Before bullying political correctness did its best to blow good language off the map, ‘Native Americans’ meant “Redskins”, “Red Indians”, occasionally (especially in Westerns) “them varmints!”, “the red man”, “Indians!”, “Take cover behind the wagons, “‘tis them savages agin!” etc. etc.
In the very early 16th century, when the first European settlers arrived in North America, the ‘Native American’ population was found to be scattered throughout the whole continent. There were around more than 40 different tribes (some with names that would echo throughout American history), and virtually every tribe spoke a different language, providing an extraordinary diversity of language, and increasing difficulties of communication between the white man and the red man. Naturally, there was also an enormous diversity of cultures. The American Indians had one thing in common however: with very good reason, they distrusted the white man, and, subtly, or with the utmost savagery, tried to stop him obtaining their lands.
Some cultural similarities can be found between tribes living in areas of similar climate and geography. For instance, in the thickly wooded north-west coastal area, with a hospitable climate and plentiful food supplies, tribes such as the Chinook, Nez Percé and Modoc lived a settled life with a well-developed culture; on the central plains, almost all the tribes were nomadic, undertaking vast journeys in search of water, buffalo for food and clothing. What they all too frequently found was other tribes, and they had to fight them. Fighting was something all Indian males grew up with, which is why it needed generations of white men in uniform to pacify, and, as a final solution, extinguish them.
In the fertile south-East, and agricultural and trading economy was firmly established even by the 14th century. The arrival of the Spanish, French and finally English and Irish changed all that.
The original inhabitants of North America had migrated from Asia around 30,000 years ago, at the same time as the original inhabitants of South America, who came mostly from Mongol stock – entire tribes had walked down the western coast of the Americas from Alaska (having survived the dangerous sea crossing) to what is now Mexico, Central America, and Perú (made up of modern Perú, plus Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia etc.)
By the time of European invasion and colonization, the indigenous population of North America was probably around 900,000 – under a million anyway – mostly living on coastal areas rather than in the barren interior. They lived in small villages, some tribes neatly and cleanly, others not. Life in these villages was centred round hunting, carried out with stone-age implements and weapons, though the bow and arrow had travelled with them from Asia. As self-defence was paramount to all Indian tribes, agriculture took a secondary place in importance, though every village grew its own cereals and modest vegetables.
Warfare betweeen the tribes was endemic. Conflict with French and English settlers in the north-east drove many tribes to move west and north. In the west they met with the Spanish, who offered them religion, clothes and death if they wanted neither. Statistics dealing with how many Native Americans died in clashes with the British, Spanish and French across North America are difficult to come by, but it is known that casualties were infinitely less than after independence, when the white man really got down to the business of genocide, freed from cautionary finger-wagging from London, Madrid or Paris.
Meanwhile, the Native American discovered the horse, brought by the Spanish. Every young Indian learnt to control, groom, feed, clean, and above all ride a horse almost from birth. Man and mount were almost as one. A mounted Shoshone brave, for example, could bring down several buffalo (not a safe animal to mix with) with his bow and arrow, controlling the galloping horse solely with his thighs and knees. The Sieux or, more correctly, Siux Indians, produced several leaders (Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull etc.) by the mid 20th century whose courage, native cunning and innate knowledge of strategy made them almost indefatigable – even by trained cavalry and infantry. Had the Red Indians spent more time cooperating, instead of squabbling between themselves (see the Pawnee and Siuxan Wars), the United States might have needed a century more of decimation of native populations before some sort of peace could be established.
The best-known, major tribes are usually divided geographically. North-Eastern woodland, for example, meant the Algonquin, Delaware and Iroquois tribes. The South-East – Cherokee, Choctaw and Creek. The Great Central Plains – Blackfoot and Comanche. The South- Western desert – the Apache (an exceedingly brave and dangerous fellow) and Navaho. The Pacific North-West, the Chinook, and the mountains and plateaux – the Nez Percé. The Seminole tribe inhabited most of Florida, but only from the 18th century. The Spanish, and later the Americans, necessitated appalling losses during the eventual conquest of the Seminole.
Northern Canada contained the Eskimo (now called something else by the Political Correctors), while Eastern Canada meant the Montagnais. Central Canada was populated sparsely by the Cree. Western Canada meant the notorious Blackfeet. Just to the south of what is now the bordser were the famous Cheyenne, victims of so many John Wayne pictures, while to their left lay the Shawnee in wait for a wagon trainheaded West. The Arapaho in their turn ambushed many wagons, and made off with the horses after murdering the settlers, their wives and children. They had their reasons.
For some reason historians find difficult to find, the native Indians of South America were never like those savage combatants of the northern continent. The Incas, for example, despite enjoying a huge population, preferred to trade with the Spanish invaders, and indeed lost their emperor Atahualpa to a Spanish trick, after which the Spanish relieved him of his gold and silver. But there were no Custers in South America (thank Heaven), because the invaders chose to fight among themselves, not against the Native South Americans.
(See also Native American Tribes on this site)