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The focus of this portion of our web guide is on the ethnic groups who identify with the peoples who inhabited North America before the arrival of European settlers in the 15th century.

Although many history books note that America was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1492, the reality is that the continent had been inhabited for at least 12,000 years before he made his first voyage.

For that matter, although Columbus made four transatlantic voyages between 1492 and 1504, there is no record of him ever setting foot on the North American continent. He did visit San Salvador, which he named, as well as Cuba, Hispaniola, and Jamaica, but that was as close as he came.

It is likely that the Vikings were the first Europeans to come. They arrived in the 10th century. They seemingly established only small, temporary coastal settlements in what is now Canada, and probably visited the East Coast of what is now the United States in search of timber for construction and boat building, but they did not attempt to colonize the mainland of the continent.

The people who had inhabited the North American continent for thousands of years were not one people, as in the First Nations people or the American Indians. Rather, they were hundreds of groups of people, or tribes, with distinct ways of life, society, and religion, who had thrived for far longer than those seen in other parts of the world.

When European settlers arrived in America, the effect was disastrous for those who were already living there. The new arrivals brought diseases and modern technologies for which they were not equipped to deal with. The Europeans also brought a point of view that regarded the American Indians as uncivilized people who were unworthy of consideration.

The Ice Age that developed during the Pleistocene Epoch changed the landscape of the Earth. The regions that are now Alaska and Siberia weren't separated by the Bering Strait. They were connected by a large area of land known by modern historians as Beringia. This was an area of grassy plains in which people had settled, probably coming from Asia. The regions now known as Canada and the United States were covered in glaciers.

Around 16,000 BCE, a period of global warming caused the glaciers to retreat. The melting ice began to flood the area of Beringia, but the receding glaciers opened the lands to the south. As Beringia grew smaller, the people living there had to move west into Siberia, or east and south, into Canada and the United States.

Once the land bridge was severed, those who moved into the Americas were isolated from the rest of the world.

In less than a thousand years, they had spread down the Pacific West Coast of both North and South America as far as Chile. From there, they expanded inland and to the East Coast.

For thousands of years, these people developed their own distinct cultures, societies, and belief systems.

Unlike the civilizations that began to appear in Mesopotamia, those in the Americas were isolated. While they had contact with similar tribes, they lacked the constant contact with entirely different cultures that powered civilization in Mesopotamia.

While civilizations in the Near East and Europe transformed into recognizable modern societies between 3000 BCE and 1000 CE, the indigenous people of the Americas continued a semi-nomadic lifestyle, primarily that of hunter-gatherers. They did, however, develop distinct cultures, beliefs, and lifestyles, differing largely due to geographical locations.

While many people view the people who first settled the Americas as a homogenized group, known as American Indians, Native Americans, or First Nations people, they had developed several ethnic groupings, each with its own language and social systems, generally divided into tribes who shared a common language, scattered across the continent.

Difficulties in our understanding or appreciation for what life was like for those who we know now as American Indians, Native Americans, or First Nations peoples is that the tribes of North America did not develop a written language. Since history consists largely of written documentation, most of the histories of these people were written by Europeans.

While there are now written versions of several American Indian languages, these were developed after the continent was colonized by Europeans. Consequently, most of what we know of the pre-colonial period comes from oral traditions.

Many of the things that people associate as typifying American Indians, such as teepees and war bonnets, were exclusive to the Plains people, the Cheyenne, Comanche, Crow, Blackfeet, and Arapaho, and this lifestyle is believed to have developed only after they had changed their way of life after the arrival of European settlers. To that, we would have to add the fictionalization of Western novels written by Europeans.

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American Indian Tribes


American Indians

Before the European colonization of the Americas, the continent had been inhabited for more than twelve thousand years, and was home to hundreds of unique and distinct tribes.


Some of these tribes were completely annihilated by diseases brought by European settlers, while others were greatly decimated. Influenza, smallpox, measles, typhus fever, and other diseases for which the American Indians had no immunity, is believed to have killed as much as ninety percent of the population.


