The Struggles and Resilience of the Native Indians in America
Looking back over the last 500 years since Europeans first made landfall in North America, the changes that have swept through the continent shaping the present day United States are truly astounding. For the last half-millennium, this country has seen conquest from outside powers such as Spain, France, Britain, and other European nations, and has been a key playing field in its fair share of conflicts on both a domestic and global scale.
Throughout all of this change and conflict, there remains one factor that has been constant long before Europeans made contact. The groups that most people today call ‘native Americans,’ or ‘Indians,’ have inhabited North and South America for as long as they can remember. From an archaeological standpoint, there is undeniable proof that natives have been here for at least 20,000 years, as discovered by various digs throughout the continent. This forms a solid basis for the Indians’ belief that they have always held this land. History since European contact has only strengthened this claim as the natives have weathered over 500 years of genocide-like action against them.
Through the natives’ view of the world, and their unique oral tradition of relating history down through the generations, it has been gathered through their extensive and varied creation stories that they are undeniably a people in sync with nature. Essentially, the land that we now call the United States is, and always has belonged to them. The systematic destruction of every aspect of Indian society has brought a previously numerous, diverse, and advanced group of peoples down to the small reservations they now seek to make ends meet on.
Disease, warfare, false stereotypes and broken treaties are the culprits of this cultural collapse. Yet on top of all of this, the desire for land is the real heart of the matter. European and American settlers alike have slowly reduced the Indians’ land down to the small pockets they are today. For the natives, this is one of the most painful, drawn-out measures to rob them of their identity. Indians base their beliefs on nature; it is who they are. The loss of land coincides with the removal of their freedom, rituals and identity. If anyone has ever wondered how such a prosperous, diverse group of people could ever be brought to their knees like the Indians have, one only needs to reference an Indian perspective of American history over the past several centuries.
As mentioned earlier, the direct answer as to why the natives have insisted they have always been here lies within their creation stories, which are unique for every tribe, yet all echo the same connection with nature and the land. A good example of creation stories as a basis for land claims lies with the Navajo nation, a major tribe in the Southwestern United States. In their particular version of creation; men, women, and all living creatures are said to have sprung from a succession of five worlds, each one introducing a new character or species, until the fifth (present) world is reached. “And after all the beings were divided, and each had his own form, they went their ways.” (Calloway 46)
These stories really are the heart of the Indian land claims because they are able to draw from their oral tradition and intertwine it with their view of themselves and nature as a single entity. Relating back to a more historical context following the initial wave of death and disease brought by the Europeans, one can see the continued loss of Indian population as French and Spanish interests in North America waned, and a small group of dissenting British laid the groundwork for what would become the United States of America. Starting even before the first American settlers, the natives took another blow to their already weakened identity, this time in terms of their core spiritual beliefs.
The Spanish missionaries of the 16th century sought to Christianize the Indians, and thereby cleanse them of their ‘barbarian’ status, as the common eye perceived them. This marks a major attack for the natives: the beliefs they had held for countless generations were under attack by a more powerful, influential people who had no capacity for mercy. In this sense, they had already begun to lose the war for holding on to their continent as a whole.
With the arrival of white settlers before and after the American Revolution, natives witnessed another fundamental loss for their culture in regards to the land itself. During this time in the late 17th to 18th century, the American settlers underwent a massive population growth, almost to the rate of doubling every twenty years. In order to feed such a burgeoning population, farmers introduced farm animals such as pigs and cows on a large-scale, and implemented a crop system that was much greater than anything the Indians ever had. This resulted in a faster deterioration of the land, and subsequently it required farms and villages to move out beyond New England and the outlying areas.
As an added consequence to this agricultural expansion, natives in the East also lost fish and game as a reliable food source, since the amount of available land to roam on was drastically reduced by white farming. The process of white expansion throughout the whole of North America was indeed inevitable, and Indians were continually pushed back and consolidated through a series of broken treaties and open conflicts, which essentially described their plight in the 19th century.
It would seem, as since Americans were rapidly becoming the dominant force on the continent, it is only natural that the Indians would try and make peace with them, so as to hold on to the remaining vestiges of their land and identity. The loss of formerly-Indian lands can be traced back to the backstabbing, broken promises, and open conflict from the whites, killing thousands of Indians in the process, and forever setting a course that would almost totally isolate them from who they were before European arrival. One of these treaties that really hit home here in New York State manifested itself in the Canandaigua Treaty of 1794, which recognized the sovereignty of the Iroquois Confederation of New York, and guaranteed them 4 million acres of land.
