Although Christopher Columbus is credited in discovering America and it’s nearby islands in 1492, the real founders were the Native Americans or American Indians as dubbed by Christopher. They are also known as indigenous people who were the first people to settle there. Christopher was an Italian explorer, navigator and colonist. After bringing captives to Spain, word of this new discovery spread throughout Europe. At that time, America and the nearby islands were known as New World, a land of opportunities and many Europeans went to colonize the land as they did in other places.
However before his arrival, the Native Americans already resided there. Historically their ancestors must have migrated there about 15,000 or more years ago from Asia via Beringia through a “land bridge”. Scholars have deduced that the different tribes spread throughout the land. In this case, they have divided North America into 10 regions
- The Arctic: This is a cold region near the Arctic Circle near present day Alaska, Canada and Greenland. Here resided the Inuit and Aleut tribes, having the same language known as Eskimo-Aleut. Due to the snow and low temperatures in the environment, they wore fur clothing and lived in domes made up of snow or timber covered with earth. Their main diet was from eating sea animals.
- The Subarctic: This encompasses most of the present-day Alaska and Canada. This is a cold and swampy area. Here there were many tribes such as Innu, Beaver, Ojibwa ad Xinag. The traditional languages are from the Athabaskan and Algonquian families. A combination of animal and plant diet was taken. They were nomadic, moving with portable tents while during the cold resided in underground dugouts.
- The Northeast: This region spans from present-day Canadian provinces such as Quebec, Ontario and Maritimes to Ohio River Valley and North Carolina. It was one of the first to come in contact with Europeans. There were two main groups of people according to their languages; the Iroquoian speakers such as Cayuga and Seneca, and the Algonquian speakers such as Fox and Shawnee. The Iroquoian groups were more aggressive and this increased with the invasion of the Europeans. Due to war, the two groups were forced to take sides.
- The Southeast: This is between north of the Gulf f Mexico and south of the Northeast. They grew staple crops such as maize and tobacco. they lived in small communities known as hamlets. The tribes Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole, also known as the Five Civilised Tribes spoke a variant of the Muskogean language. They are known for their artwork and rituals.
- The Plains: This lies in the center of the continent from the southern edge of the Subartic to the present-day Texas. Speakers of Siouan, Algonquian, Caddoan, Uto-Aztecan and Athabaskan languages were settled hunters and farmers. They invented a sign language to represent common objects or concepts. They lived in a cone-shaped teepee and also had elaborately feathered war bonnets.
- The Southwest: This is the huge desert region in present-day Arizona and New Mexico. Farmers such as the Hopi depended on agriculture while others such as the Apache were nomadic. They were known for their complex kinship structures.
- The Great Basin: This spans deserts of the Nevada and adjacent areas of California, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and Arizona. It gets its name because of the surrounding mountains which prevents water from flowing out of it. Tribes who spoke the Hokan and Numic languages resided here. The people were hunters and farmers.
- California: This region had the most number of tribes of upto 100 who spoke more than 200 dialects which was said to be more complex than Europe. They were more of hunters and gatherers than farmers. The tribes organised themselves into small communities known as tribelets.
- The Northwest Coast: This area was along the Pacific coast from British Columbia to the top of Northern California. Due to being close to the ocean and rivers, the people permanently settled unlike the nomadic groups of other regions. They had a complex social system in the villages and a person’s position in the society was determined by his closeness to the village chief. Many tribes resided here such asTsimshian and Coos.
- The Plateau: This lies at the crossroads of five of the regions; the Subarctic, Plains, Great Plains, California and Northwest Coast. People here were fishermen, hunters and gatherers. The main languages were derived from the Penutian and Salishan dialects. After the introduction of horses by other tribes, they developed an efficient breeding system producing fine herds known as Appaloosa. This enabled them to be able to hunt faster and at greater distances.
Spanish explorers were among the first to arrive there at Florida and the Gulf coast. From the 16th to 19th centuries, population of the Native American greatly declined. This was due to the cruelity inflicted by the Europeans. Due to having superior weapons and knowledge of diseases, they captured slaves and worked them to death, caused massive killings and spread diseases which killed the natives due to their weaker immunity. An example of a documented case was in 1763 when Sir Jeffery Amherst, Commander-in-Chief of the Forces and British Army, praised the use of small-pox infected blankets to “extirpate” the Indians.
From the 17th century onwards, missioneries started forming communities and schools to educate children of the natives such as the Ursuline Academy in New Orleans. This concept was supported by George Washington and Henry Knox. Many tribes started siding with different Europeans in the hopes of saving their territories. However, they were disappointed because the Europeans refused to uphold their end of the bargain and thus, the tribes had to flee to other areas. There was also the introduction of new animals, plants and insects. This was known as Columbian Exchange.
As time went on, the Indians demanded their independence and were given reservations throughout the country where they could live in peace. In the late 19th century, the government established Native American boarding schools to further education of the children. Here along with western education, the children were also taught about their cultures and handicrafts.
During the early 20th century, Indians were granted the right to join the military and were given American citizenship. Many Indian men signed up to fight in World War I and II. Due to the settlement of different Europeans, there were interracial marriages producing generations of mixed ancestry. Many of the descendants adjusted themselves and participated in the American system. Charles Curtis who was of Kaw, Osage, Potawatomi and European descent was a Congressman and longtime US Senator from Kansas. He was also the 31st Vice President of America from 1929 – 1933 serving with Herbert Hoover. In 2009, an “apology to the Native Peoples of the United States” was included in the Defense Appropriations Act. Although this doesn’t change the past but the Americans acknowledge and apologize for the sufferings of the ancestors.
Presently, there are about 570 recognized tribes in the United States, less than half of whom reside in the Indian reservations up till now. Many of them have moved to the cities to get Western education and jobs. They still protect their culture and heritage. The ancestors didn’t record their history and so, it was determined by archaeologists who extracted traditional weapons and other artifacts. Many museums have been set up in America in which the Native American culture has been preserved such as the National Museum of the American Indians.