Others were eliminated by warfare, disputes with settlers over land or property, and starvation as their means of survival was removed, or when they were moved to lands that could not support them.


When the Europeans arrived in America, the indigenous population was diverse and consisted of hundreds of tribes, the largest being the Cherokee, Navajo, Iroquois, Sioux, and Apache.


These tribes were spread across different regions of the continent, each with unique cultures, languages, and traditions. The Cherokee were in parts of what is now Georgia, eastern Tennessee, northeastern Alabama, and western North and South Carolina, while the the Navajo were in the southwestern United States. The Iroquois Confederacy (also known as the Five Nations) lived in villages, some of which were as large as 2,000 people, in the area of Lake Ontario, Lake Erie, and Lake Huron. The Sioux (Lakota) were in the Great Plains region of the United States. The Apache were in the southwestern United States, although they were more nomadic and able to adapt to different environments.


As of 2010, the ten largest tribes in America were said to be the Cherokee, Navajo, Choctaw, Chippewa, Sioux, Apache, Blackfeet, Creek, Pueblo, and Iroquois. The largest in the United States were the Cherokee, Navajo, Choctaw, Sioux, Chippewa, Apache, Blackfeet, Iroquois, Lumbee, and Creek.


The difficulties in providing an accurate history of the period before the arrival of Europeans on the continent is made difficult due to the lack of a written record, but historians estimate that there were from seven to ten million people in the American continent north of the Rio Grande.


Organized into kinship groups and tribes, each had its own language, culture, and beliefs. While there were certainly conflicts, they were generally localized, and no one tribe became dominant over all the others.



Cherokee

The largest, then and now, were the Cherokee. The center of their region were the mountainous regions of the Carolinas, although they were also numerous in Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee.


While they shared a language and belief system, their society differed from that of European nations in that there was no single leader or even a tribal council that ruled over the entire group, at least not until the 18th century. Instead, each Cherokee village had its own council where issues were debated, but these decisions pertained only to the people in that village.


Conflicts were not over the acquisition of territory, but to avenge the death of a member of the tribe. In so doing, this might involve raids on neighboring tribes or even another Cherokee tribe. The goal, however, was to avenge a death, not to conquer or occupy territory.


To the Cherokee, along with many other American Indian tribes, the concept of owning land was alien. This attitude led to misunderstandings and difficulties with European settlers.


Among the Cherokee people, there were seven distinct clans: Wolf, Deer, Bird, Paint, and three others that are roughly translated as Long Hair, Blind Savannah, and Blue Holly. Each clan served as an extended family. Rather than living in separate villages, each village might include members of several clans. A Cherokee traveling from one village to another would likely find member of his or her own clan who would offer food and shelter.


With the arrival of the Europeans, the Cherokees proved adaptable. Many embraced Christianity, and a few became wealthy businessmen. They had a newspaper. They accepted the ideals of democracy and liberty, and the created a republic that echoed that of the United States itself. Nevertheless, or perhaps for those same reasons, they were viewed by a threat by the newly created United States government.


Forcefully relocated in the 1830s during what became known as the Trail of Tears, the Cherokee now reside mostly in Oklahoma, although the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians are in North Carolina. They are mostly descendants of ancestors who avoided relocation, remaining in the area as US citizens, reorganizing as a tribe in the late 19th century.


The Navajo people prefer to be called the Din, which means "The People," are situated in the southwestern United States. Although second to the Cherokee in population today, they have the largest reservation in the country, covering land in Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah.


Originally, the Navajos were hunter-gatherers, but they learned farming from the Pueblo peoples, adopting the "Three Sisters" of corn, beans, and squash. They also herded sheep and goats as a source of food and trade, and women began to spin and weave wool into blankets and clothing, which developed into a valued artistic expression.


