on their often remote unproductive desert properties. Even if the land was productive, markets were usually still too distant. The allotment policy became an economic disaster to Indian peoples, reducing Indian Country in the United States from 138 million acres in 1887 to forty-eight million acres by 1934. In many cases, the more agriculturally productive lands on reservations had passed out of tribal control.

In a further effort to assimilate Indians, all Indians born in the United States became U.S. citizens through the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924. The act also made Indians citizens of the states in which they resided. Although able to vote and hold state office, they are not subject to state law while on Indian lands. The Constitution's Bill of Rights, however, did not apply to protecting Indians from their tribal governments as it did from federal and state actions because of tribal sovereignty. As a result, tribal members could be subjected at times to harsher legal penalties from their own tribal governments than non-Indians in U.S. society for the same crimes.

Reorganizing Tribal Governments

By the 1930s the calamity of the allotment policy had become apparent. In an effort to end assimilation efforts, U.S. policy returned to stressing tribal sovereignty. The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 ended the allotment process, stabilized remaining tribal land holdings, and promoted tribal self-government. The act encouraged tribes to adopt U.S.-style constitutions and form federally-chartered corporations. Although many tribes elected to organize under the rules of the act, many others rejected developing constitutions. Some organized new governments under their own tribal rules. However, even this seemingly friendly policy of encouraging formation of modern tribal governments had harmful social effects in Indian Country. The newly established more modern governments often came in conflict with the traditional tribal political leaders.

Urban Indians and Termination

Following World War II (1939–1945), other traditions began changing also. With thousands of Indians returning from military service abroad or working in defense plants, their exposure to mainstream U.S. society made life on poverty-ridden reservations less acceptable. Also, the GI Bill provided educational opportunities. More Indians began moving off-reservation into the newly expanding urban areas, seeking greater economic opportunity. The welfare of these urban Indians became an increasing concern of the federal government under its trust responsibilities.

In a few cases, tribes still held a sufficient land base with marketable natural resources such as timber began to develop an economic base and prosper. However, greed for Indian-owned assets of value rose again. By 1953 U.S. governmental policy significantly shifted back to assimilation, this time through "termination" policies. Termination of a tribe meant ending the special trust relationship and loss of reservation lands. The lands, some very productive, were sold to non-Indians and access to federal health and education services was taken away. The economic base for those Indian communities was devastated. In addition to termination, Congress also passed Public Law 280 in 1953. The act expanded state jurisdiction onto tribal lands in selected states, decreasing tribal sovereignty yet more in those areas.

Tribal Self-Determination

Congressional support for termination did not last long as U.S. Indian policy again took a dramatic shift back in the 1960s toward a tribal government self-determination (govern own internal affairs) era. Influenced by the black American civil rights movement, a series of Congressional hearing in the 1960s focused on the lack of consistent civil rights protections offered by tribal governments to their members.

As a result, Congress passed the Indian Civil Rights Act (ICRA) of 1968 extending most of the Bill of Rights to Indian peoples including free speech protections, free exercise of religion, and due process and equal protection of tribal government laws. Not extended to Indians was the right to a jury trial in civil cases, free legal counsel for the poor, search and seizure protections, and prohibition on government support of a religion. Issues such as gender discrimination in tribal laws still could not be challenged under federal law. The act also cut back some of the states' authorities granted in Public Law 280. In respect for tribal sovereignty, interpretation of ICRA is left to the tribes and tribal courts, not federal courts. Federal courts can only review tribal court decisions in certain types of criminal cases.

Other legal distinctions for Indians were also identified. Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act explicitly exempted Indian hiring preferences from its due process protections in some instances. The 1974 Court ruling in Morton v. Mancari affirmed that American Indians can be treated differently from other U.S. citizens by the federal government despite anti-discrimination laws. Tribes are political not racial groups on occasions when the U.S. government bases it actions on its trust responsibilities to protect Indian interests and promote tribal sovereignty. If the Indian preference laws were only designed to help Indians as individuals, they then could be determined illegal.

With civil rights protections different from other U.S. citizens, determining who is Indian has important legal consequences. Constituting a political rather than racial group, tribal members may gain membership to a tribe through birth or marriage and may have substantial non-Indian ancestry. Conversely, a person of total Indian ancestry who has never established a relationship with a tribe may not enjoy Indian legal status. Each of the over 550 recognized tribes in the United States is responsible to determine membership as an exercise of their tribal sovereignty. In general, an Indian is anyone with some degree of Indian ancestry, considered a member of an Indian community, and promoting themselves as Indian.

The biggest boost in support of tribal sovereignty and self-sufficiency came in 1975 when Congress passed the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act. The act gave tribes much greater opportunity to administer federal programs benefitting Indian peoples that were previously administered by the BIA. Many of these programs provided health and education services.

Through the rest of the twentieth century Congress continued passing acts protecting tribal rights and interests, including the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (1978), Indian Mineral Development Act (1982), Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (1988), the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (1990), and the Indian Self-Governance Act (1994). By the 1990s, tribes could form and reorganize their own governments, determine tribal membership, regulate individual property, manage natural resources, provide health services, develop gaming businesses, regulate commerce on tribal lands, collect taxes, maintain law enforcement and establish tribal court systems. By the end of the twentieth century, tribal court systems had greatly expanded as many tribes gained greater economic and political power. However, due to the broad diversity of tribal legal systems, the meaning of justices and the way it was applied differed from tribe to tribe. Besides those patterned after United States models, some tribes retained traditional systems and others no system at all.

By 2000, the resulting branch of U.S. law, commonly called Indian Law, was a very peculiar part of the U.S. legal system with tribal governments and their peoples possessing a unique legal status. Members of federally recognized tribes were both U.S. and tribal citizens, simultaneously receiving benefits and protections from federal, state, and tribal governments.

Suggestions for further reading

Hirschfelder, Arlene, and Martha K. de Montano. The Native American Almanac: A Portrait of Native America Today. New York: Prentice Hall, 1993.

