The American Indian tribes, also known as the Native Americans, form a basic group in the history of indigenous Americans. Over the years, the American Indians have remained as intact groups that are federally recognized by the US government. They are believed to have occupied the Northern part of America long before the invasion of the European explorer. Although there are small sub-tribes within the Americans Indians, the 1995 US sensors established that the majority of the members of these sub-groups identify themselves as ‘Indians’ (Nindrhout & Frantz 63). This paper explores the history and cultural practices of the American Indians.
Historically, the Indians are believed to have migrated to North America from the eastern Asia. This migration dates back to fourteen millennia ago, during the Ice Age sea era. During the Ice age period, the sea levels were lower, estimated to have been 350 feet lower than the present levels. This enabled the Native Americans to traverse from Asia to America through a land bridge that joined the two continents. Although there are no concrete details of how the bridge was constructed, studies have established that it remained intact until 12000 years ago (Smithers 145). The first Indian group to settle in American was called the Paleo-Indians. This group used to camp around the water sources given that their major activity was fishery.
By the 8000 B.C, the climatic conditions of America were becoming more inhabitable due to the melting of glacier ice, causing a rise in the sea level (Smithers 146). As a result, the Paleo-Indians became actively involved indifferent life activities. Their involvement led to the creation of structures that have survived to date, many of which are preserved in archeological sites. The American Indians archaic period is divided into three categories; namely the early, middle and late archaic age. Each of these periods is distinguished by the activities that the Indian people undertook. The nature of their involvements was influence by their discovery of tools and weapons as well as the changing climatic condition.
According to Smithers (157-158), the stages of archaic age are differentiated by the physical activities of the Indian Americans. During the early archaic period, the Indians lived along the water sources, involving themselves in fishing, hunting and plant gathering. Their tools and weapons were made of animal bones and bird feathers. They also made cordages and fabrics from plant fibers. By the middle archaic, the Indians had learnt how to construct huge moulds from shellfish debris where they interred their dead. This period is estimated to have begun in 5000 B.C through 3000B. Lastly, the late archaic age was a period in which the Indians activities developed nearly to the modern status. By, 2400 B.C, the Indians could practice fired clay pottery, that they used to make cooking vessels. They also used Spanish moss and palmetto fibers to construct the eating and other purpose containers.
The Native Americans practiced a vast range of religious belief since each tribe subscribed to a different set of religious views. In all tribes, however, their religion was, and still is, mostly focused on naturally occurring elements such as plants animals and landscape (Minderhout 69). The Indians’ religious calendar includes a number of ceremonies, through which they speak to their gods. The ceremonies are marked by songs and dances and were presided over by respected religious leaders. These religious leaders, moreover, act as the traditional healers in the community and are thus respected people in the society. Traditionally, beliefs and religious practices among the Indian communities were not recorded in books but were transmitted across generations through the world of mouth.
In addition to religion, the Indian communities were distinguished by their unique arts and craft. Their artwork included creative pottery and basketry. They made jewelry as well as ritual instruments that were used by their religious leaders. According to Minderhout (69), religion was a major factor that shaped the Indians art and craft. For example, houses of worship were and are still marked with certain molded structures. Each of these structures is assigned a particular level of significance. The American Indians believed in an utmost respect towards their religious structures and defined the manner into each category of the spiritual craft would be held. They also held a strong belief in the importance of burying their dead.
Although the Indian Americans did not keep a written constitution, there were strict rules that directed the ownership of properties and dispute resolution. Customary, their major activities involved fishing hunting and trapping, each of which were governed by strict regulations Minderhout (71). In hunting field, for example, different hunting areas were owned by particular clans and families and were heritable. Among the communities that depended on buffalo hunting, there were no marked hunting territories; however, the hunters would mark their arrows so that they would tell whose arrow killed the buffalo. The killer was entitled to a larger share of the meat, as well as other benefits such as the animal’s skin. Similarly, fishing territories were assigned to particular clans and families.
In addition to the named activities, the Indians also adopted farming as a result of their interaction with other communities. They, therefore, required specific regulations in ownership of land. According to the Indian tribes, land was owned depending on its geographical location. For example, the productive lands around the rivers were owned by families or clans, while the unproductive desert lands were held as communal properties. Following the European invasion, and the later the American Revolution, several Indians were transferred from their owned lands to Indian reservations. Some also sold their land willingly to the European settlers through signing of treaties. The reservational land was owned communally owned; however, reservations were made on most unproductive land.
According to scholars, the Indian Americans were among the worst affected group by the impact of the European exploration and subsequent colonization. Although they actively joined with the rest of the Americans to resist colonization, they endured mistreatments such as forced displacement, disregard of their rights and mass killing. According to Minderhout (66), the American Indians population reduced drastically, following the European invasion. By the end of the 19th century, scholars are in concurrence that there were only about 250,000 Native Americans who managed to survive the mass holocaust (Minderhout 66). While the actual number of the Indians, prior to the European incursion, remains in contention, scholars have estimated that it was in excess of five million. Despite the disparity in initial population estimations, it is clear that several Indians were wiped out during the attack.
