The Native American nations have a rich history of oral tradition, relying upon charismatic storytelling to provide a history of their religion and culture. To this day, many tribes are afforded the privilege of performing ancient sacred rites, occasionally inviting outsiders to take part in their rituals (The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica, 2015).
The contributions of Native American cultures to the arts and sciences is tremendous in scope, comprising major achievements in medicine, performance art, music, painting, and many other fields. Many of the various tribes perform largely unchanged versions of their most ancient rituals going back to the earliest incarnations of their tribe in an unbroken line.
In recent years, the interest in the culture and history of the First Nations has seen a dramatic increase, and this is largely due to the Internet. With more primary sources and crucial pieces of information available to the public than ever, interested individuals are finally able to hear direct testimonies and immersive stories from tribal elders, appreciate Native American music and art, and gain a new appreciation for the First Peoples often misrepresented in academia.
The availability of easily digestible Pop History media on the Internet serves as a suitable introduction to some of the most interesting and dramatic stories and events in Native American history. The excellent Apache Tears podcast details the military tactics and existential struggle of the Apache tribe in the United States (Carlin, 2008).
Ancient Native American History
Native American history began more than twelve millennia ago when the Americas were first discovered and populated by ancient cultures who crossed the Bering Strait (Wells & Read, 2002). The first-known and most famous among these ancient was the Clovis civilization, which was a prehistorical Native American culture that appeared in present-day New Mexico around 13,500 years ago (Crystalinks, 2015).
The art and culture of these ancient Native American celebrated the animals that played a central role in their society. The Buffalo prominently featured in the artistic works of the Clovis and Fulsom civilizations (Huckell, 2012).
Dr. Bruce Huckell, Associate Professor at the University of New Mexico’s Anthropology Department, posits that there is significant evidence to suggest that the ancient Fulsom culture had a deep appreciation and understanding for aesthetics.
The Fulsom people collected raw materials to fashion them into beautiful jewelry, commonly ornamented their weaponry, and traveled far in the prehistoric Americas to gather rare materials to create these works of art.
Little was known about the Clovis and Fulsom cultures until modern science provided the key. Most famously, the body of an ancient infant known as Anzick-1 provided important evidence that linked the DNA of the Clovis people to Native American cultures throughout the Western Hemisphere (Pruitt, 2014).
In Mesoamerica, the mighty Aztec, Incan, and Mayan cultures built tremendous settlements and played a central role in the affairs of the First Nations (American Indians Cultural Network, 2000). Their settlements and cultural achievements are still appreciated by many history enthusiasts today.
The Anasazi once dominated the land of present-day Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah (American Indians Cultural Network, 2000). They masterfully fashioned beautiful adobe settlements rising from the mesas of the Southwest United States, creating some of the most stunning structures in the ancient world (Crystalinks, 2015).
The Paleo-Indians of this region of the world utilized a game-changing ancient weapon technology known as the Atlatl, a tool which increased the lethality and effective range of darts, spears, and other thrown projectiles (Valley of Fire State Park, 2008).
This short list of ancient Native American cultures is by no means comprehensive. Historians struggle to even estimate the number of cultures populating the First Nations.
A broad area of land, ranging from the Arctic Circle to Brazil, once was host to countless numbers of diverse civilizations and permanent settlements with distinctive histories, cultures, and values. At the apex of Pre-Columbian Amerindian civilization, some historians estimate that as many as 50 million natives populated the Americas (American Indians Cultural Network, 2000).
The White Man Arrives
During the years of European colonialism, the Great Empires of Europe began genocidal campaigns across the New World in hope of finding valuable resources and spreading Christianity to the Native American cultures (Spring, 2001). To this day, the events that took place during this era of history are still the subject of fiery debate and contention.
Initial violent campaigns by Spain, the British Empire, the French, and a myriad of other European nations brought fire and war to the Americas.
Infamously, Christopher Columbus, who was responsible for mistaking the Native Americans as people of the Indian civilization, oversaw the slaughter and torture of thousands of indigenous people for personal gain (BBC, 2014).
This legacy of violence was continued by the United States and Canada in the 19th and 20th Centuries, culminating in a number of bloody wars between native tribes and white settlers.
The Shawnee leader Tecumseh worked to diplomatically unite Native American tribes throughout the region in response to the conditions of the age (Past Notable Native Americans, 2010).
One particularly cruel tactic used by the European settlers was perhaps one of the first examples in modern warfare of biological weaponry. A large percentage of the Native American population perished due to the intentional and unintentional introduction of smallpox to the new world (The Story Of… Smallpox – and other Deadly Eurasian Germs, 2005).
Smallpox continued to be a centerpiece of North American politics even hundreds of years later. JD Pearson recounts, “In the wake of an especially vicious smallpox epidemic savaging American Indian communities on the western frontier, various persons urged the secretary of war and the commissioner of Indian affairs to petition Congress for the money and authority to vaccinate affected Native Americans.” (Lewis Cass and the Politics of Disease: The Indian Vaccination Act of 1832, 2003, pp. 9-35)
Native Americans Today
Today, Native American people comprise a small and diverse segment of North and South American population, particularly in Canada, the United States, Brazil, and Mexico. With a steady decline in population and flight to urban areas, many tribal elders worry that their languages, culture, and history are teetering on the brink of extinction. Cultural preservation is a community effort on most reservations and within most tribes (Braun, 2009).
Alcoholism is a prevalent problem within tribal communities, and scientists continue to debate whether this situation is mainly a result of the environment or represents a unique genetic condition within the native population (Krause, 1998).
Tribal leaders are optimistic for the future of their people, working closely with historical societies, cultural preservation trusts, and an assortment of both governmental and non-governmental entities to ensure that Native American culture continues to inspire future generations with spirited storytelling, stunning arts and music, and a respect for the natural world.
American Indians Cultural Network. (2000). Ancient America (1000 B.C. – A.D. 1500). Retrieved from American Indians
BBC. (2014). Christopher Columbus (1451 – 1506). Retrieved from BBC History
Braun, D. M. (2009, November 15). Preserving Native America’s vanishing languages. Retrieved from National Geographic
Carlin, D. (2008). Apache Tears. Portland, Oregon, United States of America.
Crystalinks. (2015, November 12). Anasazi People. Retrieved from Crystalinks
Crystalinks. (2015, November 12). Clovis People. Retrieved from Crystalinks
Huckell, B. (2012, May 3). The Mysterious Folsom People. (PBS, Interviewer)
Krause, T. (1998). A potential model of factors influencing alcoholism in american indians. Journal of Multicultural Nursing and Health.
Past Notable Native Americans. (2010, August 22). Retrieved from Snowwowl.com: https://www.snowwowl.com/swolfpastnotables.html
Pearson, J. (2003). Lewis Cass and the Politics of Disease: The Indian Vaccination Act of 1832. Wicazo Sa Review, 9-35.
Spring, J. (2001). Globalization and Educational Rights: An Intercivilizational Analysis. Routledge.
The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. (2015, November 11). Native American Church. Retrieved from Encyclopædia Britannica
Valley of Fire State Park. (2008, April 10). Girls on Top. Retrieved from The Economist
Walking a Mile: A Qualitative Study Exploring How Indians and Non-Indians Think About Each Other. (2008). Public Agenda.
Wells, S., & Read, M. (2002). Journey of Man, The. New York City: Random House.