Native American tribes

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Native American tribes

Warriors in the film Dances with Wolves /

Warriors in the film Dances with Wolves /

The original inhabitants of North America migrated from Asia around 30,000 years ago. Famine, constant wars and disease counted for many Indian settlers, and by the time the Europeans arrived the whole indigenous population was probably less than a million. They traded, farmed and fought, principally along the coasts, instead of the barren interior, where they were eventually forced to live after the successful rebellion of the colonists.

Warfare between tribes was endemic and continuous, and conflict with English, Dutch and French settlers was no help. Native Americans who escaped from the north-east to the south-west then encountered the Spanish, which did not help at all, either. But the Spanish brought horses in great quantity, and the natives’ discovery of the horse is one of the most important, if not the most important moment in their history. They learnt horse-lore very rapidly indeed, and gained a deserved reputation as horse thieves as well. Generally speaking, and with exceptions,  Native Americans mixed, or at least did business with, the Dutch, German, English and French immigrant farmers and herdsmen. After the Declaration of Independence the new Americans started a war of attrition with the natives that could only end with their annihilation or abandonment in ‘reservations’.

 The Algonquin

This Eastern Canadian tribe spoke Algonquian. They lived (and prospered for a while) in the Ottawa Valley, and other nearby regions, during the 17th century, and Southern Ontario in most of the 18th.

They disliked the Iroquois with deep feeling, especially the Mohawk faction, and clashed with them in many bloody conflicts from about 1570, in alliance with the Montagnais Indians; later, in or around 1603 they formed an alliance with the French settlers and army, in a conflict over the fur-trapping trade, a battle that extended into the middle of the 18th century.

The Algonquin were a hunting/fishing community, though some were farmers, cultivating corn, beans and other harvested crops, most of which they consumed, though they traded with both whites and other native Americans. Their home was the classic tipi, a pointed or dome-shaped wigwam made from the bark of the birch laid over poles, and are also associated with the birchbark canoe, and in the winter – snowshoes, which some historians claim the Algonquin invented. They also used sledges or sleds, also known as toboggans, which they used extensively for travel in the winter.

Some 2000 – 2500 Algonquin survive today, working as trappers, guides, or when they are invited, as film extras. One of the best, smallest and most expensive hotels in Manhattan is called after them. The Algonquin became famous in the 1930s/40s for a group of American wits (including the acid-tongued Dorothy Parker) who met regularly at a ‘Round Table’ to exchange barbed comments.

The Apache

Certainly the Hollywood film producers’ best-loved tribe, the Apache were plains people of the south-western USA. When not engaged in wars with each other, or more likely the hated soldier in blue, they were subsistence farmers, magnificent hunters, cruel and fearless in battle and superb horsemen.

The Apache were nomadic, moving about the central and southern Great Plains of the USA, but headed finally south, which took them to the semi-desert regions. These tribal travels lasted from the 9th century to the 15th. They and their brothers the Navajo were raiding communities and townships as early as 1275.

The Spanish found them best established in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and northern Mexico in the 1590s, and an affinity grew between them, well-developed by the early 16th century. Cautious friendship was based on mutual respect. The Apaches learnt and spoke Spanish, and quickly mastered the cult of the horse, an animal they had never seen before the Spanish came. Mounted, the Apache became expert buffalo hunters, and this led the tribes into open conflict with the Comanche, near-cousins but never allies. The bigger Comanche tribes drove the Apache off the Great Plains and into wholly desert country by the mid 18th century.

From this time onward the Apache had to resist attempts by Mexicans, the Spanish traders and finally the US Army (their worst enemy) to exterminate them. Dreadful massacres took place on all sides. Finally Apache territory was incorporated in the USA, but not before several great leaders emerged among the Apache to become the subject of legend: Among these were Cochise and Geronimo, now integral parts of American folklore.

Those tribes of the Apache that still exist live comparatively happily in Arizona, a few owning oil wells; the young men appear regularly in Western films, where they are required to bite the dust as they are shot off their ponies. Several real Apaches have become leading character actors.

