Native Americans

Native Americans Information

Though we do not usually think of Native Americans and "The New World" as part of medieval times, it must be remembered people have been living in the Americas for 15000 years.

Native Americans (American Indians, Amerindians, Amerins, Indyans, Injuns, or Red Indians) are indigenous peoples, who lived in the Americas prior to the European colonization; some of these ethnic groups still exist. The name "Indians" was bestowed by Christopher Columbus, who mistakenly believed that the places he found them were among the islands to the southeast of Asia known to Europeans as the Indies. (See further discussion below).

Canadians now generally use the term First Nations to refer to Native Americans. In Alaska, because of legal use in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANSCA) and because of the presence of the Inuit, Yupik, and Aleut peoples, the term Alaskan Native predominates. (See further discussion below.)

Native Americans officially make up the majority of the population in Bolivia, Peru and Guatemala and are significant in most other former Spanish colonies, with the exception of Costa Rica, Cuba, Argentina, Dominican Republic and Uruguay.


The Native Americans are widely believed to have come to the Americas via the prehistoric Bering Land Bridge. However, this is not the only theory. Some archaeologists believe that the migration consisted of seafaring tribes that moved along the coast, avoiding mountainous inland terrain and highly variable terrestrial ecosystems. Other researchers have postulated an original settlement by skilled navigators from Oceania, though these American Aborigine people are believed to be nearly extinct. Yet another theory claims an early crossing of the Atlantic Ocean by people originating in Europe. Many native peoples do not believe the migration theory at all. The creation stories of many tribes place the people in North America from the beginning of time. Mormon tradition holds that the Native Americans represent one of the lost tribes of Israel.

Based on anthropological evidence, at least three distinct migrations from Siberia occurred. The first wave of migration came into a land populated by the large mammals of the late Pleistocene epoch, including mammoths, horses, giant sloths, and wooly rhinoceroses. The Clovis culture provides one example of such immigrants. Later the Folsom culture developed, based on the hunting of bison.

The second immigration wave comprised the Athabascan people, including the ancestors of the Apaches and Navajos; the third wave consisted of the Inuits, the Yupiks, and the Aleuts, who may have come by sea over the Bering Strait. The Athabascan peoples generally lived in Alaska and western Canada but some Athabascans migrated south as far as California and the American Southwest, and became the ancestors of tribes now there.

The descendants of the third wave are so ethnically distinct from the remainder of the indigenous inhabitants of the Americas that they are not usually included in the terms "American Indian" or "First Nations".

In recent years, anthropological evidence of migration has been supplemented by studies based on molecular genetics. The provisional results from this field suggest that four distinct migrations from Asia occurred; and, most surprisingly, provide evidence of smaller-scale, contemporaneous human migration from Europe. This suggests that the migrant population, living in Europe at the time of the most recent ice age, adopted a life-style resembling that lived by Inuits and Yupiks in recent centuries.

In the Mississippi valley of the United States, in Mexico and Central America, and in the Andes of South America Native American civilizations arose with farming cultures and city-states.

The Arrival of Europeans

The European colonization of the Americas forever changed the lives and cultures of the Native Americans. In the 15th to 19th centuries, their populations were decimated, by the privations of displacement, by disease, and in many cases by warfare with European groups and enslavement by them. The first Native American group encountered by Columbus, the 250,000 Arawaks of Haiti, were violently enslaved. Only 500 survived by the year 1550, and the group was totally extinct before 1650. Over the next 400 years, the experiences of other Native Americans with Europeans would not always amount to genocide, but they would typically be disastrous for the Native Americans.

In the 15th century Spaniards and other Europeans brought horses to the Americas. Some of these animals escaped their owners and began to breed and increase their numbers in the wild. Ironically, the horse had originally evolved in the Americas, but the last American horses died out at the end of the last ice age. The re-introduction of the horse, however, had a profound impact on Native American cultures in the Great Plains of North America. This new mode of travel made it possible for some tribes to greatly expand their territories, exchange goods with neighboring tribes and to more easily capture game.

Europeans also brought diseases against which the Native Americans had no immunity. Sometimes they did this intentionally, but often it was unintentional. Ailments such as chicken pox and measles, though common and rarely fatal among Europeans, often proved fatal to Native Americans. More deadly diseases such as smallpox were especially deadly to Native American populations. It is difficult to estimate the percentage of the total Native American population killed by these diseases, since waves of disease oftentimes preceded White scouts and often destroyed entire villages. Some historians have argued that more than 80% of some Indian populations may have died due to European-derived diseases.

