The first Americans have the distinction of being a people of diversity. They consisted of more than 500 tribes ranging from the Arctic Circle across the Great Plains to the Eastern Seaboard and known as the Lakota, Cherokee, Navajo, Haida, and other groups. In the Northeast alone, there were dozens of tribes originating from three main mother groups – Algonquian, Iroquoian, or Siouan. Around 12,000 to 20,000 years ago Indians came to the Western Hemisphere after having crossed the Bering Strait ice bridge that linked Asia to the Americas. So, Native Americans are indigenous to the Americas.
The Indians displayed vibrant languages, cultural forms, and their political empowerment varied between tribes. Some tribes boasted a sophisticated clan system with unique spiritual traditions, music, songs and chants. Not all adopted to the horse as a primary tool of hunting, but they fished – catching salmon, trout, and sturgeon; farmed – raising indigenous plants, roots, berries, and nuts; hunted – catching deer, elk, bison, antelope, moose, and even caribou; inventing agricultural methods with flourishing crops of corn (maize), beans, and squash.
Tribal architecture flourished. They made ceramics from clay tempered with sand, potted ceremonial objects, rugs, jewelry, bead works, and baskets of all sorts. Their trading networks were spread across the whole American continent, and their sovereign authority was invested in cultural and linguistic patterns.
The American Dream
In their own way the Native Americans were living the American dream. Marco Rubio (b. 1971), a senator from Florida said, “The American Dream is a term that is often used but also often misunderstood. It isn’t really about becoming rich and famous. It is about things much simpler and more fundamental than that.” Early Indian tribes exemplified what the American dream was all about by having a diverse culture blessed with simplicity. Billy Graham (1918–2018), an evangelical Christian evangelist wrote, “The greatest legacy one can pass on to one’s children and grandchildren is not money or other material things accumulated in one’s life, but rather a legacy of character and faith.” Our first Americans exemplified this legacy and faith while living off the land.
Joe Baca (b. 1947), a U.S. representative in California said, “Native Americans are the original inhabitants of the land that now constitutes the United States. They have helped developed the fundamental principles of freedom of speech and separation of powers that form the foundation of the United States government.” These first Americans were instrumental in proposing fundamental ways of governing by how they were living.
A Legacy Impacted
European diseases – small pox, measles and influenza devastated many Native American communities. These natives became victims of brutal massacres, murder, and rape that dampened the American spirit. Native Indians though continued to have rights, and the American government had no authority on Indian land without an act of Congress. The 19th century witnessed the impounding of Indians to reservations. Philipp Meyer (b. 1974), an American fiction writer wrote, “When you start to look at the native American history, you realize that very far from being peaceful, morally superior people, Native Americans were not that different from the Europeans.” Meyer must have been thinking about the atrocities and broken promises committed by America on the American Indians. Alberto Gonzales (b. 1955), an attorney general of the United States wrote, “I will be the first to admit I am not perfect and I make mistakes.” The Europeans who settled America were imperfect men and women, and although some critics felt their actions against the American Indians were motivated by power, greed, and religious zeal they surely committed big mistakes. Despite these atrocities the American Indian culture still exists, and adds to the spiritual richness of the nation.