To exterminate a people, erase its history and language.
Its archaeological ruins can go only so far, and belatedly, to
restore its past, and then not its people. To a few
cultural heroes - Vespucci, Oviedo, de las Casas, von
Humboldt, Wissler, and Levy-Strauss setting examples over a
stretch of 500 years - is owed the survival in our minds of
hundreds of Indian nations of the New World. Most
European invaders and their descendants have tried to
submerge them by suppressing their past as well as by
physical suppression. That the Indians, like the Africans in
America, relied upon oral media for the transmission of their
history from one memorial generation to the next, meant
that the dissolution of their social structure would destroy
their history, and therefore complete the
erasure of their existence.
Possibly the greatest specific achievement of the Northern
Indians in the century or so before the Columbus landings
was the story of the Iroquois League and Hiawatha. This is
legend in its highest sense, but would appear to many a hard-
headed historian to be disqualified as history. It lacks written
record. And to the modern anthropological historian, it lacks
the substantiation that comes from controlled systematic
interviews with tellers of the tales and witnesses of the
events. Furthermore, archaeological
evidence is scanty.
What we have are hundreds of people over two centuries of
time telling foreigners about a prophet and dreamer,
Deganawidah, who sought to unite all the Indian nations in
peace, who had a heroic disciple named Hiawatha (meaning
"the comber"), who combed the evil thoughts from the hair
of the terrible chief of the Onandagas, Atotarho, and
persuaded him to accept the new philosophy and join with
his people the new League of Universal Peace that the
Iroquois were trying to establish. Atotarho was to become
the keeper of the eternal fire of the League of the Iroquois.
The five central tribes of Iroquois thereupon assembled and
arrived at a constitution, under the leadership of Hiawatha
and Deganawidah. They set up a Grand Council to deliberate
and legislate, numbering fifty sachems, with varying members
apportioned to the five tribes. Honorary members could be
added to the Council. Much later the Tuscarora Indians were
voted in as a sixth Nation. The fire keeper was always to be
named Atotarho and could be considered the President. Each
tribe had one vote. Hiawatha and Deganawideh would
always have, in absentia, seats provided them.
Legislative procedure was simple but exhaustive. Mohawk
delegates could open discussion on a question. They
with the Senecas sat on one side of the fire.
Agreement reached on the issue,
the two tribes would hand the matter
across the central fire to the Oneidas and Cayugas, who
would consider it, and if they agreed to it, the "bill" was
declared passed. If they disagreed, the issue was handed to
the Onandagas, who sat between them as moderators, and
they compromised the matter or voted for one or the other
side. The "bill" went back to the first side for reconsideration,
then to the other side for the same, and
if in harmony, it became law. If still not agreed to,
the Onandagas would decide the matter, and their decision
would be final.
The Council was all-male, but women had the right to
participate in the election of its members and to
depose them on occasion of misrepresentation and
The Iroquois Confederation was a sophisticated system of
representative government, so similar to the Venetian
constitution that some have considered it to have been
brought to America in some mysterious way. (The Venetian
election system was older; it was much admired in Europe
and around the world for some centuries.) In the nineteenth
century, the creators of the Tammany Hall organization of
New York City Democrats would look for inspiration and
its colorful offices to the Iroquois Confederation. The
Confederation symbol of an eagle clutching five arrows for
the original five nations was adopted later on for the
Great Seal of the United States.
The Confederation proved successful in practically eradicating
cannibalism among its members and affiliated tribes
(Exceptions were made for a bold enemy's heart, that was
believed to convey his spirit to the eaters.) A large measure of
peace among members of the League was achieved, and the
League often reconciled conflicting tribes outside the League.
It disallowed the death penalty for murder, which had been
exacted by relatives before, and put a system of
fines in its place.
Upon the departure of Deganewideh for the unknown,
Hiawatha took up full leadership and with companions
visited the tribes of most of America East of the Mississippi,
persuading many to support the principles of the
League. Enforcement was hardly available, no more than in
most confederations, except among the central nations. Yet
the Iroquois could on occasion take the field with an army of a
thousand warriors, more than other tribes or alliances could
manage, and sufficient to meet in battle a French or English
colonial army. The Iroquois also used the Confederation as a
means and an excuse for imperialism, much as Athens had
done two thousand years earlier with its Amphyctyonic
Council. The situation became especially unprincipled when
the extensive fur trade developed, and the stronger Indian
force could arrange and demand the
best deals with foreign traders.
(See the map below.)
The United States, when it achieved its full continental girth,
occupied territory previously held by some five hundred
tribes that came to be called American Indians but that were
denominated each by its own tribal name, regularly with
subordinate clan names, and often with a larger affiliation
added. Today, the United States recognizes the
limited sovereignty of 554 nations.
Dividing the large area among the many nations,
we arrive at a situation rather like that prevailing over
most of European history, ancient, medieval and modern.
The Indians were neither cooped up
nor impossibly fragmented.
Estimates of the total inhabitants of the Western
Hemisphere around the year 1492 have ranged unbelievably
from 8 to 112 millions. This compared with a European
population of the time of perhaps 85 millions and an African
population of about the same number. Estimates of the
Indian population then dwelling within today's U.S. boundaries
have ranged from 900,000 to 11, even 18, millions.
"Nations" refer to organized peoples, in the language of the
eighteenth century Enlightenment social theorist,
Giambattista Vico of Naples, and in this sense
there should be no reluctance in referring to Indian nations,
granted a nation may be a single tribe.
A tribe was observed to be and might be defined as a
(mythically and actually) blood-related collection of clans,
speaking a common language. The clans were made up of
extended families, usually termed sibs, descending into what
we call today nuclear families. Mothers and fathers were
universally important, but nuclear families were closely
bound to tribal custom and rule. All in all,
the system resembled extant Celtic social organisms of the
British Isles of the same day, a homology
provoking wonder whether the myriad encounters of
Celt and Indian in America compacted to shape and stress
various American behaviors and ways of thought.
Some tribes numbered as many or more people than the
smallest dozen of recognized nation-states of the world.
Several of the latter, such as the Arabian Gulf states, are
essentially tribes. Since Indian tribal territories were in some
cases larger than the territory possessed by Switzerland or
Israel or a score of other modern states, there seems little
reason not to call them all nations, or even states, for that
matter. They possessed, after all, a sovereignty (in fact and
international law) that no state of the USA can claim.