The Arapaho

These fierce fighters inhabited the lower mountains and hill country bordering the Great Plains, in not always peaceful conjunction with the Blackfoot and Gros Ventre tribes. In the late 17th century they suddenly stopped being farmers and buffalo hunters and became nomads on horseback, having stolen all the animals they needed from the Spanish. Experts have said that the Arapaho were as brilliant horsemen as the Apache, and this might be true, as the males of both tribes learnt very young to form a close working relationship with their horse, only broken by the death of either or both.

Fighting in alliance with the Kiowa and the Comanche, they were responsible for driving the Apache tribes off the Great Plains by around 1760. Naturally arrogant, aggressive and bloodthirsty, they indulged in pitched battles with the Crow Nation, the Pawnee and the Cheyenne.No-one could call them cowardly, and they were strategic in their conduct of war.

The Blackfoot

These Native Americans originally lived in the northern part of Alberta in Canada, and north-western Montana. They have been described as a hunter/gatherer people similar to the Cree. They near cousins the Shoshone from Idaho became nomadic when the relentless pressure of the newly free white Americans headed west from the Thirteen Colonies.

The Shoshone got hold of arms and munitions in the 18th century (better not ask from whence) and used them to assault the Blackfoot tribes. The latter had no horses yet, not having acquired enough skills (yet) to become horse thieves. They were no match for the Shoshone, who rose horses as if they were part of them. Very soon however, the Blackfoot reacted and began stealing horses not from the white settlers, but from the Shoshone. They also traded goods for firearms, which they obtained from the Cree.

As a result of becoming warlike, the Blackfoot stopped being farmers and traders, and, well-mounted, became totally nomadic and spoiling for a fight.

The Cherokee

The Cherokee were also known as ‘The Plains People’. They inhabited a vast region stretching across western Virginia and both Carolinas, eastern Kentucky amd Tennessee, as well as northern Georgia and Alabama.

The Cherokee lived in town of ‘longhouses’ in the 16th century, and at first were easily absorbed into the gradually expanding United States. Small-pox and other European-introduced diseases had decimated their population by the mid-seventeenth century. They traded peaceably (again at first) with English and French settlers.

The new American nation moving across the continent met fierce resistance from the Cherokee, who objected to losing their lands to people they did not even consider human.

Naturally cultured, the Cherokee developed an original and distinct written language by the early part of the 19th century. Later they even published a Cherokee-language newspaper.

In the 18th century the Cherokee supported the British side in wars against the French.  Then, following the Declaration of Independence, they were attacked by the US Army, and by the end of the war their territories had been seriously reduced, but in 1827 they established the Cherokee Nation in north-west Georgia via a series of treaties with the federal government. Then gold was discovered on their land and white settlers illegally moved in. The Native Americans objected, firstly in the courts, later on the battle field. Their tribal rights and treaty entitlements were upheld in the Supreme Court but they lost out to state authorities and President Jackson’s policy of removal of all Native American tribes to an area west of the Mississippi. Not even this was the end of what the Cherokee learned was ‘speech with a forked tongue’. In 1838 President Van Buren ordered the deportation of remaining Cherokee to the Oklahoma Indian Territory. This massed deportation became known as ‘The Trail of Tears’.

By 1906 the tribe had had enough, gave up all tribal allegiances, and continued fighting in the courts until 1924, when they gained the suffrage as proper US citizens.

 The Choctaw

inhabited what is now Mississippi. Hernando de Soto explored their territory in 1540 – 42. The Choctaw competed with the Natchez and other tribes for trade with the Spanish settlers. The tribe also did business with the French at New Orleans in the 17th and 18th centuries. None of this helped the tribe following the American War of Independence, when new American citizens drove the Natchez off their territory, providing death as an alternative to trade.

