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Native Americans: A People Separate but Enduring

Updated on November 6, 2019
Yamuna Hrodvitnir profile image

Yamuna tries to write thought provoking content based on her history studies and personal experiences.

Although Native Americans were profoundly impacted by the arrival of European settlers and their colonization of North America, they were always considered to be outside of, or separate from the United States. Native Americans traded with, warred with, and suffered from mass deaths due to the diseases introduced by the European settlers, therefore their lives and histories have been intertwined since the first step of a European explorer onto the soil of North America. While they were subject to the will and campaigns of the United States, forced into subjugation and forcibly transported onto reservations, they never received recognition as being part of the United States. It wasn’t until 1924 that all Native Americans were granted citizenship and given the right to vote, which was nearly 500 years after Columbus and his men first set foot in North America in 1492. Native Americans were considered a separate people from the citizens of the United States and were not included in those rights which were given to the people by U.S. constitution, but they had their own idea of what the term “the people” meant because they had their own cultures, customs, and political structures. Their lives and cultures would however be forever changed by the arrival Europeans, and their continued exploration, settlement and eventual founding of a country in what was once the native peoples’ home.

The Indigenous peoples of North America were always, in a way, separate from the United States. They had their own spiritual beliefs, trading routes, social roles, and political systems among themselves before and after contact with Europeans. While Europeans came across the Atlantic in droves to colonize the continent, the Native Americans retained this sense of peoplehood while living alongside the colonists. They interacted with the settlers, sometimes in mutually beneficial relationships, and in conflict with them at other times. As more people from Europe made their homes among the lands which were cultivated and lived on by the Native peoples, their futures would become increasingly entwined.

When Columbus first set foot on North American soil, the native population of the Northwestern Hemisphere was great. There were millions of people living on the continent, in hundreds of tribes and groups, from the Arctic to Central America and even more people along the equator and in South America. There are estimates by historians which suggest that there were around 500 separate tribes in the land that would become the continental United States, alone (Stockwell, 2012). These peoples practiced a way of life which consisted primarily of subsistence farming and hunting, as well as trade between the different tribes. Complex systems of agriculture were in place, which produced significant yields of corn, beans, and squash (Silver, 2008).

Supplemented with fish and meat from wild game, the diet of these people was extremely nutritious. While diseases and health problems were common, as with all groups of people at the time, they were rather healthy in general (Silver, 2008). The use of herbal medicine, and even medical practices like surgery and dentistry, along with regular bathing allowed Native Americans to live long and well prior to contact with the settlers (Dunbar-Ortiz, 2014).

Most nations had their own form of government, which was extremely progressive in comparison to many of the other political structures in the world at the time. They were largely democratic, with equal rights ensured for all adult men, and often for women as well. Tribal councils were in place to handle the disputes and concerns of the people (Stockwell, 2012). Each tribe had a profound sense of identity and community, and they would often refer to themselves as “the people” or “the first people” (Stockwell, 2012). From the very beginning, Native American peoples were proud and placed great importance upon their tribe or community, and that did not change after the colonization of their land by the people from other continents.

An artistic depiction of the Jamestown Settlement
An artistic depiction of the Jamestown Settlement | Source

A strong example of the different forms of interaction between Native Americans and the colonists can be seen in the contrast between the events which took place in Jamestown and in the New England settlements. Jamestown was a settlement made in the name of the Virginia Company, in 1607. The location of Jamestown put it in close proximity to some very powerful Native American tribes. Chiefs Wahunsonnacock and Opecancanough were brothers who had effectively united 30 tribes under their leadership. This consolidation of power was done because of the pervasive fear that the European settlers would bring violence or harm to the tribes or to their land. They were prepared for a potential war from the beginning (Stockwell, 2012). In 1622, after a short period of relative peace, the Native Americans declared war on Jamestown. Many casualties were suffered on both sides of the conflict. In contrast, the Pilgrim settlers in Plymouth were given assistance from the Natives in the area, who came to them in search of friendship. Two Native Americans called Samoset and Squanto came to Plymouth in March of 1621 and established a relationship with the settlers. The Native Americans helped them to understand the land, how to grow and find food, and traded with them peacefully (Stockwell, 2012).

These interactions between the Native American tribes and the Europeans caused a lot of changes in the daily lives of the tribal people. The most notable of these changes is the massive decrease in population. The people of North America had no natural resistance to illnesses brought across the Atlantic with the settlers, and the population was decimated within the first years of colonization. Estimates suggest that about 90% of the Native American population died before the 1700's, primarily due to the spread of foreign diseases (Silver, 2008).