All of these tribes spoke their own languages. In the Americas
North and South, the two thousand languages estimated to
have been employed in the fifteenth century were (and are)
as complex in structure as those of the rest of the world.
Some of the languages seem to be able to communicate
thoughts that are difficult or awkward to express in English,
or the Frenchified Latin and Saxonized Teuton from which
English has largely descended. (Indian, Gaelic, Scottish,
Welsh, Cornish, and Scandinavian words and usages, plus a
great many others from other languages such as Spanish,
Italian, Greek, Hebrew, and modern German and Yiddish,
came to enrich the English and especially the American
language, together with a flood of scientific and technical
language, and with syntactical, phonetic and verbal creations,
on the part of African-Americans, the demi-monde, youth,
and grammatically undisciplined talkers -
of which more later.)
American varieties of English
came to sound from all quarters of the ultimate nation,
but it should be understood that
language spreads by power over people;
it is the voice of authority, even if the authority
is anti-authoritative, and egalitarian.
Possibly any one of the hundreds of Indian languages,
propelled by Cherokee power or Sioux power, say,
would have served today's America, given the appropriate
acquisition of terms in the beginning for appliances that the
Indians lacked: whiskey would be perhaps called fire-water.
Benjamin Whorf, the most inventive of American linguists,
believed that certain languages of the Amerindians that he
studied - he comments specifically on Nootka and Hopi -
can express views of reality inaccessible to
speakers of Indo-European languages
(including the major languages of Western Europe).
Whorf pointed out how language and thought are so related that
one people will lean on vocal expression to
connect ideas while another people will have to
build a logical or conventional superstructure upon their
words in order to express ideas. He wrote that in the Hopi
language were embedded meanings that did not need to and
did not appear in their word combinations. The Hopi, he
declared, had no word for `time', but were quite able to
elaborate a profound world-view that
incorporated time differences.
Poetry was widely delivered and in many forms. There were
lyrical love songs and lullabies, war-songs, death-songs.
Hark to this couplet of death:
"Toward me the darkness comes rattling,
In the Great Night my heart will go out."
(A poem of the Papago of Arizona.)
Other poem-songs break into narratives as incantations,
exclamations, laments. Still others deal with religious ritual;
they heal, they propitiate the gods and spirits. There was
no more break between poetry and prose than in, say,
the work of Walt Whitman or even of this book.
Understandably, communication between 'Whites' and 'Reds'
suffered from language differences, not just once upon
landfall, but through five hundred years and to this day.
One obvious, yet suppressed, source of friction,
was the failure or refusal of the Whites, particularly British
Isles immigrants, to learn Indian languages. (This peculiar
lameness of the Britons descended among Americans down to
the present day, no matter what their ancestry.) The
twentieth century institutionalized the learning
of some Indian languages, both by encouraging Indians
to preserve them and by subsidizing university scholars.
Possibly more Whites know Indian languages today than
when Whiteskins lived next to Redskins.
As with language and nations, so with the concept of
civilization. The aboriginal, at least the then resident
Americans, possessed very different cultures -
ways of living, sharing, ruling, dressing, eating,
working, playing, loving, fighting, and learning.
Americans, organized into their States,
have often thought that their personal State was different
from all others, Virginia from Massachusetts, Idaho from
Utah, and so on. Indian nations, say the Sioux and
the Kwakiutl, or the Seminoles and the Zuni,
or any other randomly chosen pair, were
much more different among themselves.
Indians were often engaged in warfare, and one
has to weigh this conduct against that of the "United" States,
which were quarreling continually, and fought a terrible Civil
War over their differences, after having sternly and
contemptuously criticized the Indians for being
disunited and incapable of overall integration.
Civilization refers to a culture capable of
creating and working with intricate things and ideas.
Rarely does someone block the definition, to exclaim,
"The highest art of man is peacemaking!
Nations at war cannot be ranked as civilized."
Also, most people think,
"The more and better of everything, the higher the civilization."
Simplicity of customs and ideas,
which some great philosophers, such as the
line of Stoics, thought the summit of civilized or
at least human conduct, would then be a
contradiction of civilization.
We must therefore re-define civilization as a more subtle
concept. We have to admit warfare as a historical fact, of a
practice occurring on the average half the time everywhere. If
we do insist upon permanent peace, then, by definition, no
civilization has ever existed for very long. We can, of course,
in ranking civilizations as worthwhile, demote the warlike
ones. Apart from this, we should say that civilization is a way
of life that encourages and transmits to its members as an
organic whole an abundant facility and creativity
with regard to things and ideas.
The definition still contains problems. Is this what the
Whites wanted to bring to the Indians? Not at all. Most
Whites had no intention of providing the Indians with
anything except what would obtain cheaply
various desirable goods and services - land, women,
labor, tobacco, a canoe, and footgear.
Nor did the Indians want White civilization.
Indeed it is to the credit of the Indians that most died
rather than accept the kind of civilization tendered them.
The 'common man,' however undistinguished,
believes his culture to be civilized.
The concept of the White man's being civilized,
the Indian not, hardly appealed to the Indian,
any more than to a philosopher.
It was an insulting epithet.
It was a war-cry of the Whites.
Indians were "savage," "primitive, "backward" and "uncivilized."
Since the name of civilization is given by authors and media,
and any people to whatsoever culture they please, but
generally excludes almost all tribal groups and is
justified by a record of continuous instrumental innovation,
of long-term incremental changes in living conditions
in the direction of complexity and by the
ability to live in permanent aggregates,
it would be difficult, indeed, to affirm that these criteria,
which were not possessed to a significant extent by the
"USA Indians," actually produced a
level of life-satisfaction or "happiness" equaling or
surpassing that of Indians in general, whether we speak
of the sixteenth century or the twentieth century.
Differences among Indian tribes in the nineteenth century
were larger than any that came to characterize the occupants
of the country one, two, or three centuries later, given even
the exceptional variety of immigrants who came from the
earliest days onwards. This is not to diminish the weighty
distinctions among the earliest and later Europeans, Africans
and Asians - of which we shall have much to say - but to stress
that the Cigar Store Indian statue that boys and girls passed
on the street every day for a century and more conveyed an
utterly limited notion of the race.