 The Comanche

Inhabiting the Great Plains of Middle America, this warlike tribe used the dog-travois (a kind of sledge designed to slide over earth, grass and stones, pulled by two or more large dogs) to follow migrating game herds, but by the early 17th century they had discovered the horse from the Spanish in the south-west, taking to it rapidly and efficiently.

Comanche boys were trained virtually from birth in the art of fighting, and had the reputation of being spartan in habit and desperately dangerous in a fight. The tribe spent almost all the 18th century fighting other tribes, such as the Ute, who were near cousins. It was the French (of course) who were canny enough to supply the Comanche with guns, and contract them to do most of the fighting for them. As well as the awkward guns, the tribe was skilled in the use of the bow and arrow, which they made themselves from yew and ash. Finally the Spanish gave them enough guns and ammunition to make them independent of the French, but in switching from the bow to the arquebus most of the natives lost their skill with the former.

The Crow (and Hidatsa or Absaroke)

The Crow lived and hunted in Montana and northern Wyoming. They had lived pre-historically in peaceful small settlements, and were good farmers with an organised and prosperous agriculture. In seaon they hunted the buffalo, used for meat, clothing and animal grease.

Like most other tribes, they acquired (or stole) horses from the Spanish in the 18th century, and, once mounted, the Crow abandoned their former pastoral life for full-time buffalo hunting, the murder of any white settlers they could find, attacks on the military, and occasional forays against other tribes. They could not avoid a good reputation.

The Dakota

The official name for the largest division of seven related peoples known more often as The Sioux, these tribes inhabited regions of Nebraska, Montana, Minnesota, and the eastern Dakotas on the borders of the northern Great Plains.

Towards the middle of the 18th century, they lost most most of their land to the Ojibwa. As the fur trade with the English and the French prospered, so did inter-tribal fighting, and the Dakota were driven out, heading for the Great Plains.

They attacked the tribes they found on the Missouri River, and exchanged corn, tobacco and other produce for arms and ammunition. Their traditional enemies and rivals in trading were the Cree and Ojibwa to the north and east.

They were nomadic in temperament and ambition, becoming skilled buffalo hunters, originally shooting the great animals down with the bow and arrow, and later, with newly acquired guns. In the long winters they chose hidden valleys where they retired into the tipi with their children and dogs. The latter were used for work and food, not as pets.

Over-hunting on horseback produced enormous gaps in the number of buffalo herds; Siouxan life was further exacerbated by white people moving on to what they considered to be their land. Great war leaders like Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and others showed considerable skill in mid-nineteenth century fighting, on one occasion demolishing an entire regiment of the 7th Cavalry under General Custer at the Little Big Horn (25 June, 1876).

Their language has survived, and indeed was used during all native scenes in Costner’s film Dances with Wolves.

The Delaware

These mercantile and farming peoples lived in the Delaware River valley in Eastern Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. They had contact with Portuguese and Spanish ships preceeding the arrival of Henry Hudson in 1609. Dutch settlements at Albany, New York, Burlington, New Jersey and Fort Amsterdam (Manhattan) traded European goods for beaver pelts, but as more and more colonists arrived and settled down, open warfare with the Delaware increased. Some sort of peace was achieved in 1645, but violent incidents continued right through the 18th century. The tribe was ‘dispersed’ in the 19th century first by the English and later the Americans.

 The Huron

This was a confederation of Iroquoian-speaking tribes with a farming economy living in southern Ontario. European immigrants found them in the 17th century, and the French gave them their name. In 1609 they were encountered by Samuel de Champlain (who gives his name to a great lake), and later wished they had not been, because Champlain drew them into mortal and unequal conflict with the Iroquois (Seneca branch).

The Iroquois virtually destroyed the Hurons in an early example of ‘ethnic cleansing’ on a heroic scale. Those Hurons who survived the violence dispersed into other tribes in the west, or settled in or near French Quebec.

By the late 19th cewntury however, most Hurons were living in Kansas, having moved country. Later they were re-settled again, this time in the north-east of Oklahoma.