Prucha, Francis P. The Great Father: The United States Government and the American Indians. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986.

Red Hawk, Richard. A Trip to a Pow Wow. Sacramento, CA: Sierra Oaks Publishing Co., 1988.

Riley, Patricia, editor. Growing Up Native American. New York: Morrow, 1993.

Washburn, Wilcomb E., editor. Handbook of North American Indians: History of Indian-White Relations, Vol. 4. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1988.

Weatherford, Jack. Indian Givers: How the Indians of the Americas Transformed the World. New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1988.

Wilkinson, Charles F. American Indians, Time, and the Law: Native Societies in a Modern Constitutional Democracy. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987.

Native Americans

views updated Jun 11 2018

Native Americans

Many Native Americans throughout North and South America believe that tobacco is so powerful that it was involved in the very act of creating the world. In the Pima or O'odham origin story, for example, Blue Gopher lit a huge cigarette made out of Coyote's tobacco wrapped in a cornhusk. He puffed toward the east in a great white cloud that cast a shadow over the land. A carpet of grass grew in the shadow. Blue Gopher scattered the seeds of other plants across the grassy area, thereby causing corn to grow.

In one version of the Navajo creation story, Sky Father and Earth Mother smoked tobacco, before creation began, to help them plan the awesome task that lay ahead. Morning Star—a Crow Indian deity—turned into the first tobacco plant after he fell from the sky. The first tobacco grew from the head of Earth Mother, one of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) creator spirits, while the Cahuilla creator Mukat drew the first tobacco and pipe from his heart, then made the sun to light them. After he was killed, tobacco grew from his heart. The Kickapoo creator Kitzihiat also used a piece of his heart to make the first tobacco. Pulekukewerek, one of the Yurok creator woges, grew from a tobacco plant; then tobacco continued to grow from the palms of his hands, so that he never ran out.

The Huichol in the mountains of western Mexico have similar beliefs, as do the Shipibo along the upper Amazon in Peru and the Haida and Tlingit in southern Alaska and many native peoples in between. In one version of the Huichol creation story, the first tobacco grew from the semen of Deer Person, one of their most powerful deities, who turned into corn and peyote and whose blood is still used to nourish corn and bless babies. Huichol tobacco belongs to Grandfather Fire—the most powerful deity of all—tobacco was once a hawk and even today it is the spiritual essence of the gods. Huichol tobacco (makutsi) is also the most powerful tobacco on earth, almost as powerful as peyote and able to cause visions, with up to 18 percent nicotine.

The belief that tobacco is so powerful that it figured into creation itself is widespread throughout North and South America. Even the tribes that lack this belief have similar concepts; for example, that the spirits are addicted to tobacco. American Indians view tobacco, almost without exception, as an essential, core element of their religions and rituals. Taken together, these widespread beliefs and practices strongly suggest that tobacco use is a very ancient activity in the Americas, so old and elemental that it probably began very early on, in prehistoric humankind's existence in the Americas.

Evidence for the Early Use of Tobacco

Of the seven species of Nicotiana that have been and still are being used by Native Americans, two were domesticated by prehistoric Indians to the extent that the plant species could not survive, beyond a few generations, without the help of people who planted them, weeded them, and otherwise tended to their basic needs. These domesticated species and their regions of use by Native North Americans (exclusive of commercial tobacco and recent introductions) are as follows:

SpeciesRegions of Use
Nicotiana rustica L.Eastern U.S. and Canada; MesoAmerica; Southwestern U.S.; probably Caribbean
Nicotiana tabacum L.MesoAmerica; parts of U.S. Southwest; probably Caribbean

The five other tobacco species, in contrast, are wild plants that can and do thrive from generation to generation without the help of humans, though they do prefer disturbed environments, such as arroyo beds (stream sides), road cuts, and burned over areas, which humans readily provide. The species Nicotiana quadrivalvis is somewhere in between domesticated and wild: Two of its varieties (wallacei and bigelovii) are wild, though they are often cultivated, whereas the other two (quadrivalvis and multivalvis) are known only in cultivation. The wild species and their regions of use are as follows:

SpeciesRegions of Use
Nicotiana attenuata Torr.U.S. Southwest; Great Basin; California; Pacific Northwest; extreme northern Mexico; southwest Canada
Nicotiana quadrivalvis Pursh.southern California to Washington; Missouri River Valley; Canadian Plains; extreme southern Alaska; upper Columbia and Snake River Valleys
Nicotiana clevelandii Graynorthwest Mexico; possibly southern California
Nicotiana glauca Grah.Mexico; southern California; western Arizona
Nicotiana trigonophylla Dun.southwestern U.S.; southern California; Mexico

Archeological evidence from North America indicates the use of several tobacco species for thousands of years. The earliest known tobacco in South America is only a few hundred years old. Earlier evidence is undoubtedly there, since the ancestors of all of these tobacco species originated in South America millions of years ago, then slowly expanded their ranges north through Central America and on into North America or later were carried there. ◆

See the map in "Origin and Diffusion."

The archaeological evidence of tobacco comes primarily in the form of carbonized seeds and preserved pollen, which are very difficult to recover and identify. Even the largest tobacco seed is smaller than the period at the end of this sentence, which means that it takes a very fine mesh screen with holes no larger than one-quarter of 1 millimeter across to recover a seed. And while tobacco pollen is fairly distinctive down to the generic level (Nicotiana), it is not possible to distinguish among the various species (rustica or tabacum) based on pollen. Also, the pollen of one of tobacco's close relatives (lycium, or Wolfberry) is similar to Nicotiana, so the use of pollen can be problematic.

Despite these drawbacks, archeologists in North America have been successful in finding prehistoric tobacco, and there is good evidence for its initial use as early as 1400 b.c.e. in the Southwestern deserts, and by about 180 c.e. in the Eastern woodlands.

The sequence of development, as shown in the map, is summarized as follows. The roman numerals correspond to the map categories.

