The original people of North and South America were called Indians by European explorers
who thought they had arrived in the East Indies. Native Americans speak many different
languages and have very different customs and ways of making a living. Before contact with
Europeans, Native Americans had their own political systems and national boundaries. They
depended on their environment for food and materials to make clothing, shelter, tools and
transportation. Their religions taught respect for all of nature. Many Native American
nations had no concept of owner-ship.
No one owned land, but they respected the right of villages and families
to farm certain fields and hunt in certain areas. Farmers asked forgiveness for cutting
down trees to plant crops, and after a few years let the land return to forest. Hunters
killed only for food.
Before contact with Europeans, Native Americans in the forests of eastern North America
grew maize, trapped small animals, fished and hunted deer. They travelled by canoe to
trade. Some lived in villages where two families shared one long house.
At first, both Native Americans and Europeans benefited from contact. The Native Americans
wanted to trade for iron pots and knives. They led the Europeans on their explorations and
provided them with food. Thanksgiving celebrates the assistance given to the Pilgrim
Fathers when the Native Americans brought maize, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, squash and wild
Beginning with George Washington, the first president of the United States, some
government leaders questioned whether Native Americans and white people could live
together. Many Native Americans were forced from their homelands and moved westwards
during the 1830s. The Cherokee Indians called the route they followed The Trail of
Tears. Today, very few Native Americans live east of the Mississippi River.
The grasslands of central North America were home to millions of buffalo (bison), and
these were hunted on foot by tribes who lived around their fringes. After the arrival of
the Spanish, these tribes acquired horses. Then they could hunt the buffalo at will. They
followed the buffalo herds and lived in buffalo-hide tipis, or tents, which could be
easily moved. When, through the work of both Native American and white hunters, the
buffalo were almost wiped out, the Native Americans were reduced to poverty. The
government moved them to reservations, land set aside for their use only. But they were
not farming people and most could not survive on the poor reservation lands. They received
some assistance from the government, but not enough to provide a better way of life.
Along the north-west coast many families lived together in large log houses. People such
as the Haida of the Queen Charlotte Islands carved totem poles to tell their family
history. They hunted whales in dug-out canoes and speared salmon in the rivers. Today,
they live on reserves and try to maintain their traditional life-style.
Native Americans today
In the deserts, mountains and cold northern regions, many Indians have been successful in
main-taining the old ways. These lands were not valued by the European settlers. The
Navajo of New Mexico raise sheep on the largest reserve (65,000 square kilometres) in the
USA. It is desert. Today the US and Canadian governments are making deals to use
traditional Native American lands for mines, roads and pipelines. Damage to the
environment and increased contact with new technology make it difficult to maintain
Some Native Americans are using the law to negotiate better deals with the governments of
Canada and the USA. Others are using aggressive methods to enforce their land claims,
causing disruptions such as roadblocks.
Many Native Americans now leave the reservations for the cities, and merge into the
general population. But some of those who remain are reviving their native languages and
practising the old skills of their ancestors.
North American society is beginning to appreciate many of the Native American values, such
as their relationship with nature and the manner in which they represent everyone on their
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a sun dance in which he said that the Sioux must fight to kill in order to keep the white
men from taking their lands. The result was that Custer and all his men were killed.
After this battle, Sitting Bull and his followers were relentlessly pursued by the US army
and were forced to escape to Canada. They returned to the USA in 1881 and Sitting Bull
became famous once again, this time for his appearances in the Wild West show of Buffalo
Bill. He finally settled on a reservation in South Dakota, where he continued to lead the
Sioux in their refusal to sell their lands to white settlers. He was killed shortly after
during an uprising there.
from "Oxford Children`s Encyclopedia", OUP 96)
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