Navajo life is rich in ceremony and ritual, including nine-day ceremonies for the treatment of mental and physical ills, as well as several less important ceremonies.



Choctaw

The Choctaw Nation is the third-largest in the United States. They are located primarily in Oklahoma, Mississippi, and Louisiana.


Despite allying with the Americans in the American Revolutionary Warand the War of 1812, the Choctaw were forcefully removed from their lands in the early 1830s despite having never waged war against the United States. When the Choctaw mostly sided with the Confederate States during the American Civil War, tribal land holdings were broken up and tribal governments were dissolved, and the US Bureau of Indian Affairs appointed tribal chiefs for decades.


Since the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, the Choctaw people in three areas have reconstituted their governments and gained federal recognition.


Chippewa

The Chippewa, Ojibwe, Ojibwa, or Saulteaux are an Anishinaabe people in what is now southern Canada, the northern Midwestern United States, and the Northern Plains. Indigenous to the Subarctic and Northeastern Woodlands, the Chippewa are one of the largest American Indian tribes today. In Canada, they are the second-largest First Nations population, after the Cree.


The Ojibwe language is Anishinaabemowin, a branch of the Algonquian language family.


They are part of the Council of Three Fires, which includes the Odawa and Potawatomi, as well as the larger Anishinaabeg, which includes the Algonquin, Nipissing, and Oji-Cree people.


Sioux

Also known as the Oceti Sakowin, the Sioux include the Dakota and the Lakota peoples, groups of American Indian and First Nations peoples from the Great Plains region.


The ancestral Sioux inhabited the area around the source of the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes. They moved west in 1559 due to warfare with the Iroquois, who were equipped with firearms provided by the French. This took them to the Great Plains Region.


Today, the larger populations of Sioux are found in South Dakota, Minnesota, Nebraska, Montana, North Dakota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois and Wyoming. In Canada, they are mostly in Manitoba and Saskatchewan.


After being pushed beyond their tolerance levels, the Sioux are known for a sustained resistance to European-American land grabs, which included the battles that became known as "Custer's Last Stand" and the "Battle of Wounded Knee," the latter of which resulted in a major loss for the tribe.


Apache

The Apache are actually an amalgamation of several Southern Athabaskan-speaking American Indian peoples of the Southwest and the Southern Plains. Linguistically related to the Navajo, they migrated from Athabaskan homelands in northeastern Canada and Alaska to the Southwestern United States between 1000 and 1500 CE.


Apache bands include the Chiricahua, Jicarilla, Lipan, Mescalero, Mimbreno, Salinero, Plains, and Western Apache (Arvaipa, Pinaleno, Coyotero, and Tonto).


Today, Apache tribes and reservations are headquartered in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Oklahoma. Each tribe is politically autonomous.


Following European colonization, the Apache became known as fierce warriors agains the invading Spanish and Mexican people for centuries, as well as during the 19th-century American Indian Wars.


Blackfeet

Officially known as the Blackfeet Tribe of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation of Montana, the Blackfeet Nation is a federally recognized tribe of Siksikaitsitapi people, whose members belong primarily to the Piegan Blackfeet band of the larger Blackfoot Confederacy that spans the United States and Canada.


Its reservation is situated east of the Glacier National Park, and borders the Canadian province of Alberta, with Cut Bank Creek and Birch Creek forming part of its eastern and southern borders.


The Blackfeet settled in Montana in the 17th century, having previously inhabited a Woodlands area north and west of the Great Lakes. They were driven to the Northern Plains due to pressure by British traders at James Bay.


After acquiring firearms and horses, they became a powerful force that controlled a large area before being encroached upon by European-Americans and Canadians.


The Blackfeet have an oral history that spans 10,000 years speaking of a central sacred space, the Badger-Two Medicine area, which tradition holds is their site of creation and origin.


Creek

Also known as the Muscogee, Muscogee Creek, Mvskoke, and the Muscogee Creek Confederacy, the Creek are a group of related peoples of the Southeastern Woodlands of the United States, largely southern Tennessee, much of Alabama, western Georgia, and parts of northern Florida.


