The attempt to write any book, especially a textbook, about the histories and cultures of the indigenous peoples of what is now called North America is a daunting task. Similar to the continent of Europe, the histories and cultures of the peoples are diverse. It is readily accepted by both scientists and the general public that humans were in Europe over 40,000 years ago. However, the hypothesis, based on archaeological sites in South America that fully modern humans were in the Americas 40,000 years ago is hotly debated. While there is evidence of hominid species (for example, Homo erectus and Neanderthals) in Europe as well as Asia and Africa, the skeletal remains of the fully modern humans called Paleo-Indians have been found only in the Americas. While humans have not been in the Americas as long as in Africa (from whence all humans come), Europe, or Asia, archaeological evidence shows that people have been in the Americas for at least over 12,000 years.

The historical inquiry about human activity around the world is broken into two large categories: prehistoric and historic. The term proto-historic applies to a period of transition between the two. With the exception of societies like the Maya and Aztecs of Mesoamerica, who had written documents and historical accounts on monumental architecture well over 2,000 years ago, research about Native societies prior to 1492 is prehistoric. A number of academic fields and sources—geology, archaeology, botany, zoology, and the oral traditions of contemporary Native societies—are used to make hypotheses about their lives before historical documents were kept. Archaeologists and historians use historical categories that are unique to the Americas: Paleo-Indian, archaic, and formative.

Paleo-Indian refers to the first migration of people to the Americas during the final glacial episodes of the late Pleistocene period. Archaic refers to the period from 8,000 BCE (before the common era) to 2,000 BCE when many but not all societies across the Americas developed horticulture and agriculture. The estimated development of horticulture and agriculture vary for different parts of the Americas. The formative stage refers to the period of 1,000 BCE to 500 CE (common era) in which, in addition to horticulture/agriculture, societies developed pottery, weaving, and permanent towns with ceremonial centers. These categories and dates were first postulated in the 1950s. Contemporary archaeological data now tells us that the estimated dates of these developments can be off by 1,000 years or more. Further, the original peoples of the Americas had technology such as pottery and weaving before they developed horticulturally, if they ever did. Such technologies are not dependent on horticulture or permanent settlements. So, while these time frames are not supported by current data, the terms Paleo-Indian, archaic, and formative are still used to describe the resources strategies of American indigenous peoples.

In the Americas, a wide assortment of crops was grown, including, but not limited to: corn, potatoes, tomatoes, and several varieties of beans, chili peppers, and cocoa. Despite the popular media image of Indians hunting bison on horseback, by the time of European contact many, many Native Americans produced much of their food through horticulture (the domestication of some plants) and agriculture, while still foraging, fishing and hunting. Societies in South America, Mesoamerica, and most of the eastern, mid-western, and southwestern parts of what is now the United States were prosperous horticultural and agricultural societies. The original inhabitants of the Americas developed horticultural/agriculture, a high level of technology, as well as ceremonial/spiritual life and expressive culture (the arts) without influence from Europe.

The Americas were separated from Africa, Asia, and Europe (the Old World) by vast oceans. People may indeed have sailed those oceans hundreds of years before Columbus; or people may have crossed from the Americas to the Old World. There is little evidence for either hypothesis, and even less evidence that possible early explorers had any impact or influence on the people and societies they may have encountered. Another hypothesis is that during glacial eras people migrated over the ice-covered Arctic areas between northern Asia, Europe, and North America. Unfortunately, there has been little research in this area; it is a hypothesis that deserves more investigation.

The physical separation of the Americas from the Old World slowed human migration, but people did eventually arrive (some hypotheses about how and when will be discussed in Chapter 1). When they did, they brought the technology and knowledge they had developed and used these to adapt to new environments they encountered, and continued to develop new technologies and new knowledge. People came to the Americas as foragers, who, like all people around the world before 12,000 years ago, acquired their food through a combination of gathering wild edibles, fishing, and hunting. Around 8,000 to 10,000 years ago, the indigenous peoples of the Americas, like people in the Old World, started domesticating some plants and started the process of producing their food (horticulture). Some aboriginal people lived in relatively large cities; some had hierarchical forms of government. If you could time travel back to a Native American Mississippi River Valley village, and a village in England 1,000 years ago, you would be struck by the similarities. Both villages would be farming some of their food, while also gathering some wild edibles and fishing and hunting. Chances are, the villages would be built around a mound, on which the leader of the village lived (Chapter 3). In today’s England, he would be referred to as a king; in the Mississippi River Valley, we would probably call him a chief, although their roles would have been very similar. They both would have achieved their positions, rather than been ascribed (born to) their status, probably because of the status of extended families (kin groups) and would probably still be directly accountable to the people of their respective villages (Chapter 4).