I. Desert tobaccos
(N. attenuata, N. trigonophylla, N. quadrivalvis)
Ancestral South American species slowly expanded their ranges naturally, reaching Mexico after the end of the Pleistocene, when conditions warmed enough to allow them to spread north. Helped northward to present extent by human activity, beginning no later than 1000 b.c.e.
II. Nicotiana rusticaDomesticated 7,000 to 10,000 years ago in Andes Mountains, then taken north by early farmers, reaching American Southwest by 1000 to 1400 b.c.e. and Eastern Woodlands by 180 c.e.
III. Nicotiana tabacumDomesticated several thousand years ago in the Andes Mountains, then taken east and north through the lowlands. May have reached Southwestern U.S. in late prehistoric times.
IV. Nicotiana glaucaIntroduced accidentally into Mexico, California, Arizona, and Florida in historic times (for example, in the ballast of ships). Since then, the western Navajo, Barona Digueno, and a few other tribes have adopted it and now consider it traditional tobacco.

ANCIENT FARMING. In both the Southwest and the Eastern woodlands, domesticated tobacco first appeared with other cultivated plants as part of a larger horticultural complex that also included wild plants. In the Southwest, this gardening tradition consisted of cultivated tobacco, and two species of wild tobacco, along with maize, squash, beans, wild and cultivated amaranths, goosefoot and other weedy annuals that were encouraged or at least tolerated in the farm fields. In the East, early gardening focused on cultivated sunflowers, goosefoot, and marsh elder, with corn and cultivated tobacco added 1,000 years later.

Wild plants were clearly involved in the adoption of corn, tobacco, squash, and beans by the prehistoric Native Americans. In both the Southwest and later the East, maize and tobacco did not arrive out of a vacuum, nor did they drop into one. They were already being grown to the south, in central Mexico, where maize-based agriculture began around 5000 b.c.e., then moved slowly north, as local hunters and foragers added it to their plant husbandry tradition. Or perhaps small agricultural groups expanded their ranges or maybe even migrated from one region to another. However it spread, farming was added to an already existing husbandry complex that involved the encouragement and even planting of a number of wild plants. Two species of wild tobacco, as well as amaranth, goosefoot, purslane, globe mallow, and other plants that preferred disturbed soils, were included in the complex in the Southwest. The early gardening culture in the east grew goosefoot, marshelder and sunflowers, and may have grown wild squash and gourds, maygrass, knotweed and a few other plants.

After the addition of cultivated tobacco, corn, squash, and beans, agricultural societies rapidly evolved throughout North and South America. By the eve of European contact, cultivated tobacco was traded far to the north of its range, into northern Canada, and even the wild Nicotiana quadrivalvis variety multivalvis was encouraged, if not cultivated, in southern Alaska. Similar processes were at work in South America, and by the time the Europeans arrived, the use and veneration of tobacco was a key, core element of all Native American cultures, with the exception of the Inuit (Eskimo) and Aleut, who were too far away to participate in the tobacco trade system.

From the southern tip of South America to southern Alaska, tobacco was ingested in many forms, including pipes, reed cane and corn husk cigarettes, even in maple and other wild plant leaves. It was also chewed, licked, snuffed, taken as eye drops, and even administered in enemas. Some tribes preferred to smoke tobacco in carved stone, calumet-style pipes, such as those used by the Plains Indians, while others used smaller stone and clay pipes, reed and leaf wrapped cigarettes, or, most simply of all, a wad of tobacco leaves packed between a person's cheeks and teeth or between the lips and teeth.

Tobacco in Native American Religion

Tobacco is the heart of Native American religion and the core of American Indian culture. Tobacco has remained a constant unifying force, linking all tribes together, linking all generations together for thousands of years. Even as Native American religions changed and became organizationally more complex, tobacco use also became more complex, as did the activities of the deities who created it and who were created by it.

Many Native Americans continue to use tobacco in a sacred manner, while others smoke, chew, and snuff it in the same manner as non-Indians, as a recreational drug. For the traditionalists, there is nothing recreational about tobacco, for it is considered a sacred plant, a life-affirming force, a food of the spirits, at times a god itself. From southern Chile to Alaska, Native Americans have used and continue to use Nicotiana rustica, N. tabacum, N. attenuata, and several other species of tobacco as a ritual narcostimulant—a psychotrophic, mind-altering substance that serves as a medium between the ordinary world of humans and the super-ordinary world of spirits. Tobacco leaves were and are smoked in pipes, cigars, and cigarettes. Leaves are chewed (often with lime from shells) and sometimes eaten. Resin and concentrates are licked. An infusion is drunk, occasionally with Datura and/or other hallucinogenic plants. Tobacco powder is snuffed. Tobacco smoke is blown on the body and leaves are used medically as a poultice. Tobacco incense is burned. Tobacco offerings are buried, cast on the ground, into the air, onto the water.

TOBACCO AND MEDICINE SOCIETIES. Beginning with individual medicine men and women who ministered to the religious and medical needs of their bands and other groups, American Indian religion became more organized as populations increased, beliefs changed, and outside political and economic relations evolved. After the individual medicine people came the medicine societies, composed of most if not all of the members of the group, with different societies providing different medicines and religious ceremonies. And eventually the societies evolved into priesthoods, whose memberships were restricted and often hereditary, and whose leaders became so powerful that theocracies often emerged, such as the Aztecs and Incas, whose leaders were the highest priests in the land.

But whatever the level and scope of religious power, tobacco was and is still used, with even the medicine people, medicine societies, and priesthoods taking on tobacco-oriented themes and identities. Thus there are Tobacco shamans in South and Central America who ingest the plant almost constantly, not only to heal and bless but also to commune directly with the tobacco spirits.

There are also tobacco medicine societies, such as among the Crow on the upper Missouri, whose sole function is to grow two kinds of sacred tobacco, Nicotiana quadrivalvis varieties quadrivalvis and multivalvis, which are essential for the survival of the tribe. And there are or were even tobacco priesthoods, such as the Cult of Cihuacoatl among the Aztecs, the mother of the other gods, the Snake Woman whose physical manifestation on earth was the tobacco plant and whose chief priest—also called Snake Woman—was second in power only to the great Montezuma himself.