Much of their population was forcibly removed to a designated Indian Territory in what is now Oklahoma during the early 1830s, as part of the Trail of Tears. A small group of the Muscogee Creek Confederacy remained in Alabama, and their descendants formed the federally recognized Poarch Band of Creek Indians, while another Muscogee group moved to Florida between 1767 and 1821, intermarrying with local tribes to form the Seminole, which emerged as a separate identity from the rest of the Muscogee Creek Confederacy, although most of them were included in the Trail of Tears.


The cullture of the Creek/Muscogee people evolved considerably after European colonization. Influenced by the Spanish, French, English, and European-Americans, they adopted farming methods, accepted European-Amnericans and African-Americans into their society, and developed a written language. They have, however, preserved a tribal identity through annual festivals, stickball games, and language classes.


Pueblo

Puebloans, or the Pueblo peoples, are native to the Southwestern United States. Sharing common agricultural and religious practices, Pueblo people speak languages from four different language families, and each Pueblo is divided culturally by kinship systems.


Decending from ancestral Puebloans, Pueblo peoples have inhabited the American Southwest for thousands of years. The term Anasazi is sometimes used to refer to the ancestral Pueblo people, although it is largely avoided today because the name was derived from the Navajo to mean "Ancient Ones" or "Ancient Enemy."

Known for their ancient pit houses dug into cliffs, some of which still exist, the Puebloans began to move away from this practice between 700 and 900 CE, in favor of connected rectangular homes arranged in apartment-like structures of adobe, often constructed at defensive sites, such as on ledges of massive rock, flat summits, or on steep mesas.


Today, the Pueblo people live predominantly in New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas.


Iroquois

Also known as Five Nations, Six Nations, or Haudenosaunee, the Iroquoian-speaking confederacy of American Indians and First Nations peoples are found in northeastern North America and Upstate New York.


Known as the Iroquois League by the French during colonial times, and later as the Iroquois Confederacy, the English referred to them as the Five Nations, which included the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca. After 1722, the Tuiscarora were accepted into the confederacy, forming the Six Nations.


The Iroquois were known for building longhouses, which were long structures made of wood and bark that provided shelter for several related families. Each longhouse could house several generations of an extended family, and could be easily lengthened to accommodate growth.


Lumbee

Taking its name from the Lumber River, which winds through Robeson County, the Lumbee are an American Indian people centered in Robeson, Hoke, Cumberland, and Scotland counties in North Carolina.


The Lumbee tribe was recognized by the State of North Carolina in 1885, but, although the U.S. Congress passed the Lumbee Act of 1956, which recognized the Lumbees as being American Indians, they were denied the benefits of a federally recognized tribe.


Earlier, the tribe had petitioned for recognition as Cherokee Indians, but that was denied, in large part, because they had fully assimilated into early colonial life, and lived as individuals, as did any other citizen.


Several theories as to the ethnic origins of the Lumbees have included one advanced by the Ku Klux Klan that they were of mixed American Indian and African-American descent. Later theories included that they were descendants of England's "Lost Colony of Roanoke," who intermarried with "Croatan Indians," as well as that they were of Cherokee, Cheraw, Siouan, or Keyauwee descent.


Due to the lack of an obvious single ancestor tribe and conventional indigenous cultural markers, such as a unique language, the Lumbee people are often faced with doubts as to the sincerity and genuiness of their claims to American Indian status.


The Lumbees speak mainstream varieties of English, as well as a vernacular form known a Lumbee English, which is said to be not an American Indian language, but rather a form of American Indian English.


Given the historic relationships between European-Americans and American Indians, it is perhaps reasonable to consider that, while federal recognition brings various benefits to tribal members, a tribe is not necessarily illegitimate simply because the federal government does not recognize it.


There are many other American Indian tribes still in existence in North America, but these are the largest by population.



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