Christopher Columbus discovered America. But how could he have discovered some place where people were already living? At any rate, Americans celebrate Columbus’ arrival as a holiday, but they forget the indigenous people. These are people that helped our ancestors live here when the first settlers were having troubles adapting to an environment in which they did not know how to exploit the resources. But the repayment for such selfless aid is sub-par by anyone’s standards. Nowadays it’s hard to picture how the Native Americans used to live because meeting one is a rarity.
The Native Americans once occupied the entire region of the United States. They were composed of many different groups, with as many as a few hundred languages and dialects. The Natives from the Southwest used to live in large built terraced communities and their main way of finding food was from agriculture; they planted squash, pumpkins, beans and corn crops. Trades between neighboring tribes were common, and this act brought in additional goods and also some raw materials such as gems, cooper, seashells and soapstone. To this day, movies and television continue the stereotype of Natives wearing feathered headdresses and killing innocent white settlers.
As they encountered the Europeans, their material world completely changed. The Native Americans were amazed by the physical looks of the white settlers, their way of dressing, and also by their language. The first Native-White encounter was very peaceful and trade was their principal interaction. Tension and disputes were sometimes resolved by force but more often by negotiation or treaties. On the other hand, the Natives were described as strong and very innocent creatures waiting for the first opportunity to be Christianized. The Natives were called the “Noble Savages” by the settlers because they were cooperative people, but after having a few conflicts with them, they seemed to behave like animals. We should comprehend that the encounter with the settlers really amazed the Natives, for they were only used to interactions with people from their own race and all of this was just as much a new discovery for the Natives as it was for the white immigrants. The relation between the English and the Virginian Natives was somewhat strong in a few ways. They were having marriages among them. For example, when Pocahontas married John Smith, many said it has a political implication to unite more settlers with the Natives to have a better relation between both groups. As for the Natives, their attitude was always friendly and full of curiosity when they saw the strange and light-skinned creatures from beyond the ocean. The colonists only survived with the help of the Natives when they first settled in Jamestown and Plymouth. In these areas, the Natives showed the colonists how to cultivate crops and gather seafood.
The Natives changed their attitude from welcome to hostility when the strangers increased and encroached more. The new settlers hunted on the Native people’s land and planted in their grounds. For several years the Natives gave the Virginia colonists little trouble because the came to the area of settlement infrequently. However, an agreement resulted in an imaginary line that prohibited the whites from setting to the West of this new “Fall Line.” This attempt to keep the races segregated failed as the white population in Virginia rapidly grew. The Native lands were taken up and in the 1670’s the Natives became enraged and killed several hundred whites. But the Whites retaliated so by 1669, most of the Virginia Natives had been decimated or driven from their lands. The colonists seemed to have forgotten the help the Natives provided as well as food supplies that sustained some of the first settlements through their “Starving Times.” Regardless, the Native Americans were doomed in their struggles against the white settlers. In the end, the superiority of the U.S. government, the large number of settlers, and the destruction of the natural environment upon which the Natives depended for their survival overwhelmed the Native Americans.
In 1830, the Congress ordered the total removal of all Native Americans to West of the Mississippi river. The American government systematically followed a policy that pushed Native Americans from their traditional lands and onto government reservations in the West. The government reserved land for a tribe and signed a treaty with them. The tribes were not supposed to go beyond the borders of its lands and for those who escaped, the victory was short lived as they were captured and brought back. However, on each occasion when new settlers moved into the territory, the government broke its promise and the tribes were moved further westward again. This process encouraged the “Trail of Tears,” on which one-quarter of the Cherokees perished throughout the journey westward.2
The Natives were forced to emigrate because the colonists were in need of more land for their farming purposes and for more space for the new settlers. Many Native tribes, numbering approximately at 15,000 people, were forced to walk hundreds of miles, barefoot in the middle of the winter, without proper clothing, and without sufficient horses or food. They traveled to unrecognized territories in what are now Oklahoma and Kansas. Many of them suffered physical as well as psychological problems, resulting from the struggles faced over the many years the government took to carry out the Native removal policy. Some Natives refused to leave their ancestral lands and fought to prevent their expulsion, but they were ultimately banned nevertheless. They were furious by their disappointment in the U.S. government for giving them land that contain poor soil, was isolated, and suffered from extreme climates. These lands came to be known as reservations. The banishment to undesirable land led to several wars that stemmed from the refusal of some Native Americans to accept their resettlement and the effort of the Sauk and the Fox tribes to return to their homeland in early 1832. The result of this was the Black Hawk War in Illinois and Wisconsin, where most of the remaining Native Americans were killed as they tried to cross the Mississippi River into Iowa. The Native Americans grew tired of always being used and exploited by the whites as much as possible to benefit their own people and promote suffering for the Natives. The Natives also have had enough of always being treated like animals, and the soon became enemies of the new settlers.
