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2 December 2001

A 10 Pages Term Paper on Native American History

         What the Native American experience has been since the European settlement of North America on their culture and way of living one can only try to fathom. The American Indian lived life in love with nature. Their wisdom showed in everything - their capacity for harmony with the environment, what they wore, what they created, what they ate and how it was prepared, in their home life and importance of family and in their philosophies and beliefs. It would be impossible to tell the whole story of the American Indian, or even one people within the whole. Not only because there is so much to know, but also because "historical" information is often incomplete, inaccurate or totally nonexistent.  There were a wide range of Native American tribes-Blackfoot, Cherokee, Sioux, Creek Powhatan, Comanche, Lakota, Navajo, Ute, Keres, and Zuni etc. History has shown that negotiating and adapting to a face- to – face encounter with the whites often resulted in some individual quandary and often alienation.

         The word culture is used to describe a group pf people’s customs, religion, family and community life. “ From the beginning, Native Americans have been invited and or forced to join white culture and have seesawed back and forth, between a passionate attempt to embrace white culture and an equally passionate alienation from it. Some tribes and individuals have undergone a transformation of the myth by which they live into something more harmonious with white culture, as in Cherokee transformation of myth in “It’s What We Want,” a fiction based closely upon historical fact. This evolution of consciousness has allowed some tribes and individuals to assimilate more successfully than others. Other tribes have preserved or reinvented their cultural identity as in “Tell Them We Have Started The War,” where Indian traditions remain triumphantly opposed to and unreconciled with white culture.” (Jeanne Shultz-Angel, History of St.Charles, The Heritage Center)

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         Many different groups migrated in and out of the Northern Illinois region from the time of Columbus (1492) to the white settlement of the Fox River valley (1833). Most of the groups were Algonquin-speaking people and included the Sauk, Fox, Illiniwek, Kickapoos, Miamis, Potawatomi, Menominee, and Winnebago. The historic period starts in 1492 when Columbus landed outside of what is now Cuba.

         Life of the Native American drastically changed after 1492. Even before direct contact with the whites, European trade goods trickled through the networks and into the most remote of group’s years before the emigration of white settlers. Disease was the most evident result of this transfer as millions of Native Americans were killed by deadly European strains of smallpox and influenza. By the time the French reached the Illinois country in 1725, diseases had radically changed the populations of the Native groups there forever.

          The Potawatomi and white settlers shared aspects of their culture, benefiting from each other’s knowledge. By the time the Potawatomi were forced to leave Illinois, many of the bands lived in cabins and used European tools. In addition, white settlers used Native knowledge about local food and plants to survive the harsh Illinois winters. Furthermore, intermarriage between both cultures caused even stronger ties with the new settlements. Most of the best negotiators during this time were the half-breed children of these marriages. In effect, both cultures had been changed in positive and negative ways by coexisting with one another.

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         There is no way to shed a positive light on the events in which our country took part. The actions taken against the Native populations of America were immoral, illegal, and reprehensible.  The case of the Modocs is similar to that of many other Indian tribes of early America. As more and more non-Indians poured into the Northwest, more and more land was needed to accommodate them. In addition, several unfortunate incidents led to animosity between the Modocs and the whites. For one thing, the intrusion of white emigrants' wagons on the Modocs' summer hunting range frightened away game animals. The Modocs exemplify the fate of many American Indian groups in that their culture, language, religion and arts were threatened. The assimilation of the Modoc Indians into the non-Indian way of life was extremely rapid. One of the major reasons for this was the tremendous spiritual and psychological deflation resulting from the loss of the Modoc War.

         The influx of the white man had a monumental impact on the culture of the Modocs, and the Modoc adopted many of the white man's ways. Mingling with the white people of Yreka, California, at the southern end of their hunting range, they began to wear clothing patterned after that of the white man. “The white man's religion upset their code of ethics -- challenging, for example, the custom of killing a medicine man who allowed his patient to die. What had once been law to the Indian was regarded by the non-Indian as murder. Even the names of the Modocs changed, Scarfaced Charley's name came from a large scar extending across his cheek. Black Jim was so-named because even among Indians he was unusually dark.”(Cheewa James, Modoc Tribe of Oklahoma, A Native American Saga)

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         The attitude of the whites towards the Indians is seen in the following excerpt: “The Whites, by law of conquest, by justice of civilization, are masters of the American continent, and the best safety of the frontier settlements will be secured by the total annihilation of the few remaining Indians. Why not annihilation? Their glory has fled, their spirit broken, their manhood effaced; better that they die than live the miserable wretches that they are.”L. Frank Baum, Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer, Dec 15 1890

         Despite extraordinary differences among groups of Native Americans, they shared some general cultural similarities. Indians insisted upon communal ownership and sovereignty over land; temporary "ownership" came with use. Eastern Woodland Indians, with the exception of those living in the far Northeast, practiced subsistence agriculture, growing corn and vegetables to feed themselves. Each year, men burned stubble and underbrush; then women did the planting, hoeing, and harvesting of crops. The work of women provided the vast majority of the food the tribes ate. Although they sometimes paid corn as tribute to chiefs, there was minimal exchange of agricultural goods beyond the community. While women farmed and cared for children, men hunted or went to war. Men killed animals for meat and skins (for clothing) for the community as well as pelts to trade with whites. Indians maintained social order through governance by tribal elders, although men made most decisions about war and peace.

