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CHAPTER 1

Native Peoples of America, to 1500

0Chapter Themes


The earliest Americans arrived in multiple migrations, either crossing the land bridge between Siberia and Alaska, or by boat, following the then-continuous coast to Alaska and south. The original arrivals moved farther south as others also made the crossing. After the Ice Age, about 10,500 B.C., these Paleo-Indians learned to use jasper or flint for tools and weapons for hunting. A warming climate altered the food chain, ending many of the big game species. By 4000 B.C. this change caused the sea level to rise and the glaciers to recede, filling the Great Lakes, the Mississippi River basin, and other waterways with glacial runoff. Treeless plains and evergreen forests gave way to deciduous forests in the East, grassland prairies on the Plains, and desert in much of the West.

In response to these climatic changes, Paleo-Indians began to modify their ways of life and develop new societies, called Archaic by archeologists. Archaic peoples of about 8000 B.C. to about 2 500 B.C. lived off smaller mammals, fish, and wild plants. In the East and Midwest many dwelled in year-round villages. Over time Archiac Indians began to experiment with agriculture, tending wild plants and cultivating specific crops.

After 2500 B.C. many Native American societies moved beyond archaic ways of life. The most far-reaching transformation occurred among peoples who depended on cultivated crops. In Mesoamerica and South America selective breeding of crops, particularly maize, led to surpluses that enabled the development of large urban centers. Several closely clustered communities would form a chiefdom ruled by hereditary leaders. A few states arose by 100 A.D., with centralized, hierarchical power and institutions that extended across broad spans of territory. The most extensive was Teotihuacán which dominated the Valley of Mexico until 700. By the fifteenth century, two mighty empires: the Aztecs of Mesoamerica and the Incas of the South American Andes had emerged. The arrival of Spanish crushed both empires in the sixteenth century.

In the Southwest, full-time farming did not begin until after 400 B.C., when a more drought-resistant strain of maize made possible increased population throughout the region. During the third century B.C., the Hohokam peoples began farming in the river valleys of southern Arizona, building elaborate irrigation canals and living in permanent villages. The Anasazis originated in the first century B.C. and expanded over much of what is today the region where Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah meet. They established towns that were major trading centers. Drought at the end of the twelfth and in the early thirteenth centuries brought an end to the Anasazi culture and cleared the way for the arrival of Apaches and Navajos.

In the Eastern Woodlands—the land from the Mississippi Valley to the Atlantic Ocean—Indians established complex political organizations before developing a flourishing agriculture. As early as 1200 B.C. a mound-building culture existed on the Mississippi River in Louisiana. Another mound-building culture, the Adena, emerged in the Ohio Valley in the fifth century B.C. The Adena people spread over a wide area and built hundreds of mounds. During the first century B.C., the Adena culture developed into an even more complex and widespread culture known as Hopewell. It covered a wider area, including the Illinois River valley, and built more complex ceremonial centers with a greater variety and quantity of goods. Through trade networks the Hopewell influence spread over much of the Eastern Woodlands to Wisconsin, Florida, and New York.

Agriculture became a dietary mainstay for woodlands people only between the seventh and twelfth centuries A.D. The first full-time farmers in the East lived on the floodplains of the Mississippi and its major tributaries. They developed a new culture, the Mississippian, that combined elements of Hopewell culture with new ideas from Mexico. Mississippian towns with hundreds and even thousands of people were built around open plazas like those of central Mexico. By the tenth century most Mississippian centers were linked in a single system with its center at the city of Cahokia, located near contemporary St. Louis. Beginning in the thirteenth century the Mississippian centers underwent decline. Although that decline ended a trend toward political centralization, the Mississippians had affected native culture profoundly, spreading new strains of maize and beans along with techniques and tools to cultivate these crops.

Along the Pacific coast from Alaska to southern California improvements in the production and storage of salmon and other spawning fish enabled Indians to settle into villages, which on the northwest coast could number several hundred persons. Farther south in California, Indians began to live in small villages and used acorns to supplement their diets.

