Our Indian Heritage

The statement that North America was an empty continent awaiting its European inhabitants was perhaps made by someone dropped by miraculous means in to the Mojave desert of California, bypassing the rich coastal timberlands teaming with wildlife. So struck by the natural wealth confronting those who arrived on the eastern shores of North America that they went to great lengths to harvest the abundance of natural resources. The history of man in the new world is a long a rich history. It does not begin with the arrival of Europeans, but starts with the departure of man from Asia.

While there are many theories regarding man's entry in the new world, the one widely accepted as fact is that man crossed over a land bridge that appeared between Asia and North America during the last Ice Age. There are still many other theories regarding man's first invasion of the new world, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. The various peoples that make claim to populating the New World include Lost Tribes of Israel, Egyptians, Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Chinese, Japanese, Welsh, Irish, outer space, even via the lost land of Atlantis and Mu. Perhaps the legends of Mu and Atlantis have some factual basis, as both are based upon a land now submerged. However, it was not the middle of the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans from which the people of the new world sprang, but from beyond a land bridge under the Bering Strait and Chukchi Sea.

Since no Neanderthal fossils exist in the New World, archaeologists place man's entry into the new world 13,000 to 28,000 years ago. The fossil record is unclear of exactly when. One theory claims that man entered the new world as early of 50,000 year s ago, but no clear proof has been found to support this theory. One thing all theories agree on is that it was during the last period the Pleistocene (Wisconsin glaciation) that fully modern humans came, for the first time, to the New World. The seas and oceans of the world were locked in great sheets of ice carving the land into in their current forms. The sea level was some 300 feet less than current levels between 20,000 and 15,000 years ago, and they reached their current levels but a mere 6,000 years ago. While the world water levels dropped, a grassy land plain up to a thousand miles wide between the Asia and North America appeared. It was across this route that nomadic Pleistocene hunters migrated into America.

Man did not come alone into this world alone. The American pigmy horse and camels passed Eurasiatic mammoth, muskox, superbison (which would give way to the smaller, curly-horned species we know as the buffalo), and deer were chased by man into the Americas. Unlike his Asian ancestors, the palaeo-Indians never learned to appreciate horseflesh in any way other than food. Combined with the changing climate, and the wasteful hunting by the early man, a long list of megafuna was pushed into extinction. Whether by design or accident, man and nature worked to eliminate all the possible domesticatable beasts of burden. Lacking animals of labor, the palaeo-Indians had no means of simulating communication, transport, intensive agriculture, or man's favorite sport, conquest. In time great states would arise that would overcome these limitations, but they would never be a match for those of Eurasia.

Agriculture, the stimulus for civilization, developed independently in several different locations at different times. The American civilizations were not immune to the agricultural revolution, but it was not wheat that formed the basis of native American civilizations, but maize in central America and the potato in the Andes mountains. While basic food crops of the new world were beans, squash, and corn, it is corn that became the dominate crop for the natives of America, adapting to a wide range of environments. The plant we now know as corn and maize developed out of wild grasses known as Teosinte in the hot dry highlands of Mexico.

The Eurocentric view that the primitive tribes in America were inferior to the new arrivals is a fallacy. Four great civilizations arose in the Americas that rivaled Greece and Rome. Nations that were large enough to support an appreciable number urban citizens. The first of the nation states was the Olmec civilization and it lasted from 1200 BC to about 500 BC.7 Known for their large building projects, Olmec political, social, religious, and economic characteristics set the ground-work for the other pre-Columbian that followed in its wake, Maya, Tolec and Aztec. The Olmec civilization centered near the Gulf of Mexico, and supported a population numbering in the tens of thousands. While Rome was embroiled in the Punic wars of the second century BC, the Olmec created a vast trading network that linked the East and West coasts of North America.

Like so many other native American cultures, Olmec civilization was a theocracy. The priesthood, centering on the feline cult which governed by generating fear and respect. Ninety feet tall Temple-pyramids like the one at their capital, Le Venta, show the dominance of religion in Olmec culture. The Olmec religious figure, a jaguar motif, is the central figure in carvings and statuary, and continued to influence all pre-Colombian cultures. The religious centers, with their north-south axis, also influenced other mesoamerican civilizations. One of their religious ceremonies involved team games with solid rubber balls in large stone lined courts.