Tobacco shamans, tobacco medicine societies, and tobacco priesthoods were part of an array of Native American religious groups that ranged from the individual medicine-people of tiny bands of Caribou hunters in northern Canada to the deified leaders of huge city-states in Peru that controlled vast empires. All used tobacco as a universal means of communicating with each other as well as with the spirit world.

Tobacco Use During the Inipi Sweat Lodge Ceremony

M ost contemporary Native American ceremonies involve the use of tobacco. One of the most popular rituals is the Inipi purification ceremony of the Lakota, which has been adapted by many individuals and pan-tribal groups throughout the United States. Most tribes have their own sweat lodge purification ceremonies, and the amalgam of Lakota Inipi and another tribe's purification rite, such as the Navajo's, is a ceremony that is filled with the smoke of sacred tobacco. In most sweat lodges a Plains Indian–style carved stone and wooden pipe is used; in others, especially in the Southwest, Navajo and Pueblo-style corn husk cigarettes are smoked. All of the participants in the ceremony are purified in two ways: by the steam from the hot rocks and by the smoke from the tobacco. Each participant is given the opportunity to smoke one or more times, and to blow out the smoke and rub it on his (and in some case her) legs, head, and other body parts. It is also puffed in the four directions, and a prayer is often said for one of the participants. There are many variations to this theme, but the overall thrust is that tobacco smoke is a sacred, purifying element that not only cleanses the body and soul but also pleases the Great Spirit and other deities as it wafts its way into the heavens. The Sacred Pipe: Black Elk's Account of the Seven Rites of the Oglala Sioux provides detailed descriptions of tobacco use during the Inipi and other Lakota ceremonies.

That done they blew the tobacco in all four directions where it appeared as a fog in which they moved away. Those were the sun's inner form, the moon's inner form, and the inner forms of the mountains that had been made. For these the (smoke) ceremony had been performed (to show respect for the inner forms to be). For these, what was to be dark cloud and dark mist, male rain and female rain, sunray, pollens of dawn and evening twilight, rainbow, all of these were laid down before them, in these they clothed themselves (from the Blessingway Songs of Earth's Inner Form, in Wyman, pp. 124–127).

See Also Caribbean; Mayas; Origin and Diffusion; Shamanism; South and Central America.



Bohrer, Vorsila. L. "Flotation Analysis from High Rolls Cave (LA 114103) Otero County, New Mexico." In Southwest Ethnobotanical Enterprises Report 39. Portales, N. Mex., 2003. This unpublished work contains the earliest archaeological dates of tobacco. Eventually it will be published by the state of New Mexico.

Brown, Joseph E. The Sacred Pipe: Black Elk's Account of the Seven Rites of the Oglala Sioux. Norman and London: University of Oklahoma Press, 1953.

Gerstel, D. U. "Tobacco Nicotiana tabacum (Solanaceae)." In Evolution of Crop Plants. Edited by N. W. Simmonds. London: Longman, 1976.

Russell, Frank. The Pima Indians. Tucson, Ariz.: University of Arizona Press, 1975.

Wilbert, Johannes. Tobacco and Shamanism in South America. New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press, 1987.

Winter, Joseph C. "Feeding the Ancestors: The Role of Tobacco in the Evolution of Southwestern Agriculture and Religion." In La Frontera, Papers in Honor of Patrick H. Beckett. Paper 24. Las Cruces, N.Mex.: Archaeological Society of New Mexico, 1999.

——, ed. Tobacco Use By Native North Americans Sacred Smoke and Silent Killer. Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press, 2000.

Wyman, Leland C. Blessingway. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1987.

snuff a form of powdered tobacco, usually flavored, either sniffed into the nose or "dipped," packed between cheek and gum. Snuff was popular in the eighteenth century but had faded to obscurity by the twentieth century.

Native Americans

views updated May 21 2018


The existence of androgynous shamans from the earliest peopling of the Americas is part of a long history of respect for transgenderism and same-sex love and affection in many indigenous Native American cultures. Although a wide variety of cultures existed among the aboriginal peoples of the Western Hemisphere, many accepted sexual and gender diversity.

It is difficult to say what proportion of aboriginal cultures took an accepting attitude toward sexual and gender diversity, in part because of the paucity of historical sources that document sexual and gender behaviors. The evidence that does exist suggests that the most accepting North American Native societies were those located in the Great Lakes region, the Northern Plains, the Southwest, California, and Alaska. However, scattered information for Northwest, Subarctic, and Eastern Woodlands cultures indicates similar acceptance in these areas. Because the eastern area of North America was so thoroughly dominated by European invaders in the colonial era, same-sex and transgender traditions may have been suppressed before adequate documentation was made. Statements by European American explorers, frontiersmen, Christian missionaries, and anthropologists are not to be trusted when they claim that homosexuality and transgenderism were denigrated by aboriginal cultures. Many such claims were more a reflection of the European and European American writers' heterosexism and gender normativity than an accurate depiction of Native American values and practices. The preponderance of evidence, both from early documentary sources and from Native oral histories, indicates that the vast majority of the indigenous cultures of North America were accepting of same-sex love and transgenderism.

Sex, Gender, and Religious Values

This acceptance was a product of several factors, most notably because sex was not seen as sinful in Native American religions. With some exceptions, sex was not restricted to its reproductive role, but was seen as a major blessing from the spirit world, a gift to human and animal species to be enjoyed freely from childhood to old age. Among cultures that practiced matrilineal kinship, women were particularly free in their behavior, since their child's family status depended on the mother's relatives rather than on the child's father; every child was automatically a member of the mother's kin group. In matrilineal societies a woman's status was not dependent upon her having a husband, and the status of the child was not dependent upon the mother being married to a man. Consequently, in matrilineal kinship groups, which were common in North America, denigrating terms such as "bastard" did not have any meaning. In such societies, female sexuality was considerably more free and open than in societies where a woman was only supposed to have sex with her husband.