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         But white settlement profoundly affected Indian cultures. Indians traded with the first colonists, exchanging furs and corn for iron goods and cloth. As settlers farmed land, chasing animals away, and as they conquered the Indians' lands, Native Americans either had to move west to preserve their cultures. All throughout history the whites have tried to eliminate the Indian heritage. Establishing Christian ideals among the tribes was one method of assimilating the Indians into the Anglo culture. In the 1950's an even more aggressive attempt was made at wiping out the Native American culture. Government established boarding schools were created to pull Indian children into the culture and customs of America and away from their Indian ancestry. The dilemma of the Indians is expressed clearly by John Stevens, Passamaquoddy Tribal Governor “When the white man stops insisting that the Indian adhere to his ways and allows us to live as Indians, the Indian problem will be solved."

         The fur trade, more than any other activity, contributed to the white exploration and opening of the wilderness north of Mexico, and it led to extensive contacts between whites and Indians. Competition among the European nations and among the Indian tribes for the fur trade was a major factor in many of the intertribal conflicts and colonial wars. And reaction to white traders on Indian lands spawned considerable native resistance. Between the 17th and 19th centuries, impact on the Indians as a result of the fur trade came about in various ways.

         “First, as skilled hunters and suppliers of pelts, the Indians were sought after as trading partners and were exposed to white culture. In exchange for their goods, the Indians received European products, both practical, such as iron tools and utensils, and decorative, such as bright-colored cloth and beads. The Indians also received firearms and liquor, both of which had an enormous impact on Indian life. A second and devastating effect from trade with whites was the outbreak of European diseases among the Indian population. A third effect was the long-term ecological disruption of the food chain by the depletion of fur-bearing mammals.” (Dr. Eric Mayer, The Fur Trade, Native American History)

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         And finally, the fur trade had another long-term impact in the Indians by bringing whites onto their lands. After the white traders, trappers, and hunters came the trading and military posts, and after the posts came the settlers. There were also those traders who held the Indians in disdain, using whatever means they could, especially alcohol, to cheat them.

         Rain (1990) is one of a series of works, which Juane Quick-To-See Smith based on an 1854 speech given by Chief Seattle. In his speech, Chief Seattle spoke eloquently of the connection between Native Americans and the land and warned of the destruction of the earth and all life if Euro-American capitalist attitudes toward the land prevailed: “We know that the white man does not understand our ways. One portion of land is the same to him as the next, for he is a stranger who comes in and takes from the land whatever he needs. The earth is not his mother, but his enemy, and when he has conquered it he moves on. He leaves his father's graves behind, and he does not care. He kidnaps the earth from his children, and he does not care. His father's grave, and his children’s birthright, is forgotten. He treats his mother, the earth and his brother the sky, as things to be bought, plundered, sold like sheep or bright beads. His appetite will devour the earth and leave behind only a desert.”

         The attitude of the whites toward the Indians was that of "the only good Indian is a dead Indian." The Federal Government in its history of dealing with the Native Americans have drafted 800 treaties, all of which were empty promises of peace The United States in the years of the mid 1800's began an aggressive campaign to establish the reservations. Such instances as the Wounded Knee Massacre and the Cherokee "Trail of Tears," where one quarter of the Indians in route perished, are instances of the Federal Government's action to establish and maintain the reservations. However, in John Steinbeck’s words (America and Americans): The Indians survived our open intention of wiping them out, and since the tide turned they have even weathered our good intentions toward them, which can be much more deadly"

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         Ultimately the colonization by the British settlers can best be described as: “Colonization does not, after all, affect people only economically. More fundamentally, it affects people's understanding of their universe, their place within the universe, the kinds of values they must embrace and actions they must take to remain safe and whole within that universe. In short, colonization alters both the individual and the group's sense of identity.” (Paula Gunn Allen, writer)

Works Cited

Allen, Paula Gunn. Writer

Baum, Frank.L. Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer, Dec 15,1890

Dr.Mayer, Eric. The Fur Trade, Native American History

James, Cheewa. Modoc Tribe of Oklahoma, A Native American Saga

Shultz-Angel, Jeanne. History of St.Charles, The Heritage Center

Smith, Juane Quick-To-See. The Rain (1990)-based on Chief Seattle’s Speech; 1854

Steinbeck, John. America and Americans

Stevens, John. Passamaquoddy Tribal Governor


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