Introduction to Native American Culture

Native American History by Judith Nies

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While there is no singular Native American culture, the First Peoples of the Americas have much in common. As people with a shared genetic heritage, Native American tribes comprise a diverse and incredibly colorful array of cultures stretching from north to south and east to west. From the Inuit in the northern reaches of the Arctic to the Yaghan people of Chile residing in some of the southernmost inhabited areas of the world, Native Americans are a people who shaped the land long before European settlers established control over the Americas.

The Role of a Medicine Man

Skinwalkers, one of the most famous Blackfeet myths, have entered the public consciousness and inspired generations of amateur historians and history buffs. Skinwalkers are Medicine Men who possess supernatural abilities and a knowledge of sacred rituals (Alchin, 2015).

blackfoot skinwalker hunting

Blackfeet Indians used the skins of wolves to hunt buffalo more effectively

According to American Indian tribal elders, they perform their spiritual magic through a variety of means, including the sacrifice of a cherished person like a parent, child, or relative (Chief Dan Talks About Skin Walkers & The Furry Ones, 2010). According to Native American legend, Skinwalkers may cast hexes and curses upon people to exact vengeance, and their spiritual powers are often sought by people looking for revenge (Chief Dan Talks About Skin Walkers & The Furry Ones).

The Cultural Markers We All Know

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Well-known American Indian cultural symbols include the totem pole, peace pipe, teepee, and moccasins (Native American Culture, 2015). The famous petroglyphs of the southwestern Native American tribes continue to color a picture of a vivid, long-departed past of the American Indian cultures at their apex.

native american totem poles

Totem poles used “crests” to reflect family identity, history and pride

The most celebrated of the petroglyphic monuments is the Petroglyph National Monument, which features over twenty-thousand separate images lightly carved into striking black stone (Albuquerque Convention & Visitors Bureau, 2015). It is certainly worth a visit if you are ever in New Mexico, and is breathtaking in person!

The Native American Pueblos are a testament to the complexity of American Indian art, culture, and technological capabilities. Laguna Pueblo features many Native American artists working to preserve their cultural heritage and includes six different villages located in the Old Laguna district. Since 1970, Laguna has produced stunning jewelry and pottery easily distinguished from the works of any other tribe (Pueblos Reservations, 2015).

The Ojibwe tribe (now regularly called “the Chippewa”) produces a variety of robust dishes ranging from wild rice soup to savory juneberry pie (Native American Food, 2014). Upper Midwest Amerindian cuisine is devoted in particular to the use of wild rice in different meals (Erdrich, 2013).

Indian woman makes fry bread

Indian woman makes fry bread

Fry bread is a Native American staple and is loved by people across the world. Fry bread is the official “state bread” in South Dakota, commemorated in the year 2005 and remains preserved as a cultural heritage food in the state (Fry Bread Facts, n.d.). Fry bread is used as the main ingredient in modern variations on the old recipe, such as Native American pizza or Native American tacos (Oklahoma State Government, 2006). The Fry Bread House located in Phoenix, Arizona received an America’s Classics Award for their unique interpretation of the classic Native American dish, which is the highest honor any restaurant can receive in North America (Allen, 2012).

Native American Culture After European Settlement

andrew jackson native americans trail of tears

Artist depiction of the Trail of Tears triggered by President Andrew Jackson’s mandate to move Cherokee Nation

Before the arrival of the White Man in the Americas, there may have been as many as a thousand individual Native American languages, but that number has since been reduced to around 250 in the modern era (Rehling, n.d.). Native American languages had a few similarities, but by and large, each region of the Americas had incredibly disparate linguistic histories that shaped the development of Native American languages throughout the thousands of years that these tribes and cultures reigned over the land.

Origin of Native American Language?

One interesting conspiracy theory is that many Native American languages were influenced heavily by Turkic linguistics and that the Native Americans in prehistoric times were descended from the peoples of Altai, Siberia, and various other Eurasian tribes of the Caucasus and Central Asia, but this theory is disputed and is not regarded as academically significant (Turk, 2009).

The White Man worked tirelessly to extinguish Native American languages and culture to divide the First Peoples and prevent the unification of Indian tribes under a common cause, which they surely feared as it might lead to a coordinated defense against aggressive settlement. This practice began with Columbus and stretched well into the 20th Century, although some may argue that the practice continues today.

Pushed Onto Indian Reservations at Great Disadvantage

The Navajo reservation is one of the largest in the Southwest

The Navajo reservation is one of the largest in the Southwest

The Indian Reservations of North America are often regarded with spite by tribal elders, who believe that they are a continuation of the systematic genocide of the Indian peoples (Atrocities Against Native Americans, 2015). Indian Reservations were designed by the White Man to deprive Native Americans of their language and culture, according to many scholars (Frantz, 1999). Understandably, there is a history of tension between European-American settlers and Native Americans. The opinions of tribal elders and important voices among the First Peoples vary on the subject of Indian discrimination, but most tribal elders agree that the Native American peoples have been systematically targeted for cultural extinction by the governments of North America.