The newspaper article “Seeking Land for Tribe of Girl Who Helped Lewis and Clark” written by Timothy Egan1 really caught my attention because after the Shoshone Sacagawea led Lewis and Clark to one of the most famous encounters in the discovery of new trails over the continental division, the U.S. government took away the place that they have called home for hundreds of years. Stan Davis, the Mayor of a Rocky Mountain Valley called Salmon in Idaho, stated that “We all believe that Sacagawea is not only the most famous Native, but also the most famous woman in America.” In 1875 president Ulysses S. Grant gave a small reservation to the Shoshone tribe because he was impressed by the unique role they have in Western history and because of their record of cooperation with the American settlers. They were especially helpful when in the summer of that same year the Americans were running low on food and fresh horses. The Natives helped them gather food and find the waters that drained to the Pacific.3 These people have been banned from their land and they are now considered orphans in an arid land because they don’t have a specific place to point out where they originally come from.
The Lemhi Shoshone, have asked former president Bill Clinton to carve out a small piece of Federal land in a section of the Salmon River county on the Idaho-Montana border so it can become a place where the Shoshone tribe can tell its story to the hordes of Lewis and Clark history buffs, honor their dead, and try to stitch some of their past history to the present. If Sacagawea wouldn’t have been there to help them, the whites would have died. I think that the United States should pay better respect to the generosity and friendship of not only Sacagawea, but also to her people. The government should give the Shoshone tribe a good portion of land to thank them for all they did to help Lewis and Clark in their journey.
Two years ago I visited a Museum of the American Native in Milwaukee. This Museum presents a new perspective of the Native American people and cultures through innovate exhibitions that emphasized the great importance of Native voices in the interpretation of Native history and their cultural achievements. Through the Museum, we can learn what Native Americans have to teach us about such things as the delicate balance between our people and nature, about their profound respect for family, their ethic of sharing, and about their deep and spiritual magnificent art. This Museum changed forever my perspective on the way the Native Americans lived in this hemisphere. This museum works to correct many misconceptions, to end prejudice, to stop the injustice, and to demonstrate how the Native culture has enriched the world. One of the exhibits that I really liked was called “Creation’s Journey: Master Works of The American Identity and Belief.” This reflects the diversity, aesthetic quality, and cultural significance of the vast collections of the National Museum of the American Native. The expressions of their everyday life and their spiritually were depicted in some fine works of art. The exhibition illustrates the creative responses of the indigenous people of the Western Hemisphere to the complex and changes around them. The section, “Refining the Art of Being a Native” describes how rites of passage and mastery of skills helped young adults to become contributors to their society. “Art that Transcends Time” explores the transformation of stone and clay, bone, wood, feathers and wool into images of great spiritual power.4
Once thought to be vanishing, the Native Americans are to the contrary still a part of our world. The Native voices grow strong and this Museum serves as a stage to present the diversity and vitality of those voices. By visiting the Museum of the American Native, my knowledge has increased enormously about this topic. I found out things about the Natives that I didn’t know. The Native Americans can finally say thanks for the things the U.S. Government in its efforts to keep the Native American culture among our history for all these years.
Egan, Timothy. “Seeking Land for Tribe of Girl Who Helped Lewis and Clark,” New York Times, October 26, 1999.
Poteete, Troy Wayne. “Trail of Tears Advisory Council.” Cherokee Nation. May 31, 1992.
Richards, Dorothy Fay. “Pocahontas, Child Princess.” NJ: Prentice, 1978.
Milwaukee Public MuseumNative Americans