Think instead of what must have come before
the arrival of the Europeans, which in many cases
was even lost to the Indians, as much as
the monuments and learning of Athens were lost
to the very Greeks of several centuries later. And
then think, too, of the multitude of distinctions among the
tribes as they faced up to the invaders. We must give some
idea here and now of the variety of the Indian nations.
At the time of the early dynasties of Egypt, there dwelled in
the Vera Cruz region of Mexico the Olmec nation. It may
have been several nations. Even today there scowl at us most
impressive human heads of many tons weight, and one finds
increasingly Olmec burials, their myths, their artifacts, and,
later on, a written language only now lending itself to
decipherment. The civilization seems to have evolved into
the Mayan, farther South.
The Mayan civilization of Central Mexico, the Yucatan
Peninsula and Guatemala was also partly in ruins and in
decline by the time of the Spanish intrusions. Compare it, if
you will, to the middle Age civilizations of Europe from 500
to 1000 A.D. It had a high order of culture with grand
monuments, sculptures, paintings, clothing, numerous
domesticated plants, writing, and institutions of government
on a comparably high level. Its mathematics and astronomy
were well advanced. It was a congeries of kingdoms, each
with upper, middle and laboring classes.
The Aztec Civilization, centered at present-day Mexico City,
appears to have replaced the Olmecs. Its ancestor was the
culture of Teotihuacan, centered North of Mexico City,
where for a thousand years, until the eighth century A.D.,
great pyramids were constructed, and a sprawling city of
hundreds of apartment buildings, each sheltering some 50 to
100 people of related families, flourished. Its supreme deity
was a goddess, probably connected with the planet Venus,
often depicted as a feathered serpent, and
portrayed, too, as the source of floods and fire
and of the arts and plant life.
The Aztecs were obsessed with human sacrifice and annually
killed and ate many thousands of prisoners of war in the
name of their god. Indeed, around the world in ancient
times, worship of the goddess or god of the planet Venus,
under her various names, was typically accompanied by
sacred murder. An instance from the USA is afforded by the
Pawnee Tribe's periodic sacrifice of a maiden on the close
approach of the planet, a practice that continued into the
Far to the South was the Andean civilization of the Incas,
warrior cliques, presiding over a well-knit empire stretching
for thousands of miles from Ecuador through Peru to Chile,
who themselves were much later successors of the ancient
civilization centered around Lake Titicaca at Tihuanacu, in
All of these high civilizations, from the Rio Grande down to
Southern Chile, succumbed within a generation to the
onslaughts of the Spanish conquistadors. They were
reconstructed then in Hispanic forms.
Their descendants often moved back and forth, North and
South, in and out of "United States territory." Today
probably 10% of the American population is descended in all
or part from the great Central American Indian civilizations,
another 5% (if Puerto Ricans at home and on the continent
are counted) from the Caribbean Indians in some degree.
Aside from the nearly one million Americans identifying
themselves as Indians today, there are probably two million
who are descendants of USA tribes but miscegenated unrecognizably
with Caucasian, Black, and Oriental inhabitants.
Puerto Rico and Alaska momentarily aside,
North of the Rio Grande were the Indian cultures and
nations whom we intend now to describe. In some cases they
stood above the realms and remains of pre-existing cultures,
which we shall mention in passing. The enormous disparity
in population estimates has been stated. There is no simple
route toward reconciling them. One authority warns that
another generation of research may help, but only to bring
the estimates to within 30 to 50% percent of reality.
The basic study was done by Mooney in 1928; it was a
thorough and expert investigation of all sources and of
consultations with outstanding scholars in the field. He set a
figure that was somewhat reduced by another distinguished
student, Kroeber, in the nineteen-thirties. Other scholars
agreed, though they stressed that the
figures were conservative.
But figures have escalated amazingly since
1940. Despite their great number and diversity, the tribes of
the United States and Canada, embracing half the total land
area of the Americas, counted only a million souls according
to the Mooney-Kroeber tally; this was an estimated 7% of
all American-Indians. A fifth of a million were in Canada,
leaving less than a million for the USA, with 9.4 million
square kilometers or one-quarter of the land area of the
Americas. This comes to an average of one
person for every 10 square kilometers.
One wonders at the grossly enlarged figures that have been
advanced more recently. They do help expand the enormity
of the European "crime" of genocide of the American Indians,
just as the expansion of the number of Jewish Holocaust
victims, when given as 7,000,000 say, rather than
4,500,000, allows for greater indignation in some quarters.
Regardless, the gravity of the collective crime is far greater
than can be conveyed by statistics.
The student of the Trojan War, that magnificent drama of an
ancient multinational war of which Homer sings,
feels let down upon learning that the ruins of Troy
as discovered by Schliemann, if indeed this site called
Hisarlik was that of Troy, retrospective of a
town of some 5000 Trojans, men,
women, and children. Lately, a large outer wall has been
uncovered, stretching far around the site, that could
accommodate a considerably larger population. The Roman
Empire was the best administered in ancient history, yet
scholars have never been able to come close to agreeing on its
population at its peak, estimates varying from 50 to 150
millions. Destruction of records is the main problem there.
Regarding America, I am ready to lend tentative support to
the figures arrived at by William M. Denevan at the close of
several studies of the problem. He gives 4,400,000 for
Northern North America, 21.4 millions for Mexico, and 57
millions in all. He is in good company, yet admits that he is
arbitrary. Since he occupies the middle of the spectrum of
guesses, we may allow ourselves to think
hypothetically in his terms.
There may be, however, more than a problem of selecting
among estimates. Figures that vary so greatly overall and in
the case of so many tribes and nations compel us to suspect
some mysterious large force at work at some unknown time.
We learn that many tribes of the 1400's and 1500's had once
been more populous. They were, when first encountered by
Europeans, depressed, underpeopled, recovering in numbers,
occupying places too large for them, and so on - indications
of a disastrous loss of population.
Two theories offer themselves, neither of which
has so far been investigated systematically.
One is external natural catastrophe.
The other is plague.
Warfare, poverty, occasional droughts, infertility -
these appear to be impossible explanations.
Phoenix, Arizona, owes its final name to its proclaimed
revival upon the ruins of prior settlements, like the ancient
Egyptian bird rose from the ashes of its own kind. Spanish
and Mexican settlements stood there amidst a large area of
desolation. Archaeological excavations of 1887-8 sent three
railroad boxcars loaded with Indian cultural material to the
Peabody Museum (now affiliated with Harvard University),
where, for half a century, they remained unexamined.