Contrastingly, Native American culture is cherished by many non-Indians, who grew up attending pow-wows and other Indian cultural events with their families. Many universities and heritage societies have worked tirelessly to preserve the arts and history of Native American tribes for future generations to enjoy. The National Congress of American Indians dedicates a significant amount of time and money to protecting Native ways of life and cultural heritage, vigorously enforcing the Indian Arts and Crafts Act to revitalize the status of Indian reservations as sovereign nations (Cultural Protection & NAGPRA).


Impact of Native American Culture

Native Americans have greatly influenced humanity with their incredible cultures. Tribes like the Apache, Blackfoot, Sioux, and Cherokee have profoundly changed the culture of the United States, and scholars have written extensively on the impact that these tribes have had upon the public (Native American Influence, 2009).

Native American art and culture have played a major role in shaping the modern art movements of large urban centers like New York, Phoenix, and Los Angeles, especially when it comes to storytelling and performance art (Baker, 2000).

As ancient peoples and the rightful inheritors of the Americas, First Peoples carry the stories of their ancestors primarily through storytelling. Native American myths provide a crucial look into these amazing cultures by highlighting the symbols and concepts that inspired their people. Native American stories paint a vivid picture of the history of the diverse cultures of the First Peoples, teaching us what was important to their tribe and exhibiting the profoundly progressive worldview of the American Indians, which was far ahead of the White Man’s humanistic philosophies at many points throughout history. When Europe was plunged into intellectual darkness during the Middle Ages, the Amerindians prospered and lived in harmony by comparison.

The Native American tribes have a rich history of captivating storytelling. Because many Amerindian tribes did not develop writing systems, the majority of their tales and histories were passed orally down through the generations. Over the centuries, the Earth has inherited a rich palette of beautiful tales and parables that lend wisdom to the species collectively in dark times. As a people, Native Americans are connected deeply with music and sound, and stories around the fire were often accompanied by musical instruments (Native American Stories: A Tradition of Storytelling, 2011).

With any hope, the rich traditions of these diverse and beautiful cultures will survive many more generations, preserved by elders who carry the genetics and ceremonial knowledge of the proud Native American people who came before.


References

(n.d.).

Albuquerque Convention & Visitors Bureau. (2015). Petroglyph National Monument. Retrieved from Visit Albuquerque: http://www.visitalbuquerque.org/listings/Petroglyph-National-Monument/903/

Alchin, L. (2015, March). Skinwalker. Retrieved from Warpaths to Peace Pipes: http://www.warpaths2peacepipes.com/native-american-culture/skinwalker.htm

Allen, L. (2012, April 18). Fry Bread House Honored Among the Best of the Best. Retrieved from Indian Country: http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2012/04/18/fry-bread-house-honored-among-best-best-108698

Anderson, W. (2009). Native American Influence. (N. C. Council, Interviewer)

Atrocities Against Native Americans. (2015). Retrieved from United to End Genocide: http://endgenocide.org/learn/past-genocides/native-americans/

Baker, R. (2000). Native American Storytelling in the 21st Century. New York: New York FEC Press.

Chief Dan Talks About Skin Walkers & The Furry Ones. (2010, December 10). Retrieved from YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kWOQuf02J3w

Erdrich, H. E. (2013). Original Local: Indigenous Foods, Stories, and Recipes from the Upper Midwest. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press .

Frantz, K. (1999). Indian Reservations in the United States. Territory, Sovereignty, and Socioeconomic Change, Issue 242.

Fry Bread Facts. (n.d.). Retrieved from Native American Information: http://www.snowwowl.com/recipes/recfrybreadfacts.html

Native American Culture. (2015, November 19). Retrieved from Indians.org: http://indians.org/articles/native-american-culture.html

Native American Food. (2014). Retrieved from Imgur: http://imgur.com/gallery/peGtE

Native American Stories: A Tradition of Storytelling. (2011, January 19). Retrieved from Prairie Edge: http://www.prairieedge.com/tribe-scribe/native-american-tradition-storytelling/

NCAI. (n.d.). Cultural Protection & NAGPRA. Retrieved from National Congress of American Indians: http://www.ncai.org/policy-issues/community-and-culture/cultural-protection-and-nagpra

Oklahoma State Government. (2006). Fry Bread. In O. S. Government, Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture. Oklahoma City: Oklahoma History Center.

Pueblos Reservations. (2015). Retrieved from Visit Albuquerque: http://www.visitalbuquerque.org/albuquerque/culture-heritage/native-american/pueblos-reservations/

Rehling, J. (n.d.). Native American Languages. Retrieved from Cogsci: http://www.cogsci.indiana.edu/farg/rehling/nativeAm/ling.html

Turk, K. (2009, October 31). Are Native American People Related to Turks of Eurasia? Retrieved from Native American Net Roots: http://nativeamericannetroots.net/diary/281