The amount of labor needed to build their enormous stepped pyramids and multi-storied palaces indicated that the Olmecs possessed a large population, and the bureaucracy needed to organize that labor. The Olmec system of hieroglyphic writing spread over the entire continent, and the writing system developed by the Maya, Tolec, and Aztec all show signs of having been influenced by the Olmecs. They developed the concept of zero and positional numbers a thousand years before Europe. To feed their urban centers, the Olmecs developed the sophisticated agricultural technique of terracing the hillsides. The terracing of their land allowed the Olmecs to provide high yields from small areas. Some time in the fifth century BC, the Olmec capital was sacked, looted and burned, and all the great feline heads of the were-jaguar (half man, half jaguar) were smashed.

The Mayan civilization is the jewel of mesoamerican cultures. Mayan's used agricultural methods similar to their European counterparts. Olmec influence affected the religion, art, and architecture introducing calendars, mathematics, and writing systems. Their numerical system used a base of twenty instead of ten, employed combination of bars and stars, and included the Olmec concept of zero. They Mayans recorded historical events, and maintained accurate astronomical observations. The Mayan empire produced engineering projects rivaling that of the Romans. Like the Olmecs, they built large temple topped pyramids, bridges, and even aqueducts. They developed an intricate system of roads, even though they never developed the wheel as a means of transportation. Recent investigations in burial chambers by archeologists have unearthed children's toys with wheels, but this all important device never had the impact upon the cultures of native America that it had in Europe and Asia. A lack of domesticated beasts of burden that prevented the Indians from developing wheeled transportation. The Mayan interpreted law and taxation as religious principles and religious offerings. Education was reserved exclusively for members of the religious caste. Public ceremonies dedicated a vast array of deities. Many of their ceremonies involved human sacrifice by decapitation.

Maya civilizations literally starved itself to death. The Maya cities were surrounded by the tropical jungle of central Mexico. As Mayan population swelled in the cities they cleared the surrounding jungle for their needed arable land. As the intensive agriculture exhausted the minerals in the soil, the Mayans pushed the edge of the jungle farther from the urban centers. It became tougher and tougher to feed the growing number of urban dwellers. The farms continued to be further and further from the cities. Maya farmers abandoned the famine of the urban centers to be closer to their farms. Slowly the great Mayan cities become empty husks devoid of human life only to be reclaimed by the jungle from which they sprang. By the ninth century, the Mayans were gone.

Between the seventh and the tenth centuries, raiding barbarians settled in the central valley of present day Mexico. The military Toltec confederacy established their capital at Tula, and continued the Mayan practice of human sacrifice. Unlike the Olmec, who had expanded their empire by trade, the Toltec expanded by war and conquest. The Toltecs deity was a feathered serpent, Quetzalcoatl. The Toltec civilization ended when northern raiders, known as the Chichimecs overran the empire.

The Aztecs were the last of the great states in America. Like Greece and Rome before them, the Aztecs took the knowledge and progresses of earlier civilizations and expanded upon them. Even the site of their capital was from another culture, the Tolecs. Their capital, Teotihucan, was a sprawling urban center over eight square miles. It became the center of vast militant empire. When Europeans arrived, even they were amazed as the size (and cleanliness) of the Aztec capital.22 The method of Aztec rule follows the roman model, a series of provinces, independent states, administered by governors, but ruled by their own laws so long as they pay homage (and taxes) the Aztec emperor. The emperor was a hereditary title, and he and his people believed him to be the incarnation of the sun god. Like a European country, the Aztec Emperor and ministers to manage affairs of war, justice, food, personnel, and religions. The urban centers had trade and craft guilds created products for export, and outlying vassal states generated food for import. Aztecs had a permanent standing professional army, ready to put down any rebellion of the people. From Mayan observations the Aztecs worked out the revolution of the moon, the length of the Venus year, and the recurrence of solar eclipses. The Aztecs developed a calendar far more accurate than those in use by the Europeans at the time of their arrival. Aztec religion centered around a blood-thirsty war god, Uitzilopochtli, who craved warriors captured in battle. Every Aztec city, atop great pyramids, the priests tore the living hearts out of victims and held them up for the sun to see.