There are marked dissimilarities between Native American and European societies as well. Religious beliefs and practices would have been different (Chapter 5), as well as the expressive culture, or today what we call the arts (Chapter 6). While in Europe, Asia, and to a lesser extent Africa, kin organization became more centered around men (patrilineal), many Native American societies were matrilineal and matrifocal, meaning that their kin groups were descended from women, so inheritance or usufruct rights went from mother to daughter (Chapter 2). Perhaps because of the important roles of women within kin groups and religion, they held important roles within the political systems of many Native American societies (Chapter 4). Native American women also had very important roles within the economies of their societies, both producing and distributing important resources.

This text is written from an anthropological perspective. That is, I attempt to write about some Native American societies from the categories frequently discussed within cultural anthropology: kinship, gender roles, economic resources and distribution, political organization, religion, and expressive culture. To write a history or ethnography (cultural description) of all the estimated 700 indigenous societies of just North America would require an encyclopedia (the Smithsonian has such a reference, The Handbook of North American Indians and The Handbook of South American Indians, which contains nearly forty volumes). For this book, I selected different societies from the areas of what are now Canada and the United States to illustrate the different anthropological concepts discussed. While this is the method I have chosen, it can pose some problems. One of them is approaching a society from components such as kin groups and the other categories mentioned above. These components are part of the cultural whole for any society, but when studying ancient cultures, any of these pieces may be missing. For example, kinship systems are very flexible and change over time. So a kinship system observed in the 19th century in a society that has experienced much change—the Lakota for example—may have different kin organization then it did in the 18th century. Since each one influences the other, just as kinship influences status, resources, and religious beliefs, which in turn influence other aspects, it helps to think of culture as a spider web. The cells of the web are all connected, and the destruction of one cell can greatly change or even destroy the web. I hope that as you read the different chapters you will think about the inter-relationships between the topics discussed in each chapter.

There are other perspectives. For those interested in the history of Native Americans, I would suggest approaching the subject from either a societal perspective by researching a particular society like the Crow or Lakota or Navajo, or a cultural-geographic perspective by selecting societies from a particular region to study. For instance, looking at the history of the peoples of the Arctic, Great Lakes area, or Northwest Coast. In anthropology this is called the cultural-geographic perspective.

I hope you are sensing a point here: the histories and cultures of the indigenous peoples of the Americas are no less complex than those of Europe or Asia or Africa. Euro-Americans and Canadians (those people who are descended from immigrants from Europe to North America) continue to hold many mistaken stereotypes about pre-Columbian American Indians. For example, a belief still sometimes perpetuated is that at the time of European contact the Americas were vast empty lands occupied by a few thousand people who still acquired their food only through hunting, and had not developed any of the attributes associated with the civilizations of Europe, such as growing their own food. The facts are that the Americas were occupied by millions of people, many of whom were farmers, and these people had achieved similar technological development to people in Europe except in one area: weapons (Weatherford 1988).

So where do the mistaken concepts about American Indians come from? One answer may lie in the fact that Europeans introduced contagious diseases to which the indigenous peoples of North America had no immunities. Thus, waves of epidemics were launched into areas often years before face-to-face contact with actual Europeans, wiping out enormous numbers of Native peoples. Another answer may be in the practice that Euro-Americans and Canadians had of eliminating the Native peoples they encountered as they pushed their way through the continent to get its land and resources. In the United States this process is justified by Manifest Destiny: the belief that it is the God-given destiny of Christian Europeans and later Euro-Americans to control the land and resources of the Americas. Elimination came in many ways: death from warfare or disease, termination of treaty rights of Native American societies to their lands; the removal of Native people to what became known as Indian Territory or to city slums; and residential boarding schools with the expressed goal to “kill the Indian” in children. The elimination process culminated in the belief that there were not many indigenous peoples in the Americas in the first place—and that there are hardly any now.