For males as well as females, most American Indian religions emphasized the freedom of individuals to follow their own inclinations, based on guidance from their personal spirit guardians, and to share generously what they had with others. With such freedom-loving attitudes, children's sexual play was more likely to be regarded by adults as an amusing activity rather than as a cause for alarm. This casual attitude toward child rearing continued to influence aboriginal people as they grew up and married. Yet while sex was certainly much more accepted than in the Judeo-Christian tradition, it was not the major emphasis of Native societies. The focus was instead on the individual person's "spirit," which was defined as their basic character and was believed to come directly from the spirit world. Thus, if a person was androgynous or transgender, their personality was accepted as the result of the spirits combining both masculine and feminine characteristics within one person. Such two-spirit persons, referred to by early French explorers as berdaches, were honored as the possessor of twice as much spirituality as the average masculine man or feminine woman.

Family, Friendship, Marriage, and Reproduction

Native American societies were built upon two types of interpersonal relations: family (tying an individual to multiple people of other genders) and friendship (tying an individual to others of the same sex). The cultural value placed on extremely close friendships between two "blood brothers" or two women friends created contexts in which private homosexual behavior could occur without attracting attention. Because sex in the context of friendship was casually accepted, there is relatively little documentation about it. But the evidence that does exist suggests that the role of sex in promoting close interpersonal ties within various societies may be just as important as the role of sex as a means of reproduction. While Christian ideology emphasizes that the purpose of sex is reproduction, that is not the view of Native American (and other) religions.

Beyond their role in same-sex friendships, homosexual behaviors among many aboriginal Native American cultures were also recognized in the form of same-sex marriages. The usual pattern among American Indians focused not on two masculine men or two feminine women getting married, but instead on encouraging a masculine man to marry a feminine two-spirit male or a feminine woman to marry a masculine two-spirit female. Feminine males often had special roles as shamans, artists, or teachers, while masculine females often took on hunter-warrior roles. For example, in the 1840s a frontier trader who lived among the Crow Indians described the prominent role of a masculine female named Woman Chief. She was known for her skill in hunting buffalo and for her bravery as a warrior. She became so successful as a hunter that she became attractive to potential wives. Among the Plains tribes of the nineteenth century, wealthy husbands typically had several wives. By the 1850s, Woman Chief had four wives and a large herd of horses and was ranked among the highest status warriors of the Crow tribe.

Androgynous or transgender two-spirit roles were seen as different and distinct from the regular gender roles of men and women. Some scholars have called this tradition "gender mixing," while others have seen it as an alternative gender role. In the context of Native cultures that allowed for more gender flexibility than was the case in its Western counterpart, there was room for diverse types of persons (including transsexual, transgender, and androgynous types). Most cultures accepted the fact that these alternative gendered individuals could be sexually attracted to a person of the same biological sex, but there have also been rare instances of heterosexual attractions and behavior as well. There was a strong economic motivation for a feminine person (of either sex) to marry a masculine person (of either sex). The complementary advantages of persons filling different gender roles meant that two masculine hunters would not get married, nor would two women farmers. In aboriginal economies, a husband-wife team needed to perform different labor roles to provide the household with a balanced subsistence.

Accordingly, the husband of a two-spirit male was not defined as a "homosexual" merely because his spouse was male. The community defined him on the basis of his gender role as a man, since he was a hunter, rather than on his sexual behavior or the sex of his partner. Likewise, the wife of a two-spirit female was not defined as a "lesbian," but continued to be defined as a woman because she performed women's labor roles of farming, plant gathering, cooking, and craftwork. These cultural systems did not categorize people as "heterosexual" or "homosexual," but permitted individuals to follow their sexual and gender tastes and attractions. In tribes that accepted marriage for the two-spirit person, the clan membership of that person's spouse was much more important than their sex.

This also meant that a person who had married a two-spirit person was not stigmatized as different and could later marry heterosexually. With the exception of the two-spirit persons, who were relatively few in number, social pressure emphasized that most people should beget children. After they had done so, it did not matter much if they had homosexual or other nonprocreative relationships. Indeed, even the two-spirit people contributed to the future growth of the tribe through their important roles as adoptive parents for orphaned children.

In many native cultures' conceptions of spirituality, the person who was different was seen as having been created that way by the spirit world. Even though they were different from the norm, two-spirit people were respected. They were considered to be exceptional rather than abnormal. For example, in the late nineteenth century a two-spirit person named We'wha was a prominent leader of the Zuni people. An early anthropologist reported that We'wha was prominent in religious ceremonials and was considered the most intelligent person in the pueblo. We'wha's word was considered law. When the Zuni sent representatives to Washington, D.C., to meet U.S. president Grover Cleveland, We'wha was presented as a Zuni princess and was thought by the whites to be a masculine-looking female.

Suppression, Continuation, and Revival of Native Traditions

Beginning in the sixteenth century, respectful attitudes toward two-spirit persons changed drastically due to the influence of Europeans in America. Bringing with them their homophobic and transphobic Christian religion, Spanish conquerors in Florida, California, and the Southwest justified conquest and plunder on the basis of the Indians' acceptance of "sodomy." This, they argued, was evidence that Native Americans were uncivilized heathens in need of Christian conversion or extermination. English and other European settlers were similarly condemning as they gained control over more and more North American territory. British, Spanish, U.S., Canadian, and Mexican government policies suppressed Native American sexuality and religion. Over time, two-spirit traditions went underground, and sex that was persecuted by Christian missionaries and government officials became secretive.