This Cibola area, as it was called, had once held a population
estimated at 200,000 persons. They lived in seven cities and
numerous villages. They maintained an extensive irrigation
system. One Cibola study proposes that some type of
exoterrestrial meteoroid stone, fire, or gas explosion caused
the destruction. Many other Indian centers disappeared in
the 1400's The Hohokam culture vanished around 1425.
Chaco and Mesa Verde fell in ruins. Cahokia on the
Mississippi River banks suddenly emptied and lay ruined.
The Mississippi Valley generally was depopulated in the
1300's and 1400's. Migrations of peoples occurred
frequently. Cruder life styles came about.
Most historians adhere to the estimates, large or small, from
one to four millions, and declare that a rapid decline in this
number followed the intrusion of European diseases and the
breaking up by force of the traditional societies. To this
writer the preferable hypothesis is that in the pre-Columbian
1300's and 1400's, plagues were introduced by European
Asian, and African fishermen, castaways, adventurers and
persons in flight from enemies or plague.
Very recent scientific theory allows the possibility that
patches or clouds of meteoroid-transported vermin, viruses,
and microbial nutrient gases encountered Earth's atmosphere
and descended here, there, or everywhere, infecting hosts of
people. A new compilation of medieval reports from China
and Europe reveals that exoterrestrial origins of the great
plagues were considered, backed up in some
instances by statements of witnesses. It is scarcely
conceivable that plagues originating in China or Siberia, as
appears to have been the case in the fourteenth century,
would move West but not East.
If the University of California (Berkeley) scholars who first
advanced the estimates of eighteen millions are correct in
declaring that the environment was ample to support, indeed
had to support, all these people in their typical life style,
then some instrument for the prompt devastation of this
huge number and its innumerable cultural
appurtenances must be sought for.
USA Indians lived usually in small encampments and
settlements, hamlets. These were as often permanent as
temporary. The Pueblo constellation maintained permanent
dwellings carved into rock cliffs, the Southeast peoples built
plastered houses roofed with thatch or bark and
fortified their towns.
Many tribes designed strong yet mobile structures.
Long Houses, that served Northeast and other
Indians as semi-permanent installations, could be
regarded as semi-fixed trailer camps, collapsible and
transportable. (Perhaps 20 times as many as all Indians,
45 million Americans, dwelt in trailers in 1998.)
The wigwam or tepee, of course, is rightfully
world-famous: mobile, durable, snug, permissive of privacy
and a cuisine, and aesthetically pleasing, admired by several
generations of romantic American and
European boys and girls.
On special occasions, when large policies had to be set, of war,
of peace, of moving, of territorial clan boundaries, and
especially of astronomical holidays such as the solstitial and
harvest Thanksgiving (whence came the Pilgrim and,
since the Civil War, great American holiday),
a tribal multitude would assemble,
rather like the car rallies, county fairs, or more literally the
Chautauqua conventions of their Caucasian successors.
Gerontocratic pow-wows, like the "Appalachian Conference of
Mafia Godfathers," were more frequent, and looked upon by
their later foreign neighbors with similar trepidation.
Typically, as with the Iroquois, various tribal leaders would
get together, program a festival for certain days, designate
individuals to go around collecting contributions from
people, and then proclaim the occasion. Orators would
open the festivities. Music and dancing, often of an
interpretative character would follow. There would be games
and fortune-tellers. Religious and fraternal clubs would
hold special gatherings , some closed,
some open to the public.
Government among the Indians, including foreign relations,
was basically comprehensible to the educated European,
unless he were devoid of sociological awareness and
encapsulated in parochialism. There would be a head, an
executive committee, an assembly, citizenry, age groups, sex
groups, artisans, a welfare clientele, specialists in natural and
human phenomena (crops, the hunt, the weather), priests
(specialists in ceremonies and divine communications),
medical men, and the war party. Nothing that came to the
clan's attention could remain foreign; it was to be explained;
so there had to be priests, elders, and tribal philosophers to
interpret all things according to the metaphysics of the tribe.
The foundations of governance have been
similar around the world.
Offices were arranged in different ways for the
accomplishment of tasks. The chieftain or head was typically
both hereditary and elective (not unfairly analogized with
the modern practice of giving the descendants of well-known
politicians - such as the Kennedy's - preference at the polls).
Approval of a new head was supposed to come through
designation by the retiring chief (as in current politics very
often), but if his choice of successor fell upon a delinquent or
an incompetent son, the assembly of warriors or clans had the
right constitutionally to reject the proffered candidate and
compel a more satisfactory choice.
The head man might reserve to himself certain
honors, privileges, and access to goods,
hardly enough to create large distinctions of social class,
but adequate to put a symbolically satisfying garnish
upon the exercise of power. Inasmuch as
the group that he headed was small, typically between a
hundred and a thousand, his social distance and therefore his
despotic potential was less than in a large national grouping,
such as the Spanish and English emerged from.
Rash acts were common; the Indians were highly
individualistic, rating near to their fatal American and
European counterparts in this regard. Systematic tyranny,
the massacre of dissidents, the persecution of minorities, the
degradation of a class of people (even if slaves) were beyond
tribal capacities, though these were practices familiar to the
European arrivals. Torture was known everywhere, applied to
an adolescent to test presumed virtues of courage and
hardihood, applied to enemies to test them as well,
satisfy sadistic impulses.
Warfare was as common as squash pie.
Perhaps only ten per cent of the 500 tribes would pass
through any political generation - 33 years - without
experiencing a war. These ten per cent were mostly the same
notoriously peaceful tribes. The successful individual warrior
was everywhere highly prestiged, as has been
true of America to this day.
Wars of annihilation and heavy casualties were rare; not that
Indians disbelieved in genocide as a matter of principle,
no more than the most ancient Jews and Romans, but
their forces was too decentralized, their logistics too
constrained, their mental tenacity for such conduct
unavailing. Physical and psychological unity was an
impossibility for American Indians long before they
encountered Europeans in considerable numbers.
Common practices in battle included looting,
burning, and taking captives for indefinite periods of
slavery and concubinage.
Mutually useful exchange of prisoners was common.
Practically all of the tribes, even if sedentary, possessed tribal
hunting groups, with the hunts observing the
equivalent of state boundaries in important respects -
an intrusion being a casus belli.