Native American activists burn in their hatred of Christopher Columbus. The man whom they claim started the European invasion of the New World. While it was Columbus that discovered America, the Europeans would have discovered anyway. Contrary to popular myth, most people of the time knew that the earth was spherical. Distance was the problem not the shape of the planet. Sailors of the day rarely sailed far from shore, and Columbus was talking about a voyage of 2400 miles across open ocean (about the same distance from Spain to New York). Columbus severely misjudged the size of the globe, and the charts he used also took into account Marco Polo's exaggerated size of Eurasia, making the sailing route look invitingly short. On September 6 1492 , Columbus set sail looking for a short route to the riches of India in three ships, Nina, Pinta, and the Santa Maria. Just 36 days later, on the morning of October,12 the Pinta sighted land very close to Columbus' predictions. Columbus landed on Watling's Island in the Bahamas, which he named "Blessed Savior," San Salvador. Columbus believed that this was just off the coast of India and rightly called the native people he met Indians, a name still used to this day.

The coming of the Europeans to the new world was devastation to the native peoples. The main weapon used to defeat the Native Americans was not the sword, but an unseen enemy. An enemy more efficient than any sword could hope to be, disease. Great epidemics swept through native populations with great speed and efficiency. The relative isolations of new world populations from the disease environments of larger Old World populations left the inhabitants with no immunities to a number of diseases that become endemic in Asia, Europe, and Africa. A wide range of different cultures divided the communal organizations of the natives' cultures, while the Europeans were much more homogenous. Centuries old feuds, and disease prevented the natives from repelling the invaders.

In 1542 the plains resounded to a sound absent for several thousand years. A sound that would transform the Native American's way of life forever. That sound was the thunder of horses' hooves. The return of the horse transformed Indian life. The horse transformed the Buffalo into easy targets. Such was the draw of the buffalo that many tribes abandoned their earthlodges and diggings to become full time hunters. The Native Americans took the backward step from an agrarian culture to one of hunter gathering.

The Europeans took different approaches in their dealings with the natives. Spain incorporated them into colonial society, by armed force if necessary, as a labor force and to save their souls from internal damnation, while the English had no official policy regarding the people of America. Dealing with the Indians became nothing more than a matter of business for the English, and not the soul saving mission of the Spanish. The English welcomed initial Indian help, and then rudely dismissed it when it was no longer needed. Such dismissal often worked to increase hostilities and alienate the Indians.

The romantic image of the Indian is the peaceful warrior, the noble savage living the utopian dream, whose method of combat was nothing more than an advanced game of tag. While some tribes like the Hopi, were indeed peaceful, the woodland tribes of the Great Lakes embraced war and violence. The tribes of the Iroquoian confederacy and Algonkin were just as bloody and brutal as the European military men. Any atrocities committed by one side were matched by the other. Encouraged by the payment of bounties by the European powers, the Indians took to scalping. However, as settlers moved west on to Indian territory, the view shifted to "The only good injun was a dead injun."

The British set the first real policy in dealing with the Indians in 1763 when the Crown reserved all lands west of the Alleghenies for the Indians, but like so many other treaties to come, it failed. The troops needed to defend the frontier against Indian aggression ended up fighting the very people they intended to protect, the rebelling colonists. After the American revolution, the new federal government tried to maintain peace, but as the influx of new-comers settled Indian land they demanded protection by the new United States. The Shawnee chief, Tecumseh, organized several tribes in an effort to stop the spreading western migration, but after several bloody conflicts, General William Harrison defeated him in 1811.

When the United states again went to war with the British in 1812, many of the woodland tribes sided with the British. When the United States won, official policy was to remove the Indians into the great American Desert. Rumors of the time proclaimed that no white would ever want to live there. Congress signed into the law the Removal Act on May 28, 1830. The Removal Act allowed congress offered to buy the lands of tribes living in the settled states east of the Mississippi and give them new land in the West. The Act gave President Andrew Jackson, a dedicated Indian fighter, the power to force the Indians into the new Indian Territory. The Bureau of Indians Affairs persuaded the tribes living on the plains admit the tribes of the eastern seaboard. The Supreme court ruled in favor of the Indians, and allowed them to keep their lands in Georgia. Jackson defied the court and in the winter of 1838-1839 he forced the Cherokees westward into the Indian Territory. The Cherokee still refer to this death march as the Trail of Tears. In 1932, Sauk and Fox Indians under BlackHawk tried unsuccessfully to resist their removal from Wisconsin. In the late 1830's, the Seminoles under Osceola, also tried to resist removal from their lands in Florida. By 1842 the Indian problem had been solved.

Congress placed the secretary of war in charge of overseeing governmental promises and Indian treaties in 1789. Congress created the Bureau of Indian Affairs within the war department in 1824. The Bureau of Indian Affairs was transferred to the new Department of the Interior in 1849. The newly formed bureau of Indian Affairs started making treaties as sovereign nations. The treaties quickly gave way to Americans moving west, pushed by the phrase 'manifest destiny.'