Another answer may come from the ideas about biological race that were commonly held in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries (and are still held by some). From an anthropological or biological perspective, there is no such thing as biological race. The last remaining humanoid species other than the one now inhabiting planet Earth was the Neanderthals, who died out around 40,000 years ago. We are all the same species; there is as much or more biological diversity within any one human group (such as your classroom, dorm, or neighborhood) as is among any human population, no matter how isolated or phenotypically (physically) different. When we talk about race, what we are talking about is a social construct, with real-world consequences. Race is based on a set of ideas that are focused on physical appearance or geographic origin. Racism is a set of ideas whereby one group of people claims that a set of physical features commonly possessed by another group of people are directly linked to specific negative characteristics, such as poor morality, lack of intelligence, or the inability to govern themselves. Currently anthropologists, sociologists, historians, and others have come to refer to the ideas about race and racism that developed in the late nineteenth century as biological determinism or social Darwinism.

I prefer to refer to use the term biological determinism, because such ideas have nothing to do with Charles Darwin’s theories about evolution and the process by which any species (including humans) adapts to a new or changing environment. I think Mr. Darwin would have been saddened to know his theories were used as justification for the exploitation of humans who came to be seen as biologically inferior to other humans. From Darwin’s evolutionary perspective, the indigenous peoples of the Americas, Africa, or Asia, were and are just as evolved as those in Europe, because all had successfully adapted to their environments and were successfully producing and raising offspring to succeed them by providing food, shelter, security, and cultural knowledge and memory.

Biological determinism was combined with social ideas that many Europeans, Euro-Americans, and Canadians had about the cultural, linguistic (language) and biological inferiority of peoples from the Americas, Asia, and Africa. It was believed that people from these areas had cultures or societies that were inferior to those in Europe as well as languages that were inferior to European languages, and that this inferiority was based in biology. Particular attention was paid to the brain. Scientists such as Samuel Morton did experiments that purported to show that the skulls of Africans, Asians, and Native Americans men and women, along with European and American women, were smaller than the skulls of European men. He concluded that if their brains were smaller, they were less intelligent, and, as result, their cultures and languages were inferior to those of Europe—and all women were inferior to European men.

Let’s discuss theories and facts. Darwin’s ideas about evolution are criticized by some because they are theories, not facts. True, Darwin postulated theories about evolution, which over the last 100 years have been supported and expanded. At no time has any scientific finding from archaeology, geology, biology, or zoology that examines changes to the earth, plants, or animals, found any evidence to refute evolution. Evolution will probably never be proven as a fact because we may never have the opportunity to observe similar changes on another planet. However, to disprove a theory we need only one verified, repeatable example. No such examples to the theory of evolution have been found. There is much tangible evidence in biology and geology to support Darwin’s theory of evolution.

What of Samuel Morton’s theories about skull and brain size and intelligence? We know that skull size is related to skeleton size. An average human male’s skeleton is larger than the average female’s, so the male’s skull on average will be larger than the female’s. However, a 6-foot female model (and they generally are around six feet) may well have a larger skull than a shorter, say, 5-foot, 3-inch man. So would the model be more intelligent than the shorter man? According to Morton’s theory, this would be the case. Second, Morton’s theory is now emblematic of the how bias can affect even the most scientific-seeming claims. Morton knew which skulls belonged to Europeans, men and women, Africans, American Indians, and Asians. This was not a blind study as is used to ensure the validity of scientific research today. Morton measured the volume of the skulls by pouring mustard seeds or lead shot into the skulls. He may well have been guilty of packing the seeds more tightly into the male European skulls than the others, much as we might try to get that last bit of coffee or sugar from a bag into a canister.

