Native Americans, or "American Indians" for those who are older, are the people and their descendents who inhabited the land of the United States prior to the arrival of Europeans. Canada uses different terms; you can read about First Nations/Inuit/Metis in their article. Generally "Native Americans" refers only to groups living in the continental ("lower 48") U.S., with Native Alaskans and Native Hawaiians normally viewed as separate groups with unique histories and cultures (plus they have very different relationships with the federal government). Because of this, Native Alaskans and Hawaiians will be grouped in their own state pages. Like most useful notes pages, this article is meant to inform and enlighten and hopefully be less boring than more traditional encyclopedias.
Census data consistently show Native Americans making up just over 1% of America's population of 310 million, though this varies by state, with the largest concentration being in the Southwest. Due to romanticism of the peoples and their largely lost lifestyles, they tend to be somewhat over-represented in media (but under-represented in having actual Natives portraying them). Shockingly considering the source, one of the most accurate representations - to a point - is Disney's Pocahontas (seriously). Of course, modern Natives can be just as urbane as anyone else. This article is also designed to correct assumptions and stereotypes.
This article will discuss larger geographical groupings rather than the individual tribes, since listing and describing all 565 federally-recognized tribes would itself require multiple wikis (and probably more true scholars than this site has). Geography was naturally one of the biggest influences on Native American culture; however, it should be noted that these descriptions are generalizations and there is plenty of variation within each group. For a complete list of all tribes with descriptions, try the other wiki.
North East (Eastern Woodlands tribes): AKA the guys in Pocahontas and The Indian in the Cupboard
- These are the groups that lived around the Great Lakes and the eastern side of the Appalachians. One of the Aboriginal groups that usually farmed, they were more semi-nomadic than their wandering neighbors and often had more complicated clan style family structures. They tended to live in more permanent structures like longhouses and wigwams, usually made of bark moss and smaller branches. They are the group that grew maize, squash, and beans (the "three sisters") and usually hunted and fished as well.
South East: AKA the moundbuilders
- Similar in culture to the North Eastern group, they also grew the "three sisters." However, they had much bigger emphasis on the sun and fire gods. The tribes of the southeast built many mounds and other structures to worship and honor the sun and other gods, some of which are still honored today. Many of the South Eastern tribes, most notoriously the so-called "Five Civilized Tribes" (Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw, and Seminole), were relocated to modern-day Oklahoma in the 1830's as part of the Trail of Tears.
- The "Mound Builders", aka the Mississippian Civilization, were probably the ancestors of most of the Southeastern tribes. The mounds themselves were the beginnings of a sophisticated urban civilization, which by the 13th century CE had already produced at least one major urban center (Cahokia in what is now southern Illinois), with other "mounds" showing definite patterns of concentration of power in the hands of central spiritual and political elites, with definite hinterlands outside the cities paying tribute. This probably would have developed quite nicely had it not been for a big plague; for which, see "History" below.
Plains: AKA the guys who lived in tipis and beat Custer
- The group you're mostly likely to see in media, due to their association with the romanticized Wild West. They originated many of the tropes common in Westerns. Anglos are most likely to have heard of Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull and Black Elk. Nomads who followed the buffalo ("American Bison" for you pedants and tropers not from the Americas); they did actually live in tipis, although there were also several Plains tribes, including the Omaha, that farmed as well. It should be noted that horses were extinct in the Americas until the Spanish arrived, so many of the tropes associated with natives and horses are actually relatively recent.
Northwestern Plateau: AKA Sacajawea's people
- Hunter-gatherers who lived in the area between the Columbia and Fraser rivers. The tribes of the plateau moved around, following their various food sources. They lived in a prime location for trade routes and often traded with other tribes.
- Mostly speakers of the Numic Languages, this group lived in the desert and moved around seasonally following sources of food and water. One of the last groups to encounter European influence, and therefore have maintained stronger cultural and linguistic ties to their heritage.