The great debate over slavery, and the ensuing war between the states diverted attention away from Indians, but it resumed after war ended. In 1866, the United States demanded that The Five Civilized Tribes (Cherokees, Creeks, Choctaws, Chickasaws, and Seminoles) give up the western half the Indian Territory for supporting the confederacy during the war.

The post war years saw the bloodiest conflicts between Indians and the US army. Before the civil war, the main weapon of warfare was the stone axe, or the tomahawk, and the war club. After the war the Indians were just as well armed as the US army. And, they had become excellent shots. The could attack or flee from the heavy US cavalry. They had no logistics problems, no bureaucracy as well. In some effort to stop the fighting, in 1871, President Grant appointed Francis A. Walker commissioner of Indian affairs. Walker placed defeated, destitute tribes on reservations, set up schools to educate the children, and issued food to the those who had no game. Land management was not the only place that the US government worked to transform the Indian way of life. The United States took the position that the native population was to fit into the American mainstream, by force if necessary. The Indians were unaccustomed to the life imposed by living on the reservation. To the prairie farmer and the cattleman was ample justification for taking land away from the Indians.

In the ten years after the Civil War, the Sioux fought hard to protect the Great Plains and their holy grounds in the Black Hills from white settlement. The United States government had promised to protect and defend the Black Hills as long as grass grew, the sun shone and the waters run--until the end of time. The End of Time came in 1877 when prospectors discovered gold in the Black Hills of the Sioux. Greedy prospectors flocked to the gold deposits. The United States army under General Phil Sheriden (Custer's military superior) was able to hold back the gold seekers for only one summer. By spring they broke through. The Sioux leaders, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, rampaged the Minnesota frontier in retaliation. The army sent General George Armstrong Custer to help protect settlers, prospectors, and wagon trains from Indian attacks. In one of the most famous battle of the Indian wars, Custer encountered a Sioux force at the Little Big Horn some three thousand strong. The Indians left no survivors.

In 1877 the discovery of gold on the salmon river in western Idaho also caused the peaceful Nez Perce to go to war. The Nez Perce under Chief Joseph, refused to surrender land guaranteed to them, and instead elected launch a series of vicious attacks. The federal government countered with enough force to defeat them, and drive them from their lands. After a series of conflicts Chief Joseph made for asylum in Canada. He caught by the US army just short of his goal. He surrendered with the poignant statement44 "Hear me, my chiefs. I have fought; but from where the sun now stands, I will fight no more, forever."

Under the Allotment act of 1887 the government started dividing up land among individuals. The department of the interior hoped that by giving 160 acres to the head of each family it would encourage self-sufficiency and pride of ownership. The act divided land that was been previously held in common by the tribe. It also granted citizenship to those willing to give up tribal life for modern ways. Surplus land was given to white settlers. The law provided that the government would hold land in trust for 25 years before giving the land back the Indians. Even today large amounts are still held under government trust.

Wovaoka, a Nevada Paiute, brought the message of hope when he proclaimed in 1889 that an Indian Messiah was coming. This Messiah would recreate the great herds of the medicine dog (buffalo), banish the whites to the land from which they came, and restore all the Indians slain by whites to life. He and his followers started performing the Ghost Dance to summon the Messiah. The Ghost Dance cult spread across the plains. Fearing hostilities with tribes already pacified the government took steps to suppress the spread of the cult. A detachment of the 7th cavalry and 1st artillery captured armed followers of the cult near the post office on Wounded Knee Creek on December 29, 1890. While waiting to surrender to the US forces, an unknown shot started a massacre that left 200 Indians dead. The Indian wars were finally over.

Although not one member of any tribe had been born anywhere other than the United States for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, it took an official act of congress to make them citizens. In 1901, the dawn of the 20th Century, the Five Civilized Tribes, who numbered over 51,000, became citizens of the united states. The Indian Territory became Oklahoma. Congress refused the name Sequoyah, the name desired by the state's inhabitants. The natives became a political force in that state and in l907 won, from the Court of Claims, 1.1 million dollars as indemnity for the hardship of their removal from their homeland in 1838.