Every Indian thus had a homeland.
Exile was a severe punishment.
In this regard, the civil state of Indians excelled that of the
people who would be soon descending upon them,
the English and Scots-Irish especially, whose
men, women, and children had been as a rule evicted
from their ancestral places and undergone mean
experiences of being driven from place to place, of being
jailed, whipped, and seized for transportation to the colonies
- civilly persecuted, that is - were they so much as to pause
at a hostile village or trespass upon private lands, never mind
snatching up a bit of food. The Indian would lose her home
only when her tribe's identity deceased.
Families quarreled as they will everywhere, and when
mediation would fail, and arbitration was not firmly
prescribed by tribal law, and when violence ensued, exile was
a common punishment, decreed by the tribal council more
often than by the chief, akin to the practice among the
Vikings, and notable, too, among the ancient and
highly civilized Greeks.
Typical serious crimes would be cowardice in battle, treason
or betrayal of the group, physical assault, and theft; sexually
motivated crimes such as adultery were not so gravely
regarded as these were among the ancients and their Puritan
emulators. The power of the chief usually extended
partway into serious crimes, but more into civil disputes
over property rights, and precedence and procedure in
political, social and economic affairs. Too, the
chief was principal agent of the nation in foreign affairs.
The position of women among Indian peoples varied more
than among European nations. The reason possibly lay,
during the 1400's and 1500's, with the uniformity of
relationships between sexes that the Roman Catholic
Church had brought about for centuries among the peoples
of Western and Central Europe. Catholic doctrine was not
generally challenged, and only lately then - not by Anglicans or
Lutherans so much as by radical Protestant groups,
who went directly to the Bible, elected their own priests, and
let their reasoning on religious issues run riot.
Even then, the position of women gained because of its
practicality, not out of philosophy; radical Protestants were
poor, oppressed politically and socially, and needed the
consolation and cooperation of women, who were
more fully developed as humans.
It is said repeatedly that Caucasian women who found
themselves prisoners of the Indians were treated well.
Polygyny was usually authorized, but rarely extended beyond
two wives. The division of labor varied considerably from one
tribe to another, more than among Europeans, but, lacking
the social estates and class system of Europe,
there was a much greater equality of function
among "higher" and "lower" orders of women.
Sometimes women monopolized agriculture, while at other
locations the men performed extensive farming tasks. Even
when only men might hunt or trap large game, women might
manufacture snares and trap small game. Let us put the
situation thus: a farm woman in Alsace (arguably the
European heartland) would experience as many difficulties
adapting to the life of a Greek farmer's wife as would a
Pequot woman adapting to Shawnee life. The tools -
grinding, cooking, serving, cleaning , etc. - of a Pueblo
women were no less well-adapted to her style of life than
were those of a Stratford English housewife, and from the
perspective of domestic science as good or better.
The idea of a "tool kit" of a culture is useful in anthropology
meaning, in the case of Indian and European alike,
varieties of knives, pots, fire sticks, furs, moccasins, and
many another household and workaday object.
It is more restricted than the notion of a culture complex,
which takes in larger "items" like habitations,
energy sources, medicinal and dietetic supplies,
ecology (knowledge of the environment),
and bits of all the sciences- very much as the ordinary
American has them as scratches on the mind - astronomy,
hydrology, geology, handicrafts, anthropology (regarding
social psychology and especially related and unrelated tribes),
sex practices, hunting techniques, cuisine,
religious beliefs and practices, etc.
Some knowledge of agriculture was universal.
While Europeans corrupted Indians with alcohol,
Indians plied them with deadly attractive tobacco. Bow and
arrow, lance and spear, club, fish nets and hooks,
weaving sticks, tanning hides, sewing needles,
embroidery, and pottery were found everywhere.
Too, a variety of herbal and fungal medicines,
often combined in potions of an efficacy
largely unknown to the outside world then and now.
Most knowledge was destroyed with the peoples themselves.
Some that survived is being reworked after centuries of
neglect. The Osage Orange tree, named for the Osage Indians
of Arkansas and Missouri, produces a beautiful fruit and a
latex of numerous uses. The Ozark mountains were named as
a corruption of the French word given the tree for the
hardwood used in making tomahawks and bows,
bois d'arc. Two outposts became Bowdark and Bodark.
The hard orange balls repel roaches and other insects.
Too, Indians derived painkillers from willows, poplars, and
aspens, all of which contain salicia. Wild fruit and spruce
drinks were popular. Sassafras was taken for fevers and colic.
Fernando De Soto's expedition came upon
"Hot Springs, Arkansas," in 1541,
where he learned that the Indians had been employing
its therapeutic faculties since time immemorial.
Many other drugs and cures might be cited; it is not at all
sure that the Indian health-delivery system was inferior to
the European of the times.
Likely in this total view of the culture complex,
especially when related to the ecology, Indians were
well ahead of and better coordinated than the
first several biological and political generations of
Europeans with whom they came into contact.
The main advantages held by European culture,
thought the Indians, were propelled explosive charges
(gun and cannon), strong alcohol, and
immunity from certain diseases, to which had to be added
the unseen presence of an unassailable reinforcement and
supply depot over the seas. Against these they could sing a
litany of many virtues and goods that composed the
especial worth of their people.
For most Indian tribes, religion consisted of a vague but
highly sensed feeling of a supreme deity, to whom a number
of supernatural familiars paid court, and who was vaguely
like the Hebrew or Puritan Yahweh (Jehovah) in personality.
He was rather an animation of the Universe. But he could
also be unfavorable and hence punitive, if a line of conduct
displeased him. Spirits and ghosts of modest, if erratic,
behavior were also common.
Planets, so plainly worshiped in the Euro-Asian tradition,
occur largely in the rich fund of legends
told to each succeeding generation.
Occasionally, as in the Pawnee human sacrifice to Venus,
connections between sky bodies and religion become
manifest. As Michael Coe says, "Venus was enormously
important in Meso-American religion and mythology," and
by inference among the Northern peoples
influenced by Mexico,
Generally, Indian cultures were more gratifying
personally and richer than those of the individuals and
groups who came rudely upon their primordial scene. These
arrived for the most part with little baggage to speak of, and
with a culture that, if it were not too specialized
to be useful, was inapplicable. Because
history is told from the perspective of the ruling elite
(to which historians adhere), it is made to
appear that this arriving elite and its gangs knew
a great deal more than the Indian. It is really
a matter of specialization and mode of operation:
the new leaders might be tragic blunderers, but
they had the power of the gun and
they could call on help from afar, which,
rather later than sooner, would probably arrive.