In the twentieth century, while European and European American condemnation of homosexuality and transgenderism influenced many Indian people, those who retained their traditions continued to respect two-spirit persons. This accepting attitude had a significant impact on the white founders of the homophile, gay liberation, and lesbian feminist movements in the United States. For example, the views of Harry Hay, a founder of the Mattachine Society in 1950, were very much affected by his encounters with sexual and gender diversity within southwestern aboriginal cultures. In turn, LGBT Indians have been influenced by the LGBT movement to stand up openly and take pride in their accepting Native traditions. Like traditionalist Indians, they feel an appreciation for the strength and the magic of human diversity. They accept people as they are, rather than expect everyone to conform to a dualistic gender and heterosexual norm.

In LGBT-friendly cities such as San Francisco, Native groups like Gay American Indians (founded in 1975 by Randy Burns and Barbara Cameron) have effectively served as a liaison between the large urban Indian community and the LGBT community. As such, they have been recognized as valuable by the non-LGBT Indian community. On many Indian reservations in conservative parts of the nation, however, homophobic and transphobic attitudes are still common. Especially among Christianized Indians who were converted by missionaries, anti-LGBT attitudes are evident. Just as in the non-Indian population, many young LGBT and questioning people suffer from prejudice and discrimination, either from their relatives and the Indian community or from non-Indian neighbors. Some two-spirit persons have been shunned, thrown out of their homes, driven to suicide, or even murdered because of their sexualities and genders.

In response and also as a reflection of the larger LGBT movement, a number of Native American LGBT activist groups have been formed in different cities, with names like Two Spirit People of the First Nations. Prominent native writers like Paula Gunn Allen (Laguna) and Wesley Thomas (Navajo) have publicized traditions of acceptance within Native cultures. As they help to reduce homophobia and transphobia, more non-LGBT Indian relatives and friends have joined in the effort to challenge heterosexism and gender normativity. As a result, greater acceptance of sexual and gender minorities has become a part of contemporary Native American social movements. Most Native people accept the reality that people differ and that these differences provide valuable complementarities to make the world whole. Sexual diversity and gender variation are seen as part of the spiritual plan of the universe to provide benefit for all living things.


Allen, Paula Gunn. The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Boston: Beacon, 1986.

Jacobs, Sue-Ellen, Wesley Thomas, and Sabine Lang, eds. Two-Spirit People: Native American Gender Identity, Sexuality, and Spirituality. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997.

Katz, Jonathan. Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A., a Documentary. New York: Crowell, 1976.

Lang, Sabine. Men as Women, Women as Men: Changing Gender in Native American Cultures. Translated from the German by John L. Vantine. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998.

Roscoe, Will. The Zuni Man-Woman. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1991.

——. Changed Ones: Third and Fourth Genders in Native North America. New York: St. Martin's, 1998.

Roscoe, Will, ed. Living the Spirit: A Gay American Indian Anthology. New York: St. Martin's, 1988.

Williams, Walter L. The Spirit and the Flesh: Sexual Diversity in American Indian Culture. Boston: Beacon, 1986.

Walter L. Williams

see alsoallen, paula gunn; brant, beth; burns, randy; cameron, barbara; chrystos; gage, elmer; klah, hastÍÍn; masahai amatkwisai; native american religion and spirituality; native american lgbtq organizations and periodicals; native american studies; osh-tisch; pi'tamakan; qÁnqon-kÁmek-klaÚla; race and racism; two-spirit females; two-spirit males; we'wha; woman chief.

Native Americans

views updated May 29 2018

Native Americans


Indians and Christians . Native Americans had religious beliefs and practices quite different from those of white Christians. Indians found themselves in a time of religious change as a result of contact with European Americans. In some cases Indians became Christians in European ways. Some, like the Mohegan Samsom Occom, who died in 1792, left their tribes to live and be educated among whites and then returned as missionaries to the Indians, having abandoned their original values and beliefs. Other Indians embraced Christianity in more limited ways, retaining at least some aspects of their native cultures, merging complementary elements of both together, just as many slaves combined African and European practices. Others resisted Christianity. This became increasingly evident in the early national period, as the United States developed a policy of moving Indians westward to make way for the expansion of the white population into the frontier. Efforts to convert the Indians to Christianity often went hand in hand with military actions and the signing of treaties which deprived Indians of land and independence. In the early national era, the Christian churches organized and expanded their missionary efforts to the Native Americans with the avowed purpose of destroying Indian religions; along the way, they were increasingly the agents of even greater destruction.

Handsome Lake . After the end of the Revolution, Indians, like white Americans, found themselves in a period of religious renewal. The revivalist enthusiasm that marked white Protestants at frontier camp meetings had a powerful effect on Native American cultures as well. As the nineteenth century opened, the Seneca Indians of western New York, part of the Iroquois Confederacy, had fallen far from their former political and military prowess. Many Senecas responded to their dislocation and social turmoil with destructive behaviors such as drinking, feuding, and suicide. Among these people was Ganiodaio, also known as Handsome Lake. In 1799 Handsome Lake began to experience a series of visions, which left him at times in a trancelike state similar to that experienced by converts at camp meetings. The visions made Handsome Lake into a preacher, and he began to travel among his people. He urged them to reform their lives and return to their old ways, much as Methodist circuit riders urged their listeners to repent and return to the traditional values of biblical times. A new religion developed from these teachings, called Gaiwiio, or the Longhouse Religion. It included many Senecan beliefs and rituals, including the important Thanksgiving Dance, Great Feather Dance, Personal Chants, and Bowl Game, all of which honored the traditional spirit gods and recounted ancient myths. The Bowl Game, for example, reenacted with dice made from peach pits a primal struggle between the Good Twin and the Evil Twin for control of the earth. The game lasted for several days in midwinter, with feasting and dancing at night. Handsome Lake encouraged these old practices, but his apocalyptic visions led him to all new interpretations. Influenced by the themes of the Christian gospels, he came to see the Bowl Game as not only a creation ritual but also as prefiguring a climactic war between good and evil at the end of the world, when the Senecas would be judged and sent to heaven or hell. These beliefs were new to the Senecas but were easily incorporated into their revived ritual life, which was open to such syncretism. As a practical matter Handsome Lake preached moral reform, encouraging his followers to give up drinking and abortions since they were not part of the old ways and only weakened the nation. Many Iroquois embraced this powerful message of revival, renewal, and survival. This is not surprising, given the ongoing concerns about the security of their territories. Handsome Lake failed as a political leader, and the Iroquoiss political situation deteriorated steadily, although his preaching of peaceful acceptance of some white ways eventually helped relax tensions. Nevertheless, his religious success was remarkable. By the time of his death in 1815 he had sparked a major revival of Iroquois culture, both moral and spiritual. Handsome Lakes religion of Gaiwiio survives today.