What gives our brain its potential for intelligence is not its size, but its complexity, which is revealed by its density. The human brain is remarkably heavy for such a small object. That is because our brain is not smooth, but layered and folded in on itself. Have you ever seen a picture of brain coral, so called because it looks like our brains? The folding gives our brains much more surface area than that of other mammals. The increased surface area means more brain cells, synapses, and neurons. It is this density, along with environmental factors like a good diet and secure and stimulating surroundings that give humans the potential for intelligence.

Unlike Darwin’s theory of evolution, Morton’s theories about the relationship between skull and brain size and intelligence, and all the theories that built on his, do not hold up to scrutiny, as many examples disprove his theory. However, ideas such as this were (and still are) used to support beliefs about the biological, linguistic, and cultural inferiority of non-European peoples. In the nineteenth century, early anthropologists and archaeologists ranked societies and their people on a progressive scale as being in a state of savagery-barbarism or civilization. Social attributes, such as having a written language, a patrilineal kinship or hierarchical political system, were used to assign societies to one of the three categories. The category of civilization was based on European societies, so that those non-European societies that were most like Europe would rank higher. There were inconsistencies. For example, agriculture was necessary for a society to be considered in a state of civilization. Societies such as those of China and India were agricultural long before the societies of Europe, but China and India were usually ranked as being in a state of barbarism. The agricultural societies of the Americas (and Africa) were generally ranked as being in a state of savagery.

You may have noticed that the darker the skin of a society’s people, the lower they ranked. Also, those people who occupied lands into which Europe was expanding its economic and political power were ranked lower. Categorizing the people you are killing, enslaving, or displacing from their homes as inferior to you is an excellent justification for that behavior. There is always a social context for people’s beliefs and behaviors. The peoples of the Americas (and Africa and Asia) had to be seen as inferior by Europeans, Euro-Americans, and Canadians in order to allow and justify the colonization of their lands, lives, and societies. Thus, the Americas were seen as vast, near empty lands inhabited by a few hunting societies who, despite the resources available, had not advanced as had the people of Europe.

None of us would consider ourselves racist, but we have all been influenced by these ideas. When I was in elementary school, one of my classrooms had a large world map hanging on the wall. Around the map were illustrations of “the races of the world;” pictures of humans were arranged from lightest hair and skin to the darkest. My textbooks often referred to the indigenous peoples of the Americas and Africa as “savages” and “barbarians.” These ideas were often illustrated in the television shows and movies I and other people of my generation watched. Do you think your images are much different? Have you read any books by a Native American writer? Do you see any Native American actors on television or in movies? When you do read or see something about Native Americans, is it placed in the past or in the present?

Too often when people read or write about American Indians, the material is placed in the past. Histories about Native Americans typically stop around 1890, the date of the massacre at Wounded Knee in South Dakota. Despite disease, warfare, loss of land, reservations, boarding schools, termination, and relocation to cities, Native Americans have neither died out or been assimilated into the mainstream societies of Canada and the United States. In fact, Native American populations are growing, and many societies are experiencing a cultural regenesis.

You may notice that I am using various terms—indigenous, Native Americans, American Indians—to refer to the First Peoples of the Americas. Names can be powerful: they are the most powerful when they are the names people choose for themselves. However, those names are not usually the ones by which we refer to people, particularly those of the Americas or Africa. Each indigenous American society had a name by which they referred to themselves and names (not always flattering) which they were referred to by others. When writing about a specific society, I will use that society’s name for itself, along with the commonly known name. For example, the people commonly known as the Navajo name themselves Dine. In addition, as we learn more about these cultures, and as the cultures have more voice in the writing of their histories, the politically correct name for the First Peoples of the Americas changes. In Canada, First Nations, First Peoples, indigenous, and aboriginal are used. In the United States, Native American or American Indian are typically used. I will use them all at different points.

Map of the Indian Tribes of North America about 1600 A.D. along the atlantic & about 1800 A.D westwardly
By Albert Gallatin, from Archaeologia Americana: Transactions and Collections of the American Antiquarian Society. Vol II. Cambridge: Printed For The Society, At The University Press. 1836. Map of the Indian Tribes of North America about 1600 A.D. along the Atlantic & about 1800 A.D. westwardly

It is difficult to find a good map that illustrates the diversity of societies found in North America at the time of European contact. This map attempts to illustrate that diversity in 1600. You may notice it follows the political boundaries of the present day United States, which did not exist in 1600, and as a consequence, only shows aboriginal societies that lived within the border of what would become the United States and part of Canada, with nothing shown below the southern border.

