Native Americans

Native Americans: Indians and Their Search for Identity

Christopher Columbus discovered America in 1492. He didn't realise he had reached a separate continent and believed that he had landed on the east coast of Asia, so he called the people he found living there Indians. Though Columbus had one name for them, the Indians comprised many groups of people. Nearly 200 tribes occupied the area that now comprises the United States of America.

Some of the largest Indian tribes:


The Cherokee originally occupied a large area of the south-eastern United States. This intelligent and highly civilised agricultural people had a genius for political organisation and government. At the time of their first contact with the white man the Cherokees were the largest tribe in the south-eastern United States.

From the beginning there was a mutual respect between the Cherokees and the white men. There was intermarriage between the two groups, and the Cherokees were among the first Indians to establish schools and build churches.

The Cherokee made every attempt to accommodate themselves to the white life-style that surrounded them, but nevertheless they were sent west with the other tribes.


Chippewa (a tribe of Algonquian Indians who lived in an area between western Lake Erie and North Dakota)


One of the largest and best known Native American peoples are the Sioux. They lived in the north-central part of the United States. The Sioux are divided into three main groups: Dakota, Nakota and Lakota. They represent, probably more than any other tribe, what we generally think of as "typical" Indians. The Sioux were great buffalo hunters. While most Sioux lived in tepees so that they could move about quickly, the southern Sioux lived in villages and did some farming. The famous calumet, or peace pipe, was introduced by the Sioux. It was used in prayers, solemn ceremonies, treaty-making, and on other occasions as a pledge of peace and friendship. The Sioux and other Plains Indians communicated eloquently in "sign language" (signs made by the hand). They also communicated by means of smoke signals, fire signals, and signals made by waving blankets or moving in a circle or back and forth. Such signals could be seen many miles away. In later wears, the Sioux worked out a system of signalling with mirrors from one bluff or ridge to another. At night they used fire arrows. The Sioux produced handsome beadwork and excellent in making pictographs (using pictures to tell a story).

Now the most Sioux Indians live in South Dakota.



Pueblo peoples are among the most traditional groups. They live in the hot, dry desert region of the south-western United States. Pueblos are villages which have been home for more than a thousand years to a number of different tribes. The Pueblos are farmers, who have developed ways of growing plants in the desert. They grew corn, squash and beans.


The Pueblo's neighbours, the Apache, lived in small bands. They hunted wildlife and gathered plants, nuts and roots. After acquiring horses from the Spanish, they made their living by raiding food and goods from their more settled white and Indian neighbours.


In the eastern woods of the North American continent, the Iroquois hunted, fished and farmed. Like the Pueblo, they were excellent farmers, and 12 varieties of corn grew in their communal fields. Their long houses, covered with elm bark, held as many as 20 families. Each family had its own apartment, on either side of a central hall. The Iroquois were fierce warriors. They surrounded their villages with wooden stockades to protect them from attack by their neighbours. They fought for the glory of their tribe and for the glory of individual warriors.

The Indians of the North Pacific coast harvested ocean fish and seafood. Tribes like the Haida lived in large plank houses with elaborately carved doorposts. These were called totem poles, and the figures on them were a record of the history of the family which lived in the house.


After the Europeans had arrived, millions of Native Americans died from European diseases (mainly small pox), against they had no resistance and were massacred or driven from their home.


The Quest for Land

The Indians believed that the land was there to be shared by all. They worshipped the earth that provided them with food, clothing and shelter. And they took from it only what they needed. They didn't understand when the settlers slaughtered animals to make the woods around their town safer.

To the Europeans, much of the Indians' land appeared vacant. The Indians didn't "improve the land" with fences, wells, buildings or permanent towns. Many settlers thought the Indians were savages and that their way of life had little value. They felt they had every right to farm the Indian lands.

To the Europeans, game existed to be killed and land to be owned and farmed. Many did not bother to discuss with the Indians whether or not they wanted to give up their land. To make room for the new settlers, hunting lands, fields, even Indian towns were seized through war, threats, treaties or some combination of the three.

Western Frontier

At first, the new United States government tried to keep the peace by discouraging settlement beyond the mountains.

The United States tried different ways of dealing with their "Indian problem." Basically, they all boiled down to this: The Indian had to be either assimilated or removed farther west to make room for the European civilisation the white Americans felt was destined to rule the continent.

In 1830, the United States passed the Indian Removal Act. All Indians in the East would be removed to lands set aside for them west of the Mississippi River.

