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Native American History

Learn about the history of Native Americans.

Overview of Native American History

The original inhabitants of the Western Hemisphere who arrived during the last Ice Age, estimated at 20,000 to 40,000 years ago. They came in several migrations over a land bridge connecting Alaska with Siberia, and spread gradually throughout the Americas.

In what is now the USA, the Native Americans developed ways of life that suited the area in which they lived. Those of the north-west coast lived off the sea; those living on the buffalo-rich Great Plains were hunters and gatherers; those in the warm and abundant south-east were skilled farmers and fishermen.

Columbus, mistakenly believing he had reached India, called the indigenous people he encountered ‘Indians’. Friendships with the Native Americans were indispensable to the survival of the early European settlers, who were shown how to grow native crops and where to hunt and fish, saving them from almost certain starvation. The Europeans unwittingly brought diseases to which the native people had no immunity, wiping out thousands and nearly destroying whole tribes. In addition, as more Europeans came and spread further west, Native American resistance to the encroachment of white settlers increased and the long conflict known as the Indian Wars began. The numerous tribes with their diverse languages lacked the cohesion to repel the influx of well-supplied, determined settlers.

Since Native American land was increasingly in demand, most of the tribes east of the Mississippi River were pushed west. But as western land was opened to settlers, the Native Americans were forced onto reservations in hostile terrain and far from their original lands, sometimes close to traditional tribal enemies. With their affairs administered by the federal government, they lost control over their lives and were not granted US citizenship until 1924. Of the current population of almost 2.4 million, more than half live off reservations in metropolitan areas. Over 50 languages are spoken among the more than 500 tribes. As a group, Native Americans are among the poorest in the nation and continue to contend with both the prejudice and the romanticized images of the past. Throughout the second half of the 20c they have been pressing for increasing self-determination, striving to balance their economic and political survival against the preservation of their cultural and spiritual identities.

From CREDO Native Americans in from Chambers Dictionary of World History
Image: By Edward S. Curtis is courtesy of George Eastman House.

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