You may also notice that when referring to communities of Native peoples, I use the word society. From an anthropological perspective, a society is a group of people who reproduce offspring and have at least three generations who depend on each other and share land, resources, and cultural traditions and institutions. The United States and Canada are examples of societies: each country has members who reproduce offspring, at least three generations, each recognizes geo-political boundaries, and their people share their resources and other traditions such as legal, economic, and educational institutions. A culture is more difficult to define. A society may be made up of many cultures. The Dictionary of Anthropology defines culture as, “All that is nonbiological and socially transmitted in a society, including artistic, social, ideological and religious patterns of behavior, and the techniques for mastering the environment” (pg. 144). So within the societies of the United States and Canada there are many cultures based on religion, work, class, geographic regions, volunteer organizations, sports, and even college.

Since the 1800s, the indigenous societies of the Americas have typically been grouped by cultural-geographic areas. In that time, most anthropologists and government representatives thought Native peoples were dying or vanishing. As a result, they often engaged in what is called salvage ethnography, in which Native American artifacts were collected to be saved and studied. Museum curators, overwhelmed with the plethora of material culture coming to them, developed this model as a means of sorting specimens for storage and eventual exhibition in institutions such as the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. While acknowledging that these categories were not ideal in grouping Native American societies, the anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, working in the 1920s, believed that the societies within cultural-geographic areas shared similar social-cultural practices, behaviors, and technologies that would be understood by museum visitors.

North American Cultural-Geographic Areas. Classification of indigenous peoples of North America according to Alfred Kroeber, English-language version of map.
Submitted to the public domain by wikimedia user Nikater. North American Cultural-Geographic Areas. Classification of indigenous peoples of North America according to Alfred Kroeber, English-language version of map

This map shows common Native American cultural-geographic areas in North America, including parts of Mexico. While I will reference societies from the different cultural-geographic areas, I will not be using those categories in describing the various societies discussed in this text. I find the cultural-geographic perspective of examining indigenous societies to be problematic. For example, look at the area referred to as the Plains, which stretches from southern Canada nearly to what are now the border of Mexico and the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. Within this area are very different environmental niches that were occupied by and utilized by very different peoples. There were both horticulturalists and foragers living on the Plains. These different peoples organized their societies differently and spoke an array of languages. Examining Native American societies from the cultural-geographic perspective fails to illustrate the differences among societies found within these artificially designed categories. Further, this is a very static method for studying Native American societies, which tended to be quite adaptable to change and mobile when the need arose.

The indigenous peoples of the Americas did not encounter geo-political boundaries as we do today. People would move as resources became limited, populations too large, or segments of the population just were not getting along. People migrated for much the same reasons as humans migrated out of Africa to Asia and Europe and ultimately to the Americas. For example, before European contact, the people known as the Lakota lived in the prairies of what is now the state of Minnesota, part of the Northeast cultural-geographic area. The Lakota were not the Horse Culture commonly seen in T.V. and movie westerns. Horses did not exist in the New World until Europeans brought them. In 1680, many pueblos (communities) in the Southwest revolted against the Spanish who had attempted to colonize them. As a result of the revolt, many Spanish horses were freed. Eventually these horses, ancestors of the mustang, found their way to the Plains. In the meantime, European contact and increasing population in the Midwest had pushed the Lakota onto the Plains. The Lakota soon came to depend on and revere the horse that helped them survive in their new environment. So should they be considered a society of the Northeast cultural-geographic area or the Plains?

