As of December 31, 2014, I retired from full-time teaching in Humboldt State University's Department of History. While this website will remain online, it is no longer maintained.

History 110 - Dr. Gayle Olson-Raymer
The Original Inhabitants  - What They Lost and What They Retained

Aerial view of Great Serpent Mound

What is this?

Today we begin the second chapter in our story about American history. Our first chapter helped us understand more about the Europeans who immigrated to North America in the 1600s - people who generally chose to leave or who were no longer wanted in Europe, especially in England, because of religious, political, and/or economic reasons. Our second chapter will help us understand the people with whom the Europeans came into contact when they arrived at their colonial destinations - the North American Indian Nations.


Discussion Goal:
The Original Inhabitants:
What They Lost and What They Retained

1. To revise our attitudes about American Indians by debunking several myths:


Demythifying American Indians

1. Land Bridge Migration The first American Indians came from Asia to North America between 11-12,000 years ago via a land bridge over the Bering Straits. They made their way through what is now Alaska and then followed an ice-free highway down the continent. Their culture has been named Clovis for their distinctive weapons that have been Map of Land Bridge Migration Theoryfound in digs nationwide.

Reality:  From a strictly scientific viewpoint, we do not know how ancient human remains might be related to contemporary Indian peoples, nor do we know from whence they came.  Today, at least three opposing viewpoints exist - the Bering Strait migration theory, the multiple migration theory, and the indigenous origin belief. 

So, what are the facts? There are two distinct viewpoints, one from the academic community and one from the Indian community.

So what does this mean? Today’s scientific community cannot say with any certainty who the first settlers in North America were - or how they got here. It also means that in all probability, multiple migrations occurred. And finally, it means that the discussion about the first peoples in America will continue to be both complicated and contentious.

2. "New World" Myth:  When the early explorers landed in Map of Indian Naitons at time of ContactNorth America, they discovered a sparsely populated "New World."

Reality:   When Columbus landed in Hispaniola in 1492 he did not discover this land. Columbus could not discover what another people already knew and owned.  Rather than finding a "New World," Columbus established contact with a very old world and initially facilitated the meeting of two ancient cultures - European and Indian.  With the arrival of the slave trade, the Spanish facilitated the meeting of three ancient cultures - African, European, and Indian.

So, what are the facts? By the time European explorers landed in North America, the inhabitants of the native communities comprised somewhere between 5 and 10 million people who belonged to between 500-600 different tribal societies - the largest of which are shown in the map above.

3. Virgin Wilderness Myth:  When the European settlers arrived, they found a pristine, virgin wilderness and a people untouched by white civilization.

Reality: When Europeans arrived, American Indians had already altered their various environments to fit their cultural needs, and their numbers had been dramatically decimated by earlier contact with European disease.

So, what are the facts? Before Europeans arrived, the indigenous peoples had already altered the environment in at least four ways.

4. The Primitive, Uncivilized, Heathen Savage Myth:  Ancient American Indian tribes were so primitive that they never attained the agricultural or technological sophistication of other ancient peoples. Thus, when European settlers arrived in the "New World", they encountered bands of primitive, uncivilized, heathen savages.

Reality.  Historical evidence indicates that many Indian tribes had attained impressive levels of agricultural, cultural, and/or technological sophistication prior to the "discovery" of the "New World" by Europeans. Indeed, when European settlers arrived, between Political Cartoon of Indian Savage500-600 separate tribal societies existed in North America, most of which were highly civilized in terms of their political, economic, social, and spiritual development.   Each society had developed the capacity for unified action, had learned how to adapt to their natural environment, had achieved some sense of group identity and ethnic pride, and had created its own system of family and social organization.

So, what are the facts? Most tribes were, in fact, technologically, agriculturally, and politically sophisticated. Most lived in settled (rather than nomadic) communities that were highly developed. Such tribes shared the following characteristics:

5. The "Hindrance to Progress" Myth: In order to ensure the survival and progress of the civilized, European, Christian settlers, it was inevitable that the Indians be defeated.

Reality. European progress was impeded not because the indigenous peoples were uncivilized and incapable of living harmoniously with the settlers, but because Europeans were unwilling and incapable of accepting the American Indians' political, social, economic, and spiritual traditions as civilized.  The real obstacles that got in the way of European acceptance of Indian peoples were that they were not Christians and no visible forms of worshipping God; they made no effort to subdue the land and make it profitable; they had no understanding of the importance of private property; and they were not willing to give up their land and submit to English rule.

So what are the facts?

Discussion:

  1. How did your reading in Chapter 1 of Voices of a People's History help to debunk these myths?
  2. In the Crash Course video, what did you learn to help you debunk these myths?
  3. What is the Black Legend?

Conclusions
  1. It is unclear how and when American Indians came to be living on the North American continent.  Controversy exists between the academic community that supports a migration from Asia theory, and the majority of Native American communities that believe they are indigenous to the land.
  2. When Columbus landed in Hispaniola in 1492, he did not find a “New World” or virgin wilderness.  Instead, he entered an old world that, in some native societies, was as densely populated as Europe, had already been environmentally altered, and was as highly developed as any western nation at the time.  The Moundbuilders of Cohokia are an example of such a society. 
  3. North America’s sovereign Indian nations were technologically, agriculturally, and politically sophisticated.  Most lived in settled communities that had the following characteristics of a highly civilized society:  division of labor among men and women; solid subsistence base; economic, social, cultural, political, and spiritual diversity; hierarchical organization; and environmental adaptation to their natural environments.
  4. American Indians did not comprise a single, unified entity; rather, they consisted of many complex cultures, egalitarian societies, and political systems that had adapted to the natural environment.
  5. Because of the sharp contrast between European and American Indian spiritual, cultural, political, and economic values, white settlement was destined to result in great conflict between the new settlers and the indigenous peoples.
  6. While such conflict was inevitable, it was not inevitable that Europeans defeat, conquer, and decimate the indigenous peoples in order to ensure European survival and progress. European progress was impeded not because the American Indians were uncivilized and incapable of living harmoniously with European settlers, but because the majority of Europeans were unwilling and incapable of accepting American Indians as political, economic, social, and spiritual equals.
  7. The myths about the indigenous peoples of North America have persisted largely because of the desire by the conquering Europeans to justify and rationalize the consequences of their actions.
  8. The years between 1621 and 1775 were a model of what America might have been.  They were filled with struggle and compromise between two peoples - a continuous process of give and take.  As long as both sides recognized that they needed one another, a precarious peace existed.