Most experts agree that the earliest Native American ancestors came over the land bridge from Eurasia around 5000 BC, settling in the Pacific Northwest. A separate group broke away and made their way into North America. This group settled there and eventually spread out to the Great Plains, what is now called the Midwest, and eventually made their way to the east coast. By this time, individual tribes had begun to establish their own identities. Turf wars and tribal feuding were not uncommon.
First Contact With the “White Man”
With Columbus’ landing in 1492, it foreshadowed a sad new era for the Native Americans. Much of the early contact was between the Spanish and various Native American tribes in Florida.
From the 1500’s through the 1800s, there was significant decline in the Native American population. This is usually attributed to the new diseases that the Europeans brought over. The Native American immune systems were no match. By 1880, the Native American population was about 250,000, down from 600,00 or so in 1800 and roughly 60%- – 90% down from its peak population before the European colonization.
Most of the spread of disease was unintentional on the part of the Europeans, but a good percentage of the spread was due to early biological warfare. Many European armies used crude methods to inject Native Americans with smallpox. Smallpox was especially deadly towards Native Americans and was highly contagious, making it a good candidate for biological warfare.
A Look at the Indian Wars
The Europeans were eager to exploit the New World and its vast natural resources. Realizing that they were outgunned, the Native American tribes began making treaties. It didn’t take long before the treaties started being broken by the Europeans, starting a sad history of reneged treaties between the two cultures.
After the War of Independence in 1776, the US was finally free of Great Britain and other European powers. The US turned its eyes on the land owned by the Native Americans so they could start expanding their fledgling nation. Continuing the path set out by the Europeans, treaties were made, only to be broken in a short time.
Disease continued to decimate the Native American population. Each time the US settled a new area, disease spread through the native tribes, culminating when the US made it to California, proceeding to infect the tribes with smallpox leading to a 30% mortality rate.
Oft-times by force, but always reluctantly, Native Americans were forced to keep moving west to stay one step ahead of the USA’s Manifest Destiny steamroller. Under President Jackson’s urging, Congress even enacted a law entitled “Indian Removal Act”. It allowed Jackson (and future presidents) to trade land west of the Mississippi for Native American land east of the Mississippi. Of course, once the US reached west of the Mississippi, there was less and less land to trade. So the US reverted to war in most cases to get the land.
In 1871, Congress added a rider to the Indian Appropriations bill, prohibiting future treaties with Native American tribes. Of course, by this time, it was a moot point. All the land was already taken.
Finally in 1924, President Calvin Coolidge signed the long-overdue Indian Citizenship Act, which gave them the same citizenship rights as anyone else.
Native American Tribes
There are many well-known tribes, ranging from the Cherokees in the East to the Seminoles in Florida. Other well-known tribes include the Navajos (the largest tribe), followed by the Cherokees and the Sioux. Rounding out the top ten are the Chippewa, the Choctaw, Iroquois, Creek, Blackfeet, Apache, and Pueblo.
The Navajos were famously used in coding and decoding secret messages used on the battlefields of World War II. The military figured that since there were no Navajos living in Germany or the countless islands contested in the Pacific, and their language was unfamiliar and not related to any Asian/European patterns, it would serve as an unbreakable code. They were right – it was never decoded by the enemy!
The Iroquois dominated the iron building trade in New York for decades. Due to their celebrated lack of fear of heights, the Iroquois men went to work assembling the framework of New York City’s iconic skyline, including epic skyscrapers such as the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, and many more.
More obscure tribes are the Yuman, the Yaqui, and the Catawba. The Catawba were fierce rivals of the Cherokees, engaging in many battles. There are hundreds more obscure tribes, many only claiming a handful of members and in some cases, only a single individual remains.
Alaska has the highest Native American population in the US, comprised of mainly the Aleuts and the Eskimos. New Mexico ranks second in Native American population. As one would expect, the Northeast generally has the lowest concentration of Native Americans.
As you can see, the Native Americans have a long and storied (and all too often ugly) history here in the United States. We owe many of our traditions to them, yet we have a hard time deciding just what role they will play in American society. To be fair, Native Americans have a hard time deciding themselves just what role they want in American society.
Native Americans, and for that matter American society as a whole, are still trying to find their place in American society. For good reasons, Native Americans are leery of any promises coming out of Washington. Many states are fighting against the tax-free status of reservations and their casinos, looking for tax revenue for themselves. Many Native Americans see it as payback for their land that was stolen from their forefathers and as compensation for having to live in a society they never asked to be included in.
From their tax-exempt status, to the casinos opening up right and left on reservations, it’s easy to see the battle is still being waged, with no consensus on either side. Considering the ugly history, it shouldn’t be surprising at all to see these battles continuing. There is no end in sight for these battles.