Kroeber was one of the last Renaissance anthropologists. By that I mean he studied social-cultural organization, languages, material culture, and human biology. Today, most anthropologists specialize in one or two of these areas. Later in his life, Kroeber was most interested in studying the languages of Native Americans. Scientists like to put things into categories, so he categorized the languages of Native Americas into seven large language families. A language family consists of several to many languages that exhibit characteristics indicating they are related to one another and are descended from a common language. If you speak Spanish, French, Italian, or Portuguese you probably know they are related to each other and are descended from Latin. These languages belong to a much larger language family called Indo-European, which includes languages as varied as English, Gaelic, German, Greek, Sanskrit, and Persian. Linguists examine the sounds of languages, how those sounds are put together into words and how those words are put together into sentences to determine their relationships to each other. Essentially, that is what Kroeber accomplished when studying the indigenous languages of the Americas.

CC-BY 2.0 by wikipedia user ish ishwar. North American Indigenous Language Families

Other anthropologists and linguistics since Kroeber have theorized different numbers and organization for Native American languages. Some current theories hypothesize three language families throughout North and South America. The reconstructing of language families in the Americas is difficult because so many, at least half, have become extinct. One important contribution Kroeber and his generation of anthropologists made to the study of Native Americans and to Native peoples themselves was to record, either in notes or on early recordings, many languages that have since become extinct.

You will notice on the map of language families that the speakers of various languages in a family cut across cultural-geographic areas. For example, Athabaskan languages are spoken from the East Coast almost to the West Coast, and in pockets of the Southwest (Apache and Navajo/Dine). This shows an additional problem with cultural-geographic grouping, and demonstrates the mobility of the people. They moved, taking their language and cultural traditions, behaviors and technologies with them. You can see why studying American Indian societies from either the perspective of cultural-geographic areas or language families alone are problematic. But you might also think about the encounters between different societies as they migrated and encountered new and different peoples. Languages, behaviors, and technologies often changed from these contacts. For example, the technology of agriculture was probably transferred from Mesoamerica to North America via migration or trade. The oral traditions of many societies speak of migrating from place to place. Such oral traditions, which have been carefully passed down from generation to generation, hold vast amounts of valuable knowledge for each of the 573 federally recognized Native nations today.

Due to the significance of these oral traditions, each chapter in this text will begin with an excerpt from the indigenous society under consideration. These examples have been carefully chosen to illustrate the anthropological concept presented in that chapter. While archaeologists, anthropologists, and historians have their theories about the aboriginal peoples of the Americas—where they came from, how they got here and how long ago—Native peoples have their own beliefs and their own knowledge. For too long, scientists and academics have ignored the beliefs, knowledge, and concerns of Native peoples. But Native peoples had important truths in their beliefs and stories. For example, many people of northern Canada have stories about giant beavers that were thought by Euro-Canadians to be merely folk or fairy tales. We now know the stories about giant beavers are true; their skeletal remains have been found throughout Canada and the northern United States. The Casterorides Ohioensis measured around 8 feet (2.5m) in length, weighed between 130-220 pounds (60-100 kg), and became extinct 10,000 years ago, after the last Ice Age.

The fact that Native peoples have stories about an animal species that died out 10,000 years ago indicates that Paleo-Indians were in North America 10,000 years ago to see those animals. Until the 1920s, archaeologists generally assumed that humans occupied the Americas less than 8,000 years ago. We know now that date is too recent. Ongoing archaeological investigations have pushed the date for human migration to the Americas farther and farther back in time.

Much truth can be found in the oral traditions of any society. The stories told at the beginning of each chapter were chosen to illustrate each society’s beliefs about kinship, their society’s resources, the responsibility of political leaders, and religion. The stories of a society can us tell us as much as any other source of information if we approach them with an open mind. However, the beliefs, knowledge, interests, and concerns of Native peoples are often ignored by the broader public and governmental agencies of the United States and Canada. As a result, indigenous peoples frequently find themselves in adversarial situations with the U.S. and Canadian governments, agencies, and general public.