One of the tribes slated for removal was the Cherokee. Ironically, the Cherokee had already adopted many of the white man's ways. Many owned large farms and brick homed in the state of Georgia. Their towns had stores, sawmills, blacksmith shops, spinning wheels and wagons. They also had a written language and printed Bibles and a newspaper. They adopted a constitution modelled on that of the United States government.

When gold was discovered on Cherokee land, pressure for removal mounted. A few Cherokee were willing to move to the new lands. Though they did not represent the Cherokee nation, they signed a treaty with the American government agreeing to the removal of the Cherokees.

The peaceful Cherokees were removed by force from their homes and forced to march overland to Indian Territory, in what is now the state of Oklahoma. Also four other tribes - the Choctaws, Chickasaws, Creeks, Seminoles - were forced to removal. The 800-mile forced march was called the "Trail of Tears" because along the route, about 4000 Cherokees died of disease, starvation or were killed. Today, "Trail of Tears" stands for the forced relocation of all American Indians.

Broken Treaties

The Sioux allowed the wagon trains heading west to pass through their lands. But then whites began to settle the Plains. At first, the Sioux made treaties with the government, giving up large pieces of their land. In return, the government promised them peace, food, schools, supplies and the fair arbitration of all conflicts. One such treaty was the Fort Laramie treaty of 1868. It solemnly declared the vast lands between the Missouri River and the Rocky Mountains to be Sioux territory, on which whites were prohibited from passing or settling.

Six years later, gold was discovered in the Black Hills of South Dakota, a land the Sioux considered sacred. A gold rush was on, and the treaty of Fort Laramie was ignored. The United States tried to buy the Black Hills from the Sioux. But the Sioux refused.

At the same time, the buffalo that the Sioux depended on had begun to disappear. The land they roamed was being fenced by farmers and ranchers. And whites began to hunt the buffalo for sport and for its hide.

By 1871, the American government had determined that the treaty was no longer an appropriate means of regulating Indian-white relations and that no Indian nation or tribe should be recognised as an independent nation or power.

The American government pressured the Indians to give up their traditional way of life and to live only on reservations. Many resisted. One was Sitting Bull, a Sioux leader (look at Sitting Bull's life-story!).

In 1890, unrest developed, resulting from the rapid advance of settlers, the failure of the government to keep many of its treat agreements, the suffering and dependence of the Indians caused by the disappearance of game and crop failures, the spread of diseases and the resentment among some Indians of an agreement which reduced the size of the Sioux reservation. A movement grew characterised by a belief among the Indians of a miraculous re-establishment of Indian supremacy and the return from the dead of ancient warriors. It was symbolised by the "Ghost Dance" and spread among the disaffected numbers of several tribes. These Indians left the reservations and banded together. At Wounded Knee, South Dakota, a tragic confrontation between hundreds of Lakota (Sioux) ghost dancers and an American cavalry regiment took place in which all Indians were killed. This bloody event marked the end of all hope for a return to the Indians' traditional way of life on the Plains.

The Reservation System

By 1890, almost all of the West, from the prairies to the Pacific, had been settled by cattle ranchers, farmers and townspeople. There was no more frontier, no mountains beyond which the Indians could live undisturbed. Most were confined to reservations. The government had promised to protect the remaining Indian lands. It had also promised supplies and food. But poor management, inadequate supplies and incompetent or dishonest government agents led to suffering on the reservations. Diseases swept through the tribes and for a while it seemed as though the Indians really were a vanishing race.

To survive, many believed, the Indians would have to adopt white ways. On the reservations, Indians were forbidden to practice their religion. Children were sent to boarding schools away from their families.

By the General Allotment Act of 1887, each Indian was allotted 160 acres to farm. But there was no magic in owning private property. Many Indians had no desire to farm. Often, the land given them was infertile. After each Indian was given his plot, the government sold the remaining lands to white settlers. So Indian land holdings had been reduced enormous.

A New Deal for the Indians

In 1924, Congress passed the Indian Citizenship Act, which declared all Indians born within the territorial limits of the United States to be citizens.

In 1934 the Indian Reorganisation Act encouraged the Indians to set up their own governments and ended allotment on the reservation. It halted the policy of trying to persuade or coerce Indians to give up their traditional culture and religion.

Indian Power and Indian Rights

In 1972, the American Indian Movement (AIM) and other Indian rights groups staged a protest march on Washington called the "Trail of Broken Treaties".

In 1973, national attention once again focused on Wounded Knee, South Dakota. AIM occupied the small village there for 71 days. They demanded the return of lands taken in violation of treaty agreements.

Indians today continue to fight for Indian rights, although less militantly than AIM did in the early 1970s.