The first reported case of white men scalping Native Americans took place in New Hampshire colony on February 20, 1725, though it is thought that Indians learned scalping from Americans who, at times, collected them for bounties.

Four Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy sided with the British and the Tories of the American Revolutionary War. The colonists were especially outraged at the Wyoming Massacre and the Cherry Valley Massacre, which occurred in 1788. In 1799 Congress sent Major General John Sullivan on what has become known as the Sullivan Expedition to neutralize the Iroquois threat to the American side. The two allied nations were rewarded, at least temporarily by keeping title to their lands after the Revolution. The title was later purchased very cheaply by Massachusetts and sold off in the Phelps and Gorham Purchase and the Holland Purchase, after which by treaty, it became a part of New York State. The tribes were moved to reservations or sent westward. Part of the Cayuga Nation was granted a reservation in British Canada See also History of New York.

In the 19th century the United States forced Native Americans onto marginal lands in areas farther and farther west as white settlement of the young nation expanded in that direction. Numerous Indian Wars broke out between US forces and many different tribes. Authorities drafted countless treaties during this period and then later nullified them for various reasons. Well-known battles include the untypical Native American victory at the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876, and the massacre of Native Americans at Wounded Knee in 1890. On January 31, 1876 the United States government ordered all Native Americans to move into reservations or reserves. This spelled the end of the Prairie Culture that developed around the use of the horse for hunting, travel and trading.

American policy toward Native Americans has been an evolving process. In the late nineteenth century reformers in efforts to civilize Indians adapted the practice of educating native children in boarding schools. The experience in the boarding schools which existed from 1875 to 1928 was difficult for Indian children who were forbidden to speak their native languages and in numerous other ways forced to adopt white cultural practices.

Military defeat, cultural pressure, confinement on reservations, forced cultural assimilation, the outlawing of native languages and culture, forced sterilizations, termination policies of the 50's and 60's, and (especially) slavery have had deleterious effects on Native Americans' mental and ultimately physical health. Contemporary problems include poverty, alcoholism, heart disease, and diabetes.

What name best identifies this group of people?

The term "Native American" originated with anthropologists who preferred it to the former appellations of "Indian" or "American Indian", which they considered inaccurate, as these terms bear no relationship to the actual origins of Aboriginal Americans (or American Aborigines), and were born of the misapprehension on the part of Christopher Columbus, arriving at islands off the east coast of the North American continent, that he had reached the East Indies. The words "Indian" and "American Indian" continue in widespread use in North America, even amongst Native Americans themselves, many of whom do not feel offended by the terms.[1] But the appropriateness of this usage has become controversial since the late 20th century; many feel the "Indian" term undesirable as symbolic of the domination of these peoples by the European colonists. Others, in turn, resent criticism of their traditional way of speaking. "Red Indian" is a common British term, useful in differentiating this group from a distinct group of people referred to as East Indians.

One minority view has advocated the name "Asiatic Americans" as a more accurate term because of the popular theory that such peoples migrated to the Americas from Asia across an ice bridge covering the Bering Straits some 20,000 years ago. Competent fossil evidence supports the case for such a migration. However, this term is considered offensive by many American Indians because most native religions state that American Indians have been in the Western Hemisphere since the dawn of time. Furthermore, the strong tradition among archaeologists and anthropologists, is to indicate the geographic origins of a people as relating to the region where researchers first encountered them or their remains.

One difficulty with the term "Native American" as a substitute for "American Indian" lies in the fact that there exist several groups of people indisputably indigenous to the Americas, but who fall outside the classification of "American Indians", for example the Innu people of the Labrador/Quebec peninsula and the Inuit, Yupik, and Aleut peoples of the far north of the continent. Another argument is that any person born in America is native to it.

Another difficulty is that many Native American groups migrated (or were displaced) to their current locations after the start of European colonization, and therefore it can be argued that they have no more "native" ties to their current locations than do the Europeans. However, as they were moving within America, they remained native to the America.

The term "Native American" is woefully inadequate from a scientific viewpoint, as Homo sapiens is an invasive species in the Americas. From a legal standpoint, however, any person born in the Americas is a native American (though not Native American).

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