 The Iroquois

The Iroquois are renowned in literature and on film. Their presence was most felt in centuries earlier than the Amnerican War of Independence.They inhabited the woodlands of the north-eastern parts of Canada and the USA. Most unlike the traditional Native Americans of the Great Plains, the Iroquois lived in permanent fortified village settlements. While the males, almost from birth, were hunter/gatherers, the females farmed, growing crops of wheat, maize, squash and beans.

Descent among the Iroquis was matrilineal, meaning lineal through the female line, and we learn that women maintained a high status. The word ‘Iroquois does not mean a single tribe of that name, but a nation of at least five tribes. Organisation among them was efficient, brief and unquestioned. Decisions were taken by voting, first among tribal members, and afterwards in council by each representative of a tribe.

The Iroquois were trained warriors, very often including the womenfolk. They expanded the confederation by conquest, until they reached the height of their powers by the mid-seventeenth century.

Conflicts and rivalry arose, as always, in the fur-trade industry. With the Dutch and the English, this economy was centred around Albany, New York. With the French, it was at Montreal. The Iroquois were bound to Albany by treaty. They raided Frenchy settlements in the north-west, near the St. Laurence River and attacked the Huron in 1648/49, nearly destroying the latter as a nation.

In 1784 the Iroquois, who had always been allies of the British against the French, and later of the colonists rebellings against George III, were rewarded with a very large land grant and moved to the Grand River in Ontario, led by one Joseph Brant, as well as the Bay of Quinte (Desoronto, Ontario).

Many films have been made with the Iroquois as subject, and Iroquois-style hair styles are most popular among the more rebellious of our modern youth.

The Mohican (or Mahican)

There is still argument over the sound of the first vowel. Officially, they are Mahicans, but a very famous book was published in the 19th century by James Fennimore Cooper in which the name appears as ‘Mohicans’. A successful film of The Last of the Mohicans has been made with a Welsh actor acting the part of the hero.

The Mahicans were centred around Dutch Fort Orange, later renamed Albany. In almost constant conflict, they kept the Mohawk Iroquois at axe length until their control was finally broken in the wars of 1662-69. After this. epidemics of European-spread disease, and assaults by Dutch, then English, finally American settlers forced them into a subservient role through the 18th century. By the 19th century the Mohicans were only to be found in midwestern reservations in the USA, all connection with Canada having been lost.

 The Mohawk

One of the five nations of the Iroquois, they lived in the eastern part of what is now New York State, west of the Mahicans or Mohicans. The Mohawk were the first tribe to experience the impact of European trade goods, and as trade improved, they were instrumental in established the Iroquois League.

The effectiveness of Uroquois control over trade routes increased just as fighting developed with the use of firearms, obtained from the Dutch and the English from around 1640. After the destruction of the Hurons (see above) in the mid-seventeenth century, peace treaties were signed with the French in 1653, 1667 and 1701 – in Quebec. Jesuit missionaries managed to convert many Mohawks in the late 17th and 18th centuries, and then to cap it all English missionaries began work among them in 1704.

Many of these Native Americans moved to Montral in the 1670s, and other villages on the St. Laurence River by the middle of the 18th. In the colonists war against the English the Mohawk sided with the redcoats. As punishment for this treachery most were driven out of their homes in New York State, and moved as quickly as they could to0 join relatives in Canada, where many still live today. In the 1980s the Mohawks showed they had not lost a fighting strain, when they confronted Canadian police over the issue of land rights.

The Natchez

A Native American people of the middle Mississippi region, important in historical studies because their tribal organisation survived long enough for true documentation of their history to be written and stored. This information now provides a unique insight into the pre-history of several Native American cultures.

The Natchez embraced chiefdoms, each chief ruling over at least two village compounds. They had a complicated system of aristocracy, comprising ‘suns’, ‘nobles’ and ‘honoureds’ – surprisingly similar to their equivalent in European monarchies (see ‘dukes’ for ‘suns’). Unlike Europe however, the lower classes were referred to as ‘stinkards’ or ‘stinkers’. Again unlike Europe, too, was the custom whereby the nobility was required to marry commoners or stinkers. Descendence was in the female line. Therefore children of stinkard (or stinkint) father took their mother’s rank, while those of stinking mothers were one rank below their fathers.

