Early North American Civilization circa 1500
I am Kai. I come from Diné Bikéyah. My people have lived here for many moons. I, my mother, my mother’s mother, and so on, until very few of the elders will agree on where our ancestors truly came from. The white man says the land is his. But I know that Mother Earth and Sky Father will not let them take it from us.
When my mother was just a child, her grandmother told her stories of our ancestors. One time, long ago, the place where Diné lived became crowded and cold. There was not enough food, and many wanted to look for a new place to set up offering places. So they walked toward the rising sun. For a very long time, they walked across a grassy bridged that had big waters on either side.
Some of the elders say it was more than a hundred moons until they reached a place where the land was all they could see. Many people stayed and made their homes there. Others went on to make places for their families. The new land was very different from the old. The animals and plants were strange. But everyone knew that this was where Mother Earth had called them, and Sun rewarded Diné with his warmth.
It is said that at that time Diné knew only how to hunt for meat and gather berries. This is hard for me to believe, since we eat beans and maize that we grow in the ground every day. It is hard work, but I think it much better than only eating bison and berries!
Early North American Civilizations
Kai is not a real person, but she could be. She comes from Diné Bikéyah, or what we know as “Navajoland.” The Navajo are descendants of the Athabaskans, a group of nomads from Canada. Like all so-called American “Indians,” their ancestors crossed the Bering Strait some thousands of years B.C.E when the earth was frozen and the oceans had receded to reveal a great grassy plain connecting Asia and North America. The Navajo settled in the southwest around 1400 C.E. and soon learned the art of agriculture from their neighbors, the Pueblo people. They were – and still are – a spiritual nation, holding dear the relationship of a man with his land.
The Navajo, of course, were not the only Natives on this great continent. There were the Eskimos and Cahuilla living simple lives in the frigid north. An innovative bunch were the Micmac, Penobscot, Montagnais, Beaver and Yellowknife in the wooded areas of the north; they used canoes for fishing and wore moccasins and snowshoes to make the burden of traveling lighter in all weather. Women from some tribes managed farms while the men were out hunting. They also made homes for their daughters’ families out of mud or stone. In fact, by 1540, about 70 Pueblos (villages made up of these structures) had been established and were governed by a religious council. The Natchez of the Pacific coast instituted a cast system similar to that of many modern-day societies, with a chief (the Great Sun), a nobility made up of the chief’s family (Suns), and the commoners, who the Suns clearly enjoyed calling the “Stinkards.” While each nation had its own beliefs, they all had in common a great sense of spiritual connection with nature: perhaps a connection that was carried over from the ancient days when all the world’s population lived in the eastern hemisphere.
The Gutiérrez Map
Though we now know that the Americas were inhabited thousands of years before Europeans “discovered” them, Europe had no desire to acknowledge the ownership of the land by its inhabitants. In the Gutiérrez Map, the most famous map of the 16th century New World, little mention was made of the natives of North America, and those in South American were depicted as either giants or cannibals. This portrayal of the population of the New World allowed early settlers to keep a clear conscience concerning the ownership of the land, especially of North America. The fearsome images of South American peoples may well have served to frighten away any non-Spanish contemplating an expedition in that direction.
The map was created not only to inform the known world of newly discovered lands, but also as a stake of claim for the most prominent nations of the day. The coats of arms of France and Spain on the upper left-hand corner indicate sovereignty over the continents, as well as a peace agreement sign between the two countries in 1559. Similarly, the Portuguese coat of arms in the lower Atlantic signifies its dominance over the southern parts of the Americas.
As Europe continued to explore and settle in the American continents, many natives just like Kai were displaced. Others were allowed to remain in their homelands but greatly influenced by the Eastern ways of life. The Spanish and Portuguese went on to dominate Central and South America, France gained control of Canada, and Britain conquered the soil in between.
When another 500 years comes to pass, who will rule over what we now call the United States?
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