The end of the Archaic period is less noticeable in the Great Plains to the east of the Rocky Mountains and the Great Basin to the west, which both remained too dry to support large human settlements. Plains Indian hunters mainly pursued buffalo.

By A.D. 1500 the North American continent presented a broad spectrum of human societies, bound together by similar patterns of kinship, the norms of reciprocity, and communal use and control of resources. Between 7 million and 10 million Native Americans lived north of present-day Mexico. Trade facilitated the exchange not only of goods but also of new ideas and techniques. Indians also shared a preference for the independent, kin-based communities that generally characterized indigenous North America.

Native American religions held the conviction that all nature was alive, united in an unbroken web. Most Indian peoples sought to conciliate nature’s spiritual forces and to reach spiritual power themselves through physical ordeal and an understanding of dreams. Native American communities demanded conformity and close cooperation. In early childhood Indians learned to be accommodating and reserved, slow to reveal their feelings. Because Indians valued consensus building in everyday life, their leaders’ authority depended primarily on gaining respect rather than on compulsion. All Indian cultures possessed a strong sense of order and custom that mingled with the spiritual world at every turn.


0Lecture Suggestions


Europeans “discovered” America only in the sense that earlier they didn’t know it was there. The Native Americans certainly knew. You may wish to expand on one or more of these societies in lecture. See, for example, Lynda Norene Shaffer, Native Americans Before 1492: The Moundbuilding Centers of the Eastern Woodlands (1992); Susan L. Woodward and Jerry N. McDonald, Indian Mounds of the Middle Ohio Valley: A Guide to Mounds and Earthworks of the Adena, Hopewell, Cole, and Fort Ancient People (2002); Jon Muller, Archaeology of the Lower Ohio Valley (1986); or Ronald J. Mason, Rock Island: Historical Indian Archaeology in the Northern Lake Michigan Basin (1986). Consider also Karl H. Schlesier, editor, Plains Indians, A.D. 500–1500: The Archeological Past of Historic Groups (1995); William H. MacLeish, The Day Before America (1995); and David Roberts, In Search of the Old Ones: Exploring the Anasazi World of the Southwest (1997). Perhaps a geologist or anthropologist colleague might be invited to offer some comments on pre-Columbian North America that would serve to illustrate, among other things, that history is related to other disciplines. Another suggestion is a lecture dealing with the Indian past prior to European arrival in the region in which the college or university is located using specialist resources specific to the area. For sources, consult the history of tribal groups that has been the concern of the University of Oklahoma’s Civilization of the American Indian series, currently nearing two hundred volumes.

0Additional Instructional Suggestions


The worldview of pre-Columbian peoples was very different from that of contemporary Americans. One possible approach to understanding may be to consider how Native Americans explained the world. Ask students to make a selection from Richard Erdoes and Alfonso Ortiz, editors, American Indian Myths and Legends (1985), or from the videos of Indian legends listed below in Print and Nonprint Resources that may be made available to students. Ask for a brief written summary: Restate the story in straightforward prose. What attitudes toward nature or toward human relations or toward social obligations does the Indian’s explanation of the world reveal? That is, what is the world’s meaning for them? Choose a few summaries for class discussion. Another possibility is to ask students to identify themes that are found in some of the major religions currently practiced in the United States.

Ask students to choose one tribal group of Native Americans and write a paragraph explaining the tribe’s origins as far as they are known. You may wish to consult the University of Oklahoma’s Civilization of the American Indian series.


0Print and Nonprint Resources


One must take particular care in considering nonprint materials relating to Indian archaeology. Much of the material available was created for lower-school use. Three films may be recommended here, but they should be used carefully. The concepts are valid, but the expected audience is younger. Indians of the Americas, sixteen minutes, provides a sweeping survey from twenty thousand years ago. Indian Origins: The First 50,000 Years, eighteen minutes, and Indian Cultures from 2000 B.C. to 1500 A.D., sixteen minutes, provide a useful summary. To obtain the films, consult the College and University Media Review.