With this kind of hierarchy established, it was not surprising that the French decided to liquidate the Natchez, which led to many villages being destroyed (and the persons within) in 1789, oddly enough at the same time as a certain Revolution in France. In 1731 most remaining Natchez were sold as slaves, the tribe was dissolved, and persons left behind joined other tribes.

The Navajo

This name embraces over 50 Native American clans or tribes, who, like their cousins the Apache, were hunter/gatherers originating in western Canada. During centuries they moved gradually southwards to the ‘four corners’ area of Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico between the 11th and 15th centuries.

Contact with the Spanish began around 1540 – 42, and from 1609/10 Spanish missions worked peaceably enough among them. The Navaho adopted themselves rapidly to the horse and herding, learned from the Spanish settlers. They also learned silver-working and the weaving of cloth. If they felt like a fight, there were always tribes like the Hopi to provide some interest.

By the mid-19th century, the Navaho were established and prosperous sheep farmers, and are now the largest single Native grouping in the USA. Women, and women’s philosophy, are treated with consummate importance by the Navajo. Kinship is matrilineal. They have prospered also because of the lucky discovery of oil and minerals on their lands, which, having been given them officially by the US Government, they are loath to give up, though many attempts have been made by semi-official groups to force them into it. The story of the Navaho is by and large much happier than that of the majority of Native American tribes.

The Pawnee

By 1000 a.d. these Native Americans were living west of the Missouri River, in what is now Nebraska. They were farmers and lived in village communities, though they practised seasonal hunting. In the 15th and 16th centuries they were nomadic, on foot.

When they acquired the horse from the Spanish they became buffalo hunters, and later  became expert in ambushing stage coaches and pony express riders. Hollywood has made much of this preference for horseback robbery. They first got hold of firearms from northern Mexico, and used them with great effect and brio.

 The Seminole

Natives of Florida, the Seminole retaliated against US military forces sent into Florida in search of escaped slaves. Under President Andrew Jackson punitive expeditions forced the natives more and more into the dreaded watery marshes of the Everglades, where hundreds of young American troops died of malaria, snakebite, the eating habits of alligators, or killing habits of the Seminole. What would Hollywood and Gary Cooper have done without the Seminole Indians?

In 1819 Spain ceded Florida to the USA, and in 1832 the natives were ordered to sign a treaty removing them to the Mississippi (the ‘Trail of Tears’). A Seminole chief called Osceola refused to submit, and (after treachery) was captured and his followers ‘eliminated’. In 1841 a US general whose name I prefer not to mention ordered the Seminole’s land and possessions burned and their villages destroyed. Facing starvation, the Seminole (a brave, cruel, fighting race) were forced to accept their deportation westwards.

 When the first settlers from European nations arrived in North America in the late 1490s, the Native American population was spread generously across the entire continent. There were nearly fifty different tribes with different names, and a huge diversity of languages and cultures.

Some cultural likenesses can of course be found between tribes living in areas of similar geography and climate. On the central plains the inhabitants were nomadic, while those living in wooded north-western coastal areas lived in permanent villages until they were driven from them by ‘Progress’. In the fertile south-east an agricultural and trading economy was firmly established by the beginning of the fourteenth century.

Tribes not mentioned in this analysis include the Montagnais, Gros Ventre, Nez Percé, Chinook, Modoc, Shoshone, Paiute, Pueblo, Chickasaw, Susquehanna and Ottowa.

Collated by DEAN SWIFT.

By | 2011-09-09T16:38:23+00:00 September 9th, 2011|US History|0 Comments

About the Author:

‘Dean Swift’ is a pen name: the author has been a soldier; he has worked in sales, TV, the making of films, as a teacher of English and history and a journalist. He is married with three grown-up children. They live in Spain.

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