For Native Americans, Columbus Day has long been hurtful. It conjures the violent history of colonial oppression at the hands of European explorers and those who settled and colonized the Americas. Across the United States, several counties and cities have made the switch in a growing movement to end the celebration of the Christopher Columbus in favor of honoring Indigenous communities and their resiliency in the face of violence by European explorers.
To celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day, 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.
Societies and cultures as diverse as Asia or Africa or Europe developed on the American land mass long before European explorers stumbled upon the Americas. What Europeans found was not empty land but places long settled, farmed, and fought over. Many peoples, upwards of eighteen million, lived in what is now North America. Some lived in large cities, others in small villages, and whether we call them indigenous, native, or Indian, they inhabited every part of North America. They traded with each other across enormous distances and spoke thousands of different languages.
Anthropologists, historians, and native experts disagree about when these people settled on the North American landscape. It could be as recently as twelve thousand or as long as fifty thousand years ago. Experts continue to debate whether they came across the Bering Land Bridge, whether they came on ships or rafts, or whether they emerged here, on this continent, as humans, for the first time. The most ancient is called the Paleo-Indian period, encompassing hunting cultures who developed survival strategies to meet the challenging conditions of late Ice Age times. This is followed by the Archaic period, a long era of relatively stable hunter-gatherer ways of living. In North America this included several regionally defined cultures of seminomadic peoples. By thirteen thousand years ago, nomadic hunters of the Clovis culture (or cultures) had spread far and wide across much of North America. Their sudden appearance over such vast spaces meant that they either swiftly migrated into previously unpopulated lands or other peoples adapted their stone tool technology and transformed their own landscapes. The issue is still hotly debated.
More radical changes characterize the third era, termed Formative, when corn-based farming replaced foraging among a number of North America’s Native peoples, who now inhabited warmer places with better soil for planting. Finally, the Historic period describes the era when non-native explorers and settlers—mostly coming from the south and east—left their imprint on the continent’s landscape and eventually displaced the native tribes in sometimes violent encounters.
How do archaeologists define and label cultures of the distant past such as Clovis? Without having access to written languages, we have no idea what names they used to identify themselves or other people, nor how they defined their own cultural or political boundaries, using some kind of “us vs. them” notion. Cultural anthropologists use tools, boundary-setting, and evidence of language and religion to define culture as a set of shared behaviors passed down from generation to generation.
Few of the people who lived in North America before Columbus arrived were literate in the way we understand that now. They didn’t leave texts written in European languages in familiar forms like books or photographs that recorded literal snapshots of the past. But they left lots of evidence of their presence behind in different kinds of materials and objects. Great monuments that still stand, ruins of villages that we can reconstruct, and vast trash heaps where we find jewelry, pottery, clothing, and human and animal bones enable scholars to estimate populations, their health, and their wealth. Drawings and picture-writing, called pictographs, show us historical events, individual people, details about daily life, religious ceremonies, mathematical equations, and weather predictions. Once scholars in the present knew how to look, they found tax records, census materials, and legal codes that organized these complex societies.
People organized their households and personal lives in many ways. Many Native American societies acknowledged three to five genders—female, male, Two-Spirit female, Two-Spirit male, and transgendered—but these terms come from modern ways of thinking about sexuality. LGBTQ Native Americans adopted the term Two Spirit from the Ojibwe language in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in 1989. Each tribe has their own specific language for a range of sexualities, but later more universal terms that modern people could understand became useful. The Navajo refer to Two Spirits as Nádleehí (one who is transformed), the Lakota as Winkté (a male who wants to behave as a female), the Ojibwe as Niizh Manidoowag (two spirit), and the Cheyenne as Hemaneh (half man, half woman), to name a few.
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. But whether people captured others or borrowed their technologies, North Americans knew about many different peoples and ways of doing things.
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