Films for the Humanities and Sciences has two series of eight 26-minute videos of Legends of the Indians and More Legends of the Indians, authentic stories from various Indian tribes told by the tribespeople themselves. It also offers two 13-minute videos, The Indians Were There First and When the White Man Came, which tell the story of the migration across the land bridge from Asia and the development of the major tribal groups. In a sixty-minute video, The Search for the First Americans, the same source offers new archeological evidence that questions the Bering Sea land bridge thesis. In Ice Age Crossings, twenty-eight minutes, artifacts from South America are considered in relation to the Bering Strait thesis. Films for the Humanities and Sciences also offers videos that examine some ancient North American sites: The Ancients of North America, twenty-three minutes, travels to the Southwest to a site dated 5490 B.C.; The Anasazi of Chaco Canyon, forty-three minutes, looks at that civilization; Spirits of the Canyon: Ancient Art of the Pecos Indians, twenty-eight minutes, takes viewers to the canyon walls of southwest Texas; and America’s Indian Heritage: Rediscovering Columbus (Ohio), fifty-six minutes, considers the moundbuilders and their connection to later peoples. PBS Video offers a sixty-minute presentation of Myths and Moundbuilders that focuses on the river valleys of the Southeast and Midwest. Several videos in the Ancient America series from the Jefferson National Expansion Historical Association will be of interest. Indians of the Southwest, Indians of the Northwest, and Indians of the Eastern Woodlands, each sixty minutes, are available from the association at 10 South Broadway, St. Louis, Missouri 63102.

Although Nanook of the North was made about Eskimo people in this century, its status as one of the original films of the documentary genre and its effort to capture the character of an earlier society are notable. Robert Flaherty’s reputation has been challenged, but the film remains a great achievement.

0Document Set 1–1

0The World of Native Americans: Oral Tradition0


10. The Indians of New Netherlands Account for the Creation, ca. 1650s

20. The Origins of Ottawa Society, as Related by Nicholas Perrot, ca. 1720

30. The Dekanawida Myth and the Achievement of Iroquois Unity, ca. Sixteenth Century

40. The Foundation of the Iroquois Confederacy, 1570, as Recounted in the Tuscarora Oral Tradition

Although it is impossible to provide students with traditional source material on pre-Columbian life in North America because Native Americans did not leave a corpus of written documents, there are other forms of evidence that will help students gain insight into the lives, thoughts, and experiences of indigenous peoples. This document set is intended to acquaint students with the diversity of cultures that existed in what later became the United States, prior to the arrival of Europeans. Through an acquaintance with both the oral tradition of Native American tribes and the observations of Europeans, students may come to recognize the depth, color, and richness of Native American history. The documents focus particularly on tribes east of the Mississippi, because those are the tribes whose oral traditions are most accessible to students of early America.

Because of the controversy surrounding the concept of “discovery,” instructors might wish to begin with an exercise in semantics, asking students to explore the implications of the word discovery. By examining the creation myths and other Native American ideas contained in this document set, students may come to appreciate the sensitivity of today’s Native Americans to the widely held assumption that an almost vacant continent awaited exploitation at the time of Columbus’s first encounter with an American population.

Another fruitful avenue for discussion would be an exploration of commonalities in creation myths to determine whether there were linkages between separate Native American tribes, at least in their belief systems. Students might be asked to discuss similarities and differences between Native American and Judeo-Christian beliefs. This exercise could easily incorporate an analysis of European influence on Native American religious thought. A careful examination of the documents will reveal not only evidence of European modification of traditional oral accounts of Native American history and myth but also the subversive and potentially dangerous impact of European assumptions concerning the intrinsic worth of the respective cultures involved in the exchange of ideas. This discussion might revolve around student exploration of ethnocentrism, as well as the merits and shortcomings of cultural relativism. Students might be asked to approach this topic through discussion of the values and lifestyles of Native Americans and Europeans in the first centuries after initial contact.