Some of these adversarial situations are discussed in the various chapters of this book. One such situation I will discuss now is the removal, buying, selling, or desecration of Native American artifacts or skeletons. Anthropologists and archaeologists in the United States and Canada have been fortunate in that they do not have to travel to far distant lands to study “the Other.” They can stay relatively close to home and study the aboriginal Others here. Perceiving an individual or group of people as Other is the process by which one group of people excludes another group. The process is often associated with the growth of nationalism, a process that would have been important to both the United States and Canada as they separated themselves from Great Britain and came to perceive themselves as separate and unique nations. Further, Othering will also dehumanize or even demonize a group to justify their treatment as inferiors. U.S. and Canadian anthropologists and archaeologists have been guilty of this, as have many within the Euro-American and Canadians societies. This attitude among anthropologists and archaeologists is particularly evident in the collection and display of artifacts and skeletal remains considered sacred by Native Americans. Yet, museums throughout the world display artifacts and skeletons that were obtained illegally or are considered sacred by their society.

In 1990, the United States government passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). This act makes it a federal crime to loot or damage bodies or artifacts from Native American sites. Further, if a museum or any other institution that receives federal funding has Native American artifacts, it must inventory all Native American human remains as well as associated and un-associated funerary items, then attempt to determine what Native American society those artifacts came from and return them. Unfortunately, the funding for the act is inadequate. There are not enough policemen or park rangers to patrol Native American sites within state or national parks, much less those that are not on such protected lands. Most museums do not have the staff or funds to conduct the research needed to determine to what society artifacts belong. However, some artifacts and skeletons have been returned.

The prosecution of looters has been difficult. In the Southwest, the looting of Native American sites has been going on for over a century and is seen as a hobby by many. Over a dozen looters were arrested in the late 1980s, but none were convicted. In June 2009, nearly two-dozen looters were arrested in southern Utah. Law enforcement and the courts may be changing their attitudes about such looting and this time there will be convictions, which may help convince potential looters of the seriousness of this crime.

Despite its inadequacies, NAGPRA does illustrate changes in the ways a growing number of archaeologists and anthropologists view the indigenous peoples they wish to learn more about in the Americas, as well as in other countries like Australia and New Zealand. For one thing, a growing number of American Indians have become anthropologists, archaeologists, and historians (not to mention doctors, scientists, lawyers, and even astronauts). American or Canadian Indian researchers bring new knowledge and perspectives to the study of Native peoples. Further, fewer and fewer anthropologists, archaeologists, and historians view the Native peoples they study as Other, but instead as collaborators from whom they have much to learn.


This Introduction has briefly covered a number of topics concerning the First Peoples of the Americas. Entire books address many of these topics. You should remember that while emerging archaeological evidence is pushing the dates for human habitation in the Americas farther and farther backward, there is only evidence for fully modern humans in the Americas. So we will probably never find indications for the peopling of the Americas more than 100,000 years ago. There are many hypotheses concerning how humans came to the Americas, as well as how many people were here in 1491. The most commonly known hypothesis about migration to the Americas is the Bering Land Bridge (Bergina). It suggests that over the last 100,000 years the span of ocean between present-day Alaska and present-day Siberia was dry land during at least three periods. People, plants, and animals could have migrated across the area, utilizing ice-free corridors between glaciers that led to the interior of North America. Another theory postulates that peoples could have migrated over the ice-covered Arctic between northern Asia, Europe, and North America. Another suggests that people canoed or kayaked between the Aleutian Islands in the Bering Sea and down the western coast of North America. Native peoples have their own stories—such as how they came to be on the Island on the Back of the Turtle (Chapter 1). Generally, these stories are either emergence stories where people journey from an underground world into this world or Earth Diver stories, in which people (generally women) fall from the Sky World (see page 41) to this world.

It might be surprising to you that the population of North America in 1491 may well have been between 40 and 60 million people (or more). It is difficult to estimate populations of peoples who lived in scattered communities—some large, some small—throughout the continent, especially since most societies had no reason to call for a census. But other factors may also come into play in low population estimates. One reason is the catastrophic consequence of European diseases among indigenous peoples who had no immunity to those diseases. Another may be Manifest Destiny, the idea held by many Euro-Americans that it was their destiny to settle, Christianize, and civilize the continent.

There were many similarities between the Native peoples of the Americas and Europe. They all had societies whose members shared common values and passed on their customs and traditions from one generation to another. They all recognized rights and responsibilities between family or kin members. They all obtained food and other resources through foraging or farming. They all had ways of distributing those resources throughout the community. They all had a political or power organization to their society. They all had religious beliefs and rituals. They all had arts—visual and spoken—that added to their enjoyment of life. When an anthropologist studies, teaches, or writes about societies, these are the categories they use. These are the categories I will use in this book.

