Indigenous Peoples of North and Central America
When Christopher Columbus landed on what some historians believe was the Island of Hispaniola in 1492, he did not find an empty continent. What we know as the America’s was heavily populated. The goal of his voyage was to find a route from Europe to Asia. Columbus thought he was in Asia. He had no way of knowing that there were two continents (North and South America) between Europe and Asia. He saw the native Americans, and assumed that he had landed somewhere near to, if not in, India and called those indigenous Americans “Indians.” That designation came into common use to describe indigenous Americans. I prefer using Native American in this chapter rather than Indian. The term “tribe” has fallen out of favor among Native Americans and has been replaced by “nation”. However, in this chapter, I continue to use tribe – no disrespect meant.
I also use the term European consistently, since we are talking about policies and conflicts on the continental scale. Events that happened in the U.S. were similar to those of Canada, Mexico and other European settled countries in the Americas.
There have been hundreds of books and stories written about Native Americans. Some are factual history, some romance about the “Noble Savage”, some are historical fiction, and some are biographies. Almost any genre in literature, science, and social studies is available.
I have added this chapter for what I feel is a good reason. Looking back at my original publication of the “Genealogist’s Guide to the History of North and Central America and the Islands of the Caribbean,” I realized that it was a history of European settlement. I had totally ignored the presence of and impact of Native Americans. The history of the Native American is just as important and vital in genealogical research. It also gives me a chance to clarify reasons for the plight of Indians and perhaps increase understanding of the history of this continent as it applies to Indians with the hope that it will make the reader better informed and a better genealogist.
Many diseases were present in Europe that did not exist in the Americas. The European explorers and settlers didn’t know this, and one of the first and most tragic events occurred. Europeans had built immunity to many diseases over a period of centuries. The Native American had no immunity to most European illnesses and the death rate was horrid. It has been said that over 80% of the Native American population was terminated by disease. This drove many tribe’s population so low, that combined with inter-tribal warfare, caused extinction of the tribe or caused the few remaining individuals to merge with other tribes of similar culture and language.
I have found that over 1,000 tribes existed in what is now the United States. Now only a fraction remains.
In order to begin to understand the conflict between Europeans and Native Americans, it becomes necessary to examine the social structure of Europe. All nations in Europe were class-defined. At the top was the nobility, following by a merchant middle class and the lower class of laborers. Wealth was defined in two ways, either by noble birth or by property ownership.
The lower or peasant class could not own land. Almost all land in Europe was owned by nobles and the peasant was on the land by either rent or serfdom. Even the middle merchant class usually rented business property owned by the nobles. What was not owned by the nobles (this includes the crown) was owned by the Church. Because wealth and status were associated with ownership of land, this meant that in the mind of all Europeans, ownership of land meant freedom. This was impossible in Europe, but in America there was abundant land which anyone could own! So escape from the social order of Europe into a society where the class structure was either eliminated or diluted was a dream that inflamed the minds of millions.
So now we have the European arriving on the shores of America and acquiring land. Unfortunately, the Native American was already there and the ownership of land was foreign to the Native American’s culture. Some Native American tribes were in settlements or villages, but the land was not owned in the sense of possessing a deed. Villages could move. A dwelling could be torn down and relocated. Many tribes were nomadic.
This was a basic cause of much conflict. For example:
A European settler built a cabin and had been told he owned the land either by purchase or grant. He felt that he could restrict trespass. The Native American saw the land around the cabin as hunting ground and felt no guilt in trespass and conflict occurred. The local constabulary got involved and found the Native American guilty of a crime that he had no concept of.
So what was the solution. Unfortunately, neither side had the desire and perhaps not even the ability to change. The Native American must be either be eliminated or driven out, or the European settlers must either be eliminated or driven out. Neither solution was acceptable to both sides.
In a nutshell, that is the most basic explanation of what happened to the Native Americans. We either killed them, drove them out or removed them from the land to reservations. At first, the reservation was simply a “prison without walls.” Today, the Native American is not tied to the reservation and can move away at will and relocate anywhere, as can any citizen – at least in the United States.