The value of the oral tradition as evidence could also be explored through discussion of the research problems presented by a culture that left few records. Students might be asked to consider the ways in which the modern scholar reconstructs the lives and thoughts of Native Americans in the pre-Columbian era. As students grapple with the limitations imposed on the scholar by the absence of written documents, they should begin to see why oral accounts assume significance as historical sources. Equally valuable would be a discussion of the precautions necessary when the scholar relies on oral tradition.

Finally, this chapter should provide the springboard from which instructors may launch an examination of the Columbian exchange. Alfred W. Crosby’s conceptual framework might be introduced by a short preliminary lecture in which the Native Americans are portrayed as part of an incipient global interaction soon to alter the course of history. An awareness of the reciprocal nature of this exchange may begin with an analysis of the highly sophisticated cultures present in North America and their potential for influence as well as absorption.

0Recommended Readings for Document Set 1–1


James Axtell. The Invasion Within: The Contest of Cultures in Colonial North America (1985).

Robert F. Berkhofer, Jr. The White Man’s Indian: Images of the American Indian from Columbus to the Present (1978).

Alfred W. Crosby. The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 (1972).

William Denevan. The Native American Population of the Americas in 1492 (1976).

H. Dobryns. The Number Became Thinned: Native American Population Dynamics in Eastern North America (1983).

Ake Hulkvantz. The Religions of the American Indians (1979).

Francis Jennings. The Ambiguous Iroquois Empire: The Covenant Chain Confederation of Indian Tribes from Its Beginnings to the London Treaty of 1744 (1984).

Daniel K. Richter. The Ordeal of the Longhouse: The People of the Iroquois League in the Era of European Expansion (1992).

Elizabeth Tooker, ed. Native North American Spirituality of the Eastern Woodlands (1979).

Christopher Vecsey. Imagine Ourselves Richly: Mythic Narratives of North American Indians (1988).


0Audiovisual Resources for Document Set 1–1


The Early Americans (film—41 min.). Shell Film Library, 1433 Sadlier Circle West Drive, Indianapolis, Ind. 46239.

The Indians Were There First (videotape—13 min.). Films for the Humanities and Sciences, P.O. Box 2053, Princeton, N.J. 08543-2053.

Glooscap (How Humans and Animals Were Created to Live in Peace and Plenty and How Evil Intervened) (videotape—26 min.). Films for the Humanities and Sciences, P.O. Box 2053, Princeton, N.J. 08543-2053.

Myths and Mound Builders (videotape—60 min.). PBS Video, 1320 Braddock Place, Alexandria, Va. 22314-1698.

The New Found Land (videotape—53 min.). Episode 1, America Series. Time-Life Films, 110 Eisenhower Drive, Paramus, N.J. 07652.

Popul Vuh: The Creation Myth of the Maya (videotape—60 min.). University of California Extension, Center for Media and Independent Learning, 2176 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley, Calif. 94704.

0Document Set 1–2

0Native American Life: European Observations on Social Institutions and Ecological Change0


10. Jesuit Observations on the “Enslavement” of Native American Women, 1633, 1710

20. Father Pierre de Charlevoix Describes the Female Role in Iroquois Governance, 1721

30. Sir William Johnson Confronts the Iroquois Women, 1758

40. A Challenge to European Stereotypes of Native American Gender Relations, 1819

50. Aspects of Native American Life

60. Indian Agriculture and Nature’s Balance, Seventeenth Century

70. A Narragansett Leader Complains of English Encroachment, 1642

80. Mohegan Indians Describe Effects of White Settlement, 1789

90. Father Sebastian Rasles Comments on the Hunting Practices of the Illinois, 1692

Discussion of these materials might be preceded by a lecture dealing with the cultural assumptions Europeans brought to North America with them. The documents containing observations on Native American families and communities will be better understood by students who are aware of European models of behavior in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Moreover, this background session should enable instructors and students to explore the nature and definition of ethnocentrism. As a result, it should be possible to question some traditional shortcomings in instructional and scholarly interpretation of the Indian-European cultural exchange.