When they win their way, force and domination,
no matter how blind, convey the impression of "intelligence."
In 1914 pioneer anthropologist Clark Wissler
set forth nine major American Indian culture-areas and
described their salient traits. Granted that he was working on
materials that were in part current and different from ancestral ones,
still he might be relied upon to sketch for us the
basic paths that Indian cultures took during the century
before the major European incursions began.
Where to start? It would appear that the Indians of Canada,
even those of the Atlantic region, were first of the South, and
later moved North (possibly with the withdrawal of the ice
and the warming of the region). It seems, too, that the
central Canadian Indians are but the Northern elements of
the American Plains hunters. It is believed as well that the
Northwest Indians of the USA and British Columbia came
late to their area, possibly from the South, too. And the
Eskimos in their dauntless bands were late arrivals in Alaska
and Canada, conquering this vast natural reserve out of
Greenland or Siberia. The early Americans of the Southwest
were fairly well settled peripherals of the great Mexican
civilization. Upon them more aggressive tribes from
East and North transgressed in time.
Following Wissler, adding one more, we may say a few words
about ten major Indian cultures mainly, as they were
operative in the fifteenth century. Our order of mention will
be the order in which they suffered European incursions.
Puerto Rico passed a full four centuries under Spanish rule.
The Island was strongly fortified and beat off assaults from
various pirates and several famous English buccaneers:
Francis Drake in 1595; G. Clifford in 1598; B. Hendrick in
1625; and Abercromby in 1797. It admitted the American
fleet in 1898 without resistance.
Puerto Rico's inhabitants were originally some 100,000 to
400,000 Tainos of Arawak (or Aruak) Indian ancestry, well
settled in and practicing agriculture. One of three large
linguistic and cultural groups that contested for supremacy in
the huge Amazon Basin for a long time - the others being
the Carib and Tupi - the Arawak had used their river canoes
to cross the thousand miles of intervening ocean to settle in
the Antilles. They colonized Florida and Central America in
part, too. The Caribs, a more aggressive and often
cannibalistic people, settled other islands of the Antilles.
Columbus landed in Puerto Rico on November 9 of 1493 and
called it San Juan Battista, but a few years later, in 1504,
Ponce de Leon debarked and called it Puerto Rico, because of
its richness. An unsuccessful revolt in 1511 reduced pitifully
the Indian population. Then Spanish traders brought in
Africans as slaves to replenish the declining population.
Interbreeding among the three groups was common, with or
without benefit of matrimony, as indeed occurred later on
the continent and all around the Caribbean Basin.
Beginning almost at once, there came into being a large
number of Black-Indian-Spaniards, in numerous genetic
combinations, more Caucasian than anything else, to whom
the name Hispanic, meaning of Spanish-American-African
cultural heritage, can be applied. The term, properly used,
could be substituted for Latinos or Latin-American. (It is
larger than Chicano, the term for Mexican-Americans of
recent coming.) Racially, it is totally inclusive,
any racial class being admissible. When
Puerto Ricans were asked lately to identify their race,
80% termed themselves Caucasian, 20% African.
The Arawak language family is gone from Puerto Rico and the
islands, but exists in small areas of Central and South
America and, in rare and isolated cases, is spoken in Florida.
Castilian Spanish came to prevail in offices and elite,
while Boricua, a natively developed Hispanic dialect,
and a synonym for Puerto Rico itself,
pervaded all social classes, after the American language
was introduced, and English taught in the schools.
Boricuan brought in many American terms directly,
and within a century was making more progress toward an
American street language than was accomplished by
the English-language schools. Indian and African
culture traits and customs were carried down, and
contributed heavily to the later new American civilization.
Southwestern U.S.cultures numbered some 100,000 to
400,000 persons and consisted of the more ancient and
settled Pueblo peoples - of which the Hopi, Zuni, and Rio
Grande were regional types that contained numbers of
villages - and the nomadic tribes such as the Navaho and
Apaches, these having many Pueblo traits but also having
picked up significant elements of their culture from the
Plains, Plateau, and even the Meccans Indians. The Navaho
especially took up important traits from Europeans as
time went on.
A considerable proportion of the Southwestern Indians lived
in pueblo villages, a distinctive form of settlement some
examples of which persist today. The individual contiguous
houses are made of adobe or stone plastered with adobe,
have flat roofs, are rectangular in shape, and built upon
terraces in the side of hills, sometimes steep and made
difficult of access for purposes of defense. The houses can be
built several deep on top of one another and extend
backward to allow a terrace in front. Villages of the cliff or
plain would number from a hundred to a thousand or two
inhabitants. Their farms and some of their livestock would be
located below. Despite similarities of life-style, several
distinct languages were to be found among pueblo peoples.
Generally these Americans relied mainly upon maize and
other cultivated foods, with men doing the cultivating
instead of the women. Men also worked at
weaving cotton with loom and spindle. They were adept at
masonry, and the manufacture of well-decorated pottery.
They raised turkeys, and otherwise supplemented vegetable
diets by hunting buffalo, deer, antelope and rabbits,
employing sometimes a type of boomerang like that of the
ten-thousand-mile-distant Australians. A thousand
years before Columbus, at the least, the Hohokam people dug
irrigation canals running from the Gila and Salt Rivers; mats
of brush were positioned to block or direct the flow of
waters onto individual fields of corn.
Anomalous practices are to be found. Chaco Canyon
contains some 200 miles of engineered roads
lined at intervals and culminating in astronomical
observation points and stone monuments. In numerous
locations of the Southwest are found art work in stone and in
drawings. These seem to have been the work of more
advanced technologies than those of 1500, and one must
consider the possibility of natural and/or human catastrophes
in the preceding century.
Early in the sixteenth century the region was crisscrossed by
Spanish expeditions, conveying new traits, a new authority,
and the early combination of soldiers and priests that began
the process of racial amalgamation and Christianization a
century before the French and English arrived in the
New World. Their descendants are identifiable still in
New Mexico, Arizona, and California,
often in isolated nooks, like those of some early Scots-Irish
still to be located in the Appalachian mountains.