How did such huge numbers of people lose their lives? One of the major reasons for the Indian’s sharp decline was the spread of highly contagious diseases that the natives Americans were not adapted (Minderhout 64).). Researchers have proved that the European settlers brought to America, various new diseases that the Native Americans lacked immunity. These diseases included measles and chicken pox that were relatively common in European. Although they were not fatal among the Europeans, they proved to be fatal among the Native Americans. Apart from the accidental diseases infections, however, the Europeans are reported to have intentionally exposed the Native Americans to diseases causing virus as a form of biological warfare (Minderhout 65). For example, they would provide the Indians with smallpox infected blankets, taking advantage of the Indian’s ignorance. In addition, some of the Indians were also subjected to hunger and starvation as well as poor and unhygienic living conditions. These conditions were meant to encourage the spread diseases as well as reducing the body’s defense mechanism
On top of the biological warfare, the Native Americans were brutally killed by English colonial masters, another cause of their sharp decline. According to Smithers (148), the white regarded the Natives Americans as collaborative slaves until when the Indians refused to comply with their demands. The colonialists began to ambush, torture and kill the disobeying members of the group. Smithers, further gives and account of a trader whose skin was mercilessly flayed with a hot object and his toes and figures chopped off (149). Once arrested, the Indians were also subjected to ruthless torture in the master’s effort to extort information. On another account, Smithers (149), describes how the English soldiers set fire to fortified village of Indian worriers while opening fire to any warrior who tried to escape the fire.
A number of Indian Americans were also killed in a series of civil war that the community got involved in. In the years 1754 to 1763, for example, the group was involved in a seven years battle during the American Revolution (Smithers 147). Some of the tribes, especially the fur traders, joined hand with the French forces, while others sided with the British army. The Natives got involved in the European war so as to prove allegiance and loyalty to the colonialist with the hope of preserving their territory. Different Indian tribes also entered into various treaties that would ensure that the Europeans render their support in the Indians fights with the local communities. These treaties were, however, overturned at the Europeans decision.
Despite the inhuman acts of the European colonies, some of them were commended for the good things that they introduced to the Americans. For example, they introduced formal education to the Native Americans (Minderhout 68). Prior to their invasion, the Indians believed in traditional education, where knowledge was orally passed on from generation to generation. Besides the brutal colonial masters, there was the European Christian missionaries who did not support the mistreatments accorded to the native tribes. The missionaries, therefore, established mission schools that were intended to preach the gospel as well as impart civilization to the colonialist. The schools would serve as education centers for both the European and Indian children. According to the missionaries, the native tribes deserved to be treated as equal beings as per the biblical teachings.
The European also introduced different types of animals, plants and insects that were unknown in the Indian cultures. Introduction of animals and plants led to changes in the custom practices of the Indian Americans. For example, the Indians incorporated animal rearing in their hunting lifestyles. Some tribes also learnt plant farming from the European settlers. According to Minderhout (65), Indian-European attack resulted in a complete lifestyle change among the Plains Indians of North American. Minderhout further explains that horses made it easier for this group to navigate through planes and rolling hills (67).
To the people of American’s, the colonial era ended with the exit of the various colonial powers, however, the struggles of the Indian tribes continued past the end of colonialism. According to Smithers (147), the United States government continued to subdue the Indian tribes. This was partly fuelled by the Indian’s decision to side with the British during the American Revolution. After the end of the Revolution, however, the US government accepted the American Indians as part of the US community, though they were regarded as equal but inferior community. By the end of the 18th century, several policies that improved the Indian suppression had been enacted; nevertheless, some of the Indian tribes were still considered ineligible for the US citizenship. Among the policies that advocated for acceptance of the Indian tribes involved the control of Native Lands buying, protecting the Native American rights and offering education to their children.
Even with the regulation of Native lands acquisition, the US government continued to encroach on the Indian’s lands. By 19th Century, the Indian tribes would not take anymore. They engaged the US government in what is commonly referred to as the Indians wars (Smithers 147). Their situation was further worsened by the signing of the Indian removal Act that legalized the dynamic relocation of Indians to a marked Indian Territory, by the then US president in 1830. This forceful relocation, also referred to as the Trail of Tears was initiated so as the US government would create land for the non-native settlers. The Indians fight against the potent displacement yielded fruits in 1850, following the enactment of the Indian Appropriations Act. This Act provided that the western tribes were the ones to be placed in a reservation camp since the Indians could not be displaced any further.
The Indians’ struggles to attain recognition in America came to an end on 1924, when the US Congress passed the Indian Citizenship Act (Minderhout 66). This brought a change in the Native Americans lives as they were given US citizenship by virtue of being born within its boundaries. The Indians acquired the right to run for political office as well as cast their votes in US elections. Today, the American Indians are free to live in any part of America. According to the Diversity in America, it is estimated that a close to one-half of all the Indian Americans are living in the cities. However, some are still clinging on to their reservation, still benefiting from government aids in terms of education and resources to develop their land. It is estimated that there are over 300 reservations under the federal government and about 21 state reservations (Diversity in America 1).
Clearly, the American Indians had a long journey fighting for the liberation and legal recognition. However, their fight has been successful since they have received full acceptance as the US citizens their history is extensive and of interest to scholars. It teaches the modern society a great lesson of resilience and unity.
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Minderhout, David, and Andrea Frantz. “Invisible Indians: Native Americans in Pennsylvania.” Human organization 67.1 (2008): 61-7. ProQuest. Web. 30 Apr. 2014.
Smithers, Gregory D. “Indians in Local Places: Towns, Outposts, and Colonialism in Eighteenth-Century North America.”Eighteenth – Century Studies 46.1 (2012): 146-50. ProQuest. Web. 30 Apr. 2014.