Along with foreign disease, the settlers brought with them many other things, including firearms. The basis of copacetic trade between the two groups was European metal, which the native people had not yet learned to forge, as well as firearms and other instruments which were made with this metal. The introduction of firearms was a major turning point in the cultural activities of the Native Americans. Hunting became more prevalent as a method of gathering food, pushing their agricultural activities back on the list of their community tasks. As the Native Americans primarily traded their furs for goods from the settlers, even more hunting was done to keep up with the demand for pelts. The new reliance upon hunting had an effect on the whole culture. Gender roles for example were changed by these new developments. While previously, the community among tribes was very specifically oriented around separate tasks for men or for women, women now had to take on the tasks that men were disregarding in favor of more time hunting and preparing pelts to be sold (Slater, 2011).

As more and more settlers arrived in the New World, the settlements spread across the land. While the Native Americans were originally unbothered by the settlements at first, unless they encroached upon their tribal territories, after the colonies continued to spread, concerns mounted among the tribes. Aggression from the settlers, the acquisition of more land, and the destructive tendencies of the settlers’ livestock pushed the Indigenous people to become frustrated, worried, and even angry about the invasion on their land. One reaction to this distress was the formation of larger groups under single leaders (Veitch, 2016). Multiple tribes would unite in order to enhance their strength and to be prepared to defend themselves against the colonists if need be. Much like what happened with the tribes in the region of Jamestown, the consolidation of multiple tribes in each area became common practice.

Portrait of Chief Tecumseh
Portrait of Chief Tecumseh | Source

Another example of this sort of unification among different tribes can be seen when considering how Chief Tecumseh of the Shawnee gathered many groups of Native Americans together in an attempt to act in a great rebellion. During the War of 1812, he believed that the best way for the Native People to retain their autonomy, and hopefully win back their land, was to unite and work together. He believed that all of the Native Americans should come together to defend their right to their own land. He believed that if they were to assist the British in their fight against the U.S. colonists, they could earn the right to take back land that had been stolen from them. In his speech declaring his vision, he states:

“The way, the only way to stop this evil is for the red men to unite in claiming a common and equal right in the land, as it was at first, and should be now--for it was never divided but belongs to all. No tribe has the right to sell, even to each other, much less to strangers.... Sell a country! Why not sell the air, the great sea, as well as the earth? Did not the Great Spirit make them for all the use of his children?” (Tecumseh, 1810).

King Philip’s War was the final attempt by a Native American tribe to aggressively push back the settlers in New England. The colony was spreading and encroaching upon Native American land, and the established trade partnerships were falling apart. This caused a great deal of anger among the tribes of the area, and prompted them to respond violently, in the hopes of reclaiming their soil. The Natives were led by chief Metacom, who was called “Philip” by the colonists. The bloody uprising led to fourteen months of fighting and ended with the beheading of their leader Metacom. Many people on both sides of the conflict died, the colonists’ livestock were slaughtered in acts of symbolic anger, and twelve settlement towns were completely destroyed (Pulsipher, 1996). This defeat served to crush much of the rebellious spirit among the Native tribes, but the uprising itself is evidence that their fire and lust for justice from the Europeans remained strong throughout these many years.

The U.S. government’s Civilization Policy, which was an attempt to pacify the Native American peoples through assimilation, led to many actions by the government intending to integrate the indigenous people into Western society. Two of the most impactful exercises in the attempt to assimilate the tribal people were religious conversion and compulsory Western style schooling for the young. Prior to European contact, Native Americans generally held nature based spiritual belief systems. Missionary work started from the first contact however, and by the second half of the sixteenth century, huge numbers of Native Americans identified as Christian (Hunt, 2012). Despite the success of the missionaries, many Native American people resisted the conversion to the end. Even on reservations today, a small population of Indigenous people try to carry on their old spiritual traditions. That part of the Native American peoplehood has managed to survive due to the enduring sense of pride which lives on in a number of the people.

As for the educational aspect of assimilation, children would often be taken from their parents and put into Western style boarding schools, partially to teach them to be more like the Europeans, and also in an attempt to prove that they were intellectually and biologically inferior to their white counterparts. The government had hoped that the Native children would do poorly in the schools and thus justify a more “scientific” form of racism. This however, wasn’t the case and it was proven that the Native American students showed no notable difference in their ability to learn and understand educational material when compared to the children of the colonists (Snyder, 2017).

Sign for the historic Choctaw Academy
Sign for the historic Choctaw Academy | Source

The Choctaw Academy was the first federal Indian boarding school in the United States. It was founded in the hope of the federal government that by taking leadership over the intellectual growth of the Native American youth, that they could influence the tribal people in a way that would make their attempts conquer of the continental U.S. more peaceful and effective. However, the students challenged this narrative, and an age of intellectual growth began for the Native American people. By the year 1838, as many as two-thirds of the Cherokee were literate. This is thanks in part to the creation of the Cherokee Syllabary, which served as a way for the Cherokee people to record sacred knowledge, facilitated communication, and served as a pillar for community and the “civilization” of the people. Native Americans were now championing knowledge and literacy in their children and utilizing things like printed media to keep up with the settlers in the way of information and education (Snyder, 2012).