Across the continent and in the Southeast, extending from
the East bank of the Mississippi to Florida, dwelled tribes
containing in all a population of from 250,000 to one
million. This region was invaded and traversed in several
harrowing expeditions by Spaniards early in the sixteenth
century, and numerous, usually futile, efforts
occurred to settle the coastal country.
Here lived richly developed peoples exhibiting
many distinctive tools and traits. Typical cultures were the
Muskogean, Yuchi, and Cherokee. Of all Indian cultures,
the Cherokee took the largest steps over three centuries
to adapt its culture to the European culture
moving in upon it from all sides.
Caribbean influences were noticeable, especially
to the south. Some tribes lived in circular
houses, the Florida Seminole for example. Settlements were
well-fortified by wooden palisades. Dug-out canoes could
traverse the myriad waterways of the region. Probably the
template cultures enjoyed a wealth of foods and household
goods. Bread was baked of root flour or persimmon; much
fish was consumed. Agriculture was intensive, with corn,
tobacco, pumpkin and watermelon prominent as crops. Their
only domestic animal was the small dog, which, like
the pig of later British inhabitants, was both pet and food.
Large mammals were hunted in the western areas,
more of the small animals and fowl in the Southeast.
Cannibalism was common.
Nations of the Eastern Woodlands provided a third area,
to be heavily stereotyped by Northeastern Euro-
American publishers and schoolteachers. Along with
horse-warrior Plains Indians, they afforded practically the full
imagery of the American populace about Indians. Here were
the Indians who were to be written about by James Fenimore
Cooper in books such as "The Last of the Mohicans," printed
in the early nineteenth century.
The main elements were the Iroquois and Algonquin peoples,
divided into important tribes, and in all numbering between
250,000 and a million people. Since they extended along the
Atlantic coastline from New York to Labrador, and all along
the great St. Lawrence and Hudson River waterways and into
the near Midwest, they probably had many more brief
contacts with the European world than are credited to them,
and one writer at least has claimed that there are
Scandinavian admixtures in parts of the population,
while another has claimed that he could detect
Throughout the sixteenth century, before the
Massachusetts and Virginia settlements, there were known
contacts, and maps were drawn and books written about the
area. The Northern section of this regional complex ran from
the Arctic North to the Great Lakes in the South and was
typed by the Ojibway tribes. Culturally they were related to
the Algonquin. These were hunters and gatherers, who would
pen up caribou, drag toboggans, and paddle birch canoes.
The main population lived Southwards and Eastwards: the
Central Algonquin, and East of them the Iroquois, then the
Eastern Algonquin who were the tribes of New England and
included the Delaware tribes, and Micmac and Abnaki
groups of tribes. The Iroquois, of which something has
already been told, occupied with perhaps 75,000 to 350,000
people an area of 4.4 million square kilometers; they included
the Five Nations, so-called, and the famous Huron,
Wyandot, Erie, and Susquehanna, connecting on the South
with the Cherokee and others, and probably came up
themselves from the South in the not distant past.
The Iroquois were competent and extensive farmers. Their villages
were composed of extended family rectangular longhouses
and were often well-fortified. They carved excellent wooden
masks, and executed fine bone work. They employed the
blowgun - found in Asia, Africa, and South America - as
well as the ordinary arms.
Women, we might remind ourselves, were more influential
here than in any other tribes of the Americas; the family
system was matriarchal; descent passed through the mother
as well; women participated in the government. They were in
charge of important holy exercises; they held property; they
arranged marriages; their names were carried down.
Since the Eastern Algonquin were heavily influenced by
Southern practices, the feathered cloak, for instance, and
Iroquois customs and artifacts, the Central Algonquin of
today's Midwest are regarded as a purer cultural type of
Eastern Woodland Indians. Better known are the Southern
Ojibway, Menomini, Sauk and Fox, and Winnebago. Less
documented are the Illinois, Peoria, Miami, Shawnee,
Kickapoo, and Ottawa.
They grew corn, beans, and squashes.. A good quantity of
wild rice was gathered. Fishing (especially for the lake
sturgeon), hunting ( for deer, bear, buffalo, wild fowl), were
major occupations. Small game was trapped and snared. A
dome-shaped bark and mat-covered lodge for winter, and a
rectangular bark house for summer helped adapt to the
Copper had in some earlier period been mined,
traded and used in Michigan, but for some reason the
industry was discontinued. There are several of such
discontinuities: sunken pyramids at the bottom of
Rock Lake, Wisconsin; inscribed rocks and stone tablets;
hundreds of large-scale mounds that served for burial, but
possibly, too, as refuges in the case of flooding, or for
astronomical observation of the horizons and religious
observances (one mound takes the form of a gigantic snake
whose open jaws are about to swallow a globe).
Eastern Indians derived about one-half of their food supply
from hunting and gathering, the balance from agriculture.
The corresponding figure for all American Indians would
have been about one-third from hunting and gathering.
Cultivation was probably not vital for the Eastern Indians. It
was enjoyed, especially by the women and children, one
suspects, since they moved about less than the men,
who were continually fussing over hunting.
They were indifferent farmers, but knew some practices
that the newcomers to America could learn from them; the
Pilgrims were taught to use fish for fertilizer, for example.
Hunting skills - stalking, tracking, trapping of game - of
which the European newcomers, typically peasants forbidden
to hunt, were bereft, were passed along. About one per cent of the
cultivable land in the East was given over to agriculture
by the Indians, anthropologist Kroeber estimated.
The Meccans culture area, with perhaps 150,000 to 400,000
people, dominated the interior of Western and Central
Canada down into the Northern United States. In the East
were the Algonquins, possibly coming from the South, and in
the West the Dene tribes, three groups of them, an Eastern
group with the Yellow Knives and others; the Northwestern
group with the Kutchin and others; and the Southwestern
group with the Sekani. They trapped and snared small game,
drove and penned caribou, ate tubers, berries, and fish.
Lacking pottery, they cooked in bark vessels, and used wood,
bark, and skins for practically all artifacts. Twisted bark, for
instance, was made into thongs and braid. They lived in a
kind of double lean-to.
The California coastal culture area, a fifth major culture, with
from 100,000 to 400,000 persons, has been divided into
four sub-areas, indicating its internal diversity. The Santa
Barbara tribe was characteristic. The central sub-area would
appear to have been the simplest Indian culture of the
continent, an odd fact, given its richness and luxury today.