Not even three years later, the Seneca found themselves with only 80,000 acres of land by the terms of the Big Tree Treaty. New York’s government clearly influenced this treat by exploiting natives’ weakness to alcohol, and granting annuities to individuals that forced them to become dependent on the state government. As similar situations developed across the East, creating bad state-native relations, a pattern formed as Indians were consolidated into tiny reservations, and became entirely dependent on government rations to survive. It is here that the hammer truly falls hardest for Indian identity. For a people that had lived for countless centuries in America, and had conducted themselves in relatively small, self-sustaining tribes, this new reliance on an outside source for the necessities of life marked the deathblow to the native way of life.
As if this was not enough of a burden to bear, the 19th century also marked a period of devastating military campaigns that sought to forcibly take lands from the Indians, no matter who stood in the way. Massacres, such as the infamous Wounded Knee conflict in 1890, demonstrated the ruthlessness of American troops to quell any form of resistance, even if that meant killing women and children in the process, as was the case in many conflicts.
Indians won few battles in this time, most notably the Battle of the Little Big Horn, in which a Lakota and Northern Cheyenne force under the leadership of Sitting Bull decisively defeated the 7th Cavalry Regiment of Lt. Col George Custer. It seems as though for every small step the Indians were able to make in regards to reclaiming their ever-vanishing culture, whites pushed them back several steps by breaking more treaties and engaging in additional themselves in conflicts.
It is very difficult to imagine that it took until the late 19th century for people to realize the danger of the ‘vanishing Indian,’ and that a series of reforms had to be made in order to ensure their survival. It is quite ironic to note that during this time of open conflict that whites (the so-called ‘civilized’ people) were the ones to engage the natives (‘savages’) in war, whereas one only has to look at such massacres as Sand Creek and Wounded Knee to see who the real ‘savages’ were.
As stated previously, after the end of Indian conflicts in the West, there was a cry for reform, not necessarily to restore the natives to their land, (which is what they have always wanted) but rather to assimilate them into American society. The term ‘kill the Indian and save the man,’ is a good way to describe this period of change for the natives, which best manifested itself in the introduction of Indian boarding schools. These institutions, first started as a way to reform adult Plains warriors, soon made the transition into a compulsory education for all Indian children.
These schools sought to dichotomize between the potentially civilized human being inside, and the ‘savage’ Indian on the outside. Reformers aimed to eliminate the latter. Indian children were forced to wear American clothes, discard their old beliefs and adopt Christianity (simply a more modern attempt at what the Spaniards did a few centuries before), and learn a patriotic view of American history that ignored native influence. Reading and writing in English was also heavily stressed, as was a total rejection of native tongues. This blow that was dealt to the natives in the lingual aspect remains an issue they are still trying to cope with today.
Amongst the natives, their languages are as unique and diverse as their cultures, and this forced rejection by teachers in boarding schools created an impenetrable barrier that prevented children from fully returning and settling back in with their families. For many Indians, boarding school placed them in an awkward position: unable to join the civilized American society, while at the same time too cultured or educated to return to their reservations and old way of life. In many ways, the boarding school system represented a non-violent way of continuing the process of taking away the identity, culture, and heritage of the Indians.
From a modern day perspective, it is truly staggering to think how Americans could have so relentlessly and cruelly pursued a group of people of the course of several hundred years. As a result of American dominance on the continent, Indians, the true people who belong here have lost nearly every cultural aspect that made them so unique and diverse. Through European, then American policies, the natives lost their individual tribal identity through nothing but deception and conflict. Settlers established stereotypes of Indians as ‘savages’ who needed to be liberated by the civilized world.
These stereotypes remained constant for centuries, and were much of the reason that the Indians were so relentlessly persecuted. This long period of conflict and disease led to massive population losses, which have only begun to recover in the last century. Indians also witnessed the demise of many of their old, and unique languages and customs through such policies as the Requerimiento of Spanish times, and the boarding school system of the 19th-20th centuries.
For as much as people have tried to enforce change on the Indians, it can be said without a doubt that they indeed have held their ground well through the midst of countless wars and massacres. One fact remains above all, and cannot be denied: North America always has and will belong to the natives. It is their land, and their continued presence here through five centuries of death and devastation is all the proof one needs to see that they are indeed a resilient people who should be honored, not hunted.