AIS 100: Introduction to American Indian Studies

I. Native Americans

    A. Culture Areas and People

        In 1917 Clark Wissler (1870-1947), an anthropologist with the American Museum of Natural History developed the culture area concept based on cultural traits and the effect of geographic influences on those cultures. This laid the ground work for subsequent cultural ecology and Carl Sauer (1889-1975)  at University of California refined the culture area concept. Since then most textbooks initially organize cultures and in this case Native American cultures based on the culture area concept.  Native Americans occupied three areas that are broken down into subsequent culture areas or culture-geographic areas.  The three areas are North America , Middle or Meso-America ( which includes the Caribbean) and South America. I have included all three of these areas even though you text only covers North America. Often, America was referred to as the "New World" by invading Europeans and the rest of the world was perceived as the "Old World". Native Americans saw America as their world since they were its 'first people'. Each group of Native Americans had terms often rooted in mythology in their language, such as the Great Turtle Island (North America). Today, the term Native American refers to all of the original people of the Americas, but in Canada they generally use the term First Nations/First People, while in Meso and South America the term Indigenous People is more common. In the United States Native American includes Pacific Islanders, but they are not part of the Americas.

Term Groups
Native American (First Nations/First People, Indigenous People of the Americas) Inuit, Yupik, Aleut, American Indian

 Native American groups in the United States can be organized by the states they originally occupied.

  B. Populations

    The Native American population before Columbus arrived in 1492 is a highly debated topic, mainly for political as well as academic reasons. Early antiquarians and anthropologists estimated North American populations ranged from 500,000 - 15,000,000. Some of these estimates were based on  populations that had been decimated by disease from early explorers not accounted for. Also, some Native American areas were actually struck by epidemics that spread with no direct contact. Later, estimates were based on population density formulas that used ethnographic evidence of village size or archaeological excavation of important known village sites and then estimating the number of villages  that  might of been in a given area. Most scholars agree that the lower figures are wrong and that North America had conservatively should be given a figure between 8 - 14,000,000 people before 1492. Meso-America was more densely populated because of more intensive agriculture and has been estimated at 46-68,000,000 people and South  America falls between 43- 52, 000,000 people.  It is clear the different Europeans were more resistant to diseases such as smallpox and that Native Americans were not. It is also clear that the cultural effect of epidemic diseases has a devastating effect on the leadership of a given culture.

    C. Languages

    The diversity of  Native American cultures is best understood in terms of physical and cultural differences that were derived from differing experiences based on the effects various geographical environments over thousands of years. The cultural diversity was first recognized in terms of language differences. Even Thomas Jefferson noted the great differences between the Siouan and Algonkian language groups on the Eastern Seaboard. It is estimated that there are approximately 19 different Native American language groups which are generally divided into language phyla. The relationship between these groups can be helpful in tracing origins and movement in prehistoric times by comparison of various language. This technique and study is referred to as glottochronolgy.

    D. Research and Anthropology

    Native Americans had their own 'tribal historians' that included men and women elders who kept oral traditions alive in song/ritual and in some cases produced iconographic or written records. Rock art is probably the oldest of these forms of record keeping. Some groups also kept records in pictographic writing on hides or bark. The Iroquois put lineages of great leaders and clan history on special wood canes that were used as aides to reciting their histories during the 'Rituals of Condolences'. Further south the great Meso-American civilizations, especially the Olmec, Maya, Zapotec, Toltecs and Aztecs developed a numerology system and writing systems. They put writing on ceramics, stone and books. One of the few surviving books of the Maya is called the Popol Vuh and is basically an astrology book dealing with the planet Venus and the significance of its cosmological cycles. 

The first Europeans were basically mercenaries for 'God, Glory or Gold.'  In turn their writings were amateur (antiquarians) attempts at justifying their motives and intentions. It was not until the late 18th - 19th centuries that European  inquiry became more in line with newly emerging scientific disciplines that were systematic and supposedly objective. Lewis Henry Morgan bridged the gap between antiquarian and anthropological work with his League of the Iroquois (1851). The field of anthropology was rather late to emerge as a post colonial response and did not come into the arena until the 1880's. As Native American populations sunk to their lowest numbers, anthropological research found new urgency to gather data and to attempt to preserve prehistoric and traditional Native American culture. In some cases anthropologists made great contributions to knowledge about Native American cultures, but often did not share their information with the very community they worked with. Franz Boas (1858-1942) started the anthropology department at Columbia University and trained many future anthropologists including Alfred Kroeber (1876-1960) and Margaret Mead (1901-1978). The Smithsonian's Bureau of Ethnology (BAE) and Harvard's Peabody Museum collected and documented a considerable amount of information on Native Americans. The Smithsonian's John Peabody Harrington (1884-1961) collected more than 1 million pages of notes on Native Americans and most importantly their languages.

In the 1970s Native American research began to shift into the hands of Native American people. Vine Deloria, Jr.(1933-2005) led the way and published many books trying to capture a modern Native American point of view. Self determination and improvement in sovereignty, not only brought more attention to native American rights and place in American society, but allowed for the ultimate return of cultural items and information. With Indian gaming and NAGPRA, Native Americans gained even more control of their own heritage. The revival of traditional language has proven to be important but difficult to reintegrate into everyday life. In the new millennium the Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) opened in 2004 on the last space of the Washington D.C. mall as part of the Smithsonian group. The NMAI seeks to feature traditional and contemporary Native American cultures in all of the Americas.


     Next Notes:   II. Prehistory of North America

                                                                                                  Copyright S.J. Crouthamel 2013