Basketry of coil and twine was the most impressive
achievement. Of pottery, canoes, and substantial housing
there was none. Acorns were the largest dietary item,
supplemented by seeds, roots, and berries, along with small
game and fish, where possible. Shellfish was popular.
But farther South and to the North, extensive borrowing from
the neighboring cultures allowed a considerable expansion of
the culture tool kit.
Northern neighbors, the North Pacific Coast Culture
Area, extended from Oregon to the Alaskan peninsula, with
some 150,000 to 600,000 persons. Its numerous highly
varied tribes were nevertheless divisible into three types,
from South to North, the Chinook, the Kwakiutl and the
Tlingit. There was a general reliance upon sea food,
a large use of berries, and some hunting.
Dried fish and clams were staples. Large planked houses
were typical. Impressive totem poles and posts were erected.
Large sea-going canoes were constructed, sometimes with sails.
Woodworking was highly developed, including carving techniques.
The Southern Tlingit shared culture complexes with
California culture, obtaining, for example, an acorn cuisine.
The Kwakiutl engaged in the pot-latch, a form of economic
competition that involved careful and diligent saving by
individuals culminating in a great giving-away party; the
most extravagant donor (or waster), the man in the
community who was able to dispose of material of the
highest value, achieved great prestige and influence.
A pot-latch resembled the great balls and banquets of France, Spain,
Italy and England of the time, where the magnates of the
realm competed in display and waste, and of the later USA
cultures of the plantation South, but especially of the
business North at the end of the 1800's.
Northwest Coast music was the most complex to be found,
especially in rhythmic structure. While it is practically true
that the whole of the region North of the Rio Grande lacked
polyphony, its rudiments might be found here too. It
employed frequent pulses and vocal tension, with dynamic
contrasts and sudden accents. Antiphony was employed as
were forms of response. Major thirds and minor seconds were
commonly employed, the melodic range was narrow,
singing had a recitative quality, whereas the percussion wove its
own designs behind the melody.
String instruments were unknown, a puzzling lack,
inasmuch as a bow string hums when twanged.
Drums, rattles, flutes, whistles, and human voices
provided the instruments. With profound cultural destruction and
depopulation went practically all compositions and
techniques, so that we cannot tell
whether Amer-Indian music approached, say,
the exceedingly rich Hindu flute and drum music.
The Plains Area contained from 150,000 to 600,000 persons
organized into at least 31 tribes, among them the Arapaho,
Blackfoot, Crow, Cheyenne, and Comanche. Nomadism,
buffalo-hunting, their mobile dwelling - the tepee -, the dog,
an artistry in animal skin tailoring and beadwork: such were
their prominent cultural traits. Related tribes to the East -
the Iowa, Kansa, Pawnee, Sioux, and Dakota -
engaged in some agriculture and weaving as well as hunting
and alternated the tepee with permanent dwellings of
earth and bark.
The Plateau culture area, eighth of our categories, connected
with the Plains area on the West. It is less uniform because it
is largely desert on the South whereas the North is moist and
fertile. Its population of some 25,000 to 100,000 was
divided into a number of tribes whose history had all but
disappeared before systematic observations came to be made.
The Nez Perce and the Shoshone were major elements, but
intermingled with the Plains Culture to a marked degree. The
Interior Salish Tribe, despite its over sixteen dialectical
divisions, was more typical, with its semi-subterranean pit
houses and movable summer homes of mats, sticks,
and lean-to style. Deerskins were the favorite material for
bedding, clothing, and caps. Dug-out canoes and bark canoes
were manufactured. Pulverized dried salmon and tubers were
stored against the lean seasons.
The Eskimo, or, more properly, Inuits,
numbering from some 90,000 to 200,000 persons,
occupied, as they do today, an Arctic space reaching
from the American Alaskan Aleutians to Eastern Greenland.
They and the Indians of the Northwest suffered gravely from
Russian depredation and murder in the eighteenth and
nineteenth centuries. They are deemed not to be Indians of
race, but sui generis though Mongolian,
a distinct sub-race.
Wherever they originated, their cultural development has paralleled
all known cultures, admirably so in some regards, and lately have
been given back the fourth largest stretch of land in the
world as their autonomous domain, by the Canadian
government. The United States has made no move to return
any part of Alaska to them, and in fact has made living
conditions difficult for some of them by turning a large area
over to great corporations for petroleum
exploration and extraction. Meanwhile, the US has
subsidized every Eskimo, every Alaskan even, by
thousands of dollars per capita annually
in every excusable way.
Eskimos compounded one of the richest bodies of folklore in
the world; that they were illiterate and consigned to months
of total darkness only helped in this regard. Their techniques
of group hunting and distribution and consumption of
animals such as the whale were and are ingenious. Little of
the ancient has been found respecting the Eskimo, so they
may have been later arrivals than most into the Northern
regions, perhaps as recently as two thousand years ago. Their
use of dog-sleds is proverbial, as are their winter dwellings,
igloos. Distinctive and clever as well are their several
kinds of knives; special tools and boats for women; snow
goggles; harpoons; floats; and carved implements and bowls
of wood and bone.
A multi-disciplinary, socio-economic, demographic history of
the Indians occupying America has yet to be written.
Considering them in their group context but especially as
individual persons, how did the Amerindians compare
culturally and in pursuit of happiness with the Europeans
who landed upon these shores? The story ought to focus also
upon relations among the Indian nations and their relations
with the many varieties of Europeans. The end product
might serve the growing science of regional histories. Once
the observer begins to operate with the universal language
and method of science, especially social science, the actors,
plots, and denouements become startlingly alike.
The ghost of Indian America is not simply a haunting spirit of
tragedy and vengeance; it is an archetypical ancestor, who, as
we shall see, has left his imprint upon and his genes within
the landscape, the psychic state, the conduct of the present
nation. Every day millions of cars drive down paths, now
highways, that were discovered, marked out, and worn down
by Indian explorers, travelers and migrations before the
Genoese navigator hoisted anchor near Cadiz in Spain. They
are paths that take us from Bangor to San Diego, Seattle to
Miami, and points North, West and South by land, and,
unmarked but remembered in navigation lore, by sea
besides. Every day, too, habits peculiar to Americans
hark back to the Indian.