For reservations, the U.S. often used arid and mountainous terrain or land removed from European settlement. Even though less desirable land was reserved, at the same time, over 2% of the total land mass of the United States is Indian Reservation, under control of Native American Tribes or Nations with governmental authority. For instance, the Navaho Reservation is so large that there are only seventeen states larger. There are eight reservations larger than the eight smallest states combined.
Reservation control, at first, was just about as fair as treaties with the Native Americans. Treaties were almost all one-sided. They were made to benefit the European population, not the Native American. A typical treaty would restrict the Native Americans to an area, but without the power to enforce the Native American side of the treaty. The European side contained the power of enforcement. A Native American couldn’t leave the area, the European was not supposed to invade the Native Americans’ area, but this was seldom enforced, especially if precious metal or resources were discovered in the Native American area. In other words, treaties were honored as long as it benefited the European side, or if the treaty was considered by the Native American as too restrictive to honor.
I admit, as does any rational person, that what happened to the Native American was tragic. Unavoidable? I don’t know that anyone knows for sure. Many incidents should not have happened. Unbelievable cruelty was perpetrated by both parties. Much of the history is sad. At the same time, heroes and statesmen appeared on both sides. Prejudice and conflict have never truly stopped. It has, of course, lessened.
There are charts attached that provide more information about Native Americans
The chart labeled “Indians North and Central America” indicates the tribes that I have been able to identify in both North and Central America. Each section identifies tribes that lived in or still live in the indicated section.
Section 1 United States area (including Alaska and Hawaii).
Section 2 Canada.
Section 3 Mexico
Section 4 Central American countries.
Section 5 Caribbean islands.
Section 6 tribes from sections 1 through 5 with presence in Russia, Greenland or the South American countries of Columbia and Venezuela.
The chart is in Excel® format. It can be sorted to examine various relationships. A tribe could exist in more than one nation. Many tribes were in both Canada and the U.S. and many were in both the U.S. and Mexico. Many Mexican tribes were in other Central American countries.
In researching the tribes, I found that tribal government was not consistent. One tribe might be cohesive in that all members, no matter where living, were considered as an integral part of the tribe. Other tribes were part of an Native American nation with multiple tribes in the nation, with their own chiefs and councils. Other tribes were subdivided into units called bands which had sub-chiefs and the bands answered to the tribal chief in some matters. In those cases, where I was able to determine if a unit was a band instead of a full tribe, I have added the word band either to the tribe name or to a sub-division of the nation.
The chart indicates the country and state or territory where the tribe lived. Many tribes lived in multiple states or territories. These are all identified where available. If known, the language and language group is shown. If the tribe is still living in the state or territory, this is indicated. The last column is for comments. This is used for further information about the tribe or nation. I was going to add reservations where each tribe currently resides, but found this to be so extensive a task as to render the charts hard to read.
Many of these tribes no longer exist. If information exists indicating why the tribe is no longer viable, I included this information in comments. Otherwise I simply used the word “extinct”. Please understand that extinct doesn’t necessarily mean that there are no living descendants of the tribe, but that the tribe itself is no longer a cohesive entity. Many of the tribes disappeared because of disease or warfare or as combination of both causes. When a tribe or band became so small that it could no longer exist alone, it often merged with another tribe which had a similar culture.
The second chart labeled “Reservations” lists all of the Indian Reservations in the United States and shows in which state(s) the reservation exists. It also lists the tribe(s) living on the reservation. Many reservations had towns on the reservations or owned properties outside the reservation boundaries. I included this information when found in my research.
When we were in school, studying history, we usually did not study history of native Americans other than relationships with European explorers and settlers. We did not delve into their life styles, food, clothing, family relationships, etc. We did study information about our European ancestry in World History classes. We learned about languages, shifts in borders, wars, clothing, music, etc.
The indigenous people of the Americas were no different. All of the various tribes descended from common cultures and spread across the continents. In understanding indigenous peoples of the America’s, archeologists and linguistic experts look for patterns, both culturally and by language. This information can indicate tribes that are the descendants of a mother or root tribe. In some cases, we can even determine where the culture originated.