Tenskwatawa . Farther west of the Appalachians a similar phenomenon occurred among the Shawnee in the Ohio River valley, but there it was even more deeply colored by the politics of Indian removal. In 1794 Gen. Anthony Wayne defeated an Indian force drawn from several tribes, including the Shawnee, at the Battle of Fallen Timbers. The resulting Treaty of Greenville was to have ended Indian resistance to white settlement of the region, which dated back to the French and Indian War (17541763). The British continued to rally the Indians against the white Americans, however, and fighting continued through the War of 1812. Indian resistance was based not only on Britains support, but was also grounded in the Shawnee religion. In 1805 a Shawnee named Tenskwatawa began to experience visions. Just as Handsome Lake was doing among the Iroquois, he preached moral reform and spiritual renewal through returning to old ways. He used his visions to create a religious message grounded in resistance to white expansion. The new religion revived old rituals and added some new ones, like the ceremony of confessing sins to Tenskwatawa, that were rooted in Christianity. Tenskwatawa traveled widely among the western tribes, and people from across the trans-Appalachian region joined him. Tenskwatawas brother was Tecumseh, the war leader of the Shawnee. As the American government continued to pressure all the western Indians for more land cessions, Tecumseh tried to forge a pan-Indian union to resist the United States, built on the pan-Indian religious feelings preached by Tenskwatawa. Tenskwatawas defeat at the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811 dealt a serious setback to the revival of traditional ways, and the renewal movement gradually faded as American troops wore down the Indians. Tecumsehs alliance with the British marked the end of both the religious and military efforts, as England acknowledged American control over the Great Lakes area at the end of the conflict in 1815.

Missionaries and Acculturation . Removal was only one part of the American policy toward the Indian nations during the early national period. The other was acculturation, the effort to get Native Americans to take up European ways. Christian missions to the Indians were at the forefront of this effort. Beginning with the establishment of the American Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, American Protestants founded at least eleven organizations between 1787 and 1800 for the support of missions to the Indians. This was part of the same evangelical impulse shaping the camp meetings on the frontier, but the goals were not only religious. One missionary said his job was to instill those habits of sobriety, cleanliness, economy, and industry, so essential to civilized life. Beginning in 1803 Congress funded Presbyterian and Moravian missionaries to pursue this civilization program, first announced by George Washington. Partly due to the emphasis on morality in evangelical preaching, missionaries persisted in this effort long after the federal government largely abandoned the policy in the 1820s.

The Cherokee . In religious and social terms the mission to the Cherokee of Georgia and Tennessee was the most successful, but it was also a vivid sign of the limits of acculturation. The Cherokee had an elaborate culture before the Europeans arrival, which they gradually modified over the 1700s by taking up some white ways. They sided with the British during the Revolution, however, and paid the price afterward in the loss of control over their lands. Missionaries soon arrived, led by the intensely pietistic Moravians. The effort took a distinctive form under the Presbyterian Gideon Blackburn, who arrived in 1803 to pursue the goal of acculturation with a school combining religious instruction with lessons in reading and writing. The school was better at securing political and economic change than religious conversions. Christianity spread slowly. In 1811 a revival of the traditional Cherokee religion began as several people reported visions somewhat like those of Handsome Lake and Tenskwatawa. The problem of acculturation was a recurring theme in these visions. One featured Selu, the goddess of corn and mother of the nation. She urged the Cherokee to return to growing Indian corn and give up the hybrid varieties that the Cherokee got from white farmers and were growing with only limited success. Other visions spurred the revival of traditional rituals such as the purification ceremony, which involved bathing and communal dancing by men and women, accompanied by drums and rattles. Earthquakes at the end of

1811 prompted more visions and sent many to the conjurers for an interpretation. They also asked the Christian missionaries for answers, however, and the Cherokee revival never turned against whites to the extent of the Shawnee revival. The visionaries urged the Cherokee to set limits on assimilation but not to abandon the process entirely. Many Cherokee political leaders supported this compromise; some of them were Christian and some financially benefited from closer ties to whites. These men allied the Cherokee with the United States in its war with the Creek nation, which began in 1812 and brought an end to this phase of the religious revival. The Cherokee mission revived after the end of the War of 1812 and saw the tribe pursue a remarkable combination of Christianity and republicanism, including the development of a written language. But neither their Christianity nor their cultural success kept them from being removed forcibly to Oklahoma in the 1830s.


Robert F. Berkhofer Jr., Salvation and the Savage (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1965);

Henry Warner Bowden, American Indians and Christian Missions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981);

R. David Edmunds, The Shawnee Prophet (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983);

William G. McLoughlin, Cherokees and Missionaries, 17891839 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995);

Anthony F. C. Wallace, The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca (New York: Random House, 1969).

