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Native American Society on the Eve of British Colonization

1a. Diversity of Native American Groups

Homes of the Southwest Indians
The structures Native Americans called home were extremely varied and often exclusive to tribe or region. These "apartment" style dwellings were the work of Natives of the Southwest.

Since 1492, European explorers and settlers have tended to ignore the vast diversity of the people who had previously lived here. It soon became common to lump all such groups under the term "Indian." In the modern American world, we still do. There are certain experiences common to the survivors of these tribes. They all have had their lands compromised in some way and suffered the horrors of reservation life.

Language Lessons

"Great Sun"
The Natchez chief, known as "Great Sun," was a powerful Indian leader. Unlike some Indian leaders, "Great Sun" ruled as an absolute monarch.

Stereotyping Indians in this way denies the vast cultural differences between tribes. First, there is the issue of language. The Navajo people of the Southwest and the Cherokees of the Southeast have totally unrelated languages.

There were over 200 North American tribes speaking over 200 different languages. The United States used the uniqueness of the Navajo language to its advantage in World War II. Rather than encrypting radio messages, it proved simpler to use Navajos to speak to each other in their everyday language to convey high-security messages. It worked.

Navajo Code Talkers

Between 1942 and 1945, about 400 Navajos served as code talkers for the U.S. Marines. They could encode, transmit, and decode a message in a fraction of the time it took a machine to do the same. And unlike with machine codes, the Japanese were never able to break the Navajo code.

Excerpts from the Navajo Code Talkers' Dictionary


– excerpted from the Navajo Code Talkers' Dictionary (revised as of June 15, 1945), Department of the Navy

Oneida creation story
"In the beginning, this place was only darkness and water until the time when a woman fell from the sky world." Thus starts the Oneida creation story. Every Native American tribe has their own history, culture, and art.

Different Strokes for Different Folks

Lifestyles varied greatly. Most tribes were domestic, but the Lakota followed the buffalo as nomads. Most engaged in war, but the Apache were particularly feared, while the Hopis were pacifistic. Most societies were ruled by men, but the Iroquois women chose the leaders.

Native Americans lived in wigwams, hogans, igloos, tepees, and longhouses. Some relied chiefly on hunting and fishing, while others domesticated crops. The Algonkian chiefs tried to achieve consensus, but the Natchez "Sun" was an absolute monarch. The totem pole was not a universal Indian symbol. It was used by tribes such as the Chinook in the Pacific Northwest to ward off evil spirits and represent family history.

It is important that students of history explore tribal nuances. Within every continent, there is tremendous diversity. The tribal differences that caused the Apache and Navajo peoples to fight each other are not so different from the reasons Germans fought the French. Recognizing tribal diversity is an important step in understanding the history of America.

On the Web
Storytelling: The Art of Knowledge
This extraordinary virtual exhibit from the Canadian Museum of Civilization showcases storytelling from six native peoples: the Inuvialuit, the Algonquin, the Métis and Cree, the Nisga'a, the Abenaki, and the Mi'kmaq. Learn to understand the meaning behind certain artifacts and symbols — Why is a bird painted on a rattle? On another, why is a man's tongue joined to a frog's?
Indigenous Peoples' Literature
This site offers stories, documents, poetry, and speeches from indigenous peoples throughout the Americas, with special attention to the native peoples of Mexico. Over 60 origin and creation stories alone are offered here,
Native American Housing from the Pre-contact Period
Native American tribes built homes and shelter according to the climate, agriculture, and materials of their environment. This website describes different types of native American dwellings, including hogans, tipis and igloos, and shows their distribution on a map of the continent.
NativeTech Native American Technology and Art
Sit back with a cup of chaparral tea (you'll find the recipe here) and explore the many pages devoted to Native American arts and technology. Articles are separated by category with links for a variety of fields, including beadwork, clay and pottery, and stonework and tools. Although this website focuses on the Native Americans of the Eastern Woodlands, there are also links for other native people.
Oneida Indian Nation
Greetings from the People of the Standing Stone is a message you can hear in the Oneidan language at the official website of the Oneida Indian Nation. Prior to European contact the Oneida people inhabited much of modern-day New York and the Oneida Nation is interested in telling their history at this website. Links to Oneidan culture, history, and economic enterprises tell the tale of the Oneida Indian Nation.
Native American Indian Studies — A Note on the Name
Why did Columbus call the native people of America "Indians?" He thought he landed in Asia (India to be exact) when he had actually landed in America. This University of Massachusetts website provides a brief essay on using the terms "Indian" and "Native American."
Nipmuc Indian Kids Corner
Is maple syrup a Native American or European food? What about hot chocolate? After finding the answers to these questions, help the chipmunk find his acorn or match the animal with his tracks.
Professor Cheryl Walker
How did Native Americans view the United States in the 19th century? Listen to guest expert Professor Cheryl Walker talk about 19th-century Native American literature.

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