The Indian Reorganization (Wheeler-Howard) Act of 1934 finally put an end to the allotment policy. The government recognized that many Indians were unaccustomed to the idea of individual property, and were being swindled out of their land and property because of the allotment policy. The new law reestablished tribes as sovereign entities, and tried to regain the surplus land taken from them in Allotment Act. The Indian Reorganization Act allowed Indians to remove non-Indians from their lands, and also allowed the reassertment of their legal rights to the natural resources of the land. The federal government reimbursed schools for the cost of Indian education in public schools, collages, and universities. The act encouraged Indians "get on their feet" by encouraging group programs via a tribal approach. The government also encouraged Indians to take part in tribal ceremonies, crafts, and traditions. Ancient medicine men traveled from across the country to teach the current generation in the old ways before they passed on.

By 1950 US policy reversed again, it reduced and broke down tribal land. The federal government urged urban migration, and an end to tribal societies. The Indian rights movement suffered a major blow when in 1953 the federal government declared that all relations with Indian tribes be terminated. The idea was to removal of all federal protection and assistance programs. The government also allowed states to assume civil and criminal jurisdiction over Indian reservations with the consent of the tribes occupying them. In 1947 the Bureau of Indian Affairs established a special commission to clear up all unpaid treaties and charges of fraud in preparation for the termination of federal activity in Indian affairs. The Indian tribes took the matter of termination to court., fighting strenuously against termination laws. Anthropologists and historians served as experts witness in the large number of cases dealing with the unpaid treaties. While some of the early treaties dating to the dawn of the United States were honored, the court battles did serve to create thorough history for many tribes.

The 1960's was a time of general social upheaval in the United States. It was a time of consciousness raising and a time of peace, love and massive guilt. The era of protest and making things right that were once wrong arrived in a tumultuous cacaphony of collective grief. The American People who were not Native American people decided that the Indians had had enough of social slights, treaty breaking and white lies. The Indians were not to be referred to as Indians hence. They were now Native Americans and joining the current protests their voices would be heard. They were heard with the supporting cast of college students rounding out the chorus. The Native Americans were out to get back what they had lost. Lawsuits were filed in courts all across the country to get the government to at last honor treaties that had been broken many years ago. The Native Americans got tribal court rulings recognized by the state Appellate and Supreme Courts as valid. They sued and won water rights that had been denied them for long years. They also lost some battles. Notably, several Native American tribes occupied Alcatraz Island, in San Francisco Bay in a massive protest to get that island back as their land. Law enforcement tried to persuade the tribes to leave, as Alcatraz, which had once been a maximum security prison, had been abandoned for years. It was in a great state of disrepair, had no electricity, running water or other amenities (just what the Native American claimed what reservation living was like). No action was taken against the native occupiers and they were allowed to stay. However, that the buildings and land was uninhabitable quickly became apparent to the occupiers and after a few weeks they voluntarily left. Native American militancy continued into the l970s when in 1972 Indian militants occupied the Bureau of Indian Affairs building. It was the climax of a massive demonstration called the 'The Trail of Broken Treaties'.

Today, the native American has finally found a profitable niche. Aside from the handicrafts that have always been an industry of the various tribes, they now operate and control great gambling casinos. The eastern lands, lost with so much blood, have now been reclaimed as Native American Territory and hosts great gleaming casinos that employ native Americans almost exclusively. Connecticut has one of the largest gambling casinos on the east coast, hosting shows and attractions much like Las Vegas and Atlantic City. The profits from these enterprises are non-taxable and represent huge losses to the federal government. The government made treaties with the tribes as sovereign states. Their lands are their own like any other nation. They can do with it what they will. The federal government vastly underestimated the ingenuity of tribal leaders in attracting the tourist bandwagon. Another point of agreement in the treaties was that the federal government would protect tribal lands. Not like they had promised to do, and failed to do, but to act when called upon. Any crime committed on tribal land is not only prosecutable in tribal court but is a federal crime, investigated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the FBI and prosecuted in Federal court. It may have taken years, but clearly the Natives have won their wars in many ways.

Although the Indian world is gone, their influence is with us today. The hunters, warriors, and traders used paths not followed our major roads and highways. Indian words cover the map of the united states. Twenty-seven states and large numbers of cities, towns, rivers, and lakes bear names from the languages of the first Americans. The men and women who entered and prospered in the New World domesticated potatoes, tomatoes, and many other plants that help feed the peoples of the world today. Turkey, rubber, tobacco, sugar, and the cinchona tree (for quinine) are important crops across the world. All of which were used by the first people to live in the Americas.


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Price, Douglas and Gary M. Feinman. Images of the Past. Mountain View: Mayfield, 1993.

Turner, Geoffrey. Indians of North America. New York: Sterling, 1992.