An excellent point of entry into this discussion would be an examination of the relationship between social institutions, gender roles, and the sexual division of labor on the one hand and the conditions imposed by the cultures and societies in which they appeared on the other hand. This topic also gives instructors an opportunity to introduce an interdisciplinary approach to the study of history. The topic is ideally suited to introducing into class discussion some anthropological, archaeological, and ethnohistorical insights into the Indian way of life. As a result, students may develop an appreciation of indigenous cultures and an understanding of cultural relativism as a tenable analytical assumption.

In this respect, students might be asked why the economic roles and responsibilities described in the documents had evolved as they had by the seventeenth century. This exercise will encourage students to think about the rationale behind a set of social relationships. A critical approach to the documents can also lead students to identify cultural bias and hidden assumptions in the observations of European commentators on Native American social, economic, and political relationships. By urging students to arrive at the “truth” concerning the Indian way of life and to consider the validity of that “truth,” instructors may help students understand the complexities of historical analysis.

Another point of emphasis in acquainting students with Native American cultures is discussion of the principles of equilibrium, reciprocity, and ecological balance as central to the Native American worldview. The textbook conclusion stresses the Indians’ assumption that they participated in a “natural and spiritual order that pervaded the universe.” Students will find much to contemplate in evaluating the Indians’ value systems, including their attitude toward nature and the role of humans in the natural order. The question of Native Americans’ ecological sensitivity offers instructors an excellent opportunity to establish past-present linkage through discussion of the clash between Indian ecology and European capitalist expansionism. Moreover, instructors might also spark debate by introducing the
modern scholarly controversy over the extent of the Indians’ commitment to ecological principles (see “Recommended Readings”). In any case, the documents may be employed to demonstrate early evidence of the unquestionably disruptive effect of unrestrained European development.

0Recommended Readings for Document Set 1–2


James Axtell. The Invasion Within: The Contest of Cultures in Colonial America (1985).

Cheryl Claassen and Rosemary A. Joyce, eds. Women in Prehistory: North American and Mesoamerica (1997).

William Cronon. Changes in the Land (1983).

Francis Jennings. The Invasion of America: Colonialism and the Cant of Conquest (1975).

Karen Kupperman. Settling with the Indians: The Meeting of English and Indian Cultures, 1580–1640 (1981).

James H. Merrell. The Indians’ New World: Catawbas and Their Neighbors from European Settlement Through the Era of Removal (1989).

Calvin Martin. Keepers of the Game: Indian-Animal Relationships and the Fur Trade (1978).

Neal Salisbury. Manitou and Providence: Indians, Europeans and the Making of New England, 1500–1643 (1982).

Timothy Silver. A New Face on the Countryside: Indians, Colonists and Slaves in South Atlantic Forests, 1500–1800 (1990).

Bruce G. Trigger. The Children of Aataentsic: A History of the Huron People to 1660 (1976).



Richard White. The Middle Ground: Indian Empires and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650–1815 (1991).

0Audiovisual Resources for Document Set 1–2


1492 Revisited (videotape—28 min.). University of California Extension, Center for Media and Independent Learning, 2176 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley, Calif. 94704.

An Introduction to the Indians of America, Part 4 (Indians of the Northeast); Part 5 (Indians of the Southeast) (slides—18 min. each). Morey Associates, Kansas City, Mo.

The Indians Were Here First (videotape—13 min.). Films for the Humanities and Sciences, P.O. Box 2053, Princeton, N.J. 08543-2053.

In Search of the Long World (film—52 min.). Films, Inc., 5574 Ravenswood Avenue, Chicago, Ill. 60640-1199.

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