Today is Indigenous Peoples Day, and to celebrate, we share an excerpt from Shaped by the West, Volume 1: A History of North America to 1877, part of a two-volume source reader by William Deverell and Anne Hyde.

Petrograph of 1054 supernova. Photo by Alex Marentez, 2006.

Excerpted from the chapter “A Vast Native World”

Before Columbus, at least five hundred Native nations flourished in North America. They included great powerful empires like the Mississippian mound builders, who ruled the center of the continent. A thousand years ago, about the year 1050 CE, a “big bang” of culture and power erupted in the center of the continent. A great planned capital city arose near where St. Louis, Missouri, is now, and it radically shifted politics, religion, art, and economics. The new city, marked by giant ceremonial mounds that sprang up for hundreds of miles, represented a powerful and attractive new way of life. Up and down the Mississippi River, communities got the protection of a powerful kingdom, new trade connections, and consumer goods in return for loyalty, as well as slavery and taxes. Why these cultures disappeared remains a huge historical mystery.

At about the same time, another cultural flowering emerged on the Colorado Plateau. A group of cities, linked by highways and water aqueducts linked peoples we now call the Ancestral Puebloans. Their great cities—built by slaves—are now ruins like Chaco Canyon, Mesa Verde, and Canyon de Chelly. They once housed hundreds of people and hosted extensive ceremonies in a region where water is so scarce it is difficult to imagine how urban life evolved there. For more than a thousand years, the Ancestral Puebloans built great structures; filled them with spectacular pottery, carvings, and weaving; and then, around 1300 CE, abandoned their cities. While much debate remains about why the Ancestral Puebloans left, native experts and scholars agree that a prolonged drought was a central factor. People resettled in smaller cities, towns, and villages along the Rio Grande and Gila Rivers, where water was more secure, and on top of great mesas, where their enemies could not reach them.

Other powerful alliances linked peoples along the Atlantic seaboard from what is now Newfoundland to Georgia. The Iroquois Confederacy formed in the 1570s and included many New England nations. As many as fifty tribes created a confederation based on a system that used voting, representation, and a constitution. Because they wanted to build a powerful alliance to protect the region from hostile Native groups, these nations created a common council that gave each tribe one vote and required unanimity for decisions. They used elaborate rituals, including wampum belts and peace pipes, to choose leaders, to make decisions, and to allow people to disagree.

Before Columbus, along the West Coast of North America, from what is now Baja in Mexico to British Columbia in Canada, hundreds of small, independent tribes flourished. They spoke dozens of languages, lived in large wooden structures and tiny brush shelters, and fed themselves without agriculture because of the wealth of their landscape. From the famous totem poles of northern British Columbia to elaborate grass weavings from Southern California, coastal peoples made the most of their resources. They carved every size of boat to fish on rivers and in the ocean and had rich artistic traditions in carving wood; weaving baskets; and fashioning armor, shoes, and traps for fish and animals.

None of these nations, peoples, or societies lived in isolation. The need and desire for more and different foods or goods and curiosity about other worlds and new places brought people into contact across wide distances. Trade, war, and captivity created contact and relationships between these groups. Larger, more complex societies often needed laborers, soldiers, and personal servants, roles that people who were captured in war could fill.

Shaped by the West is a two-volume primary source reader that rewrites the history of the United States through a western lens. Together, these volumes cover first encounters, conquests and revolts, indigenous land removal, slavery and labor, race, ethnicity and gender, trade and diplomacy, industrialization, migration and immigration, and changing landscapes and environments.

Interested in using these books in your courses?

Shaped by the West, Volume 1: A History of North America to 1877

Shaped by the West, Volume 2: A History of North America from 1850