Suggested Questions

Can you name four Native Americans? Four Native American societies? Four accomplishments of American Indians?

In 1491, how many people were living in what are now Canada and the United States? How long had they been here? How did they get here? Why are these questions important to know?

How do American indigenous peoples say they came to the Americas?

What do you know about Native Americans; what would you like to know; what do you think other people should know?

What do you notice about the phenotypes (physical characteristics) of peoples thought to be inferior by eighteenth and nineteenth century Europeans, Euro-Americans, and Canadians?

Do you recall any information about Native peoples that you’ve seen in newspapers, magazines, online, or on television? Can you summarize this information? How are they related to topics covered in this book?

Have you recently noticed any visual or verbal stereotypes about American Indians? What does this example depict? Is the stereotype related to any topics discussed in the Introduction? How do you think indigenous Americans react to these stereotypes?

Can you describe how one component of your society (such as religion) is influenced by or influences another component of your society?

Suggested Resources

The PBS series Five Hundred Nations and the more recent We Shall Remain can be useful for a historical overview of the Native peoples of the United States, though both have inadequacies. Five Hundred Nations ends at the massacre at Wounded Knee, contributing to the myth that there are few, if any, American Indians in the twenty-first century. While We Shall Remain does present contemporary information, particularly the American Indian Movement, it presents very little information about women and their important roles within Native American societies, and its focus is on Native societies of the United States. Five Hundred Nations does include information about Mexico and the Caribbean, as well as some notable indigenous women.

Myth of the Moundbuilders, also a PBS video, does an excellent job of presenting some of the nineteenth and twentieth century myths about Native peoples that were first confirmed and then debunked by archaeology. The video goes on to present some contemporary information about Native American societies. I use this video along with the book Life in a Pueblo: Understanding the Past Through Archaeology, by Kathryn Kamp. This book does an excellent job of explaining how archaeology can be used to obtain information about pre-historic societies and use that data to give a multi-dimensional view of a southwestern village.

The PBS series called Evolution includes a video called Transformations that provides an excellent summary of the evolutionary process and evidence supporting it. An accessible book about human evolution is Becoming Human: Evolution of Human Uniqueness by Ian Tattersall.

A couple of references for a general history of Native Americans are: Indians in American History: An Introduction, edited by Frederick Hoxie and Peter Iverson and for a more Canadian perspective, The Earth Shall Weep: A History of Native America, by James Wilson.

An interesting, different perspective about other than early European contact with the Americas is They Came Before Columbus: The African Presence in Ancient America by Ivan Van Sertima.

For a brief summary of recent and alternative theories about human migration to the American I recommend “Quest for the Lost Land,” by Hetherington, Renee that appeared in Geotimes in February 2004.

A good reference for the controversies about American Indian artifacts and skeleton remains is Skull Wars: Kennewick Man, Archaeology and the Battle for Native American Identity, by David Hurst Thomas.

A good book about the connections between racist beliefs and Manifest Destiny is Race and Manifest Destiny: Origins of Racial Anglo-Saxonism, by Reginald Horsman.

I frequently refer to two books by Jack Weatherford, Native Roots: How the Indians Enriched America and Indian Givers: How American Indians Transformed the World. Both present excellent information about important resources and ideas from the Native peoples of North and South America.

You may look in your local library or on for the now out-of-print Different Drums, Different Moccasins, by Harriet J. Kupferer, for an outstanding illustration of the different ways indigenous peoples utilized the same ecological niche.

The histories and cultures of Mexico and Mesoamerica (present-day Mexico and Central America) will not be discussed in this text. However, there is a number of excellent texts that deal exclusively with those unique societies. I have found Sons of the Shaking Earth, by Eric Wolf, The Aztecs, by Brian Fagan; and The Maya, by Michael Coe all to be accessible to students.

Most of the stories cited in this book are taken from American Indian Myths and Legends, selected and edited by Richard Erdoes and Alfonso Ortiz.