Bureau of Indian Affairs

Tribal leaders and the federal government have long bickered over who should determine Indian affairs - Indians or the government. Since 1824, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) has been responsible for Indian lands, resources and programs..

The BIA receives over $ 1 billion a year to oversee federal aid to the tribes, protect Indian lands, and - in theory - to encourage Indian self-government. But throughout its history the BIA has wavered between wanting tribes to govern themselves on independent reservations, and forcing individual Indians to integrate into a predominately white society.

Boarding Schools

Formally, Native American children were taken from their homes and sent to strict, military-style boarding schools. This school system devastated Native American communities. Traditional family life was destroyed, many families were broken up, and thousands of children died from disease, brutality and despair. Many children tried to run away but they were hunted and rounded up like escaped animals. In the boarding schools they were forbidden to speak their own language, so when the children were allowed to go back to their reserves and reservations many of them spoke only English and weren't able to talk to their own family.



Nowadays about three million Native Americans live in Canada and the United States. Due to the fact that they are no longer being killed by soldiers and settlers they still have to face many serious problems such as poor health, racism, threats to their remaining land and deliberate destruction of their traditional cultures. Their reservations, which people call their communities in the United States, and reserves, which Canadians refer to them, are among the poorest communities in North America.

Major problems the Indians had and already have to face are unemployment, violence, drug addiction, suicide, homeless and alcoholism.

As a consequence of high unemployment and terrible social conditions more than half of the Native Americans now live away from their reserves and reservations. Nevertheless most still think about their tribal communities as home and hope one day to return to them. Although the whites wanted to "civilise" the Native Americans they haven't succeeded in destroying their cultures. For instance the Sioux all over South Dakota already are going to powwows*, sweats and the sundance*.



the word stems from an Eastern Alongquian language, referring to a shaman or medicine man who was able to divine the future. He would sing during a healing or divining ceremony, accompanied by a rattle or hum. Today, "powwow" is used to describe a gathering or ceremony to feast, pray, sing and dance together. Original powwows were mainly war dances; nowadays the dances also have a social background such as the cure of disease, success in hunting etc. Powwows are held many times a year and most of them are open to the public. Dancers come from far away to compete in different dance categories.

*Sun dance:

religious ritual performed by Plains Indians tribes. Men dance before the sun, tormented by a skewer which a medicine man slides through the flesh. The men are then tethered to a central pole and begin to tug until the skewer is torn away. Dancing to the throb of drums, the torment fulfils a dancer's sacred vow.


Contrary to Americans and Canadians Native Americans believe that nobody should try to become richer than the others but share everything you own with the other members of your community.

The different value system is a huge problem for many Native Americans. They want to live the traditional way but the society around them wants them to give up their beliefs and to become more "American" or "Canadian".

Conflicts with American law

In 1978, President Carter signed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA), which he promised would "protect and preserve Native Americans" right to believe and exercise their religions.

Despite the passage of the AIRFA, Indian religious practices have continued to come in conflict with American law. In several states, Native Americans have been prosecuted for using peyote, an illegal drug, and the feathers of eagles, an endangered species, in religious ceremonies. Meanwhile, in America's courtrooms, Indians are struggling to save sacred sites from commercial development.


In areas where a lot of Native Americans live they have to suffer serious racism from other people. Non-Native Americans describe Native Americans as lazy, drunk or dirty because they don't understand the attitudes Native Americans have towards life and nature. As a lot of people are looking down upon Native Americans, they often feel uncomfortable when they go to other communities.

As alcohol is forbidden on many reservations, a lot of Native Americans leave their reservation to be able to get drunk and forget about their problems. This behaviour makes the whites even more prejudiced.

Tribal governance

Today, most reservations are governed by a tribal council. Many run their own police forces, schools and courts that try minor offences.

Like the Apache, the aim of most Indian tribes is to become self-supporting. They are trying to attract businesses to the reservations. Others hope that the natural resources on their reservations will provide much needed income. The Navajo, for example, possess oil, coal and uranium reserves. Other reservations are rich in timber, gas, minerals and water.


The most vibrant American Indian-owned business these days is casinos, which generate more than $ 3000 million in annual revenue and loads of publicity. Tribes such as the Mille Lacs Chippewas of Minnesota, the Sandias of New Mexico, and the Cabazons of California rake in tens of millions of dollars a year and have used gaming to all but eradicate poverty.

While casino profits have improved conditions on scores of reservations, it is uncertain whether gambling will turn out to be an economic saviour.

Virtually all the casinos are being managed by white-owned businesses, which are paid a percentage of the profits.

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