Native Americans

views updated May 29 2018

Native Americans


A Moravian School. In the first decades of the new American republic, federal policy toward Indians sought to convert them into yeomen and eventually citizens through trading ties, intermarriage, and economic assistance. Thomas Jefferson as president in 1800 continued the policies of George Washingtons administration, urging property ownership, obedience to law, and assimilation. Yet he also promised Georgia in 1802 that if the state ceded its Western claims (the territory that became Alabama and Mississippi) to the national domain, Indians within its borders eventually would be removed. The Louisiana Purchase in 1803 provided land across the Mississippi River for natives who wished to pursue their traditional ways. Although the federal government did not provide schools, its agents, such as Return J. Meigs among the Cherokees, encouraged admission of skilled whites into Indian lands to demonstrate development of resources and to promote trade. In a remarkable educational experiment characteristic of their faith, Moravian missionaries from Germany and eastern Europe entered the Cherokee nation in 1801, settling at Spring Place in northern Georgia. Although the missionaries came to preach, they were encouraged to begin a school by Upper Town chiefs, who favored acculturation and resisted removal and relinquishment of land. Chiefs who brought their children to the Moravian school expected them to learn English and become interpreters and intermediaries between old and new ways. By 1806 white farmers in the area also brought their children to the school; slaves would not be educated until they became converts, but African Americans attended the Moravian meeting. Pupils at the school learned to read the Bible, spell, and sing hymns. Required to work in the cornfields and peach orchards, they also learned to be farmers. In 1818 missionaries from the American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions (ABCFM) established another school in eastern Tennessee, and some of the original pupils of the Moravians traveled to Cornwall, Connecticut, to enroll

in the ABCFMs parent school. On their return to the Cherokee nation, where they were wealthy planters and slave owners, some of these children who began their education at the Moravian schoolJohn Rollin Ridge, Elias Boudinot, David and John Vann, and Elijah Hicksbecame leaders of the Cherokee renascence of the 1820s. In the following decade they worked with Northern missionaries and lawyers in the appeal to federal courts to save the lands and sovereignty of the Cherokee nation when President Andrew Jackson implemented the shift in federal policy toward Indian removal across the Mississippi River.

Missionaries in the Far West. Jacksons policy of Indian removal shifted the work of the ABCFM from Southern projects to the Trans-Mississippi West. In 1836 the newly married Marcus and Narcissa Whitman left their homes in western New York to travel as ABCFM missionaries to the Oregon country, territory far beyond the boundary of the Louisiana Purchase that still was claimed by Great Britain. Among the first white families to experience the Overland Trail, they journeyed with fur trappers and traders along the Platte River, across the Rocky Mountains at the South Pass, and down the Snake River and across the Blue Mountains to the Hudson Bay Companys Fort Walla Walla. Soon after, they established their mission there among the Cayuse Indians. Converted as a child in the evangelical revivals of western New York, Narcissa Whitman never doubted that her task was to bring Protestant Christianity and Anglo-American civilization to the Indians. The Cayuses and their neighbors the Nez Percés still were following an annual cycle of winter settlement and travel in

the other seasons to hunt, fish, and gather food. Although they welcomed the missionaries, they had little intention of living a settled life and relinquishing their cultural practices and beliefs. At the mission school she conducted in her kitchen, Narcissa Whitman instructed Cayuse children in English and the Nez Perces language, which she gradually learned. Her husband Marcus conducted services, tried to practice medicine, and struggled to persuade native men and boys to be farmers. Yet, in despair after the accidental drowning of her daughter, Narcissa was troubled by her lack of fitness for missionary life. When the Cayuses failed to accept the Protestant message, relations between the Indians and missionaries deteriorated. When prospective settlers from the United States entered the area in the mid 1840s, the Whitmans began to view their calling as the education of white children. In 1846, after the United States acquired the Oregon Territory through treaty with Great Britain and larger groups of emigrants entered the area, the Cayuses directed their resentment at the mission. Devastated by imported diseases, especially a lethal measles epidemic in 1847, Indians attacked the mission and killed the Whitmans and some of their associates. This disaster ended the work of the ABCFM in Oregon; Narcissa Whitman, who was greatly admired in the Eastern states, became a martyr.


Julie Roy Jeffrey, Converting the West (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991);

William G. McLoughlin, Cherokee Renascence in the New Republic (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University, 1986).

Plains Indians

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Plains Indians were those tribes that lived in the grassland region extending from the Mississippi River in the east, to the front range of the Rocky Mountains in the west, and from Canada in the north, to Mexico in the south. Algonquian, Aztec-Tanoan, and Iroquoian languages were spoken; eventually a mutually under-standable sign language developed among the various tribes. Before European incursion Plains tribes included the Blackfoot, Sioux (or Dakota), Cheyenne, Omaha, Pawnee, Arapaho, Apache, and Comanche.

From 8000 b.c. to 1500 b.c. these tribes were nomadic, moving as many as 100 times a year in pursuit of the buffalo (bison). This large animal provided meat for food, skins for clothing and housing, bones for tools, and manure for fuel. Plants and other animals, such as deer, elk, and rabbits, were also used. The tepee was the typical dwelling: the conical tent was made by stretching skins over a wood frame. Tepees were durable, easily moved, and could be assembled quickly. Tribes traveled mostly on foot; there were no beasts of burden (horses or mules) until the arrival of the Europeans.

After about 250 b.c. some Plains tribes turned to agriculture, settling in river valleys where they cultivated corn, beans, squash, and tobacco. The Omaha and Pawnee were among the tribes that became settled farmers, establishing walled villages of earth lodges. The sustenance of other tribes remained tied to buffalo hunting, which was aided by the development of the bow and arrow (allowing a hunter to remain hidden while he took aim on his prey). Hunting was also a group activity when the large animals were killed by herding them over cliffs. After a.d. 900, Plains Indians began trading with the Eastern Woodlands Indians to the east, particularly the Mississippian tribes. Plains tribes adopted some of their practices and ceremonies.

The arrival of Europeans in the continental interior introduced horses and guns to the Indians and these were readily adopted for use in hunting and warfare. The Plains Indians were warriors, who fought between clans and tribes, and against the white settlers who increasingly encroached on their territory.

By 1890 the buffalo herds of the Plains were virtually extinctthe result of over-hunting by both the Indians and the whites. Diminishing buffalo herds resulted in significant changes in the lifestyle of the Plains Indians. That same year saw the last major conflict between the U.S. Army and the Sioux (who had fiercely resisted white settlement of their lands); federal troops killed as many as 300 men, women, and children at Wounded Knee, South Dakota.

See also: Buffalo (Extermination of the), Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Wyoming

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Native Americans