When Andrew Jackson enacted the Indian Removal Act in 1830, he claimed that it was for the good of the nation, and for the good of the native tribes. But the Removal forcefully displaced around 100,000 Native Americans. The people were pulled from their ancestral homelands and ways of life to be transplanted to reservations that were established by the United States government. The two most influential events in the changing lives of the Native American people were the mass deaths brought on by the foreign illnesses upon contact with Europeans, and this horrific event that cleared the way for the people of the colonies to absorb Native land.

In 1832, a brief conflict broke out between Chief Black Hawk and his band, and the U.S. government. Black Hawk and his group had been trying to quietly resettle land that had been previously been claimed and taken over by the colonists. This act of rebellion led to what is known as the Black Hawk War. Black Hawk was defeated in this conflict, and the speech of surrender that he presented resonates the truth of the feelings of the Native American people of the time. He explains that the settlers have taken their land, behaved dishonorably, and had been aggressively conquering what was not theirs to conquer. He goes on to say that he feels no shame in his rebellion, and that his people are not the aggressors, but the victims.

“He has done nothing for which an Indian ought to be ashamed. He has fought for his countrymen, the squaws and papooses, against white men, who came, year after year, to cheat them and take away their lands. You know the cause of our making war. It is known to all white men. They ought to be ashamed of it. The white men despise the Indians and drive them from their homes. But the Indians are not deceitful. The white men speak bad of the Indian and look at him spitefully. But the Indian does not tell lies; Indians do not steal.” (Black Hawk, 1832).

Chief Black Hawk
Chief Black Hawk | Source

Being separated from their homes, their families, and what had been their way of life for centuries had devastating effects on the cultures and peoplehood of the Native Americans (Veitch, 2016). A great deal of sacred knowledge from before colonial times has been long lost. The languages of the people have been largely forgotten and erased by the changing world and the Westernization of the Native American people. However, the Native people of North America had always been a people of change, who had happily adjusted to the changing seasons in order to survive. The season was changing for the world, at the hands of the people who came across the Atlantic, and the Native Americans maintained their unity, their belief in themselves as “the people,” and adjusted the best that they could to the new world that they were plunged into. Until only recently, unrecognized as citizens of the United States, the Native American people maintained their own sense of nationhood. Today that spirit of unity and who they are as a people lives on among the few who remain to carry on their traditions.

“Farewell, my nation. Black Hawk tried to save you and avenge your wrongs. He drank the blood of some of the whites. He has been taken prisoner, and his plans are stopped. He can do no more. He is near his end. His sun is setting, and he will rise no more. Farewell to Black Hawk.” (Black Hawk, 1832).

Bibliography

Black Hawk, Chief (1832). Black Hawk's Surrender Speech.
https://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/black.htm

Dunbar-Ortiz, R. (2014). An Indigenous People’s History of the United States. Beacon Press. ISBN: 007000418.

Hunt, Lynn, Martin, Thomas R., Rosenwein, Barbara H., Smith, Bonnie G.. The Making of the West Peoples and Cultures: A Concise History (3rd ed.). Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2010.

Pulsipher, J. (1996). Massacre at Hurtleberry Hill: Christian Indians and English Authority in Metacom's War. The William and Mary Quarterly, 53(3), 459-486. doi:10.2307/2947201

Silver, Timothy H. Three Worlds, Three Views: Culture and Environmental Change in the Colonial South. Nature Transformed, TeacherServe®. National Humanities Center. Accessed Feb. 10th, 2019. http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/nattrans/ntuseland/essays/threeworlds.htm

Slater, Sandra, Yarbarough, Fay A., Gender and Sexuality in Indigenous North America. 1400 – 1850. The University of South Carolina Press. 2011.

Snyder, C. (2012). The rise and fall and rise of civilizations: Indian intellectual culture during the removal era. Journal of American History, 104 (2) , pp. 386-409.

Stockwell, M. (2012). The American story: Perspectives and encounters to 1877 [Electronic version]. Retrieved from https://content.ashford.edu/

Tecumseh, (Shawnee) Chief. (1810). Address to General William Henry Harrison in the Vincennes in the Indian Territory, 1810. Digital History. http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/disp_textbook.cfm?smtid=3&psid=662

Veitch, M. (2016). American Indian Culture: From Counting Coup to Wampum. Reference & User Services Quarterly, (4), 323. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com.proxy-library.ashford.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edsgao&AN=edsgcl.491137043&site=eds-live&scope=site

© 2019 Yamuna Hrodvitnir

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