This is why I have added the language group column in my charts. The charts is an Excel® spreadsheet, and by sorting on various columns, can help the reader see relationships. If I have supporting information, I put it the comments column.
The people of the Americas descended from a variety of cultures. We may be familiar with the names of some these cultures such as – Mayan, Aztec, Toltec, Olmec, Anasazi, and Mogollon. We know for instance that all of the Pueblo tribes are descendants of the Anasazi culture, formally cliff dwelling people. In languages, we know that many tribes of the Eastern U.S. originated in the Mississippi region.
In my studies, I found there is a tremendous amount of information about specific tribes and cultures, but there was no chart that consolidated information in a single chart. That was my intent in the development of a chart showing all current and extinct tribes of North and Central America and the Islands of the Caribbean, allowing the reader to identify connections and gain a greater understanding of indigenous people of America.
However, this chapter does not discuss life styles, foods, clothing, dwellings, etc. of the tribes. This would take volumes to do so. I hope that this chapter will inspire the reader to do further research after examining and working with attached charts.
When I started the chart, I thought it was a simple task – I could just look up web sites for the various states and countries and I would find out anything I needed. I often needed to look up specific tribal and linguistic sites in order to secure necessary data.
Is the chart 100% complete and accurate? Unfortunately, no! There are probably some tribes that I missed, since the majority of indigenous tribes are now extinct. Many tribes were known by multiple names. A Spanish explorer might list a tribe in a journal, giving a name based on how it sounded to him. A French explorer might have a different name. Sometimes the starting letter varied. Example: The same tribe might be spelled “Guerro or Huerro”. The tribe may be entered twice in the chart, once under each name. If able to identify the redundancy, I combined in one of two ways. Under the “Tribe or Language” columns, I would enter “Guerro or Huerro” or use AKA Huerro in the “comments” column. (AKA means Also Known As).
In some cases, the only historical information about a tribe or language might be a single entry in an explorer’s journal for a group of people that later became extinct. The identified tribe might have really existed or the explorer might not have known the group was a band or nomadic group from an existing tribe.
Because of extinction and combination of tribes, researchers and experts often had to rely on archeological evidence to make conclusions. Linguistic experts examined similarities on recorded language notes. Too often, the data was so minute that experts made conflicting conclusions. As I complied the list, I often used “or” under the “Tribe, Language, and Language Group” columns to identify the conflicts or put the conflict in the “Comments” column. A classic example is the Nez Percé tribe. Some linguistics experts place the tribe under the Salishan family. Others under the Plateau Penutian family of languages. I listed it using “Salishan or Plateau Penutian” in the Linguistic Family column.
Languages also changed. Tribes often combined their language with that of settlers, adding Spanish, French or English words. Eventually, a new form of language emerged. Examples are: Creole and Mestizo. Many tribes combined with English or Spanish and developed what we call “Pidgin”. Examples are: Algonquin-Basque, Broken Oghibbeway, Broken Slavey, Eskimo Trade Jargon, Pidgin Delaware, and Pidgin Hawaiian. Pidgin was often seen in movies. Many of us remember the fictional pidgin of Tonto – “Um, you go Ke-mo-sa-bee.” Or
In some cases, I expanded beyond intended countries. The Aleutian Islands and the Bering Strait Islands are split between Alaska in the U.S. and Russia with tribes living in both countries. Greenland has tribes from the Canadian Maritime nations. Columbia and Venezuela have tribes that also exist in Panama. I included Russia, Greenland, Columbia and Venezuela when these duplicates exist.
Because tribes were relocated because of war, settlers, government movement, etc., the “Status” column became very necessary. In the” Status” column I have used these terms:
· “Present” means that the tribe is currently living in that location
· “Present-Native means that this is an original location for the tribe.
· “Extinct” means that the tribe no longer exists anywhere
· “Expired” means that the language still exists but not in that location
· “Endangered” means that the language is dying out and not many speakers are left.
· “Merged” means that the tribe merged with another. May still have living descendants.
· “Moved” means that the tribe moved to another location but may or not still exist.
· “Removed” or means that the tribe exists but has been moved to another location.
Feel free to contact me if you find missing or incorrect information.