The Native Americans make up a substantial part of the American population. Additionally, they contribute significantly to the American culture. According to the United States census bureau, an estimated 1.0% of the American population is made up of Native Americans in 2006 [US census, 2006].
The term Native American is used to refer to people whose ancestors originally inhabited the North American region currently forming the United States, Alaska, and Hawaii. They comprise a total population of 2.5 million of single race descent and 1.6 million with mixed heritage [US census, 2006]. The Native Americans exist as American citizens but with distinct tribes, groups, and political bodies. Many names are used to describe them including Native Americans, American Indians, first Americans, original Americans, red Indians et cetera.
History of Native Americans
The Native Americans before the arrival of the European explorers lived a subsistent life of farming and hunting devoid of any economic or institutional structures: consequently, all of the written historic records began with the Europeans.
The American continent was populated with Native Americans before the arrival of the Europeans. The New-World migration model suggests that the humans came from the Eurasian continent through the land bridge that is now the Bering straight. The migrants went ahead to diversify into the hundreds of communities and tribes. These occurrences are estimated to have taken place 12,000 years ago.
The arrival of the European explorers marked a turning point in Native American history and heralded one of the greatest clashes of culture in the history of the world. The Europeans brought with them many things from the old world: one of the most significant was disease.
The native population lacked immunity against some common diseases of the Europeans: although these were mild ailments and hardly fatal to the settlers, they had a devastating effect on the native population. Some of these diseases are measles and smallpox. Huge epidemic usually followed explorers and settlements: and in some records destroyed whole villages. The exact number of the natives who died from these outbreaks is unknown: but in some sectors, it is estimated to have been up to 80% [Lange, 2003]. Between 1618 and 1619, The Massachusetts Bay Native American population had 90% mortality from a smallpox outbreak: it is believed to have originated from children of Dutch traders in Albany in 1634. Many other such devastating events have been recorded. The major effect of these deaths was a breakdown in society and subsequent loss of the culture. Some of the tribes were completely wiped out.
The Natives vs. the Settlers
The new arrivals to the continent were eager to expand their territories for exploitation. This was at the expense of the natives and led to numerous conflicts and wars. During the American Revolution, both the British and the Americans competed for the allegiance of the Indians. Although many joined forces with the Americans, during the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783, the vast tracts of land belonging and populated with Indian tribes was ceded to the Americans immediately alienating the natives. This and other similar occurrences led to many conflicts between the Indians and the white settlers.
Other policies also put the two groups at loggerheads: for example, the policy of (sometimes against their will) “civilizing” the Indians. This arose from a perception that the Indian culture was inferior and aimed at integrating the Indians into the mainstream (white) American society. Some of the Indian children were forced to go to boarding schools where they were forbidden to speak their native language and to practice their native religions: most of these schools were Christian-based. They were forced to abandon their Indian identities and adopt European – American cultures: this had serious psychological effects on the children [Authors-den].
The Manifest Destiny
This refers to the expansion of the American territory westwards (into Oregon and Texas et cetera). This meant expansion into Indian Territory. The method of acquisition of this land was usually annexation [Tignor, et al, 2000]. The proponents of the expansion believed that the Indian culture was inferior and the natives had to adapt and integrate into the American society or move away. This resulted in the shipping off of the natives of the affected areas into reservations. The Native Americans west of the Mississippi were the last to be fall under the American military authority: the conflicts related to this are known as the Indian wars. From this period, Native Americans were compelled and forced to migrate further west. The Indian removal act of 1830 gave the American president the authority to sign treaties to exchange the Indian land east of the Mississippi with the land west. Many Indian chiefs were under pressure to sign these treaties. It is estimated that as many as 100,000 natives were affected by the Indian removal policy. Many of these went live in the Indian reservations.
The Native Americans Today
The legacy of the Native Americans
The ecosystem: Scientists have disputed that North America was a “wilderness waiting to be discovered” [Kay, 1994]. In fact, like any other human society, the Native American day-to-day activities before the arrival of the Europeans had shaped the ecosystem of North America. For example, the early Americans had hunted the early American horse to extinction by about 7,000 B.C.: the horse was reintroduced by the Spanish in the sixteenth century.
Culture: most of the original names that the Indians had named as their habitats were changed: however, some did, against all odds and resistance, find their way into the country’s official cartography [Thornton, 1998]. Today, these names reflect the rich heritage of the American society and place the Native Americans firmly on the annals of history. On another note, 44,000 Native Americans fought in the American armed forces in World War 2: the Navajo code-talker has commonly known Wind-talker never had their code broken by the Japanese.
Sports: the use of Indian mascots by American and Canadian teams for example the Cleveland Indians, is controversial: while the proponents urge that it is an honoring of the country’s heritage, others urge that it is racially demeaning: citing for example that there are no teams with African American mascots.
Status of the Native Americans today
In the United States today, there are 561 federally recognized tribal governments: this have the same right and powers as any of the other American states, and have the same restrictions: that is, cannot wage war, cannot have a monetary currency, and cannot engage in foreign relations. Otherwise, they can make their laws, regulations, and licenses: they can enforce both criminal and civil laws [Williams, vol. 1-20]. Some of the events that affected the Indians adversely in the past have led to health implications seen now. Alcoholism, diabetes, and heart diseases are seen disproportionately in the Indian contemporary community can be linked to confinement in reservations, slavery, war, devastating diseases, and outlawing of native culture, religion, and language in the past. Some of the tribes have been denied federal recognition since they could not prove their genealogy: the tribes have to show that they have been constantly in existent since 1900.
The history of the Native Americans is a controversial one: with past injustices being highlighted and their effects being seen today: there is a question in every anthropologist’s mind whether human nature has changed. Can the experiences of the Native Americans have any parallels today? A new word, ‘genocide’ has been coined to describe activities that aim to exterminate a specific group. Can this term be used to describe the deaths of Native Americans from disease epidemics, war, and removals? Today, similar occurrences seem to be occurring in other parts of the world, for example in Darfur.
Authorsden.com, What Were Boarding Schools Like for Indian Youth? 2009. Web.
Kay, Charles E. (1994) Aboriginal Overkill: The Role of Native Americans in Structuring Western Ecosystems Utah State University. Human Nature, Vol. 5, No. 4, pp. 359-398.
Lange Greg, (2008),Smallpox epidemic ravages Native Americans on the northwest coast of North America in the 1770s, HistoryLink.org, Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History.
Sturtevant, William C. (Ed.). Handbook of North American Indians (Vol. 1–20). Washington, D. C.: Smithsonian Institution. (Vols. 1–3, 16, 18–20, 1978–present).
Thornton, Thomas F., (1998) Anthropological Studies of Native American Place Naming. American Indian Quarterly. Volume: 21. Issue: 2. Publication Year: Page Number: 209.
Tignor Robert, Jeremy Adelman, Stephen Aron, Stephen Kotkin, Suzanne Marchand, Gyan Prakash, Michael Tsin.(2000) Worlds Together, Worlds Apart. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, pp. 274
U.S. Census Bureau. (2001–2005). Profiles of General Demographic Characteristics 2000: 2000 Census of Population and Housing.