South West: AKA the guys who built Pueblos
- The group that lived in the driest part of the United States. There is a definite emphasis on water and especially rain in these cultures. There is also a noticeable cultural influence from the Mexican cultures farther south; with the Southeastern Moundbuilders, they're on the list for the "most likely to build an urban civilization by 2000 if the Europeans hadn't gotten in the way" award. They also were an agrarian society with very strong family groups. The best known of these peoples is probably the Navajo, who also happen to be the most numerous of any remaining Native group.
Pacific Northwest: AKA the guys with the totem poles
- Note that most of the tribes in this region who actually built totem poles actually live over the border in Canada or in southern Alaska. Many of them traditionally spoke Salish languages, or, once American and British traders moved in, a hybrid tongue known as Chinook Jargon. Salmon fishing and basketweaving were both very important culturally. Tribes would often gather together for elaborate gift-giving ceremonies called potlatches. However, these were viewed with suspicion by the American and Canadian governments and were banned in Canada for a while. Look up "gift economy" on The Other Wiki if you're interested in how this really worked. Art was usually very intricately done and beautiful, usually as decoration on practical items. They were particularly good at crafting wooden boxes out of one single piece of bark.
There are two issues to take into consideration when looking at Native history. The first is European/Western Bias: since most history is written by white men, they tend to bring their preconceptions into their work and interpret things wrongly because of them. The second is a tendency to paint Natives as simple or even backward. Often this was an attempt to justify the European takeover, rather than the greed and cultural posturing it actually is (this one isn't limited to just American Natives: Ireland, India, and most of Africa have similar issues). This is far less true of works made after the 1960's due to massive cultural shifts that caused many White Americans to re-examine their own role in history. In addition, the number of Native scholars who were accepted in their fields increased. That's not to say that any work done prior to 1960 is without value; just that you might want to keep these things in mind. Also while the prejudice may have lessened in recent years, that doesn't mean it has disappeared altogether.
- How did we get here? Well that's a good question; unfortunately, the actual route is under some dispute. Clovis Theory, the idea that nomads came across a landbridge that formed between North America and Asia during the last ice age was almost universally accepted until recently. It has been mostly disproved by evidence that say that the entire Bering Strait land bridge would've have been a glacier for most of the last ice age. Several new sources (some very old bones, linguistic studies, and some genetic research) suggest that their were actually several waves of migration (mostly from Asia but probably one directly from Africa as well), starting about fifty thousand years ago.
- For the first several thousand years most early North Americans roamed around in small bands of about twenty or so family members following large game. At around 8000 BCE the climate of North America stabilized and larger groups and tribes started to form.
- The largest society to exist north of the Aztecs was the Mississippian Culture, who had a complex society with several specialized careers and classes. Centered around Cahokia, they had a large chiefdom and many smaller tributary chiefdoms spread across what is now the southern US. Cahokia in 1250 was actually larger than some major European cities (including London and Paris).
- Most tribes had a traditional enemy they periodically went to war with, often over territory but occasionally for other reasons. Battles were often less violent then their European counterparts since Native Americans tended to capture rather than kill their enemies. Battles also took place at dusk so the retreating side could escape into the dark once shamed.
- Europeans didn't just start settling right away. Indeed, they didn't even make it to the mainland of the Americas for several years after Columbus' first voyage.
- Related to this: The European contact was a disaster for the Native Americans in a manner completely unintended by them. Old World diseases hit the New shortly after contact, and within the span of a century had spread across North and South America. In North America, at least, this plague killed some 90 percent of the population--which is why the continent was relatively easy for Britain and France to colonize and the US and Canada to conquer. Had it not been for a temporary decline in the various civilizations of North America (chief among them the aforementioned Mississippian one) combining with the lethality of the plague, the history of the continent would have been quite different (more English-speaking mestizos, for one thing...).
Western Expansion and Assimilation
- Who is Native American? well, there are several answers to that. Most tribes require some form of officially documented family tree and a certain percentage of native blood or "blood quantum" for membership. However since the historical record for most tribes leaves a lot to be desired and most laws are designed to whittle down the number of those benefiting from treaties there are a number of even full blooded Native Americans who are not recognized by the federal government. Which means there are many within the Aboriginal community who feel that there is a cultural component necessary to be considered truly Aboriginal. Although that again begs the question of what Native American culture truly is. Not to mention the fact a cultural definition tends to lend itself to people who adopt Native American spirituality and attempt to Go Native which most Native Americans find dubious at best. Reactions to Johnny Depp (Cherokee, recently adopted by the Comanche) is a good indicator of these attitudes: to many, he fits a decent definition of a cultural Native American but to others, he's a fraud cashing in on the image of the Magical Native American. Some extremely conservative Plains traditionals refer to full-blooded Indians who share sacred traditions with non-Indians as "fraud", "twinkie" and "apple". Most Native Americans have their own definition and most don't agree.
- One of the biggest events in modern Native American culture is the pow wow, and it's the one non-native tropers are most likely to encounter. Historically a Plains tradition, the modern pow wow has spread to almost all tribal groups and geographic regions.
- Pow wow are gatherings (often intertribal) where traditional songs and dances are performed. Usually dances are performed inside a circle (sometimes there is more than one dance area) formed by the various drum groups in attendance.
- The outfits worn by the dancers are called "regalia", not costumes, and you should ask permission before touching them as they often have sacred significance. The same goes for photographing people, their regalia, or some of the structures that might be put up during a pow-wow.
- Dances are called by a Master of ceremonies (MC) and guides that the drum groups take turns providing. Pow wows generally fall into three categories:
- Competition, where dancers compete for prize money
- Traditional, where dancers simply perform and usually an honorarium is given out to cover dancers expenses
- Mixed, which is a combination of the two
- Pow wow is seen as a celebration of Native culture and often attracts vendors of Native American art, crafts and food so it's often interesting to simply take a look around, and don't forget to try the fry bread/bannock/Indian bread. (Watch out, though, it's fattening!)
- Like many societies Native Americans have a unique sense of humor that is often deadpan and tongue in cheek. There is an emphasis on self-deprecation and many jokes about sex along with laughs at the Anglos' expense. Also Native Americans like to tease, anyone and everyone. For a great example of Lakotah humor, read Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions by John Fire Lame Deer and Richard Erdoes.
- Alcohol is a major problem in Aboriginal communities and Aboriginals have some of the highest rates of Alcoholism in the world. This means most Native Americans have a strong reaction to alcohol. It's not always a negative however; many love a good party but some do view it as literal poison.
- In fact, some tribes even outright ban alcohol in their reservations because of this (Navajo and Oglala Sioux are well known for this).
- The Iroquois Nation has its own religious healing tradition which has helped many Indian alcoholics, founded more than a century before AA: it's called the Code of Handsome Lake.
- Many Native American's live on Reservations which are plots of land that is set aside for their use under various treaties. This land is held in trust by the federal government, although it legally belongs to the division of the tribe or "Band" it's allotted to. Some tribes consider their reserves their own sovereign territories; although this is controversial, there is some legal precedent. Reserves are subject to federal laws instead of state or provincial ones so they often have different laws than the areas surrounding them. This is why they often have different gambling laws and why they are one of the only places in Canada that you are allowed to smoke in public places (unless the band has specifically banned this themselves).
- Native Americans tend to live communally and practice an extended family model, which means families are very close and tend to pool resources amongst themselves. Even in urban communities Native Americans tend to have an extended network of family and neighbors to draw from. Boundaries tend to be very fluid in most families and in some cases are a completely foreign concept. The Extended family model means that even that instead of your standard nuclear family Native Americans treat most of their family tree as immediate family (this troper has fifth and sixth cousins who are as close as siblings). Since most Native tribes have a long history of adoption we also tend to have a few people who are not actually related but are considered family for one reason or another. Basically if you're Native American there's no such thing as too much family.
- Sacajawea was the woman who helped Lewis and Clark